What do the color red, water, and Lucie's hair symbolize in the novel "A Tale of Two Cities"?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In "A Tale of Two Cities,"  Chapter 5 of Book I is entitled "The Wine-Shop." It begins,

A large cask of wine had been dropped and broken, in the street...All the people within reach had suspended their business, or their idleness, to run to the spot and drink the wine.....A shrill sound of laughter and of amused voices--voices of men, women, and children--resounded in the street while this wine-game lasted...men with bare arms, matted locks, and cadaverous faces,...emerged into the winter light from cellars...and a gloom gathered on the scene that appeared more natural to it than sunshine.

The wine was red wine, and had stained the ground of the narrow street...in Paris, where it was spilled.  it had stained many hands, too, and many faces,....one tall joker so besmirched...scrawled upon a wall with his finger dipped in muddy wine less--BLOOD....The time was to come, when that wine too would be spilled on the street-stones, and when the stain of it would be red upon many there.

With these last lines of this memorable passage, it is apparent to the reader that Dickens employs foreshadowing with the red wine as a symbol of blood, the blood spilled on the peasants [who later in red hats] watched the murderous beheading of the aristocrats on the guillotine in Paris.  The wine-shop keeper, Monsieur DeFarge and his wife Madame DeFarge--one of the great villains of literature--will soon have the blood of many upon their hands.  Later, too, in the novel, Sydney Carton pours out his brandy "like a man who was done with it."  This action signifies his pouring of his lifeblood for Charles Darnay. 

Still another example of the life/blood symbolism of red comes in the Marquis's remark that the red sun shining "will die out soon."  Since the hands of the Marquis are figuratively red with the blood of the child run over by his carriage, he pays for this murder with his own death.  The villagers meet at the fountain before the death of the Marquis; after his death, the chateau burns, the water boils out of the fountain, followed by molten lead and iron. Thus, water is both a symbol of life and death for Dickens  In his novel, references are made to "unfathomable water" and "the memorable storm" in London with its "sweep of water."  The flooding of water presages the sweeping French Revolution and destruction of life.

Lucie's hair, golden and silken, reminds her poor father of his wife.  Because he has long been in solitary imprisonment,his daughter is unrecognizable to him until he sees her hair; the color of it reminds him of a locket of hair that he keeps around his neck which is a memento of his wife that he took with him to the Bastille when he was arrested. 

As the stereotypical Victorian heroine, Lucy is the perfect lady.  Her "radiant hair" lends her a madonna-like presence.  The father is "saved" by her when he recognizes this hair and begins to return to the memory of his former life.  Dickens entitles a chapter "The Golden Thread" as the "golden-haired doll" as Carton calls her is the connection for several of the male characters from whom she derives strength.


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A Tale of Two Cities

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