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 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.