illustration of a guillotine

A Tale of Two Cities

by Charles Dickens

Start Free Trial

Who are the main characters in A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens?

Expert Answers

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

Most likely, Sydney Carton and Charles Darnay, the two near-lookalikes, are the main characters of the book—although Doctor Manette; his daughter, Lucie; Madame Defarge; and Jarvis Lorry are also important characters without whom the plot would not advance.

Despite their physical resemblance to one another, Sydney Carton and Charles Darnay are very different characters morally and in terms of the outlooks on life. Darnay, a former French aristocrat, is an empathetic and understanding person. Sydney Carton, meanwhile, is a complicated character with many unappealing characteristics, including his excessive drinking and his general sense of apathy. He does not really apply himself to the practice of law, and he seems to have no ambition. In fact, early in the book, Dickens describes him as “Sydney Carton, idlest and most unpromising of men.”

Sydney is resentful and often unpleasant. When Stryver tells Sydney to get back to work, he does so “sullenly enough,” apparently angry at having to do a day’s honest labor. He would probably prefer to be at the bar drinking instead.

He is also so blasé that he is seemingly indifferent to the world around him. For instance, Dickens says that when he visited Doctor Manette’s home, he “had always been the same moody and morose lounger there.” Conversely, Doctor Manette and Lucie are always happy to see Charles Darnay and long for his visits.

Sydney regards Charles Darnay with a certain amount of respect, as well as envy and even resentment. Sydney tells Darnay,

“I am a disappointed drudge, sir. I care for no man on earth, and no man on earth cares for me.”

“Much to be regretted. You might have used your talents better.”

This line from Darnay causes Carton to question how little he has accomplished in life. He knows that he could have reached greater potential if he had not been so dissolute. He questions his feelings about Darnay. Regarding himself in the mirror, he wonders,

A good reason for taking to a man, that he shows you what you have fallen away from, and what you might have been! ... Come on, and have it out in plain words! You hate the fellow.

Eventually, Carton’s love for Lucie Manette causes him to sacrifice himself for her sake so that she can live with Charles Darnay, whom she loves and has married. Sydney Carton takes his lookalike's place at Darnay’s execution with the brave words that end the book,

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.

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

In Charles Dickens's A Tale of Two Citiesthe main characters are the following:

  1. Sydney Carton
  2. Madame Defarge                       
  3. Jarvis Lorry
  4. Alexandre Manette
  5. Charles Darnay
  6. Lucie Manette

1. Sydney Carton is the hero of the narrative and the most developed of all the characters. Introduced as a dissipated, unmotivated man who allows his talents to be exploited by C.J. Stryver, Sydney has no purpose to his life. After he meets his look-alike, Charles Darnay, and sees the love in Lucie Manette's eyes for Charles, Carton realizes he squanders his life. Further, because of his love for Lucie, Carton is motivated to accomplish something positive. After declaring his devotion to Lucie, he informs her he will make any sacrifice for her:

For you, and for any dear to you, I would do anything. . . I would embrace any sacrifice for you and for those dear to you. Try to hold me in your mind, at some quiet times, as ardent and sincere in this one thing (Bk. the Second, Chapter 13).

Carton becomes the novel's hero, as he trades places with Darnay in the prison in France during the Revolution and goes to the guillotine in his place.

2. Madame Thérèse Defarge is one of the greatest villains in literature. She is a flat character who has a single focus: an insatiable hunger for revenge against those involved in the abuse and deaths of her family. Even when her husband asks her to allow Dr. Manette to be removed from her death list since he has already suffered so much, she adamantly refuses. Remorseless and filled with hate, she embodies the chaos and blood-lust of the French Revolution.

3. Mr. Jarvis Lorry is a foil character for Dr. Alexandre Manette. The elderly Mr. Lorry is the sanguine voice of reason and stability. He is a moral and honest man, trustworthy and extremely loyal to Manette and his daughter Lucie.

4. Dr. Alexandre Manette is known as prisoner One Hundred and Five North Tower. Dr. Manette is the man who is "recalled to life." He was a well-to-do physician until he is forcibly taken into a carriage by the Evrémonde twins, who are later responsible for the deaths of Madame Defarge's family members. After Dr. Manette treats a wounded boy and a delirious young woman (the brother and sister of Thérèse) whose husband they killed through long-forced labor, he sends a letter to the authorities. The Evrémondes intercept this letter, however, and burn it. They then have Manette sent in secret to the Bastille, an old prison.

After the revolutionaries storm the Bastille, Monsieur Defarge finds the letter and his wife. Madame Defarge knits his name into her death list and has Manette condemned along with Charles (Evrémonde) Darnay.

5. Charles Darnay is really Charles Evrémonde, the son of one of the twins who cruelly abused and killed Madame Defarge's family. He goes to England to escape retribution for the sins of his father and uncle. He rejects the exploitation of the feudal system and believes in the ideal of liberty, but not the revolutionary practices in his country.
When summoned by Gabielle, who is in grave danger, the loyal Charles returns to France. Unfortunately, his return puts him in danger.

The universal watchfulness so encompassed him, that if he had been taken in a net, or were being forwarded to his destination in a cage, he could not have felt his freedom more completely gone. (Bk.3, Chapter 1)

6. Lucie Manette is the typical Victorian heroine. She faints and swoons; she is naive and sweet and the object of male devotion. She is the "golden thread" that helps Dr. Manette be "recalled to life," and the "golden thread" for Sydney Carton, who is resurrected from a wasted life. He obtains spiritual rewards for his unselfish act of taking the place of Charles Darnay. Unfortunately, both Lucie and Charles are rather flat characters, but they serve to advance the narrative because they both represent a certain faith in humanity.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team