Which moral themes are present in Charles Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities?

One moral theme present in Charles Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities is the possibility of redemption. Another important theme is the necessity of compassion. Both of these have strong textual evidence to back them up.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The two main moral themes in A Tale of Two Cities are the possibility of redemption and the importance of compassion.

The redemption theme is most obvious in the arc of Sydney Carton, whose love for Lucie Manette is entirely selfless. He knows she prefers Charles Darnay to him and...

Unlock
This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Start your 48-Hour Free Trial

The two main moral themes in A Tale of Two Cities are the possibility of redemption and the importance of compassion.

The redemption theme is most obvious in the arc of Sydney Carton, whose love for Lucie Manette is entirely selfless. He knows she prefers Charles Darnay to him and accepts this, neither guilting her into loving him or viewing Darnay as an enemy. When Darnay is condemned to death by the revolutionary court, Carton could have had Lucie to himself, but instead, he chooses to die in the place of his rival because he knows Lucie will be happier with Darnay than with him. His selflessness and love redeem him from a life wasted on alcoholic binges.

Compassion is the other great moral theme of the book. Dickens portrays the French Revolution as the end result of centuries of the aristocracy treating the lower classes as playthings at best and of no value at worst. The injustices suffered by the peasant classes—including manslaughter, rape, and theft—accumulate until the peasants refuse to take the abuse any longer. Dickens seems to say that had they been treated like human beings, the revolution would never have happened.

The most morally upstanding characters in the novel are the compassionate ones. Lucie has great compassion for both her mentally damaged father and for Darnay when he is initially accused of treason. Dr. Manette's compassion for the young peasant woman raped by the St. Evermonde twins is what lands him in the Bastille.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

As others have mentioned, redemption is undoubtedly one of the prevalent moral themes in Charles Dickens’ classic. The fact that Sydney Carton, whose main motivator in life has been to get to his next alcoholic beverage, ends up sacrificing his life by taking advantage of the fact that he and Charles Darnay look similar enough that he can get off the hook is evidence of this. He has done nothing of worth with his life, but makes up for this ten-fold when he sacrifices his own life to save the husband of the woman who he is in love with.

I would argue that willingness to help a friend is another great moral theme in this book. When Dr. Manette and Lucie first learned that Darnay had been imprisoned in Paris, the rushed their to help secure his release. Unfortunately, he was rearrested and sentenced to death, which set the stage for Sydney Carton’s sacrifice.

On the topic of sacrifice, it seems that just about everybody has made some sort of sacrifice to allow Lucie and Charles Darnay to be together, and so this becomes another moral theme. Despite Darnay’s family history, Dr. Manette puts his feelings aside and gives his blessing to Charles’s marriage to his daughter.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Sydney Carton is someone who's led a dissolute lifestyle. A young but not very successful lawyer, he's drifted through life without ever having put down any kind of marker. Overfond of alcohol, Carton seems hell-bent on drinking himself into an early grave.

And yet, due to the extraordinary circumstances of the French Revolution, Carton is able to redeem himself. First of all, he uses his strong physical resemblance to Charles Darnay to get him off a trumped-up charge of sedition. Later on, in a remarkably selfless act of heroism, he takes Darnay's place at the guillotine, sacrificing his life for a friend.

No one, least of all Carton himself, would've thought that such a dissolute young rake could be capable of such redemption. And yet the unique circumstances of this cataclysmic event in world history have conspired to create the circumstances for a nobody to become somebody.

Up until his last few moments at the guillotine, Carton had always despised himself for leading such a meaningless life and dissipating his energies. But now, for the first time in his life, he can be proud of himself. He stands redeemed before the world, a man about to be utterly transformed by the supreme sacrifice he's soon to make.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

One of the moral themes of the story is that love involves sacrifice.  Dr. Manette supports Lucie’s marriage to Charles Darnay despite his family history.  Sydney Carton not only did not pursue the love of his life, but even switched places with her husband so that they could be together.  These are examples of devotion that go beyond the ordinary.

Dr. Manette spent years in prison because of the Marquis St. Evremonde, and the experience left him with a severe case of post-traumatic stress disorder.  When he found out that his daughter was about to marry the nephew of the man who sent him to prison, he remained very stoic.  He refused to even discuss the matter.  He made sure that his daughter knew nothing about it, and timed his mental relapse so that it occurred during their honeymoon.  By the time the couple returned, he was more or less back to normal.

It must have been difficult for Dr. Manette to watch his daughter marry the man who was essentially the new Marquis St. Evremonde.  He let her do it because she loved him.  He also said nothing to her because he did not want to hurt her.  He knew that he was fragile, and he made sure that they were not around when he fell apart.

Another example of love and sacrifice is found in Sydney Carton.  He was deeply in love with Lucie, but it was a one-sided love.  He was well aware that there was no way he could be with her, so he found small ways to be in her life.  He just wanted to make her happy. 

The biggest sacrifice he made for her was his life.  When Darnay went back to France (another example of sacrifice, since he did it to save Gabelle), he was arrested and sentenced to death.  Sydney Carton used the coincidence of their similar appearances to trade places with Darnay and go to his death, making the ultimate sacrifice for the woman he loved.  His actions are immortalized in the famous last lines of the novel.

"It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known." (Book 3, Ch. 15)

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team