A Tale of Two Cities
Themes, Motifs & Symbols
Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The Ever-Present Possibility of Resurrection
With A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens asserts his belief in the possibility of resurrection and transformation, both on a personal level and on a societal level. The narrative suggests that Sydney Carton’s death secures a new, peaceful life for Lucie Manette, Charles Darnay, and even Carton himself. By delivering himself to the guillotine, Carton ascends to the plane of heroism, becoming a Christ-like figure whose death serves to save the lives of others. His own life thus gains meaning and value. Moreover, the final pages of the novel suggest that, like Christ, Carton will be resurrected—Carton is reborn in the hearts of those he has died to save. Similarly, the text implies that the death of the old regime in France prepares the way for the beautiful and renewed Paris that Carton supposedly envisions from the guillotine. Although Carton spends most of the novel in a life of indolence and apathy, the supreme selflessness of his final act speaks to a human capacity for change. Although the novel dedicates much time to describing the atrocities committed both by the aristocracy and by the outraged peasants, it ultimately expresses the belief that this violence will give way to a new and better society.
Dickens elaborates his theme with the character of Doctor Manette. Early on in the novel, Lorry holds an imaginary conversation with him in which he says that Manette has been “recalled to life.” As this statement implies, the doctor’s eighteen-year imprisonment has constituted a death of sorts. Lucie’s love enables Manette’s spiritual renewal, and her maternal cradling of him on her breast reinforces this notion of rebirth.
The Necessity of Sacrifice
Connected to the theme of the possibility of resurrection is the notion that sacrifice is necessary to achieve happiness. Dickens examines this second theme, again, on both a national and personal level. For example, the revolutionaries prove that a new, egalitarian French republic can come about only with a heavy and terrible cost—personal loves and loyalties must be sacrificed for the good of the nation. Also, when Darnay is arrested for the second time, in Book the Third, Chapter 7, the guard who seizes him reminds Manette of the primacy of state interests over personal loyalties. Moreover, Madame Defarge gives her husband a similar lesson when she chastises him for his devotion to Manette—an emotion that, in her opinion, only clouds his obligation to the revolutionary cause. Most important, Carton’s transformation into a man of moral worth depends upon his sacrificing of his former self. In choosing to die for his friends, Carton not only enables their happiness but also ensures his spiritual rebirth.
The Tendency Toward Violence and Oppression in Revolutionaries
Throughout the novel, Dickens approaches his historical subject with some ambivalence. While he supports the revolutionary cause, he often points to the evil of the revolutionaries themselves. Dickens deeply sympathizes with the plight of the French peasantry and emphasizes their need for liberation. The several chapters that deal with the Marquis Evrémonde successfully paint a picture of a vicious aristocracy that shamelessly exploits and oppresses the nation’s poor. Although Dickens condemns this oppression, however, he also condemns the peasants’ strategies in overcoming it. For in fighting cruelty with cruelty, the peasants effect no true revolution; rather, they only perpetuate the violence that they themselves have suffered. Dickens makes his stance clear in his suspicious and cautionary depictions of the mobs. The scenes in which the people sharpen their weapons at the grindstone and dance the grisly Carmagnole come across as deeply macabre. Dickens’s most concise and relevant view of revolution comes in the final chapter, in which he notes the slippery slope down from the oppressed to the oppressor: “Sow the same seed of rapacious license and oppression over again, and it will surely yield the same fruit according to its kind.” Though Dickens sees the French Revolution as a great symbol of transformation and resurrection, he emphasizes that its violent means were ultimately antithetical to its end.
Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, and literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
The novel’s opening words (“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. . . .”) immediately establish the centrality of doubles to the narrative. The story’s action divides itself between two locales, the two cities of the title. Dickens positions various characters as doubles as well, thus heightening the various themes within the novel. The two most important females in the text function as diametrically opposed doubles: Lucie is as loving and nurturing as Madame Defarge is hateful and bloodthirsty. Dickens then uses this opposition to make judgments and thematic assertions. Thus, for example, while Lucie’s love initiates her father’s spiritual transformation and renewal, proving the possibility of resurrection, Madame Defarge’s vengefulness only propagates an infinite cycle of oppression, showing violence to be self-perpetuating.
Dickens’s doubling technique functions not only to draw oppositions, but to reveal hidden parallels. Carton, for example, initially seems a foil to Darnay; Darnay as a figure reminds him of what he could have been but has failed to become. By the end of the novel, however, Carton transforms himself from a good-for-nothing to a hero whose goodness equals or even surpasses that of the honorable Darnay. While the two men’s physical resemblance initially serves only to underscore Carton’s moral inferiority to Darnay, it ultimately enables Carton’s supremely self-elevating deed, allowing him to disguise himself as the condemned Darnay and die in his place. As Carton goes to the guillotine in his double’s stead, he raises himself up to, or above, Darnay’s virtuous status.
Shadows and Darkness
Shadows dominate the novel, creating a mood of thick obscurity and grave foreboding. An aura of gloom and apprehension surrounds the first images of the actual story—the mail coach’s journey in the dark and Jerry Cruncher’s emergence from the mist. The introduction of Lucie Manette to Jarvis Lorry furthers this motif, as Lucie stands in a room so darkened and awash with shadows that the candlelight seems buried in the dark panels of the walls. This atmosphere contributes to the mystery surrounding Lorry’s mission to Paris and Manette’s imprisonment. It also manifests Dickens’s observations about the shadowy depths of the human heart. As illustrated in the chapter with the appropriate subheading “The Night Shadows,” every living person carries profound secrets and mysteries that will never see the light of day. Shadows continue to fall across the entire novel. The vengeful Madame Defarge casts a shadow on Lucie and all of her hopes, as emphasized in Book the Third, Chapter 5. As Lucie stands in the pure, fresh snow, Madame Defarge passes by “like a shadow over the white road.” In addition, the letter that Defarge uses to condemn Darnay to death throws a crippling shadow over the entire family; fittingly, the chapter that reveals the letter’s contents bears the subheading “The Substance of the Shadow.”
Almost all of the characters in A Tale of Two Cities fight against some form of imprisonment. For Darnay and Manette, this struggle is quite literal. Both serve significant sentences in French jails. Still, as the novel demonstrates, the memories of what one has experienced prove no less confining than the walls of prison. Manette, for example, finds himself trapped, at times, by the recollection of life in the Bastille and can do nothing but revert, trembling, to his pathetic shoemaking compulsion. Similarly, Carton spends much of the novel struggling against the confines of his own personality, dissatisfied with a life that he regards as worthless.
Symbols are objects, characters, figures, and colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
The Broken Wine Cask
With his depiction of a broken wine cask outside Defarge’s wine shop, and with his portrayal of the passing peasants’ scrambles to lap up the spilling wine, Dickens creates a symbol for the desperate quality of the people’s hunger. This hunger is both the literal hunger for food—the French peasants were starving in their poverty—and the metaphorical hunger for political freedoms. On the surface, the scene shows the peasants in their desperation to satiate the first of these hungers. But it also evokes the violent measures that the peasants take in striving to satisfy their more metaphorical cravings. For instance, the narrative directly associates the wine with blood, noting that some of the peasants have acquired “a tigerish smear about the mouth” and portraying a drunken figure scrawling the word “blood” on the wall with a wine-dipped finger. Indeed, the blood of aristocrats later spills at the hands of a mob in these same streets.
Throughout the novel, Dickens sharply criticizes this mob mentality, which he condemns for perpetrating the very cruelty and oppression from which the revolutionaries hope to free themselves. The scene surrounding the wine cask is the novel’s first tableau of the mob in action. The mindless frenzy with which these peasants scoop up the fallen liquid prefigures the scene at the grindstone, where the revolutionaries sharpen their weapons (Book the Third, Chapter 2), as well as the dancing of the macabre Carmagnole (Book the Third, Chapter 5).
Madame Defarge’s Knitting
Even on a literal level, Madame Defarge’s knitting constitutes a whole network of symbols. Into her needlework she stitches a registry, or list of names, of all those condemned to die in the name of a new republic. But on a metaphoric level, the knitting constitutes a symbol in itself, representing the stealthy, cold-blooded vengefulness of the revolutionaries. As Madame Defarge sits quietly knitting, she appears harmless and quaint. In fact, however, she sentences her victims to death. Similarly, the French peasants may appear simple and humble figures, but they eventually rise up to massacre their oppressors.
Dickens’s knitting imagery also emphasizes an association between vengefulness and fate, which, in Greek mythology, is traditionally linked to knitting or weaving. The Fates, three sisters who control human life, busy themselves with the tasks of weavers or seamstresses: one sister spins the web of life, another measures it, and the last cuts it. Madame Defarge’s knitting thus becomes a symbol of her victims’ fate—death at the hands of a wrathful peasantry.
The Marquis Evrémonde is less a believable character than an archetype of an evil and corrupt social order. He is completely indifferent to the lives of the peasants whom he exploits, as evidenced by his lack of sympathy for the father of the child whom his carriage tramples to death. As such, the Marquis stands as a symbol of the ruthless aristocratic cruelty that the French Revolution seeks to overcome.
by Scrapycoco, December 18, 2012
Charles Darnay= Charles Dickens
Jerry Cruncher= Jesus Christ
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by kaykay2016, February 25, 2013
Book the First: Chapter 1: The first sentence is an amazing paradox!!!
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