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.
More characters from A Tale of Two Cities