Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
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.
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.
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.
The theme of sacrifice is most strongly apparent in Sydney Carton’s decision to take Charles Darnay’s place, even though doing so means being executed. When the seamstress asks Carton if he is dying for the sake of Darnay, Carton agrees, and adds “And his wife and child”. Carton’s love for Lucie and her daughter encourages him to sacrifice himself because her happiness is more important than anything else. As a man who does not have a family of his own, he places more value on Darnay’s life than on his own. Carton is also aware that he has lived an unproductive and dissolute life, and that he has not offered much to the world. Carton believes that his act of sacrifice will redeem everything that has come before, and make his life meaningful. As he reflects to himself, “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done before”.
Social inequality and class conflict are sources of violent disruption and revolution in France. For generations, aristocrats like Monseigneur have thought of nothing else except their own pleasure and luxury. The narrator sarcastically parodies the pretentions of the upper-classes by describing how four servants are involved in serving an aristocrat his morning cup of chocolate, and noting that “Deep would have been the blot upon his escutcheon if his chocolate had been ignobly waited on by only three men”. Not only are the French aristocrats presented as spoiled and lazy, but they are also shown to be heartless and lacking in any regard for the lives of the lower-classes. Monseigneur cruelly tells the working class Parisians that “I would ride over any of you very willingly, and exterminate you from the earth”. The theme of class adds an important element of moral complexity to the novel because Dickens presents both the cruelty of the upper-classes and the brute violence of the lower-classes in equally damning terms.
Justice appears in the novel both in terms of the institutions that are supposed to serve it (courts and so on) as well as something that individuals struggle to achieve outside of those institutions. Justice is represented literally by the series of trials and imprisonments interwoven through the plot, including Doctor Manette’s lengthy imprisonment, Darney’s trial in London, and then his additional imprisonment and trial in France. While these plot episodes feature legal structures that are designed to bring individuals to justice, the courts and prisons largely subject innocent people to suffering. Perhaps because legal forms of justice so often prove incompetent, characters are also very invested in taking justice into their own hands. After Gaspard’s son is killed by the Marquis’s carriage, he knows he will never receive legal justice against a powerful man so he kills the Marquis himself. Likewise, Madame Defarge has been plotting revenge against the Evremonde family for decades because their wealth and status allowed them to commit terrible crimes against her family and evade legal repercussions.