Over the past few years I’ve been fascinated by stories involving France and the French Revolution. For some reason, that bloody event captivates me–not because I enjoy reading tales of the guillotine and bloodshed, but because I see parallels between that event and today’s happenings. Maybe that’s a stretch; perhaps my imagination is too active. Still, I can’t help wondering if history is repeating itself in small ways.
This sentiment grew especially after reading Charles Dickens’ classic A Tale of Two Cities. Two thirds of the novel explore the build-up to the Revolution, showing the injustice perpetrated by the government and elites upon the lower classes. We meet the Manettes, a formerly well-respected Parisian family who suffered greatly at nobles’ hands and reunited years later, and the Defarges, future revolutionaries keeping track of every offense and eager to see revenge. Eventually Lucie Manette’s husband, who is related to a noble family, goes to Paris on an errand of mercy and is imprisoned. The cast congregates in the tumultuous city and bear witness to great injustice and great sacrifice.
Reading about the peasants’ revolt against their sufferings and then turning into the monsters they overthrew reminded me of our age of social media. We live in a time where certain wrongs can be exposed thanks to platforms like Twitter and facebook. If a victim can find he/she doesn’t stand alone, then perpetrators are seen for what they are and brought down. Social media has turned into a sharp, deadly scythe that almost daily gathers people into its virtual square to witness its gruesome work. Proverbial heads roll with abandon across a million screens.
Like the French Revolution, the unrest among the “peasants” could have been felt in the years leading up to our current moment. Also, like that infamous movement, some good is being done and wrongs addressed that under previous circumstances would never see the light of day. But anytime you gather a bloodthirsty mob–in the streets or on the internet–innocent people will get thrown into the fray and become victims. They can protest and make claims on their purity, but the mob will not listen, the mob has made up its mind. Some among the crowd have, like Madame Defarge knitting her code of injustice into a scarf, never forgotten previous ills and scurry among the dusty archives of social platforms to find a status or statement that implicates someone in a terrible position. Soon, inevitably, down comes the blade.
I suppose we should be grateful that open bloodshed is so abhorred these days. Who knows what fervor would spill out of bedrooms, basements, and coffee shops to carry an offender (supposed or real) into the arms of Death? Our modern selves may take pride in our lack of bloodshed, but are we really any better? How many careless words have ruined others? How many have fallen beneath our new Reign of Terror? How many more must there be? Maybe I’m being dramatic. Nevertheless, I look at the French Revolution and Dickens’ retelling of it as a warning to the modern user of social media. Be not so hasty to shout and rave with the masses demanding heads, for someday they may demand yours and you will regret your unbridled angst. Self-control is still a virtue and one we desperately need today.
‘Liberty, equality, fraternity, or death; — the last, much the easiest to bestow, O Guillotine!’
The first two thirds of this book are slow and plodding with the characters doing little to stand out in your mind. The plot is vague but held up by Dickens’ dark humor and wit. The final third, however, pays the reader handsomely for hanging in there. The tension is high and the work becomes more of a page turner. You may not have much reason to sympathize for the characters in plight other than they’re the heroes, but you do feel the stress all the way up to the final chapter.