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Themes in A Tale of Two Cities

Fate’s Inevitability: Much of the novel is interested in inevitable, unavoidable consequences—both politically and individually, as in the case of Charles Darnay. Because of Darnay’s aristocratic heritage, his fate at the hand of the revolutionaries—despite his sympathy for them—is execution. In this way, one’s fate is pre-written by familial heritage. Even more so, Dickens is concerned about the inevitable consequences of England’s refusing to reform its outdated stances on capital punishment and its treatment of the common people in general. He intends the novel to serve as a warning, showing the bloody aftermath of a France that was too slow to adapt.

Resurrection of Self and Society as Linked: There are several instances of characters being “resurrected”—or greatly transformed—throughout the novel against the backdrop of a revolutionary Paris. For example, Dr. Manette is ”recalled to life,” his imprisonment being a sort of death. Through the maternal care of Lucie, he is able to regain his mind and independence. Darnay, through Carton’s quick thinking, is given another chance at life following his acquittal for treason in England. Perhaps most striking is Sydney Carton’s redemption, which he achieves through sacrifice. As Carton awaits the guillotine, he envisions not only himself reborn in some way—Lucie and Darnay’s child bears his name—but also a renewed, peaceful France. These examples suggest that personal transformation is required for total societal revolution.

Revolutionary Violence vs. Aristocratic Oppression: Throughout the novel aristocratic oppression is shown to have brought about revolutionary violence. Corruption and greed of the government and aristocracy leads to unrest; Dicken employs the example of France as a warning to England, whose fate is inevitably similar without dramatic reforms. Because of aristocratic oppression, peasants’ feelings of resentment, anger, and vengeance deepen. Though Dickens seems sympathetic to the peasants’ plight, he also portrays the danger—and inherent hypocrisy—of vengeance’s resultant mob mentality.

Themes Examples in A Tale of Two Cities:

Book the First: Recalled to Life - Chapter I

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"requisition..."   (Book the First: Recalled to Life - Chapter I)

In other words, the hangman is constantly needed because of all the criminals who have been sentenced to hang. Dickens is again implying that the Enlightenment brought significant problems to Western European civilization.

"damp..."   (Book the First: Recalled to Life - Chapter IV)

Dickens often uses sensory imagery, such as his description of the mildewy, rank coach with its “damp and dirty straw,” to comment on the deplorable living conditions in England at the time. Dickens’s imagery highlights the major drawbacks of both the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, which began in England in the mid-18th century.

"the business mind..."   (Book the Second: The Golden Thread - Chapter IV)

Sydney Carton refers to a recurring theme in the novel: the conflict between acting in the interest of others and acting in one’s own interest. Mr. Lorry, who frequently calls himself a “man of business,” takes offense; he argues that “‘we men of business’” must pragmatically act in the best interest of others (presumably one’s employer, the House of Commons, or the country in general).

"MONSEIGNEUR ..."   (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.

"do not recall that..."   (Book the Second: The Golden Thread - Chapter X)

Recollection (especially recalling “to life”) is an important theme in A Tale of Two Cities. In this case, Dr. Manette begs Charles Darnay to not disclose his true identity because it will “recall” memories that might trigger the resurrection of Dr. Manette’s trauma-induced amnesia.

"Can I not recall you..."   (Book the Second: The Golden Thread - Chapter XIII)

The theme of resurrection (or “recalling”) is significant in A Tale of Two Cities. In this context, Lucie believes that she can recall Sydney Carton to an apparently inherent state of goodness.

"“Then why not change it?”..."   (Book the Second: The Golden Thread - Chapter XIII)

Identity transformation is an important theme in A Tale of Two Cities. Charles Darnay and Sydney Carton, who closely resemble one another, are dissatisfied with their lots in life. Charles rejects his identity as an aristocrat by changing his name from Evremonde to Darnay, whereas Sydney wants (though without action) to be successful instead of lazy and immoral.

"I don’t know..."   (Book the Second: The Golden Thread - Chapter XIV)

It is important that this anonymous peasant joins in the violent chaos of the mob without knowing why. Dickens frequently alludes to the growing revolutionary sentiment that culminated in the French Revolution years later.

" “Oh, the men, the men!”..."   (Book the Second: The Golden Thread - Chapter XVI)

Madame Defarge seems frustrated by Saint Antoine’s men: specifically, their general lack of action and their tired impatience. Dickens grants a surprising amount of agency to Parisian women; although, he often does so to emphasize mass unruliness and overpowering violent sentiment. Market women actually instigated one of the first defining moments of the French Revolution because they were outraged by the high cost and scarcity of bread. In October 1789, they stormed the Palace of Versailles (where the king and queen lived). The protest turned into a riot that ended with the king and queen being forced to return to Paris.

"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.

"a strong and extraordinary revival..."   (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.

"echoing footsteps..."   (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.

"the relish of fraternal embraces and congratulations..."   (Book the Second: The Golden Thread - Chapter XXII)

Dickens establishes a subtle parallel between the violent, hate-fueled “fraternity” of the revolutionaries and the nurturing, loving relationships between Lucie and her family. The novel therefore questions the effectiveness of violence—even if social change is justified.

"Monseigneur..."   (Book the Second: The Golden Thread - Chapter XXIII)

Dickens is critical of the brutal violence of the revolutionaries. However, he attributes the causes of the revolution to starvation and high taxation—and the peasants’ abject poverty is augmented by the excessive greed of the French aristocracy (which Dickens sarcastically refers to as “Monseigneur”).

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

Dickens’s use of words like “howling,” “beastly,” and “matted locks” strongly suggests that rather than encouraging positive social change, mass riots cause citizens to regress into a primal, animalistic state.

" truest to them in the season of trial,..."   (Book the Third: The Track of a Storm - Chapter V)

Dickens may be alluding to the biblical book of Ecclesiastes 3, which describes each “season,” such as sorrow and happiness, that one might encounter in life. Each of these seasons serves a “purpose under heaven”—a statement that reinforces the theme of predestination that runs through the entire novel.

"all red wine for La Guillotine..."   (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.

"a species of fervour or intoxication..."   (Book the Third: The Track of a Storm - Chapter VI)

Dickens attributes the public’s enthusiasm for execution and general brutality to “a wild infection,” presumably caused by revolutionary sentiment, that results in a “wildly shaken public mind.” The intoxicating effects of revolutionary sentiment are one of the novel’s primary concerns.

"gaoler-joke..."   (Book the Third: The Track of a Storm - Chapter VI)

The gaoler-joke of reading the “Evening Paper” emphasizes the public craze surrounding execution. Public beheadings were a form of entertainment, even for children. Small guillotine toys, which were capable of beheading dolls or small animals, were popular. Dickens’s criticism of widespread public mania is palpable throughout the entire novel though it is most apparent after the revolution begins.

"the sense of being oppressed bursting forth like a fire...."   (Book the Third: The Track of a Storm - Chapter X)

The “sense of being oppressed” that “burst[s] forth like a fire” suggests revolutionary sentiment. Dr. Manette unknowingly foreshadows the intense resentment and rage that would lead to the French Revolution in 1789, roughly 30 years later.

"such great things as this..."   (Book the Third: The Track of a Storm - Chapter XI)

Sydney Carton expects a degree of redemption (and figurative resurrection) from the great sacrifice he plans to make for Lucie and her daughter. His impending sacrifice will involve a dual resurrection: his soul and Charles Darnay’s life.

"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.

"whose body lay lifeless on the ground...."   (Book the Third: The Track of a Storm - Chapter XIV)

Madame Defarge, in her fervor for revenge, is killed by her own weapon. Her death strongly implies what is perhaps one of Dickens’s most significant arguments: that violent uprisings do not bring justice. Dickens suggests that the French peasants, though justified in their anger, have only accomplished bringing about more suffering and death.

"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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