A Tale of Two Cities Essays and Criticism
by Charles Dickens

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Critical Analysis of A Tale of Two Cites

With its famous opening line "it was the best of times, it was the worst of times," A Tale of Two Cities was plainly intended by Dickens as a study in dramatic contrasts. Clear-cut polarities furnish this story of individuals caught in the maelstrom of the French Revolution with its central dynamic. Portraying events that take place over nearly two decades, the novel's setting shifts from the repression of autocratic rule and the impassioned violence it unleashes in Paris to the rule of law and the humane concern in London as a (temporarily) safe haven. The author's over-arching message arises in the context of sharp contrasts between chaos and order, light and dark, hope and despair, heaven and hell. This is a work that is essentially devoid of all ambiguity, one in which the good characters are without moral blemish, while the evil ones are without redeeming qualities. But A Tale of Two Cities is also open-ended. Its uplifting outcome pivots upon miracles of personal resurrection and self-sacrifice, as the author insists that nothing short of spiritual renewal can prevent his own society from suffering the type of upheaval that erupted across the English Channel at the end of the eighteenth century.

The theme of duality is manifest in Dickens's recourse to the device of twinned characters. Charles Darnay's father and his uncle are, of course, biological twins, and the elder St. Evermondes are indistinguishable in their haughty cruelty. It is, however, the close physical resemblance between Darnay and the world-weary lawyer Sidney Carton that the author exploits to the utmost. Unjustly accused of treason, Darnay's case in London appears to be lost until his attorney, Mr. Stryker, discredits the testimony of an eyewitness by challenging him to discriminate between the defendant and Carton. The uncanny physical likeness between the two men surfaces again in the novel's concluding chapters, when Carton substitutes himself for Darnay as a victim of revolutionary justice in France. As personalities, Carton is plainly the more complicated of the two and he is far more competent than his well-intentioned but consistently ineffective counterpart. Yet both men are in love with the exceedingly pure Lucy Manette, a saintly figure whose goodness matches that of Darnay and, at the same time, has the power to transmute Carton from a cynic into a self-sacrificing idealist.

In the first of the novel's three sections, we learn that Darnay's father and uncle were responsible for the imprisonment of Dr. Manette, and we see the fruits of despotism in his wasted, spectral figure. But it is not until Book Two that Dickens gives us a first-hand example of the callous indifference that the French aristocracy has adopted toward the common people. When the gilded carriage of the Marquis St. Evermonde tramples Gaspard's child, leaving behind a tossed gold coin in its wake, it is apparent that the rule of the great lords is directly responsible for misery that the peasants and workmen of France have suffered for so long. We later learn that Madame DeFarge's entire family has been raped or murdered by the Evermondes, and that these crimes are characteristic of the entire class of aristocrats.

Despite the evident injustices, Dickens depicts the French Revolution of Book Three in elemental terms, as a storm driven by a passion for revenge. It is not social injustice of the ancient regime, but individual barbarity, which Dickens assaults. Indeed, an intemperate urge for revenge is presented by the author as being as evil as the indifference of the aristocrats to the miseries that they have inflicted. Arguably, the work's central villain is not Darnay's uncle, but his chief accuser, Madame DeFarge. The French mob hangs the aristocrat Foulon without trial and they hold captive Monsieur Gabelle, a St. Evermonde family retainer whose only offense is that he has served in an aristocrat's household. Moreover, in the second French trial of Charles Darnay, there is no...

(The entire section is 8,161 words.)