What is Madame Defarge's role in the story in A Tale of Two Cities? My teacher has asked us to write a character analysis on the role of Madame Defarge in A Tale of Two Cities. I am very...

What is Madame Defarge's role in the story in A Tale of Two Cities?

My teacher has asked us to write a character analysis on the role of Madame Defarge in A Tale of Two Cities. I am very confused. Her role in the story is the wife of a wine shopkeeper and she keeps records of the victims through her knitting; however, I do not know how to dive into the topic and thesis. Please help and give me some ideas. 

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Of all Charles Dickens's works, A Tale of Two Cities has the least development of character, and Madame Defarge is no exception. While she does, indeed, act along with La Vengeance as symbolic of the revolutionaries, as a character, Madame Defarge is one of the great villains of Western literature. And, like many villains, Madame Defarge is a stock character. A sinister figure who responds only cryptically while menacingly knitting names into the death list, Madame Defarge has the proverbial "one-track mind": She is bent solely on revenge and uses the Revolution as a medium for her personal vendetta although she has said that there is nothing personal about her involvement in the revolution.

In Book the Third, Chapter XII, then, after her husband has witnessed the testimony of the prisoner of the Bastille, Dr. Manette, for whom he once was a servant, he asks his wife if Manette has not suffered enough. At this point Therese de Farge reveals her personal history to her husband,

"...that sister of the mortally wounded boy upon the ground was my sister, that husband was my sister's husband, that unborn child was their child, that brother was my brother, that father was my father, those dead are my dead, and that summons to answer for those things descend to me! Ask him is that so?"

"It is so," assented Defarge once more.

"Then tell Wind and Fire where to stop."

Madame de Farge is a terrible force of fate, the "Avenging Angel" in her deadly wrath. For, she has lived with the sole purpose of wreaking her revenge upon the Evremonde family.

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litteacher8's profile pic

litteacher8 | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Madame Defarge’s role in the story is as a symbol of the destructive power of holding a grudge.

You are correct that Madame Defarge’s role as a character is to serve as the wine shopkeeper’s wife and the keeper the names in her knitting.  However, this practical function in the story also serves a higher purpose for the story thematically.  Over the years, Madame Defarge has been nursing more than her knitting—she has been nursing a grudge.

There was a character about Madame Defarge, from which one might have predicated that she did not often make mistakes against herself in any of the reckonings over which she presided. (Book 1; Ch. 5)

Madame Defarge has a history.  She did not get involved in the revolution by accident.  In fact, her association with the Manettes is not an accident.  Notice that she is introduced in Book 1, in the story’s exposition.  She’s an important character.  She is part of recalling Dr. Manette to life.  She is actually part of his back story.  Her sister was raped by the Marquis St. Evremonde.  This is the incident that Dr. Manette was called to.

The symbolism of Madame Defarge’s knitting is not to be discounted.  She represents the entire rebellion, and not just her own grudge but the careful planning that went into every step.  A rebellion does not happen overnight.  With each name she knitted, she was one step closer.  Symbolically, the rebellion was planned.

It was additionally disconcerting to have madame knitting all the way there in a public conveyance… to have madame in the crowd in the afternoon, still with her knitting in her hands as the crowd waited to see the carriage of the King and Queen. (Book 2, Ch 15)

Madame Defarge’s symbolic value to the story contributes to the themes of revenge, greed, and the destructive nature of passion.  Madame Defarge has not had an easy life.  She is single-minded and focused on one goal.  She is herself a symbol of the rebellion, and of a long-festering grudge.

Although Madame Defarge functions in the plot by being the center of the rebellion, giving the Jaques a place to hang out and collude, and storing names in her knitting, and recalling Dr. Manette to life, she also contributes to the latter end of the plot when the Darnay-Manette clan returns to France, and she even targets Lucy and Charles’s little daughter.  This is a demonstration of how her desire for vengeance runs so deep that it has clouded her judgement.  Thus Madame Defarge functions both practical and symbolic roles in the novel.

Here is a short video about the characters and their relationships:

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