How does Charles Dickens describe human beings in Book I of A Tale of Two Cities?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In Chapter 3 of Book the First of A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens appears to digress from his narrative; however, he really furthers his theme of dualities.  For, he mentions that what we know of people may not be what they actually are.

A wonderful [meaning cause for wonder] fact to reflect upon, that every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other.  A solemn consideration, when I enter a great city by night, that every one of those darkly clustered houses encloses its own secret; that every room in every one of them encloses its own secret; that every beating heart in the hundreds of thousands of breasts ther, is, in some of its imaginings a secret to the heart nearest it!

In short, people are inscrutable, even those that are closest to one--even the "my neighbour, my love, the darling of my soul." 

This inscrutable nature of human beings is what Jerry Cruncher ponders as he returns to London with the abstruse message of "Recalled to Life."  In the coach "with the three passengers shut up in the narrow compass" of the coach they "were mysteries to one another, as complete as if each had been in his own coach and six...."  This motif of people not knowing or understanding each other later manifests itself in the duality of Dr. Manette, Sydney Carton, Charles Darnay, Madame Defarge, and John Barsad.


teachersage eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In Book I of A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens describes humans as full of secrets and fundamentally unknowable. While he begins the novel with a reference to kings and queens, comparing the respective monarchs of England and France, by chapter three he notes that secrets are a common bond that unite all humankind; this "inheritance" of human mysteriousness levels all class distinctions:

the messenger on horseback had exactly the same possessions [of secret, inscrutable depths] as the King, the first Minister of State, or the richest merchant in London.

Dickens earlier likens this mysterious, unknowable quality in humans to death, also commonly referred to in literature as the great leveler since everyone will die. As death makes humans unknowable, says Dickens, so do their secrets. 

Human unknowability, death, and resurrection are all themes of the novel: When Dr. Manette is released from 20 years in prison, it is as if he has been resurrected from the dead. In a sense, Dickens says, all humans are imprisoned: some by physical imprisonment but everyone by their own pasts, by the collective past, and by the inability to fully know the hearts of other people. 

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A Tale of Two Cities

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