Historical Violence

I listened to an audio version A Tale of Two Cities. It was awesome. Let me tell you, if the only thing you've read by Charles Dickens is A Christmas Carol, you don't know how good a writer he was.

(Confession:  Until this audiobook, I was in that boat. I tried reading Two Cities when I was eighteen, but didn't get very far. It was too slow to start. Now, after having read a few of Jane Austen's books, I think I'd do better. But listening to a good voice actor is a treat.)

So:  This book is about a Dr. Manette who was imprisoned by French aristocrats for eighteen years in the infamous Bastille. On his release, he meets his grown daughter Lucie who wasn't even born when he was locked up, and who was raised in London after the death of his wife. She marries another French ex-pat, Charles Darnay, an aristocrat who gave up his inheritance to be a good guy instead of an oppressor.

Meanwhile, the book also follows some very bad stuff happening in Paris, mostly related to the former servant of Dr. Manette. It paints a vivid picture of the oppression of the French people by their ruling class, and does it with magnificent language.

It's an epic book, spanning over eighteen years in the narrative and twice that time in total. The French Revolution breaks out, and the oppressed and oppressors swap roles. Madame Guillotine becomes a central character.

The construction of the story is superb, if long. Every event and scene, though seemingly unrelated, comes together at the end. The story preoccupied my thoughts, and since I listened to it in the car on the way to and from work, I found myself looking forward to going to work. (And coming back home, but that's normal.) The end was moving and satisfying.

"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."

That's the last line. (Captain Kirk quotes it at the end of The Wrath of Khan. I think that movie was partly inspired by this book, which makes an appearance at the beginning and end.)

Anyway, this is getting long and I'm not just reviewing a book that only needs endorsement. I want to talk about the violence. A Tale of Two Cities is fiction, but the violence in Paris really happened.

The worst period is called The Reign of Terror. More than 16,000 people were executed by beheading in about one year. Do the math, and that works out to--a lot, every day. These were public executions. As portrayed in the book, the condemned were hauled through the streets in carts and run through the guillotine one after another in front of crowds of people. Good citizens went out to watch the fun. It was the popular entertainment to watch heads roll.

But eventually, (and this isn't in the book,) people stopped going to see the executions. After that many thousands, it gets old.

I imagine the first time you see someone's head chopped off is quite a thrill. One second, there's a living, breathing, undoubtedly distressed prisoner, and the next, a body and a round object that was once a head, now a curiosity, perhaps held up by the hair or raised on a pike for all to see. There'd be blood. A lot of blood.

That happened dozens of times a day, for all kinds of crimes and non-crimes. Thousands, hundreds of thousands maybe, witnessed the spectacle.

How could so many people let it all happen? I don't know. The new government saw a need to keep people in line just as the old monarchy had, and they created a monster. It was actually a more humane form of execution than the monarchy had used.

One thing I do see is that an entire society--any society, I believe--can get so used to violence that it will tolerate anything and in any amount. The human heart can only witness so much without growing hard. Does it matter if the violence we consume as entertainment is actual or fictional? Probably. But when that violence ceases to make us cringe, we ought to be concerned. About ourselves, about our future.

It's history, and you know what they say about history.


  1. A very good account of 'A Tale of Two Cities'. I especially appreciated the Star Trek reference.

    You make a good point about tolerating violence. I might point out that in the context of the French Revolution (and the Russian Revolution for that matter), since this violence was official, government-led violence after a certain point, people pretty well had to accept the violence and even pretend support, lest they become the next victim.

    1. True. It's like there's a point of no return beyond which it's too late to object, and no one is safe.

  2. Very good point about becoming desensitized to violence. Love your last paragraph, and I don't think I can add to it.

  3. I've never been able to bring myself to read A Tale of Two Cities, probably because of one rather miserable date in college. He was late and we missed the movie we planned to see, so instead, we sat in his car and listened to the beginning of the audiobook. Which makes for a very awkward first date, especially when he kept asking things like, "Is Charles Dickens dead?"

    Maybe I should give it another try in a less uncomfortable situation. I like the points that you bring up about it.

  4. I remember reading A Tale of Two Cities in high school and being fascinated by it. I don't remember the story much and really should read it again.

    It's hard to imagine people crowding around wanting to watch those things happen. Crowd mentality can be scary. We may not behead people here, but other scary things happen when people lose control. I'd much rather live during our times though. :)

  5. I don't know if we get desensitized by fake violence, but I don't think I do. The other day I heard about a friend of a friend "stabbing himself in the forehead" trying to fix the air-conditioning, and I flinched and wriggled. It was a worse reaction than I do for most violent movies, which I'm very aware are make-up jobs. Last week on Game of Thrones, a character tried to chop off another character's head with a blunt sword then ended up kick-stomping it off, and I just laughed.

    This makes me want to rewatch The Wrath of Khan. I've been hankering for a while.

  6. The very sad thing about the French Revolution is that it ended up causing the very thing is set out to stop.

  7. What they say about history? You mean that you can't do anything with a degree in it except teach? Yeah, I hear that.


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