A Tale of Two Cities

by: Charles Dickens

Charles Darnay and Lucie Manette

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.