Capitol Punishment: Toy of Evil Men
One might believe that because capital punishment plays such a large role in Charles Dickens’ A Tale Of Two Cities, that Dickens himself is a supporter of it. This just simply is not true. Dickens uses capitol punishment as a tool to define the evil embodied in both the French ruling class, and the opposing lower class during the French Revolution; as well as comment on the sheep-like nature of humankind.
In the beginning of the novel, capital punishment serves as the “cure-all” for France’s social problems. After all, “death is nature’s remedy for all things, and why not legislation’s?” (62). It is this attitude that strikes fear into the lower class citizens, causing them to refrain from speaking out against their oppressors. Instead they are encouraged to “speak well of the law…and leave the law to take care of itself.” (68). The fact is, that the blackened hearts of the aristocracy saw capital punishment as a convenience, rather than justice. The guillotine “cleared off (as to this world) the trouble of each particular case, and left nothing else with it to be looked after” (62). This negative light that the ruthless use of capital punishment casts upon the rulers of France is exactly what Dickens had intended.
When the revolution actually takes place, the Jacques become drunk with bloodlust. Their methods of restoring order and peace are exactly the same as those they opposed: send anyone to the guillotine who disagrees with them. “They are murdering the prisoners,” says Mr. Lorry to Darnay after arriving in France (260). Again Dickens uses capitol punishment as a way to show the reader the atrocities that humanity can create when consumed with hatred and evil. Dickens can be seen approaching the subject of the guillotine with cynical sarcasm when he writes, “it was the popular theme for jests; it was the best cure for headache, it infallibly prevented the hair from turning gray…who kissed La Guillotine looked through the little window and sneezed into the sack” (271). Just as with the Aristocrats, Dickens does not condone the Jacques use of capital punishment. His disdain is apparent in his tone; which gnaws away at any inkling the reader may have that the treatment of the prisoners is fair.
Capital punishment is also used as a social commentary by showing how people cling to the popular attitudes and beliefs of the day. People are quick to adopt the guillotine as their new savior. Dickens articulates the common attitude towards this when he writes, “the guillotine was the sign of the regeneration of the human race. It superseded the cross” (271). These “followers of the guillotine” are ruthless in their quest for blood as they shout “Take off his head…an enemy to the republic!” (280). By showing the ridiculous manner in which the people of France behave, Dickens teaches us a lesson about ourselves. That lesson is that we should think for ourselves and stand up for what is right.
In A Tale Of Two Cities, Dickens wrote of a violent time in France’s history. But by showing the harsh reality he was able to make certain points. These points make it quite clear that Dickens was not in favor of the death penalty.