Symbols in A Tale of Two Cities
Tellson’s Bank: Tellson’s bank symbolizes the oppression and complacency of Britain. Though it is old and successful, this is more due to its reputation rather than its fantastic business; indeed, it is portrayed as unpleasant and refusing to advance with the times. Dickens suggests that Britain’s complacency, like France’s, will soon lead to unrest.
Red Wine: Because of its color, red wine is frequently used to symbolize and foreshadow the blood shed during the French Revolution. Often drunk by revolutionaries, it also suggests the intoxicating effects of revolutionary sentiment that lead to mob mentality and mass, violent cruelty.
Grindstone: The grindstone, used to sharpen weapons, symbolizes the growing maniacal blood thirst of the revolutionaries. As they sharpen their blood-soaked weapons, they become oppressors, just like those they fight against.
Echoing Footsteps of Soho Square: The square that surrounds Dr. Manette’s house is often full of people’s comings and goings. The multitude of people—and the resultant chaos—foreshadows the coming French Revolution.
Marquis St. Evrémonde: The marquis, with his unabashed cruelty and pompous arrogance, symbolizes the tyrannical and violent aristocracy that the revolutionaries wish to overthrow. His death by stabbing signals the country’s growing unrest.
Symbols Examples in A Tale of Two Cities:
Book the Second: The Golden Thread - Chapter IV 1
"except wine like this..." See in text (Book the Second: The Golden Thread - Chapter IV)
Dickens often uses red wine to symbolize blood and revolutionary sentiment—specifically the growing public outrage that would initiate the French Revolution in 1789. As we shall see, Sydney Carton becomes increasingly dissatisfied with his lot in life. His penchant for wine suggests that he may be capable of violence.
Book the Second: The Golden Thread - Chapter VI 1
"disused shoemaker’s bench..." See in text (Book the Second: The Golden Thread - Chapter VI)
Dr. Manette’s shoemaker’s bench symbolizes the trauma of Dr. Manette’s past imprisonment. Like the echoes of Soho Square, the bench suggests an uneasy and difficult future for the Manettes.
Book the Second: The Golden Thread - Chapter VII 1
"MONSEIGNEUR ..." See in text (Book the Second: The Golden Thread - Chapter VII)
Dickens epitomizes the corruption of the French aristocracy in the character of “Monseigneur.” Monseigneur’s character symbolizes the upper-class greed and extravagance that contributed to the advent of the French Revolution.
Book the Second: The Golden Thread - Chapter IX 1
"flambeau..." See in text (Book the Second: The Golden Thread - Chapter IX)
A “flambeau” is a flaming torch. Dickens repeatedly mentions flambeaux (the plural form) in his description of the Marquis’s chateau. The image of a flaming torch, along with the formidable stone architecture of the building, suggests historical regression and cruelty—two key characteristics of the Marquis himself.
Book the Second: The Golden Thread - Chapter XV 1
"in this vinous feature of his..." See in text (Book the Second: The Golden Thread - Chapter XV)
Dickens personifies the city of Saint Antoine when he describes it as being in a “vinous feature” (i.e. that it, like a person, experiences the inebriating effects of drinking wine). Intoxication, in this context, symbolizes the revolutionary sentiment that would fuel the French Revolution.
Book the Second: The Golden Thread - Chapter XIX 1
"a strong and extraordinary revival..." See in text (Book the Second: The Golden Thread - Chapter XIX)
Dr. Manette’s dramatic “‘revival,’” which today might be classified as a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder, is another indication of Dickens’s opposition to solitary confinement. Furthermore, it is significant that the otherwise-brilliant physician transforms into a confused shoemaker when his traumatic past is recalled. Dr. Manette’s shoemaking implies that imprisonment (as it existed in 18th-century Western Europe) undermines the Enlightenment ideals of rational thought, innovation, and social progress.
Book the Second: The Golden Thread - Chapter XXI 2
"golden thread..." See in text (Book the Second: The Golden Thread - Chapter XXI)
Dickens suggests that Lucie (the “Golden Thread”) figuratively knits her family into a close, nurturing community. Lucie’s figurative knitting can be contrasted with Madame Defarge’s literal knitting of people’s names into her register. Both women “knit” in secret: Lucie passively exerts her quiet influence, and Madame Defarge knits in a code that only she can understand.
"echoing footsteps..." See in text (Book the Second: The Golden Thread - Chapter XXI)
Dickens repeatedly uses echoes to symbolize fate—specifically, the inevitable arrival of the French Revolution. Lucie can hear the sinister energy of growing social unrest in the “echoing footsteps of years” and can do nothing to stop it. The footsteps themselves likely represent the marching of an angry mob, such as the one that would storm the Bastille in Saint Antoine in 1789.
Book the Third: The Track of a Storm - Chapter III 1
"one knitting...." See in text (Book the Third: The Track of a Storm - Chapter III)
Mr. Lorry does not yet recognize the Defarges’ influential role in the revolution. Madame Defarge’s knitting, though possibly benign in this specific instance, symbolizes and foreshadows her complete lack of sympathy for Charles Darnay and his family.
Book the Third: The Track of a Storm - Chapter V 1
"all red wine for La Guillotine..." See in text (Book the Third: The Track of a Storm - Chapter V)
Dickens once again employs the symbol of red wine to represent the bloodshed that characterized the French Revolution. Furthermore, he implies that these executions do not bring about social justice; the “red wine for La Guillotine” only intoxicates the republic with a heightened thirst for revenge.
Book the Third: The Track of a Storm - Chapter XV 1
"fused in the one realisation, Guillotine..." See in text (Book the Third: The Track of a Storm - Chapter XV)
The guillotine, as we have seen, is frequently personified throughout the novel—even to the extent that Dickens describes its victims as “red wine for La Guillotine.” Dickens’s portrayal of the insatiable La Guillotine suggests that this brutally violent machine is symbol of the republic itself.