As with any historical fiction of work of literature, conflict is a neccesary element in a novel. It is mainly used to build plot and suspense. A Tale of Two Cities written by Charles Dickens and Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott are both good examples of novels in which conflicts between play an important role and in this novel it is mainly the struggles between social groups which are of big importance. There are a lot of differences but also similarities concerning the points of view of the narrators on the struggles between the social groups. In this essay I will discuss these differences and similarities between the opinions of Sir Walter Scott and Charles Dickens on social conflicts.
Dickens used the development of a conflict between the French lower class and the French government and aristocracy to build plot and suspense. The nobility (the government and aristocracy) is extremely rich and the French lower class are exactly the opposite, very poor. The French lower class suffered for a long time under the tight rulings and restraints of the French government and aristocracy. The lives of ignorant French poor people are described by Charles Dickens as horrendous:
“And who among the company at Monsignor’s reception in that seventeen hundred and eightieth year of our Lord, coud possibly doubt, that a system rooted in a frizzled hangman, powdered and gold-laced, pumped, and white-silk stockinet, would see the very stars out!” [›] 1
The deaths of seemingly worthess peasant-like poor people had no affect what so ever upon the wealthy. This created the strong and continual conflict between the two, totally opposite from eachother, classes in France. The poor rebelled against the aristocrats who had been oppressing them for so long and afterwards France took a long time to recover. Darnay was arrested twice mainly because he was born basically as a Frech aristocrat and revolutionists wanted him killed. With the help of others, Darnay’s conflict was resolved, but no doubt still stands an individual example of the larger external conflict of the Revolution.
It seems that the narrator of A Tale of Two Cities does not want or know to take a side in the conflict between the French lower class and the French government and aristocracy. He does not approve the actions of nobility but he does not approve the actions of the poor people as well. Especially in the first two paragraphs of chapter 15 (book the third) the narrator uses very negative and sometimes strong words for the poor people but also for the noble people. Words like Monsters, the carriages of absolute monarchs, the equipages of feuda nobles, the toilettes of flaring Jezebels, changeless and hopeless are used quite often. In the entire novel it is also very clear that he sometimes understands the nobility and at another moment he understands the poor people. He also understands the reaction of the poor people but then at the same time he does not approve this. It is shown in the first paragraph already:
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way- in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.” (Charles Dickens, p. 3)
Dickens is now contrasting things to show or accentuate how everything has two sides in the time of the French Revolution as well; the side of the nobles and the side of the poor people. The narrator’s opinion is then that both sides are not acting rightly and both are making mistakes. The view of the narrator is then that the lower class people have good reasons to act the way they do, reasons like the way they have been treated by the nobility but at the same time he thinks the nobility is treated too badly for the barbarous things which happened or which they did in the past.
The social conflicts in Ivanhoe are quite different from the struggles in A Tale of Two Cities. The main struggle in Ivanhoe is the conflict between the Saxons and the Normans. The lines of this conflict, which is going to dominate the rest of the novel, are already drawn in the first chapter. Chapter 1 makes very clear already how divided the country is between Normans and Saxons and how the Norman nobles have established a tyranny. Another conflict that started only a few chapters later was that of the anti-Semitism. The christian characters in the novel treat Isaac as an outcast because in medieval Europe, the Jews were a despised race because they continued to practice their own religion. Scott’s portrait of Isaac has much in common with the usual stereotype of the Jew. Isaac is a money-lender and therefore presented as avaricious, being excessively concerned with money. The epigraph at the beginning of Chapter 5 is very relevant for the portrait of Isaac:
“Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is?
Merchant of Venice” [›] 2
This quotation and logically this whole play from Shakespeare has a lot of anti-Semitism elements, but the quotation Scott selected for his epigraph also shows human sides. Later in this novel Isaac is distraught when Rebecca is kidnapped by De-Bois Guilbert. Isaac’s love for his daughter then softens the anti-Semitism present in his characterization as does his generosity toward Ivanhoe. Another important conflict in Ivanhoe is that between Ivanhoe and De-|Bois Guilbert, it actually started before the novel started and continues at the tournament in Ashby. This is not only a conflict between the Norman and Saxon but also between true chivalry and false chivalry. Ivanhoe is a saxon but he still possesses all the finest qualities of chivalry, whereas the corrupt De Bois-Guilbert reveals chivalry at its worst. Another struggle between opposed pairs in the novel is that between Prince John and King Richard. That John is an unattractive character has already been suggested in chapter 7: “extreme haughtiness and indifference to the feeling of others”.
On the whole it is very clear that the narrator mainly symphatizes with the Saxons. Nothing good is said about the Normans while the saxons are said to be “brave knights”. The end is almost only about the Saxons, the marriage of Ivanhoe and Rowena. Also about the social struggle of the Jews, the narrator chooses very clear one side. He is on the side of the Jews mainly because he is creating such a positive picture of Jews by portraying Rebecca as kind, pretty, caring and innocent girl. This view of the narrator is exactly the opposite of how the Jews are treated normally by the people.
The main differences in the opinions of the narrator on the social struggles is that of the positivity and sympathizing with one side or both sides. Dickens does not know or seems to not want to choose a side. He thinks both are making mistakes and both are not acting totally correct but still he can understand the poor people as well as the government and aristocracy. Scott is doing the opposite, he is sympathizing with the Jews and saying positive things about them and about life in total in that time.
The main similarity between the narrators’ opinions is that of portraying people better than they actually are. Dickens is giving a lot of arguments why both, the nobility and the French lower cass, are good in some way or another. He also could have left this out because they both did monsterous things to eachother so why should he kind of forgive them by also mentioning the positive sides. This does surprise the reader and makes the reader more able to understand the characters, which is probably why he did this. Scott does this as well with Rebecca and Isaac. Another similarity is that both used the conflicts to build up the suspense and plot, without these conflicts between the social groups there would have been no storyline at all.
To conclude, there are some differences and some similarities as well between the two novels concerning the opinion of the narrator about the social struggles. Both Dickens and Scott used the conflict between the social groups to build suspense and the plot. But at the same time they used different literary techniques to make things clear. One sympathizes with people while the other does not, this gives the reader different images of the social conflicts. So in the end it is shown again that both ways of narrating and using conflicts as a kind of storyline leads to a well done work of literature.