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A Tale of Two Cities

Charles Dickens

Book the Third: The Track of a Storm Chapters 11–15

Summary Book the Third: The Track of a Storm Chapters 11–15

The narrator recounts that those who saw Carton die witnessed a peaceful and even prophetic look on his face, and speculates confidently about Carton’s final thoughts: Carton notes the fact that the oppressors in the crowd “have risen on the destruction of the old,” but also realizes that, someday, Paris will recover from these horrors and become beautiful. Also in these imagined last moments, Carton sees Lucie and Darnay with a child named after himself. He sees Manette happy and healthy and sees Lorry living a long and peaceful life. He sees a future in which he holds a special place in their hearts and in the hearts of generations hence. He sees his own name “made illustrious,” and the blots that he threw upon his life fade away. According to the narrator, Carton dies in the knowledge that “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”

I see a beautiful city and a brilliant people rising from this abyss, and, in their struggles to be truly free, . . . I see the evil of this time . . . gradually making expiation for itself and wearing out.

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Read a translation of Chapter 15: The Footsteps Die Out Forever →

Analysis: Chapters 11–15

Dickens uses the figure of Miss Pross to emphasize the power of love. As the devoted servant battles with Madame Defarge, he notes that “the vigorous tenacity of love [is] always so much stronger than hate.” The showdown between the two women serves also as a commentary on social order and revolution. Revolution, as embodied by Madame Defarge, may prove fiercer and wilder, but the social order that Miss Pross represents emerges as stronger and steadier. Although Dickens denounces the cruelty and vengefulness of Madame Defarge, he acknowledges the unavoidable fact of such people’s existence in the world:

And yet there is not in France, with its rich variety of soil and climate, a blade, a leaf, a root, a sprig, a peppercorn, which will grow to maturity under conditions more certain than those that have produced this horror. Crush humanity out of shape once more, under similar hammers, and it will twist itself into the same tortured forms. Sow the same seed of rapacious license and oppression over again, and it will surely yield the same fruit according to its kind.

Yet in noting the prevalence of evil, Dickens also shows an understanding of the processes by which evil arises. Madame Defarge certainly possesses a criminal bloodlust, but Dickens suggests her own tragic past and suffering, rather than any innate ill-will toward humanity, have transformed her into the despicable creature that she has become. As such, Dickens is not so interested in criticizing Madame Defarge specifically as he is in using her as an example of the vices that society perpetrates. Although, at the end of the novel, the narrator, using Carton’s voice, prophesies a restored and replenished France—true to Carlyle’s theory of history in which one era emerges “like a phoenix” out of the ashes of another—A Tale of Two Cities ultimately extends a cautionary word toward its readers. In certain sublime instances—such as Carton’s self-sacrifice—death may beget life, but oppression can beget nothing other than itself.

The novel ends with something of a Christian paradox: life is achieved through death. Carton’s sacrifice of his life enables him to live in a way that he otherwise could not, for this sacrifice—the only means by which Darnay can be saved—assures Carton a place in the hearts of others and allows him to have undertaken one truly meaningful and valuable act before dying. The final passage, in which the narrator imagines and records Carton’s last thoughts, extends Carton’s life beyond the moment of his death. He will live on in Lucie and Darnay, who will feel as deeply connected to him as they do to each other. He will live on in their child, who will bear his name and ambitiously follow a path that might have been Carton’s own. Generations to come will honor his memory, endowing him with a glory that he could never have enjoyed had he continued living as Stryver’s disaffected and drunken assistant. Carton’s death emphasizes one of the novel’s simpler philosophies—that love conquers all. Carton’s love for Lucie allows him to overcome not only the purposelessness of his life but also his own death. Moreover, the event constitutes a Victorian ending, in that it provides the perfect resolution to various characters’ problems. It ensures the continued happiness of Darnay and Lucie and it represents the redemption of the once spiritually aimless Carton.

The closing shift from third-person narration to the first-person supposed thoughts of Sydney Carton creates a powerful effect—it is as if Carton’s beautiful act transcends even the narrator’s control over the story. Indeed, the stunningly philosophical words that the narrator ascribes to Carton mirror Carton’s quasi-religious ascension into the realm of the sublime. In his repetition of the phrase “I see” over the second to last four paragraphs, Dickens uses anaphora, a rhetorical device in which a phrase recurs at the beginning of successive clauses. These paragraphs then culminate in the spiritually edifying and uplifting anaphora of “It is a far, far better thing” and “It is a far, far better rest.” This device lends the closing passages a soothing, peaceful tone, and, in its repetition, evokes the language of prayer and reverence. The harmony between the style and content of these final paragraphs leaves the reader with a feeling of complete resolution.