The Dragonfly and Raven

The Dragonfly and Raven

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Primeval Elements and the French Revolution as Portrayed by Dickens

Earth. Fire. Water. Air. These were the four original elements recognized by European scientific thought. These powerful, primal elements, exist both as the mundane (cf. drinking water and a campfire) and as the extraordinary (cf. a rising tide and a great blaze)—able to exert a massive and terrible force upon those unfortunate enough to be in their paths. They are overwhelming. They are unstoppable. They are inevitable. The rising tide of the sea cares not if one is a king or a peasant—they will be swallowed just the same. In Chapter 21 through 23 of A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens uses the imagery of the primal elemental forces in his description of the French Revolution and the actions that the revolutionaries take. This is meant to give the Revolution the feeling of being an overwhelming, unstoppable, and inevitable force—which it does quite well. However, this is a disingenuous invocation on the part of Dickens, as the Revolution was by no means unstoppable, nor inevitable. Further, with this feeling of inevitability comes a feeling of disorganization and chaos—which is also untrue in the Revolution in its insurgent state; though it is an appropriate analogy of the Revolution after it switches from being a revolt to a “government.”

Dickens invokes primal elemental imagery at every level of the three chapters dealing with the storming of the Bastille, and the period of time immediately thereafter. Chapter 22 is titled “The Sea Still Rises,” and Chapter 23 is titled “Fire Rises.” Now, “Fire Rises” is a quite literal title, as fire does indeed rise throughout France, as many homes of nobility are razed (Dickens 242). However, it does carry the double meaning of the the Revolution being this fire, rising and ruining the old social order by utterly destroying it. In order to understand the title of Chapter 22, one must first go back to Chapter 21, where the water analogies first appear. Dickens begins his water analogies with his description of the action around the wine-shop of Monsieur Defarge, comparing it to a whirlpool of boiling water, and telling of how it consumed the blood of the fallen, fueling it further (223). Here, Dickens establishes the idea that the Revolution is all-encompassing, and that it brings all that is around it into its influence. This is true, in the sense of the power of the influence in the immediate vicinity of Paris, but then also France as a whole. It is not true, however, when looking at the larger picture, many states did not spring into democratic uprising—and many still have not.

In the storming of the Bastille, Dickens refers to the revolutionary forces as “the raging sea,” “the living sea,” “the raging storm,” and “the ocean” (224). Dickens uses these analogies to describe the way in which the revolutionaries fight against the defenders of the Bastille. By invoking the imagery of the sea and storm, Dickens evokes a feeling of an overpowering, unrelenting, unavoidable—and mindless—force in the Revolution. This is problematic for a few reasons. First, there is the unstoppable feeling that the Revolution gains with this imagery. By no means was the Revolution unstoppable. Democratic uprisings have occurred several times throughout history prior to the French Revolution, and many times since then. From Athens to many of the South American States and Eastern European States, republics and democracy fails fairly consistently. With the proper organization and response, it is entirely feasible that the Revolution could have been destroyed with the storming of the Bastille, instead of succeeding. Second, there is the mindlessness that accompanies with the sea and storms. These are primeval powers, which are not selective nor exclusive about what they do to other persons or things, they simply exist as they are. They consume all that stands in their way, and ignore any blows against them, as they are completely ineffectual. This is not the case with the Revolution—at least not in the case of the storming of the Bastille. This calamitous event had a tremendous amount of planning and organization behind it, with Defarge and several of the Jacques giving orders—both to strike against the Bastille (223), and then later the tactical positioning for the assault of the accursed place (224).

This, in turn, shows the third problem with the sea and storm analogies: the seeming inevitability that exists with these two forces. Many proponents of ideologies, if not all, believe that the adoption of their ideology is inevitable. This is the case with Marx, and with many today in regards to globalization, capitalism, and the free market economy—and this is the case with democracy, especially as described by Dickens. With Marx, and Communism, the world has seen it attempt to emerge, and fail, at several points in time, namely with the USSR and Mao's China. The same can be said in regards to free market capitalism, which several key states actively resisting it (viz. China). Looking at democracy and republicanism, neither is inevitable, for if it was, would democracy and republics not be the default form of government? And further, why would democracy fail so often, if they were the inevitable trend of humanity? No, democracy and republicanism are by no means inevitable. The other aspect of inevitability is  the implication that what is inevitable should happen on its own. However, that is not what happens with the Revolution. It takes years upon years of planning and preparation by Defarge, and others, to commence the revolution. If it was not for the actions of organizers, like those aforementioned above, the Revolution would not have happened. Thus, the sea and storm analogies are disingenuous.

At the same time, however, the mindlessness that is evoked by these analogies is incredibly apt in describing the behavior and the actions of the fledgling democracy that emerges from the Revolution. Full of executions, and without any real course of appeal, the First French Republic is a shining example of the chaos of democracy, and the tyrannical nature of a government controlled by the majority. With the united power of the majority of the population against the ruling minority, the majority is able to dethrone the minority, and institute their equally as tyrannical rule of law—rather it simply targets a different group of people. Given this newfound power, and a spiteful, vengeance-fueled collective mindset, the First French Republic acts with the same destructive, mindless, and overwhelming power that a true storm would1. And, save for the minority having some sort of weapon or other device (physical or incorporeal) that can “even the odds” between them and the majority, or some other third-party's interference, the actions of the majority, once in power, are truly unstoppable.

Originally, the fundamental forces of our world were earth, fire, water, and air. While they are no longer seen as the basis of all things that exist in our world, these elements still hold an important, and powerful, position in our collective consciousness. Great typhoons and tsunamis, earthquakes and forest fires all evoke feelings of helplessness for those thinking of them from their overwhelming, unstoppable, chaotic, and inevitable nature. To invoke these awesome primal forces in writing is to evoke these same feelings in the mind of the reader, thus associating the object described with this language to that which describes it. In the case of A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, the use of primal elemental invocation is utilized with the description of the French Revolution, and in particular, the storming of the Bastille. This invocation is disingenuous, as the Revolution is not at all unstoppable, nor is it inevitable or even chaotic. Democracy and republicanism is also misrepresented by the purposeful use of this imagery. It is only after the Revolution has concluded, and the First French Republic takes its place, that such imagery begins to fit that which Dickens is describing.