Skip over navigation

A Tale of Two Cities

Charles Dickens

Study Questions & Essay Topics

Key Facts

Quiz

Study Questions

1.

Discuss at least one way in which Dickens parallels the personal and the political in A Tale of Two Cities.

In his dual focus on the French Revolution and the individual lives of his characters, Dickens draws many comparisons between the historical developments taking place and the characters’ triumphs and travails. Perhaps the most direct example of this parallel comes in the final chapter of the novel, in which Dickens matches Sydney Carton’s death with the French Revolution’s most frenzied violence, linking the two through the concept of resurrection.

Throughout the novel, Carton struggles to free himself from a life of apathy and meaninglessness while the French lower classes fight for political emancipation. Each of these struggles involves death—Carton decides to give his life so that Charles Darnay may escape, and the revolutionaries make a spectator sport out of the execution of aristocrats. Still, each struggle holds the promise of renewed life. Nowhere is this promise more evident than in the prophecy that the narrator ascribes to Carton at the novel’s end. Here, Carton envisions a new city rising up from the ashes of the ruined Paris as clearly as he sees Lucie, Darnay, and their son celebrating and extending his life as a man of worth and honor. Dickens thus closes his novel with a note of triumphant hope both political and personal.

2.

One of the novel’s most important motifs is the figure of the double. What is the effect of Dickens’s doubling technique? Does he use doubles to draw contrasts, comparisons, or both?

From early on in the novel, various characters seemed paired as opposites. Darnay, for instance, appears capable and accomplished, while Carton seems lazy and lacks ambition. Similarly, Miss Pross represents respectable English order while Madame Defarge embodies its opposite: hot-blooded revolution. As the novel progresses, however, these doubled characters come to relate more as twins than as opposites. Both Carton and Darnay share a common love for Lucie, and Lucie exerts a power over Carton that enables him to shed his skin as a “jackal” and adopt a life that actually may exceed Darnay’s in terms of devotion and heroism. A common ground exists even between Miss Pross and Madame Defarge. The two women share a sense of uncompromising duty, as becomes manifest in their confrontation in Lucie’s apartment. Miss Pross proves as fiercely devoted to Lucie’s life and safety as Madame Defarge is to the idea of a new French Republic purged of all aristocrats. Each is willing to give up her life for her beliefs. In revealing these resemblances, Dickens suggests that even seeming opposites can possess underlying similarities. This gesture, along with Dickens’s inclusion of multiple coincidences in his plot, contributes to the author’s larger message that human beings inhabit a world of multiple hidden patterns and connections.

3.

Discuss Dickens’s use of foreshadowing in A Tale of Two Cities.

Dickens makes frequent use of foreshadowing, as it allows him to build suspense throughout his narrative and imbue it with a haunting atmosphere. He fills the novel with details that anticipate future events. For example, the wine cask breaking in the street and the echoing footsteps that can be heard in the Manettes’ apartment hint to the reader about the imminence of the great and violent mob that eventually overtakes Paris. In this way, the reader becomes more aware of the situation than Dickens’s characters and feels ever more emotionally and psychologically involved in the narrative. Given that Dickens published A Tale of Two Cities in short, weekly installments, this technique was a particularly effective means of sustaining the reader’s interest in the novel. The reader was teased by hints of terrific events on the horizon and satisfied only by reading (and first buying) further installments.

Suggested Essay Topics

1. Some critics charge that Dickens, in much of his work, failed to create meaningful characters because he exaggerated them to parodic extremes. Do you find this a fair assessment of his characterization in A Tale of Two Cities? Does the author’s use of caricature detract from his novel’s ability to speak to human nature?

2. Dickens relies heavily on coincidence to fuel the plot of A Tale of Two Cities: letters are found bearing crucial infor-mation, for example, and long-lost brothers are discovered in crowded public places. Do such incidents strengthen or weaken the plot and overall themes of the novel?

3. Discuss Dickens’s attitude toward the French Revolution. Does he sympathize with the revolutionaries?

4. Based on Dickens’s portrayals of the villainous characters in his novel (particularly Madame Defarge), what conclusions might the reader draw about the author’s notions of human evil? Does he seem to think that people are born evil? If so, do they lack the ability to change? Or does he suggest that circumstances drive human beings to their acts of cruelty?

More Help

Previous Next
Doubles

by Scrapycoco, December 18, 2012

Charles Darnay= Charles Dickens
Jerry Cruncher= Jesus Christ

8 Comments

64 out of 272 people found this helpful

Paradox

by kaykay2016, February 25, 2013

Book the First: Chapter 1: The first sentence is an amazing paradox!!!

2 Comments

18 out of 33 people found this helpful

Trailer

by whathastheworldcometo, March 25, 2013

I found a great summary trailer of A Tale of Two Cities on Youtube! >> http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LA10a83qY6A

0 Comments

6 out of 12 people found this helpful

See all 10 readers' notes   →

Follow Us