Essays and Criticism
Critical Analysis of A Tale of Two Cites
With its famous opening line "it was the best of times, it was the worst of times," A Tale of Two Cities was plainly intended by Dickens as a study in dramatic contrasts. Clear-cut polarities furnish this story of individuals caught in the maelstrom of the French Revolution with its central dynamic. Portraying events that take place over nearly two decades, the novel's setting shifts from the repression of autocratic rule and the impassioned violence it unleashes in Paris to the rule of law and the humane concern in London as a (temporarily) safe haven. The author's over-arching message arises in the context of sharp contrasts between chaos and order, light and dark, hope and despair, heaven and hell. This is a work that is essentially devoid of all ambiguity, one in which the good characters are without moral blemish, while the evil ones are without redeeming qualities. But A Tale of Two Cities is also open-ended. Its uplifting outcome pivots upon miracles of personal resurrection and self-sacrifice, as the author insists that nothing short of spiritual renewal can prevent his own society from suffering the type of upheaval that erupted across the English Channel at the end of the eighteenth century.
The theme of duality is manifest in Dickens's recourse to the device of twinned characters. Charles Darnay's father and his uncle are, of course, biological twins, and the elder St. Evermondes are indistinguishable in their haughty cruelty. It is, however, the close physical resemblance between Darnay and the world-weary lawyer Sidney Carton that the author exploits to the utmost. Unjustly accused of treason, Darnay's case in London appears to be lost until his attorney, Mr. Stryker, discredits the testimony of an eyewitness by challenging him to discriminate between the defendant and Carton. The uncanny physical likeness between the two men surfaces again in the novel's concluding chapters, when Carton substitutes himself for Darnay as a victim of revolutionary justice in France. As personalities, Carton is plainly the more complicated of the two and he is far more competent than his well-intentioned but consistently ineffective counterpart. Yet both men are in love with the exceedingly pure Lucy Manette, a saintly figure whose goodness matches that of Darnay and, at the same time, has the power to transmute Carton from a cynic into a self-sacrificing idealist....
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Obsession with Duality
In a preface to A Tale of Two Cities Dickens described how the idea for the novel came to him when he was playing a role in 1857 in a theatrical production of The Frozen Deep, a play written by his friend Wilkie Collins. In the play a man involved in a love triangle sacrifices his life to save the rival suitor of the woman he loves. Dickens's account of the origins of the novel points to Sydney Carton as the central character of A Tale of Two Cities, although other evidence suggests that other ideas might have played as large a role in the birth of the book. In notebooks as early as 1855 there appear references to the fate of people released after long imprisonment and to the phrase "Buried Alive," which was for a time Dickens's working title for A Tale of Two Cities. "Recalled to Life" became his title for Part I of the novel. This evidence places Dr. Manette's imprisonment center stage. An argument for either character as focal misses Dickens's craft in bringing those two characters—and others—together in the theme of resurrection and renewal, life, death and rebirth in this story of the French Revolution.
The secrecy shadowing the opening chapter, best expressed in the cryptic message "Recalled to Life," attends the effort to retrieve Dr. Manette from the French prison where he has been "buried" for eighteen years. Three times Dickens repeats the following exchange:
"Buried how long?"...
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A Tale of Two Characters: A Study in Multiple Projection
Lucie is basically only one more in the line of Dickensian virgin-heroines whom the critic Edwin Pugh [in The Charles Dickens Originals, 1925] felicitously called "feminanities." Yet, as Professor Edgar Johnson clearly saw [in his book Charles Dickens: His Tragedy and Triumph, Vol. II, 1952], there was a subtle distinction.
Lucie … is given hardly any individual traits at all, although her appearance, as Dickens describes it, is like that of Ellen, "a short, slight, pretty figure, a quantity of golden hair, a pair of blue eyes," and it may be that her one unique physical characteristic was drawn from Ellen too: "a forehead with a singular capacity (remembering how young and smooth it was), of lifting and knitting itself into an expression that was not quite one of perplexity, or wonder, or alarm, though it included all the four expressions." … The fact that Lucie and Dr. Manette at the time of his release from the Bastille are of almost the same age as Ellen and Dickens does not mean that the Doctor's feeling for his daughter is the emotion Dickens felt for the pretty, blue-eyed actress, although the two merge perhaps in his fervent declaration [in his letter protesting the scandal, a letter which he "never meant to be published"] that he knows Ellen to be as "innocent and pure, and as good as my own dear daughter."
But Lucie fails to fit into the pattern of the unattainable dream-virgin...
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A Tale of Two Cities
Charles Dickens was in a driven demoniac state of mind when the idea for A Tale of Two Cities came to him. The bracelet he sent to Ellen Lawless Ternan had fallen into the hands of his wife Kate; and he was determined to end his marriage and to seduce Ellen. But he was in the midst of the rehearsals which had finally brought himself and Ellen together; and he could not pause to think. Amid Kate's tears, Forster's disapproval and a generally unnerving situation, he carried on in his furious possessed fashion, determined to have his own way and yet to keep his hold on the public; and in the midst of this spiritually and physically racked condition, as he was holding back his agony of mind by acting and producing The Frozen Deep, the central idea of the novel burst upon him.
So much we know from his own statement. It is clear then that we should be able to find the imprint of his ordeal, his tormented choice, in the novel. One would expect writers on his work to concentrate on this problem; but so abysmally low is the standard of Dickens criticism that no one has even seriously raised the question at all.
Where then is the imprint of the situation to be traced? By solving this point we can begin to understand what the novel itself is about, and the part it plays in Dickens' development. One general aspect of the selection of theme is at once obvious. The deep nature of the breach he is making with all customary acceptances is...
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