Wednesday, November 26, 2014

A Tale of Two Cities

The father shall not be put to death for the children, neither shall the children be put to death for the fathers: every man shall be put to death for his own sin.

Deuteronomy 24:16

That there, folks, is what Madame Defarge forgot in her unrighteous indignation. And, it appears, it is what we keep on forgetting though we have history – and literature – to look back on as a guide.
An appropriate read for this time, Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities.” Dickens touches only lightly on the right or wrong of revolution against an aristocratic society that has forgotten the admonition to care for the poor to look heavily at the oppressed now the oppressors, overcompensating for the forgetfulness and callousness of their oppressors by bringing in the same old oppressions just this time wearing a republican red cap rather than the fussy accoutrements of high society.

Which is worse, Dickens asks: Neglecting the poor or persecuting the innocent?

But not really. He equates them as equally hideous.

And who is the real selfless hero of Dickens’ take? Is it Sydney Carton, who selflessly takes Charles Darnay’s place at the guillotine? I rather think it is Miss Pross, the Ur-peasant who strikes the blow against Madame Defarge and helps Charles and his family escape.

Then there is Dr. Alexandre Manette, father-in-law to Charles, who learns the price for revolutionary passion. He righteously condemns the Evremonde family “them and their descendants, to the last of their race” when the aristocratic Evremondes throw him in jail for threatening to reveal their crimes against Madame Defarge’s family, then has to pay double the price when Charles is condemned to die by his own passionate words.

That may be the hidden message of the novel: Careful what you say in fits of revolutionary passion, because when you call for an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, you never know how close that blow will come to your own, and everyone ends up blind and toothless in the end.

Dickens’ work oozes with messages, though. One in particular applies today, as we watch Ferguson, Missouri, burn as protesters decry the lack of justice in the shooting of Michael Brown. On this situation there can be no fence-sitters, and the message from Dickens would be clear: There is a divide of justice as far as Black America and White America go, and those who feel too much comfort in the justice doled out in this case would best remember their passion when time comes to pay for it – just as those who lie on the other side of justice ought to remember to show the constraint and mercy and justice they see lacking from the other side of the realm.

And speaking of endings – here’s a book with both a famous beginning (It was the best of times, it was the worst of times) and a famous ending: It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.

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