Critics have long conceded that the characters in A Tale of Two Cities are noticeably not fleshed out as individuals by the historical context of the French Revolution, and recently we have begun to figure out why: Dickens is depicting the French Revolution as a struggle to transfer political power from one group, the aristocrats of the ancien régime, to another group, the people. This essay further suggests that this flattening of characters as individuals accords not only with an anti-individualist political history in which the French Revolution is understood as a battle between groups but also with a structuring historical perspective oriented to the subsequent rise of a public transport system that is fundamentally designed to ignore the individual psychology and individual purposes of its passengers and instead to array interchangeably the mobility of their bodies. The essay thus, first, reconstructs how A Tale of Two Cities surprisingly constitutes its historical perspective around transformations wrought by the nineteenth-century networking revolution in public transport; second, explains how this historical perspective frames the opposing groups as locked in stasis and the people as unable to see how to relinquish control of the streets back to individuals; and, finally, shows how in the novel's conclusion Dickens dramatizes two germane formal relations essential to this public transport revolution: its passengers' interchangeability, or substitutability, and the new simultaneity of their separate but networked activity. Juxtaposing the politics of the French Revolution with the form of the public transport, this historical novel relates the history of the French Revolution as about a transition in formal relations. A Tale of Two Cities thereby lays bare the genre of the historical novel: it addresses the history of the abstraction of formal relations and the creation of a society preoccupied with such formal abstraction.
Two Cities Networked: The Historical Novel and Form in French Revolutionary Politics
jonathan h. grossman is professor of English at the University of California, Los Angeles, and author of Charles Dickens's Networks: Public Transport and the Novel (2012). He is currently at work on the history and theory of standardization, with an article from that project forthcoming in Critical Inquiry.
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Jonathan H. Grossman; Two Cities Networked: The Historical Novel and Form in French Revolutionary Politics. Novel 1 August 2017; 50 (2): 176–196. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00295132-4150207
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