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Irony in A Tale of Two Cities

Irony in A Tale of Two Cities is typically found in the behavior of the French Revolutionaries. While they revolt against their oppressors and the tyrannical aristocracy, they actually become as oppressive and tyrannical in the process. They may think that they are breaking a cycle of oppression, but they are actually perpetuating it in a new form.

Irony Examples in A Tale of Two Cities:

Book the First: Recalled to Life - Chapter I

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"Mere messages in the earthly order of events had lately come to the English Crown and People from a congress of British subjects in America..."   (Book the First: Recalled to Life - Chapter I)

Dickens is making a tongue-in-cheek reference to the American colonists’ objection to King George and the British Parliament. He sarcastically implies that wars and political movements (such as the American Revolution that was taking place at the time of the novel) can allow us to predict the future far more accurately than ghosts and prophets.

"registered..."   (Book the Second: The Golden Thread - Chapter XVI)

Madame Defarge’s process of “registering” aristocrats may be an ironic reference to the official registration of French peerages in regional parlements (provincial appeals courts in pre-revolutionary France). Prior to the French Revolution, being registered was a mark of nobility; for Madame Defarge and the revolutionaries, it is a mark of death.

"as was natural..."   (Book the Second: The Golden Thread - Chapter XX)

The narrator’s classification of Charles Darnay’s contrived obliviousness as “natural” is sarcastic. However, Charles’s politeness—which derives from “good-humour” and “good-fellowship”—is entirely genuine. He does not wish to embarrass Sydney Carton (or himself) by admitting any recollection of Sydney’s drunken behavior.

"metempsychosis..."   (Book the Third: The Track of a Storm - Chapter II)

The noun “metempsychosis” refers to the supposed transfer or transmigration of a human (or other animal) soul to another living body upon death. Dickens uses it to sarcastically suggest that the fleeing nobleman is attempting to “transfer” his soul into the body of a servant. However, as the narrator acknowledges, he is “still the same Monseigneur” who required four servants to assist him in the preparation of his drinking chocolate.

"Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, or Death..."   (Book the Third: The Track of a Storm - Chapter VII)

“Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” (in French: liberté, égalité, fraternité) is the motto of the French Republic and became the national motto of France after the revolution ended. Dickens’s addition of “or Death” indicates that the republic does not in fact promote liberty, equality, or fraternity; one must comply with the republic’s demands or face inevitable death.

"tyrants and oppressors..."   (Book the Third: The Track of a Storm - Chapter XII)

Madame Defarge’s obsession with revenge has transformed her into the very tyrant and oppressor that the revolutionaries claim to oppose. Dickens once again suggests that violent responses to oppression do nothing to bring about justice.

"could not save her..."   (Book the Third: The Track of a Storm - Chapter XIII)

Though the young seamstress is poor, weak, and insignificant, she has been found to be an enemy of the republic and is in turn, sent to her death. Here, Dickens ironically suggests that the radicals of the revolution are just as needlessly cruel as the government they overthrew.

"who was not to speak until required, or to offer an opinion until invited...."   (Book the Third: The Track of a Storm - Chapter XIV)

The wood-sawyer’s timidity offers another indication that the revolutionaries do not practice the liberty, equality, or fraternity they claim to fight for. Madame Defarge, obsessed with punishing the Evremondes, has become an especially tyrannical oppressor.

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