This post is only for those who have already seen the Dark Knight Rises
Charles' Dickens' Tale of Two Cities has always been a novel that has
stuck with me. I think I've recounted before how I sought to get some
seminary books knocked out over the Summer, whereupon a professor told me
"Hollowell, Summers are for fiction. If you want something that will
knock you on your butt, read Red Badge of Courage, Brothers Karamazov,
or Tale of Two Cities."
I took his advice to heart, and I was rewarded for my efforts. I must
say that I cried at the end of a Tale of Two Cities, and I found the
last paragraph to be one of the most beautiful pieces of fiction I've come
So as I watched the Dark Knight Rises, and especially as the final 5
minutes of the film were unfolding (has there been a better ending sequence in
cinema than Dark Knight Rises?) I was into it as the music was
accelerating, and one cool revelation followed another, but the hair on the
back of my neck stood on end as I heard Jim Gordon reciting that same last
paragraph of a Tale of Two Cities at Bruce Wayne's "funeral"
(Christopher Nolan cut some of the original quote out because parts only
pertained to the plot of a Tale of Two
Cities - here is the quote as it happens in the movie)
"I see the lives for which I lay down my life, peaceful, useful,
prosperous and happy. I see that I hold a sanctuary in their hearts, and in the
hearts of their descendants, generations hence. 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."
In a Tale of Two Cities, the quote is from a man who goes to the
guillotine so that others may escape and live, the connection quite clear to
Bruce Wayne in the film.
A brief word about the plot of a Tale of Two Cities. The novel begins
with the brief calm before the storm which was the French Revolution. The
French Revolution came about because the poor working class was so tired of
being oppressed by those who owned the companies, those who ran the government
(and the Church at the time was also part of this "power
structure"). While the characters are fictional in Dickens' work,
the history is very accurate. What began as an uprising against unjust
social structures, quickly turned into madness. For some reason, in history
classes, we never hear about the absolute madness that reigned for several
years, we only hear about the "storming of the Bastille" and the
anarchy and violence that reigned for so long are often glossed over.
In the French Revolution, "people's courts" were erected and dummy
trials were set up where people were tried and then guillotined (the blood lust
is portrayed vividly in the novel), and most estimates suggest that up to
10,000 people were being guillotined a day at the height of the revolution.
Of course, in the movie, we see this "people's court" portrayed on
several occasions as well, and again, as in the novel, it is the insane who run
the courts and hand down the sentences.
Nolan, who is separating himself as one of the true artists in mainstream
film right now, has made an entertaining film that pays homage to its
Dickensonian inspiration. And I think there is a good reason why Nolan
took Tale of Two Cities as the basis for his script.
Dickens' novel served two purposes for his fellow Brits who were, at the
time, approaching a similar state of disharmony and anxiety among the
classes. Dickens novel was a warning to
BOTH sides - it was a warning to the upper class and a warning to the lower
class. Nolan's movie is also a simultaneous shot across the bow of America,
both the "1%" and the "99%", and his “shot” is well-timed
and VERY needed.
Nolan sees what many of us see - the idea that we are standing on the
breaking point as a society. We seem to be getting more and more
polarized, more and more agitated, and unrest seems to be rising (“the fire
rises” as they say in the film).
Nolan's film, then, is a reminder to both sides, it is a reminder to
"anarchists", those who would burn the social structures down and
start over, of what "anarchy" really looks like; anarchy INEVITABLY
and UNAVOIDABLY turns into madness. The film, like the novel 150 years
before it, is also a shot over the bow of the 1%, a reminder that a Machiavellian
grab for power without the requisite compassion on the less fortunate and the
powerless will result in nothing less than the anarchy that Karl Marx so
Where does the Church come in, then? The Church shares Nolan's and
Dickens' understanding of proper governance and what constitutes a healthy and
just society. The Church says to anarchists "governance is a good
thing, and NOT because it is a means of control; it CAN produce good and allow
good to flourish." The Church says government is necessary, and that
anarchy will ultimately lead to a flourishing of evil, every time.
HOWEVER, the Church isn't just there to beat the 99% back into submission,
because it warns that simply HAVING a government in place, simply HAVING laws,
rules, social structures etc. is not enough. The powerful can't simply
say what Scrooge said to those asking for alms for the poor when he in effect
says "aren't there government programs that take care of the poor...then
what business is it of mine if people are suffering from poverty or anything
else." The Church has been warning people that government and order
are needed, but that if "governance" and "laws" and social
structures somehow interfere with people caring for each other, then injustice
arises from this scenario just as much as it does from the anarchy scenario.
Freedom lies neither in casting off societal structures as a whole and
starting completely over, nor does it lie in simply sitting back and letting
societal structures care for the vulnerable and the poor and the
marginalized. Both of the above solutions are wrong because they are LAZY
and also because they lack the key virtue for Catholics, namely charity,
concern for the other person. The
solutions of anarchy and also of “continuing to let the government take care of
other people” don't require anything of the INDIVIDUAL PERSON.
The Church, Nolan, and Dickens all seem to suggest the same thing - if you
want to reform society, start with yourself. If we become good virtuous
people (heroes) then our society's ills will mend themselves. If we
lazily and guiltlessly see solutions only on a massive scale, if we think the
solution will be found either in destroying government, or in making it more
powerful so that we don't have to worry about each other, then we are doomed to
a vicious cycle of destruction where governments arise promising hope and then
are eventually burned to the ground by the governed. We have to instead look to change hearts and
convert individuals; if we don't then all efforts at reform will be fruitless.