illustration of a guillotine

A Tale of Two Cities

by Charles Dickens
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How does the number fifty-two affect the deal that Carton and Solomon Pross (Basard) make in A Tale of Two Cities? I need to explain this in a sentence, but I need a good understanding on this first.

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The number "52" is an allusion to the number of playing cards in a deck. Carton uses the metaphor of a game of cards to describe how he has come to understand Barsad's true identity as a spy in chapter 12, (in book 3). This metaphor returns in chapter 13 in which "52" is also the number of prisoners to be executed in the Conciergerie prison.

Carton's "hand" that he plays against Barsad is his knowledge of his true identity as Solomon Press. His "Ace" is the threat to denounce Barsad as an English spy to the Revolutionary authorities. Barsad's "hand" is much weaker and contains many bad "cards" unknown to Carton, in particular his relationship to Madame Defarge, who he greatly fears. Carton observes that Barsad "scarcely seem[s] to like his hand." Barsad has no choice but to help Carton in his attempt to free Darnay.

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The number fifty-two is the number of cards in a standard card deck. This is tying into Solomon's disreputable reputation as a con man as well as the nature of the risk Sydney is taking in his rescue mission, the stakes being either his own life or the lives of the people he loves most: Lucie Manette and her family.

The card game metaphor is elaborated upon in the scene. When blackmailing Solomon Pross into helping him break into the prison so he can swap places with Darnay, Carton explicitly states he holds "another card" to force Solomon's hand. He makes it seem like the whole affair is a high-stakes poker game.

So, the number fifty-two is mainly meant to signify risk—or perhaps more appropriately, the gambling—Carton is taking by smuggling Darnay out of the prison.

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The number fifty-two alludes to the number of playing cards in a standard deck. In this particular case, the allusion highlights the nature of Carton's daring plan as a risky gamble. Carton is involved in a high-stakes poker game here. And the stakes couldn't be higher: someone's life. His plan is to change places with Charles Darnay—to whom he bears such a close physical resemblance—and sacrifice himself on the guillotine in his stead.

But before he can do that, he needs the assistance of Solomon Pross, whom he then blackmails to assist him in his plot. Both literally and figuratively speaking, Carton has beaten Pross in an elaborate game of cards, and his "prize" for winning is to become one of the fifty-two prisoners in the Conciergerie scheduled to die on the guillotine.

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It is interesting that Darnay uses the number fifty-two for those prisoners of the Conciergerie who must go to their deaths in Chapter XIII of Book the Third.  For, in his meeting with John Barsad, who is really Solomon Pross, Darnay employs the metaphor of a game of cards--which has fifty-two in the deck--being laid down, or played, in his argument that Basard must do as he proposes:

"I hold another card, Mr. Barsad.  Impossible, here in raging Paris, with Suspicion filling the air, for you to outlive denunciation, when you are in communication with another aristocratic spy...who, moreover, has the mystery about him of having feigned death and come to life again! [Roger Cly] A plot in the prisons, of the foreigner against the Republic.  A strong card--a certain Guillotine card!  Do you play?"

Carton, thus, threatens to expose Barsad's past spying as well as his connection to Roger Cly unless he assist Carton in his plan. So, although Barsad says he "throw[s] up" his cards, he must comply or else with Carton's denunciation he will die. Carton's plan, spawned from his love for Lucie and his desire to redeem his dissipated life, is to enter the prison and trade places with Darnay, saving him for Lucie Manette and their daughter. 

In Chapter XIII, "Fifty-Two," then, all the figurative cards having been played, he and the other doomed prisoners of the"black prison" of the Conciergerie, who, significantly, number fifty-two, are brought in tumbrils to the guillotine for execution.

 

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