What claim can be made comparing motif or major theme of opening passages of Book I Chapter I and Book III Chapter I of A Tale of Two Cities?

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teachsuccess eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Hello! You asked what claim can be made comparing the motif or major theme of opening passages of Book 1/Chapter 1 and Book III/Chapter 1 of 'A Tale Of Two Cities.'

I would say that the motif of duality/doubles supports a strong theme of revolution in both chapters.

In Book 1/Chapter 1, the background for revolution is set when we are told that the ruling monarchs of both England and France are blissfully unaware or dismissive of the underlying strain of dissatisfaction, misery and anger among the populace in both countries. They 'carried their divine rights with a high hand.'

In both countries it was clearer than crystal to the lords of the State preserves of loaves and fishes, that things in general were settled for ever.

The motif of duality is presented by Dickens as a way to draw our attention to the theme of revolution in England and France. The background is set in Book 1/Chapter 1 when we hear of a youth sentenced 'to have his hands cut off, his tongue torn out with pincers, and his body burned alive, because he had not kneeled down in the rain to do honour to a dirty procession of monks,' in France. Meanwhile, in England, justice is meted out in an equally haphazard and ludicrous manner when 'the hangman, ever busy and ever worse than useless,' metes out the same death to both an 'atrocious murderer' and a 'wretched pilferer who had robbed a farmer's boy of sixpence.' In both countries, the populace is burdened by countless miscarriages of justice. Book III/Chapter 1 continues the theme of revolution: the French populace are fighting back with their own form of justice. Again here, the motif of duality is presented for us in the contrast between Darnay, an aristocrat and the surrounding populace:

'...a man in good clothes should be going to prison, was no more remarkable than that a labourer in working clothes should be going to work.'

Why this duality? While Dickens seems sympathetic to the cause of the revolutionaries in France, he shies away from the French revolutionary penchant for the same senseless brutality and ferocious violence characteristic of the ruling monarchs and aristocratic classes in that country. While in France, a 'certain movable framework with sack and knife in it, terrible in history' tells of of the quiet building of the guillotine, the English rebellion is led by 'a congress of British subjects in America.' This duality contrasts the different approaches to revolution in both countries.

Through the motif of duality undergirding the theme of revolution in both chapters, Dickens portrays for us the terrible mistake the French revolutionaries made: the guillotine only served to further the miserable despair of indiscriminate violence with no real solution in sight (In Book 3/Chapter 1, Darnay is imprisoned only because he is an aristocrat, a member of the hated ruling class.) France needed liberty and a framework for effective rebellion; it needed a strong government which protected the rights of all, whether rich or poor. Instead, unhappy France discarded the national faith along with the rules of decency in favor of wholesale violence in its desperation for much needed relief; as a result, it reaped further misery and degradation.

Thanks for the question!

Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I think that one claim which can be made in comparing the opening passages of both books is how Dickens emphasizes a duality within human consciousness.  Dickens uses the motif of duality to develop both sections.  In the opening passage of Book I, Dickens opens with his often quoted sentiment of how consciousness is formed through duality of being in the world:

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-...

Dickens emphasizes this condition of duality by underscoring its political reality in both England and France where the former had a "king with a large jaw and a queen with a plain face," while in France, "there were a king with a large jaw and a queen with a fair face."  The duality of hope and sadness, happiness and despair, "light" and "darkness," governs what Dickens comes to define as the human experience.  The opening of Book I stresses how duality is an embedded part of human consciousness.  Dickens opens with the duality of life in order to establish the basic theme of the novel.  This will be furthered with the characterizations of Carton and Darnay and the bifurcation of their lives.  

This motif of duality is going to unify the work.  It is seen in the opening to Book III.  Dickens uses the opening of Book III to display the duality within human nature.  He employs the metaphor of the city and how it possesses "its own secret" to exhibit how there might be something subterranean that defines the essence of being:

"...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 there, is, in some of its imaginings, a secret to the heart nearest it..."

This theme of duality is evident in the work.  It exists beneath the surface. It forces individuals to see more than what is present.  It is seen in how characters interact with one another and how Dickens interacts with them. The idea of a "darkly clustered house" can describe how Carton ends up challenging the reader's preconceived notions.  It can also establish how human beings can be more than originally envisioned.  The duality that defines Europe in 1775 forces individuals to view themselves and their world through a prism of complexity.  Dickens seeks to repudiate simplistic notions of the good, such as Madame Defarge's desire for revenge and political structures that fail to acknowledge a dualistic condition.  The motif of dualism is something that unifies the opening passages of both books.

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A Tale of Two Cities

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