A TALE OF TWO CITIES
SUBJECTS — Literature/England; World/France & England;
SOCIAL-EMOTIONAL LEARNING — Alcohol and Drug Abuse; Redemption; Romantic Relationships;
MORAL-ETHICAL EMPHASIS — Caring.
1958 Version: Age: 12+; Drama; 1958; 117 minutes; B & W. Available from Amazon.com.
1989 Version (TV Miniseries): Age: 12+; Drama; Color. Available from Amazon.com.
MOVIE WORKSHEETS & STUDENT HANDOUTS
TWM offers the following worksheets to keep students’ minds on the movie and direct them to the lessons that can be learned from the film.
Teachers can modify the movie worksheets to fit the needs of each class. See also TWM’s Movies as Literature Homework Project.
Through a story about romance, family loyalty, revenge and self-sacrifice, these films recount much of Charles Dickens’ classic novel set in the time of the Jacobin Terror during the French Revolution (1794). The novel and the films depict the negative aspects of the French Revolution while illustrating the period’s important contributions to the cause of democracy and freedom.
SELECTED AWARDS & CAST
1958 Film Version:
Dirk Bogarde, Dorothy Tutin, Stephen Murray, Athene Sayler, Paul Guers, Christopher Lee, Donald Pleasence, Ian Bannen, Cecil Parker.
BENEFITS OF THE MOVIE
A Tale of Two Cities contrasts the political situations in France and England, revealing how each nation struggled on its road to modern representative government. The films remain true to the action and themes presented in Dickens’ novel thus serving as a bridge between study of the book and the comprehension and writing assignments students will subsequently address.
Through research and writing assignments, students can gain valuable insight into the lasting effects of revolutionary historical events and analyze their impact on modern society. Set in a context that focuses on relationships between characters, students begin to understand how all historical events have a human context, communication of which is largely due to Dickens’ skill as a storyteller.
Should your child be viewing the film as part of an assignment in school, be sure he or she is not using it as a substitute for the required reading.
The French Revolution, 1789 – 1799, was the second great democratic revolution of modern times; the American Revolution being the first. In the French Revolution, the people of an established European country, burdened with a centuries-old tradition of feudalism and monarchy, rose up and threw off the oppression of the nobility, the royalty and the clergy. In many ways, the French Revolution looked to the United States for its inspiration but different circumstances took the French Revolution beyond the American Revolution both in its reforms and in the excesses of the revolutionaries attempting to protect their hard-won liberties. The French Revolution showed the world that powerful, established and oppressive social structures could be overthrown. Its Declaration of the Rights of Man still serves as a model for modern representative government. “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity,” the aspirations of the revolutionaries, still express the goals of modern society. But the French Revolution also served as a warning that revolutionary zeal can trample on the very rights that it seeks to protect.
The absolute monarchy in France, serfdom, special privileges for the nobility, compulsory church tithes, special privileges for the clergy, imprisonment for debt, and primogeniture in the inheritance of land were abolished by the French Revolution. Instead, universal male suffrage, equal liability to taxation, separation of church and state, freedom of the press, religious freedom, the metric system, and equality of all people before the law became established principles of governance. In criminal cases, the French Revolution established the right of habeas corpus, the right to a jury trial, the presumption of innocence, the right to an attorney at trial, and the right to a fair trial. The massive estates of the nobility and the Catholic Church were broken up and distributed among the peasants.
In the first year of the revolution, the people sought to establish a moderate constitutional monarchy under King Louis XIV. But the King refused to cooperate and sought a return to royal control. In the years following 1790, the revolution was beset with opposition. The monarchist powers of Europe combined to invade France in an effort to reimpose the old order. Émigré noblemen sought a return to royal government. Monarchist uprisings took hold in various parts of the country. High officials and generals with ties to the king and the aristocracy committed treason that resulted in defeats for French armies on the battlefield. There were food shortages. The political leadership of the revolution was divided. In this situation, with the revolution in dire peril, absolute power was given to a Committee of Public Safety which came under the control of a party called the Jacobins. Under the leadership of Robespierre, the Jacobins instituted the Reign of Terror beheading any possible threat to the regime. Of the 17,000 people beheaded by official action during the Terror, 8% were nobles, 6% clergy, 14% from the middle class and 70% peasants and others charged with harming the revolution in some way, such as hoarding food, deserting from the army, supporting monarchist rebellions, etc.
Shortly after the military and domestic situation began to improve, the radical Jacobins were removed from power and were themselves beheaded. Their blood ended the Reign of Terror. However, the revolution never resulted in a stable government and in 1801 the people turned to a popular general, Napoleon Bonaparte, who promised peace and to implement the reforms of the revolution. Napoleon then created a cult of personality, had himself crowned as Emperor, and sought to conquer Europe. Napoleon also tried to establish his own royal line, marrying into one of the most powerful royal families in Europe, the Hapsburgs. Most of the reforms of the French Revolution were confirmed during Napoleon’s rule. While he was not elected, Napoleon knew that he ruled at the sufferance of the people. See Learning Guide to “Conquest”.
After the defeats of Napoleon in 1813 and 1815, various monarchies ruled France for a time. A few of these governments were constitutional monarchies in which the king’s power was shared with a parliament. After decades of struggle, democratic ideals eventually triumphed and since 1871 France has enjoyed a republican form of government traced directly to the French Revolution.
The twin democratic revolutions, first in the United States and then in France, have inspired democratic revolutions in many countries in Europe and around the globe.
England took a different course to full representative government. Limitations on the king’s power were first codified in the Magna Carta in 1215. Parliament in those early years was not powerful compared to the modern parliaments and it was dominated by the aristocracy. In the 14th century, the Parliament was divided into a House of Commons and a House of Lords, with the pre-eminent power being in the House of Lords. Parliament in England met only when called by the king for some special purpose. Until the 17th century, Parliamentary power waxed and waned depending upon the historical situation and the forcefulness and needs of the English kings.
The rights and prerogatives of the Parliament increased greatly in the Civil Wars of 1642 and 1648 which resulted in the execution of Charles I. Under the Commonwealth established by Oliver Cromwell, the monarchy and the House of Lords were abolished and Parliament ruled the country. In 1660 the monarchy returned. While there were periods of friction between the Parliament and the monarchy after the fall of the Commonwealth, the power of Parliament was never thereafter seriously in doubt. As time progressed, the powers of the Parliament were peacefully expanded. Beginning in the 18th century, the House of Commons became predominant and the king ruled through a prime minister elected by the House of Commons. However, this was still not democracy as we know it. Only the propertied classes were permitted to vote, the Anglican Church had voting representatives in the Parliament, and the borders of the districts from which members of Parliament were elected were not adjusted to reflect changing populations. Rural areas were therefore over-represented.
In the 19th century, the democratic movements which spawned the French Revolution and the threat of similar unrest at home caused England to make the House of Commons progressively more democratic. The middle class was given the vote in 1832. Universal male suffrage was instituted by 1884. In 1911 the districts were equalized by population. Women over 30 were permitted to vote in 1918 and this was extended to women over 21 by 1928. The voting age was lowered to 18 years in 1969.
The House of Commons has progressively expanded its powers to the point that it, and the prime minister who serves at its pleasure, run the country without challenge from any other institution of government. In 1999 the Labour government of Tony Blair began democratic reforms of the now toothless House of Lords.
After the film has been watched, engage the class in a discussion about the movie.
1. Which problems in the story seem to foreshadow those faced by citizens of various nations today?
Answers will vary. Some students will express the idea that inequality between upper and lower classes still causes problems in several nations, including the U.S. Others may see uprisings against unjust leadership in the Middle East as examples of conflicts similar to those in Dickens’s story. The economic problems facing European nations may be expressed as examples as well.
2. Sydney Carlton is seen as the character who is redeemed in the film. What aspects of his personality or behavior need redemption and how is it achieved?
Carlton is a cynical alcoholic who has cared little for the lives of others. Carlton is redeemed when, in the name of love, he sacrifices his life by exchanging places with Darnay at the film’s end.
3. Do you think A Tale of Two Cities is dominated by the love story that runs throughout the film or by the destructive forces of injustice?
Answers will vary. All well-supported opinions are acceptable. Students may determine that the elements of the film, the political struggles, and the love relationships, are inseparable.
Click here for eight additional discussion questions.
4. What was the role of the French Revolution in the development of modern democracy?
Entire courses are taught to fully answer this question. Here are some major points. It was the second great democratic revolution of modern times; the American Revolution being the first. It was a revolution in which the people of an established European country, burdened with a centuries-old tradition of feudalism and monarchy, rose up and threw off the oppression of the nobility, the royalty and the clergy. The reforms of the French Revolution went beyond the advances of the American Revolution, most importantly in establishing universal male suffrage. The French Revolution showed the world that powerful, established and oppressive social structures could be overthrown. Its Declaration of the Rights of Man still serves as a model for modern representative government. “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity,” the aspirations of the revolutionaries, still express the goals of modern society.
5. What, if any, was the causal relationship between the American Revolution and the French Revolution?
The American Revolution inspired the French Revolution.
6. Identify some of the similarities and differences between the French and American Revolutions.
Again, this could be an entire course. Here are some of the major similarities and differences. Many ideals of the American Revolution, such as representative government, increased suffrage, separation of church and state, equal liability to taxation, and guarantees of individual rights in criminal cases, were shared by the French Revolution. However, the French Revolution went beyond the American Revolution in many of its reforms, especially with respect to universal male suffrage. The American Revolution was a revolution of merchants and landowners, as well as the common people, against what was increasingly seen as a foreign occupation trespassing on the established rights of Englishmen. The French Revolution was a people’s revolution in which the oppressors were the aristocracy, the monarchy and the clergy. The French Revolution spun out of control and resulted in a bloody Terror whereas the American Revolution remained under the control of some of the wisest politicians and statesmen who ever lived. The American Revolution had the advantage of a very strong foreign ally (the French monarchy) which proved instrumental in victory. The French revolutionaries, on the other hand, had to fight off their foreign invaders themselves. Since the only way for the American patriots to enlist the support of the Southern Colonists was to agree to permit the slavery of blacks, the American Revolution came into being and prospered with a cancer at its source that required a very costly and bloody civil war to eradicate. The French Revolution suffered from no such cancer. Despite the Civil War, the American Revolution resulted in one of the two most important stable representative democracies in the world (the other being the British), whereas the French Revolution was never able to establish a stable government.
7. Describe one important element of popular democracy that we take for granted today which was adopted by the French Revolution but which did not come to the U.S. until long after the American Revolution?
Universal male suffrage.
8. Why did the French revolution turn so bloody?
There is no completely satisfactory response. Here are some partial explanations: It was a society which was not well-established that was under threat from the inside and from the outside. The French aristocracy had brutally repressed the French people for centuries, the French Catholics had murdered thousands of French Protestants. There was a long tradition of brutality in French politics.
Note: Attendance at an open AA meeting is an excellent extra-credit activity. Some meetings are divided into two parts. Tell the kids to ask permission to stay for the second part. That’s when specially selected speakers talk about the difficulties they encountered while intoxicated and their new lives in sobriety.
1. Did Sydney Carton act correctly in sacrificing himself to save Darnay’s life? Justify your answer.
Giving up your life is not the solution to either alcoholism or unrequited love.
ALCOHOL AND DRUG ABUSE; REDEMPTION
2. What are some of the differences between the resources that were available to Sydney Carton back in the 19th century and what are available to alcoholics today?
We have a much better, although still incomplete, understanding of the devastation caused by alcoholism. We know that it is a disease. We have self-help organizations such as Alcoholics Anonymous that can be very effective. We also have treatment by psychologists and psychiatrists.
3. Can you conclude from this film that love will overcome alcoholism?
No. In fact, the film tells us the opposite because it shows that the only way out for Carton was death. For most alcoholics, their love for their family and friends has not been able to overcome their alcoholism.
MORAL-ETHICAL EMPHASIS (CHARACTER COUNTS)
Discussion Questions Relating to Ethical Issues will facilitate the use of this film to teach ethical principles and critical viewing. Additional questions are set out below.
One concept from the Six Pillars of Character that is raised in this film is Caring (Be kind; Be compassionate and show you care; Express gratitude; Forgive others; Help people in need).
ASSIGNMENTS, PROJECTS & ACTIVITIES
Any of the discussion questions can serve as a writing prompt. Additional assignments include:
1. “It’s a far, far better thing I do than I have ever done. It’s a far, far greater rest I go to than I have ever known.” These words are spoken by Sydney Canton as he is heading toward his death at the story’s end. Write an essay in which you explain why, for him, these words are true. Be sure to cite examples of action and dialogue to support your ideas.
2. In a formal essay, propose at least three changes in policy that the French government may have put into effect in order to avoid both the revolution and its aftermath. Look carefully at the causes of the French Revolution and at the lust for revenge that followed. Propose remedies that may have been satisfactory, or at least tolerable, to both the aristocracy and to the lower classes.
3. Write an essay in which you analyze the motives, values and personal traits of one character in the film that you see as a positive force in the story and one that you see as negative. These characters do not have to play the roles of protagonist and antagonist; they can be ancillary to the main storyline.
4. Research and write an expository essay about the influence of the French Revolution on the history of the 19th and 20th centuries.
BRIDGES TO READING
Children who enjoyed the movie should be encouraged to read the book. The movie cuts out interesting portions of the book which fills out the plot line and character descriptions.
LINKS TO THE INTERNET
- The novel in its entirety is on the internet at Bibliomania.