Sydney Carton proves the most dynamic character in A Tale of Two Cities. He first appears as a lazy, alcoholic attorney who cannot muster even the smallest amount of interest in his own life. He describes his existence as a supreme waste of life and takes every opportunity to declare that he cares for nothing and no one. But the reader senses, even in the initial chapters of the novel, that Carton in fact feels something that he perhaps cannot articulate. In his conversation with the recently acquitted Charles Darnay, Carton’s comments about Lucie Manette, while bitter and sardonic, betray his interest in, and budding feelings for, the gentle girl. Eventually, Carton reaches a point where he can admit his feelings to Lucie herself. Before Lucie weds Darnay, Carton professes his love to her, though he still persists in seeing himself as essentially worthless. This scene marks a vital transition for Carton and lays the foundation for the supreme sacrifice that he makes at the novel’s end.
Carton’s death has provided much material for scholars and critics of Dickens’s novel. Some readers consider it the inevitable conclusion to a work obsessed with the themes of redemption and resurrection. According to this interpretation, Carton becomes a Christ-like figure, a selfless martyr whose death enables the happiness of his beloved and ensures his own immortality. Other readers, however, question the ultimate significance of Carton’s final act. They argue that since Carton initially places little value on his existence, the sacrifice of his life proves relatively easy. However, Dickens’s frequent use in his text of other resurrection imagery—his motifs of wine and blood, for example—suggests that he did intend for Carton’s death to be redemptive, whether or not it ultimately appears so to the reader. As Carton goes to the guillotine, the narrator tells us that he envisions a beautiful, idyllic Paris “rising from the abyss” and sees “the evil of this time and of the previous time of which this is the natural birth, gradually making expiation for itself and wearing out.” Just as the apocalyptic violence of the revolution precedes a new society’s birth, perhaps it is only in the sacrifice of his life that Carton can establish his life’s great worth.
Possessing a remorseless bloodlust, Madame Defarge embodies the chaos of the French Revolution. The initial chapters of the novel find her sitting quietly and knitting in the wine shop. However, her apparent passivity belies her relentless thirst for vengeance. With her stitches, she secretly knits a register of the names of the revolution’s intended victims. As the revolution breaks into full force, Madame Defarge reveals her true viciousness. She turns on Lucie in particular, and, as violence sweeps Paris, she invades Lucie’s physical and psychological space. She effects this invasion first by committing the faces of Lucie and her family to memory, in order to add them to her mental “register” of those slated to die in the revolution. Later, she bursts into the young woman’s apartment in an attempt to catch Lucie mourning Darnay’s imminent execution.
Dickens notes that Madame Defarge’s hatefulness does not reflect any inherent flaw, but rather results from the oppression and personal tragedy that she has suffered at the hands of the aristocracy, specifically the Evrémondes, to whom Darnay is related by blood, and Lucie by marriage. However, the author refrains from justifying Madame Defarge’s policy of retributive justice. For just as the aristocracy’s oppression has made an oppressor of Madame Defarge herself, so will her oppression, in turn, make oppressors of her victims. Madame Defarge’s death by a bullet from her own gun—she dies in a scuffle with Miss Pross—symbolizes Dickens’s belief that the sort of vengeful attitude embodied by Madame Defarge ultimately proves a self-damning one.
Dickens uses Doctor Manette to illustrate one of the dominant motifs of the novel: the essential mystery that surrounds every human being. As Jarvis Lorry makes his way toward France to recover Manette, the narrator reflects that “every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other.” For much of the novel, the cause of Manette’s incarceration remains a mystery both to the other characters and to the reader. Even when the story concerning the evil Marquis Evrémonde comes to light, the conditions of Manette’s imprisonment remain hidden. Though the reader never learns exactly how Manette suffered, his relapses into trembling sessions of shoemaking evidence the depth of his misery.
Like Carton, Manette undergoes a drastic change over the course of the novel. He is transformed from an insensate prisoner who mindlessly cobbles shoes into a man of distinction. The contemporary reader tends to understand human individuals not as fixed entities but rather as impressionable and reactive beings, affected and influenced by their surroundings and by the people with whom they interact. In Dickens’s age, however, this notion was rather revolutionary. Manette’s transformation testifies to the tremendous impact of relationships and experience on life. The strength that he displays while dedicating himself to rescuing Darnay seems to confirm the lesson that Carton learns by the end of the novel—that not only does one’s treatment of others play an important role in others’ personal development, but also that the very worth of one’s life is determined by its impact on the lives of others.
Novelist E. M. Forster famously criticized Dickens’s characters as “flat,” lamenting that they seem to lack the depth and complexity that make literary characters realistic and believable. Charles Darnay and Lucie Manette certainly fit this description. A man of honor, respect, and courage, Darnay conforms to the archetype of the hero but never exhibits the kind of inner struggle that Carton and Doctor Manette undergo. His opposition to the Marquis’ snobbish and cruel aristocratic values is admirable, but, ultimately, his virtue proves too uniform, and he fails to exert any compelling force on the imagination.
Along similar lines, Lucie likely seems to modern readers as uninteresting and two-dimensional as Darnay. In every detail of her being, she embodies compassion, love, and virtue; the indelible image of her cradling her father’s head delicately on her breast encapsulates her role as the “golden thread” that holds her family together. She manifests her purity of devotion to Darnay in her unquestioning willingness to wait at a street corner for two hours each day, on the off chance that he will catch sight of her from his prison window. In a letter to Dickens, a contemporary criticized such simplistic characterizations:
The tenacity of your imagination, the vehe-mence and fixity with which you impress your thought into the detail you wish to grasp, limit your knowledge, arrest you in a single feature, prevent you from reaching all the parts of the soul, and from sounding its depths.
While Darnay and Lucie may not act as windows into the gritty essence of humanity, in combination with other characters they contribute to a more detailed picture of human nature. First, they provide the light that counters the vengeful Madame Defarge’s darkness, revealing the moral aspects of the human soul so noticeably absent from Madame Defarge. Second, throughout the novel they manifest a virtuousness that Carton strives to attain and that inspires his very real and believable struggles to become a better person.
Charles Darnay= Charles Dickens
Jerry Cruncher= Jesus Christ
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Book the First: Chapter 1: The first sentence is an amazing paradox!!!
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