A Tale of Two Cities Questions and Answers
by Charles Dickens

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How are contrasts used in Charles Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities to convey the theme of morality?

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nomannoman eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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The title of Dickens's novel reflects the contrasting themes of the text. The two cities represent two smaller worlds or microcosms. London and Paris are in direct contrast, as well as a small ocean apart: London is in a state of peace, whereas Paris is at war. Even the kings of each country are contrasted. (Look at their descriptions on the first page of chapter 1.) The complex relationships in the cities are the perfect backdrop for the duality and otherness of many of the characters, as well as their moral choices. We see, for example, that the opulence of the Parisian nobility does not make them morally superior. The Marquis is nonchalant about his killing of a small peasant child in chapter 8. This contrast between the two classes is striking: it is this opposition, after all, that sparks the French Revolution of the late eighteenth century.

From the very first paragraph, Dickens takes us into this world of contrasts and doubles of "best" and...

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Dickens opens his novel with, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way." This opening brims with contrasts, allowing Dickens to weave his tale of the French Revolution and the Jacobin reign of terror that followed.

One major contrast in this book plays out in Dickens's choice to use Paris and London as dual settings. The cities themselves differ in terms of fashion and mannerisms. Additionally, during these two periods, Paris represented the dregs of cultural demise. London claimed to live a much more civilized existence because even though its poor suffered, no one engaged in mass public executions in an ill-fated attempt to right society's wrongs. Yet underneath the surface, readers will see a moral depravity lurking in both cities, so described in the line, "...we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way." That is why the use of contrasts proves so important in this book. In addition to showing actual contrasts, it also clues readers into the similarities of what is being compared in both the Light and the Darkness.