Analysis of ‘A Tale of Two Cities’, by Charles Dickens
Charles Dickens was the product of his times. He lived during the 19th century during which social problems manifested themselves sharply all over England. A large poor section was created as jobs moved away from the countryside to the cities. People from the rural areas moved into the cities seeking new jobs. As labor was in excess, corrupt industrialists kept wages down. To find markets for goods produced in mass scale, the crown colonized large areas around the world. Dickens was part of a large poor family. When Dickens was about ten years old, his father was thrown into the debtors’ prison. Consequently, from a very young age, he had to work. This made him acutely aware of the problems of the working which was herded into the infamous “sweat shops” of England. Luckily he found his escape in writing. He was one of the first big writers who serialized his stories for magazines. This gave him access to a wide readership right from the start. This seminal story of the French Revolution was based on Thomas Carlyle’s account of it.
Relevance of the Title
Most of Dickens’s titles are self descriptive. A Tale of Two Cities is also like that though the title does not tell us which two cities those are. When the novel was written, the French Revolution was already nearly sixty years old. But it had burnt itself into the European psyche so deeply, memories were fresh. England too was governed by royalty who closely connected to the French royal houses. There had been apprehension whether the violence in the neighboring nation would find an echo in England. But England had a robust parliament which ruled it with the King or Queen being only a figure head. In France, though the country had a parliament, the nobility functioned like corrupt rulers making their own laws. The bloodshed witnessed during those times was a letting out of pent up hatred of generations of poor people.
Redemption or resurrection is a theme that is explored in A Tale of Two Cities. Sidney Carton leads a life of apathy and indolence drinking himself to a stupor until he redeems himself by giving up his life so that Lucy can live a peaceful life. Paris too undergoes an upheaval so that it re-invents itself. Carton attains a Christ like status when he offers himself in the place of Charles Darnay. Christ was saving all of mankind when he climbed on the cross but Carton works on a smaller scale. Lucy was the world to him and that is what he saves by self sacrifice.
The theme of sacrifice runs through the novel. The peasants are told to rise above their personal loyalties to their masters, some of whom were kind and generous to them. All noblemen had to be tried by the revolutionaries as though they were criminals. It is through Sydney Carton that the theme of sacrifice is best elaborated. He is in love with Lucy who loves Darnay. To ensure that she leads a happy life, Carton sacrifices his life by climbing the guillotine after impersonating Darnay.
Carton is a lawyer who puts no value on his life. He has a brilliant mind but puts it to no use. It is only when he falls in love with Lucy that his better nature comes to the fore. He knows she has no feelings for him but he wants to ensure her happiness. A quirk of fate has made him resemble the very man she loves. He plans to switch places with Charles Darnay so that it is he who dies at the guillotine. He has no sympathy for revolutionaries like Madame Defarge who hate without reason. He uses his intellect to defeat their plans.
The redeeming quality of Charles Darnay’s character is morality. He lives in England though he is a French nobleman. France is in turmoil; it is a dangerous place for a nobleman. He knows this but still heads out to Paris to save a friend. But there is no depth to his character. Being good is not enough to make a character come alive. The reader is more likely to have remembered the disreputable Sydney Carton even if he had not chosen the path of sacrifice. Darnay is virtuous but that is all.
Madame Defarge is consumed by her hatred for the nobility in France. She had suffered at the hands of the noblemen in France who crushed the ordinary people with violence. They were treated as less than humans. When she gets the chance to do it to them in turn, Madame Defarge loses all sense of proportion. She is not happy until the last nobleman is dead. She has an uncanny memory which helps her hunt down people. Darnay has directly done her no harm but his connection with the Evremondes makes him a marked man. She will not rest until she sees him climb the guillotine. It is apparent to us that Madame Defarge will meet her end in a violent way. And that is what happens. There are people who love her enemies as much as she hates them. They ensure that she does not live.
The year is 1775 and France is in the cusp of an upheaval. In Lucy Manette’s life momentous things are about to happen for she gets secret information that her father, Dr. Manette, whom she had presumed dead is alive after spending eighteen years imprisoned in Bastille, the notorious French prison. Dr. Manette had been a doctor in Paris. Lucy travels to Paris where she is reunited with her father. Dr. Manette has lost touch with reality and spends his time making shoes, a skill he picked up while in Bastille. Her care and love slowly bring him back to the present. Now it is 1780 and Charles Darnay is being tried for the crime of denigrating the English monarch. His lawyer is a pompous fool who will never win the case but his deputy is the intelligent but degenerate Sydney Carton who wins the case by pointing out the close resemblance between him and Darnay. The man who committed treason could well have been himself, says Carton. The judge accepts the argument and sets Darnay free. Watching the proceedings from the gallery were Lucy Manette and her father. Carton has loved Lucy for a long time though he knows he is not worthy of her. Nevertheless he resents Lucy’s sympathy for Carton. Not many know that Darnay belongs to the aristocratic Evremonde family. But he has nothing in common with them.
The Marquis Evremonde, Darnay’s uncle runs over a child and kills it. With utter lack of sensitivity, he throws a handful of coins at the father as compensation. That night, someone sneaks into the chateau and kills the Marquis. Darnay who is in Paris now renounces his family. Back in London, Darnay proposes to Lucy. He promises Dr. Manette he will his reveal his true identity if Lucy accepts. Around this time, Carton also declares his love for Lucy though he acknowledges that he does not deserve her love considering he lives a disreputable life, wallowing in liquor most of the time. In Paris, atrocities against the peasants mount. A revolt seems imminent. Madame Defarge knows it is round the corner; she knits a secret registry of all those she plans should die at the guillotine. Leading the list is the Evremonde family that she hates fiercely.
On the day of the wedding with Lucy, Darnay reveals that he belongs to the Evremonde family who were responsible for Dr. Manette’s suffering. Hearing that his daughter has married the heir to the Evremonde name, Dr. Manette lapses back into making shoes all day long. After a few days, he gets back his equilibrium. Carton is reconciled to losing Lucy to Darnay. But he hopes he has Darnay’s friendship.
The year is 1789 and the French Revolution is well and truly on. The Bastille has been breached and everywhere aristocrats who till now wielded power are being murdered on the streets. The ones with foresight have fled France taking refuge in countries sympathetic to the nobility. Those like Darnay who opposed the rule of the aristocrats watch with concern as unruly blood thirsty mobs create havoc in the country but they realize that this is the anger of centuries which is spilling over. Meanwhile he gets a letter from an estate manager of the Evremondes who has been imprisoned by the revolutionaries. Darnay decides to undertake a risky journey to the French capital. As expected the revolutionaries arrest him as an emigrant nobleman. Lucy and Manette travel to France where Manette has a hero’s status as he had been cruelly treated by Count Evremonde. Manette is able to intercede on behalf of Darnay and have him released. But the same night, he is rearrested on charges made by Defarge and his wife. This time the charges are more serious, that of being an heir to the Evremonde title.
It is at the trial that the circumstances leading to Manette’s long incarceration is made public. As a doctor, Manette had been called by Count Evremonde to attend to a woman who had been brutally raped by his brother. The woman’s brother who had come to her rescue had been stabbed to death by the rapist nobleman. Fearing that Dr. Manette will reveal the crimes, the Evremonde brothers throw him into Bastille for eighteen years. Lucy who was an infant at that time grows up with no knowledge of her father. Upon hearing that Darnay is the heir to the Evremonde name, the jury sentences him to die for the crimes of his ancestors. Carton who has come to Paris to help with Darnay’s case over hears Madame Defarge planning to have Lucy and her baby son also killed as she hates the Evremonde family. The raped woman was her sister, her brother too died at the hands of the Evremondes.
Carton has a daring plan in mind to save the Darnay family. He has Dr. Manette, Lucy and her son sent back to England. He visits Darnay in the prison hours before his execution. He drugs Darnay unconscious, changes clothes with him. Now Carton resembles Darnay completely. Darnay is dressed in Carton clothes. A British spy takes out the unconscious Darnay pretending he is Carton who is drunk. Madame Defarge goes to Lucy’s flat to arrest her and present her to the revolutionaries. But she finds that only Miss Pross who was Lucy’s governess is there. During a scuffle with her, Madame Defarge dies, killed by her own gun. Sydney Carton dies at the guillotine, happy in the knowledge that his last act was a noble one guaranteed to bring happiness to his beloved Lucy.
The Broken Wine Cask
The wine cask that breaks outside Defarge’s shop causes a stir among the peasantry who rush to lap the wine that spills on to the road. They have been deprived of even basic sustenance; the desperate hunger which this act displays tells us a lot of their condition. The red wine stands for blood too as it often does in Christian lore. Soon the blood of the fallen nobles will darken the streets like wine does now. It is the same mob and they display the same urgency. Dickens condemns the unthinking mob mentality; he was no Royalist. He criticized the nobles too for their heartless actions.
Madame Defarge’s Knitting
There is more to Madame Defarge’s knitting than being a necessity or a hobby. Into her knitting she wove a complex set of symbols of names or images of those she thought must be killed by the revolutionaries. This cold blooded pursuit shows it went beyond being a class struggle or oppression. Lucy was not in any way connected with what the aristocracy did to the peasants. But her marriage to Darnay made her an object of hatred in Madame Defarge’s eyes. Madame Defarge may be a peasant woman but there was something macabre in the way she plotted the death of people. Like the Fates, she dealt the yarn that she finally cut ending their lives.
- 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. . . .
Few books can lay claim to better opening lines than this. It is the story of a nation in terrible upheaval with a handful of people caught in its vortex. Great writers made their mark but not even their great sayings could save them. There was no time for reasoning; impulsive action ruled. The peasants let loose centuries of pent up anger on the nobles behaving in exactly the same way as the nobles did during their time.
- A wonderful fact to reflect upon, that every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other. A solemn consideration, when I enter a great city by night, that every one of those darkly clustered houses encloses its own secret; that every room in every one of them encloses its own secret; that every beating heart in the hundreds of thousands of breasts there, is, in some of its imaginings, a secret to the heart nearest it! Something of the awfulness, even of Death itself, is preferable to this.
A Tale of Two Cities has a great many mysteries woven into the story. Every character has some secret to hide or to cherish. Who is Charles Darnay? What has happened to Dr. Manette? Why does he cobble shoes incessantly? Why does Madame Defarge hate Darnay? And finally the man who dies at the gallows as Charles Darnay. Only the narrator and the readers know that he is Sidney Carton.
- The wine was red wine, and had stained the ground of the narrow street in the suburb of Saint Antoine, in Paris, where it was spilled. It had stained many hands, too, and many faces, and many naked feet, and many wooden shoes. The hands of the man who sawed the wood, left red marks on the billets; and the forehead of the woman who nursed her baby, was stained with the stain of the old rag she wound about her head again. Those who had been greedy with the staves of the cask, had acquired a tigerish smear about the mouth; and one tall joker so besmirched, his head more out of a long squalid bag of a night-cap than in it, scrawled upon a wall with his finger dipped in muddy wine-lees—blood.
This passage forebodes darkly the chaos that is shortly to befall Paris. The peasants suffer physical hunger as for decades they have not had enough to eat. But beyond that there is also the hunger for a new order that will give them power to be in control. Her there is the description of the hunger for food; this will later be echoed in the hunger for blood when the revolutionaries sharpen their weapons on the grindstone before setting out on their killing spree.
- Along the Paris streets, the death-carts rumble, hollow and harsh. Six tumbrels carry the day’s wine to La Guillotine. All the devouring and insatiate Monsters imagined since imagination could record itself, are fused in one realization, Guillotine. And yet there is not in France, with its rich variety of soil and climate, a blade, a leaf, a root, a sprig, a peppercorn, which will grow to maturity under conditions more certain than those that have produced this horror. Crush humanity out of shape once more, under similar hammers, and it will twist itself into the same tortured forms. Sow the same seed of rapacious license and oppression over again, and it will surely yield the same fruit according to its kind.
Dickens’s ambivalence towards the French Revolution becomes clear in this passage. He says that violence and oppression beget violence and oppression. Till now it was the peasants who were at the receiving end. Now it is the turn of the aristocrats to be oppressed, hunted and put to death. Violence and oppression go in cycles; when the same seed is sown, it yields the same fruit. Violence cannot beget kindness.