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A Tale of Two Cities

by Charles Dickens

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Leonard Manheim (essay date 1970)

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SOURCE: “A Tale of Two Characters: A Study in Multiple Projection,” in Dickens Studies Annual, Volume I, edited by Robert B. Partlow, Jr., Southern Illinois University Press, 1970, pp. 225-37.

[In the following essay, Manheim explores the duality of the main “character” in A Tale of Two Cities, arguing that Sydney Carton and Charles Darnay are essentially a single “Fantasy-Hero” who embodies Dickens's own ideal of himself.]

Dickens scholars have never been able to forgive A Tale of Two Cities its popularity—its very special kind of popularity. Pickwick Papers has survived the adulation of the special Pickwick cult; David Copperfield has survived the sentimental biography-hunting of the Dickensians; even Great Expectations may survive its selection as the Dickens work to be presented in “service courses” on the lower college level. But A Tale of Two Cities will never wholly live down the fact that it has received a kiss of death by its almost universal adoption as the Dickens work to be presented to secondary school students, usually during the tenth year of their formal education. Several factors have contributed to the persistence of the high-school syllabus-makers in prescribing the reading of A Tale of Two Cities. The first reason seems to be its compactness; it is not as long as most other Dickens works. In my own experience, it has been preferred even when David Copperfield was permitted as an alternative, purely because David Copperfield was so much longer. A second reason, which stems from the era when all novels were suspect, is the fact that A Tale of Two Cities is an historical novel, and the curse was considered removed from the “novel” because of the “history.” But the factor which probably loomed largest in the minds of the syllabus-makers was the “purity” of A Tale of Two Cities. It is wholly without the taint of immorality; it seems to be practically free of sexuality. (Can the account of the rape of Madame Defarge's sister in Doctor Manette's secret narrative be called sexuality? It is easy enough to pass over it—it is so hazily referred to; and in any event, it is a story of an occurrence in a benighted foreign country and hence a horrible example of “foreign” morality.) There is no Little Em'ly, no Martha Endell. There is no Hetty Sorrel; indeed Adam Bede was never permitted to sully the adolescent mind. Silas Marner's Eppie had the advantage of having it both ways since she was legally legitimate but, for the purposes of the story, a bastard; the legal legitimacy was enough to satisfy the academic censor. Let it not be thought that I exaggerate; I speak from experience, and although there is no time or place here for a complete documentation of my conclusions, I submit that the criterion for high school reading is usually—or at any rate used to be—one of superficial absence of any “immoral” element. Yet it is ironically noteworthy that A Tale of Two Cities, on a less superficial level, is the product of a great sexual crisis in the author's life, an upheaval in his psychosexual pattern which has been but dimly comprehended. Perhaps it would be as well to recount once again the facts as they have been clarified by recent scholarship.

On 10 February, in 1851, Dickens wrote to Wills, his long-suffering editorial assistant on Household Words, asking Wills to play the part of a servant in the comedy Not So Bad as We Seem, a typical nineteenth-century play written by the prolific Bulwer Lytton for production by Dickens' semi-permanent company of amateur actors. Dickens hastened...

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to assure Wills that he would be in good company—among talented literary amateur actors. He playfully assumed the character of Sairey Gamp:

“Mrs. Harris,” I says to her, “be not alarmed; not reg'lar play-actors, hammertoors.”

“Thank 'Evens,” says Mrs. Harris, and bustiges into a flood of tears!1

The over-burdened Wills found it impossible to add participation in his principal's theatrical ventures to his other duties, and he politely declined the offer. A little while later, Dickens wrote to his friend Augustus Egg, scenic designer of many of the productions, asking him if he could induce Wilkie Collins to accept the role. Collins did accept and thus began the friendship with Dickens which was to last until the latter's death. There was nearly fifteen years' difference in age between the two; their temperaments were fundamentally dissimilar; yet the influence of Collins on every phase of the latter years of Dickens' life and work is most marked, and there was ample indication that he tended, as time went on, to usurp the confidential position formerly held exclusively by John Forster, to the no small annoyance of that worthy gentleman.

In Collins, Dickens found an admirable traveling companion, one who introduced him to phases of life at home and abroad with which he had formerly been familiar by hearsay only, one who was reasonably free from Victorian prejudices so dear to the heart of John Forster. In Collins he found an equally enthusiastic devotee of the theatre, a competent and thorough deviser of complex plots (frequently of a most melodramatic character). It was Collins who put together the melodrama The Light-house, with a highly emotional leading role which Dickens delighted to play. It was he who was entrusted with the task of dramatizing the very worst of the Dickens Christmas numbers, No Thoroughfare, for professional production; and it was he who concocted The Frozen Deep, that queer melodrama in which Dickens played his last performance on the amateur stage. This play opened at Tavistock House on the twentieth birthday of Dickens' oldest son. It was a most elaborate affair, with one set designed to represent a scene near the North Pole, “where the slightest and greatest things the eye beheld were equally taken from the books of the polar voyagers.” It was repeated several times, one outstanding series of performances being given in Manchester. Dickens writes of it in his preface to A Tale of Two Cities:

When I was acting, with my children and friends, in Mr. Wilkie Collins's drama of The Frozen Deep, I first conceived the main idea of this story. A strong desire was upon me then, to embody it in my own person; and I traced out in my fancy, the state of mind of which it would necessitate the presentation to an observant spectator, with particular care and interest.

As the idea became familiar to me, it gradually shaped itself into its present form. Throughout its execution, it has had complete possession of me; I have so far verified what is done and suffered in these pages, as that I have certainly done and suffered it all myself.2

Much of the idea of The Frozen Deep seems to have originated with Dickens himself rather than with Collins. It was Dickens who inserted the “comedy relief,” Dickens who wrote the verse prologue which Forster spoke from behind the curtain before the opening, closing with these words:

But, that the secrets of the vast Profound
Within us, an exploring hand may sound,
Testing the region of the ice-bound soul,
Seeking the passage at its northern pole,
Soft'ning the horrors of its wintry sleep,
Melting the surface of that “Frozen Deep.”(3)

The plot of the play whose hero Dickens so greatly longed to “embody in his own person” is worthy of being examined closely, when we consider how much it meant to him during his composition of A Tale of Two Cities and how clearly it constituted a turning point in his life.

The first act makes us acquainted with four young ladies living in Devon, each of whom has a lover serving with a Polar expedition. Clara Burnham not only has her betrothed out in the icy regions, but the rejected lover who was sworn to kill him wherever and whenever they meet, though he does not even know the name of his rival. Clara, haunted by the fear that some mysterious influence may reveal them to each other, tells her story to Lucy Crayford. As she does so, a crimson sunset dies away to grey and Nurse Esther goes about the house murmuring of scenes that come to her from “the land o' ice and snaw.” She stands, as night falls, by the misty blue of the window, describing to the young ladies her bloody vision from the Northern seas. Lucy Crayford shudders and calls for lights: Clara Burnham swoons.

The second act is set in the arctic regions. The stranded men are in a hut deciding who is to go and seek relief. Frank Aldersley is chosen by lot, and when somebody else falls out, Richard Wardour has to accompany him. Just before they start Wardour discovers that Aldersley is his hated rival.

The third act takes place in a cavern in Newfoundland. The girls, smartly dressed in crinolines, their Scotch nurse, and some members of the expedition are present, but neither Wardour nor Aldersley. Presently a ragged maniac rushes in and is given food and drink. He has escaped from an ice-floe but is not too demented to recognise and be recognised by Clara Burnham, who suspects him of having murdered her Frank. As soon as he understands this he goes off, returning a few minutes later with Aldersley in his arms to lay at Clara's feet. “Often,” he gasps, “in supporting Aldersley through snow-drifts and on ice-floes have I been tempted to leave him sleeping!” He has not done so and is now exhausted to death.4

Dickens played Wardour; and Collins, Aldersley. Purposely for the “part,” each of them grew a substantial beard which he kept in later life. During the early private showings and at the special performance for the Queen, the women's roles were played by lady amateurs. However, when it was decided to repeat the play at Manchester for the benefit of the late Douglass Jerrold's family, it became apparent that the size of the house (it held three thousand spectators at one performance) would require the engagement of professionals for the women's roles. It was on the recommendation of a friendly theatrical manager that Mrs. Ternan and her two daughters, Maria and Ellen, were engaged for the production. Mrs. Ternan played the Scottish nurse; Maria Ternan played the leading role of Clara Burnham; and Ellen played one of the other girls, probably Lucy. Now it must become at once apparent that the tale which pictures Ellen in tears in the wings of the theatre, in agony over the scanty costume she was to wear in The Frozen Deep (!) must be apocryphal. As a matter of fact, Dickens had known Ellen at least since the spring of 1857 when he had met her, really in tears in her dressing room because she was to play the role of Hippomenes in Talfourd's Atalanta, a part in which she might well be alarmed at having “to show too much leg.” However, it was during the brief period of rehearsals at Tavistock House, with Maria and Ellen rushing in and out of his study, Ellen perching on the arm of his chair and turning soulful eyes upon him as he instructed her in the interpretation of her role, that young love began to spring anew in the breast of the forty-five-year-old author. Collins was enthralled by Dickens' brilliance during the Manchester performances. “Dickens,” he wrote, “surpassed himself. He literally electrified the audience.”5 And well he might, for the clock had turned back. He was once again the eighteen-year-old who was going to make his fortune as an actor in Covent Garden.

Aghast for a moment after the first emotional shock had passed, Dickens tried to run away from himself again, this time with Collins. The trip is the one described in their joint literary effort known as The Lazy Tour of Two Idle Apprentices. When it was over, the problem was solved and Dickens had cast Victorian morality to the winds and was an ardent suitor for the favors of the young lady. A word as to the choice between the two sisters. It was Maria whose acting ability had most impressed the critical director, and he wrote of her performance in the glowing emotional orgy of a letter to Miss Burdett-Coutts. Yet it was to Ellen that he was sexually attracted. After all, there are limits to the extensions of a real-life Maria. Two of them (Maria Beadnell and Mary Hogarth) had passed into agonizing oblivion. The Mary-figure, the virgin-mother, was still the dominant image, but a little disguise, a little displacement of the emotional tone was clearly needed—and the choice fell upon the sister-image, Ellen. After all, the Superego in the irrational Unconscious might be lulled into a sense of security by the pretense that it was to Mary's sister that he was still being “true”!

It was in such troubled days that A Tale of Two Cities was conceived and, for the most part, written. It was the work used to launch the new publication All the Year Round, which succeeded Household Words after Dickens' break with his former publishers, occasioned by his frantic desire to suppress the Ternan scandal. The whole work is impregnated with the spirit of the theatre. Its structure is dramatic and Dickens is reported to have sent proof sheets to Henri Regnier with a view toward immediate dramatization for the French theatre. The work has a complicated plot-structure which yet stands up better under analysis than any novel since Barnaby Rudge, with which it at once compels comparison. Like that former work, it is markedly deficient in humor. There seems to be no room in it for both the old comedy and also the new Collins-inspired melodrama. There is not even as much comedy in the new work as in Barnaby Rudge, the former novel of revolutionary days, for Miss Pross and Jerry Cruncher cannot bear even so much of the burden as was formerly shared by Miss Miggs and Sim Tappertit.

The compulsive quality of the writing of A Tale of Two Cities is revealed in the preface quoted as moment ago. Whenever we find an author stressing such compulsions, we can safely conclude that we are dealing with “repressed” inspiration from unconscious sources. The most striking effect upon the novel of the emotionally disturbed period which produced it lies in the Dr. Jekyll-Mr. Hyde aspect of its leading male character. The word “character” is used in the singular intentionally, for in A Tale of Two Cities Dickens developed even more fully than was usual for him the tendency to embody his own ideal of himself, his own Fantasy-Hero in two or more characters (multiple projection). Charles Darnay and Sydney Carton are two plainly delineated faces of the same coin. Their names are extensions of a familiar pattern. The fortunate-unfortunate French nobleman bears his author's Christian name with a surname which uses the first initial of Dickens to bear out the fantasy of noble birth in disguise, since Charles is said to have assumed the name Darnay upon dropping the hated appellation Evrémonde, adapting his new surname from his mother's noble name of D'Aulnay, eliding the aristocratic de in deference to British taste. In the name Sydney Carton the trend is more hidden; yet it too is a simple cipher, easily susceptible of solution—as it is meant to be. The Charles element is transferred to the Car- syllable of the last name; in the first syllable of Sidney, we have the same softening of Dick- which may be noticed in the name Jarndyce (pronounced Jahn-diss) in Bleak House, here reversed (another reversal) to form Syd. The implication is apparent. Both Carton and Darnay are Dickens (not literally, of course, but in fantasy); the point is further stressed by the fortuitous fact that they look alike.

Consider this last point for a moment. Carton, during Darnay's English trial for treason, points out the resemblance between himself and Darnay to his senior counsel, Mr. Stryver, who uses it (so it is said) to discredit the testimony of a witness, a witness who had testified that he had seen the defendant Darnay descend by stealth from the Dover mail in order to spy upon a garrison and dockyard, admitting that he had never seen the accused upon any other occasion.

“You say again you are quite sure that it was the prisoner?” The witness was quite sure.

“Did you ever see anybody very like the prisoner?” Not so like (the witness said), as that he could be mistaken.

“Look well upon that gentleman, my learned friend there,” pointing to him who had tossed the paper over, “and then look well upon the prisoner. How say you? Are they very like each other?”

Allowing for my learned friend's appearance being careless and slovenly, if not debauched, they were sufficiently like each other to surprise, not only the witness, but everybody present, when they were thus brought into comparison. My Lord being prayed to bid my learned friend lay aside his wig, and giving no very gracious consent, the likeness became much more remarkable. My Lord inquired of Mr. Stryver, (the prisoner's counsel), whether they were next to try Mr. Carton (name of my learned friend) for treason? But Mr. Stryver replied to my Lord, no; but he would ask the witness to tell him whether what happened once, might happen twice; whether he would have been so confident, having seen it; and more. The upshot of which was, to smash this witness like a crockery vessel, and shiver his part of the case to useless lumber. (II, iii)

Now any competent trial lawyer will recognize that this is very bad cross-examination. The fact that Mr. Darnay resembled Mr. Carton does not really impeach the credibility of the witness' testimony, unless, as the presiding judge suggested, it had been counsel's intention to show that Mr. Carton was also in the neighborhood at the time. An identification by a witness may be impeached far better by his inability to pick the prisoner out of a group of people (a “line-up,” for example) who do not in any way resemble one another. Yet for Dickens it fits into a set pattern. Darnay is first accused of treason in England (treachery, betrayal of his country, let it be remembered—parallel in fantasy-life to a man's “betrayal” of his wife). He is saved by his alter ego, Carton. Seventeen years later the accusation of betrayal is renewed before another, “foreign” tribunal—foreign both geographically and in the standard of loyalty which it imposes. Now Carton is impotent. He cannot plead in the new court. He cannot answer the fatal and misguided denunciation of the destructive father-image, the Law. But he can assume the place of his double and die in his stead, making a propitiatory sacrifice of himself by which he clears and saves the innocent person of the favored hero. Never was there a more felicitously contrived scapegoat pattern.

All of the virtue which would make the favored lover worthy of his virgin is embodied in Jekyll-Darnay. All of the vice—gloomy, Byronic, objectively unmotivated and unexplained—is concentrated in Hyde-Carton (who, of course, never gets the girl), for whom it is purged away by his “full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice,” not for the sins of the whole world, to be sure, but for the sinful love of one Charles Dickens for one Ellen Ternan. Even the self-satisfying sense of resurrection, an “undying” after death, is accomplished by the final picture of Sydney's mind just before the guillotine falls, envisaging the rosy future which is to follow for all concerned, even his own rebirth in his child-namesake. How can Ellen hesitate now? Her middle-aged lover is not only the most fascinating of men; he is also (by a vicarious propitiatory sacrifice) the most guiltless, and she will share that pristine state of innocence with him forever!

Lucie is basically only one more in the line of Dickensian virgin-heroines whom the critic Edwin Pugh felicitously called “feminanities.”6 Yet, as Professor Edgar Johnson clearly saw, there was a subtle distinction.

Lucie … is given hardly any individual traits at all, although her appearance, as Dickens describes it, is like that of Ellen, “a short, slight, pretty figure, a quantity of golden hair, a pair of blue eyes,” and it may be that her one unique physical characteristic was drawn from Ellen too: “a forehead with a singular capacity (remembering how young and smooth it was), of lifting and knitting itself into an expression that was not quite one of perplexity, or wonder, or alarm, though it included all the four expressions.” … The fact that Lucie and Dr. Manette at the time of his release from the Bastille are of almost the same age as Ellen and Dickens does not mean that the Doctor's feeling for his daughter is the emotion Dickens felt for the pretty, blue-eyed actress, although the two merge perhaps in his fervent declaration [in his letter protesting the scandal, a letter which he “never meant to be published”] that he knows Ellen to be as “innocent and pure, and as good as my own dear daughter.”7

But Lucie fails to fit into the pattern of the unattainable dream-virgin of the earlier novels in at least one other respect. Most of Dickens' earlier heroine-ideals do not marry until the last-chapter summation of the “lived-happily-ever-after” pattern. Lucie is married, happily married, through much of the book. She maintains a household for her husband and her father, and she finds room for compassion, if not love, for the erring Carton. What is more, she has children, two of them. Yet she seems never to grow older. She was seventeen in 1775; she is, to all intents and purposes, seventeen in 1792. In the interim she has allegedly given birth to two Dickens-ideal infants, two of the most sickening little poppets we could possibly expect from one who, despite his experience as the father of ten children, still sought desperately to re-create infancy and childhood in an image which would affirm his own concept of unworldly innocence. Let the reader take a firm grip on himself and read the dying words of the little son of Charles and Lucie Darnay, who died in early childhood for no other reason, it must seem, than to give the author another opportunity to wallow in bathos.

“Dear papa and mamma, I am very sorry to leave you both, and to leave my pretty sister; but I am called, and I must go!” …

“Poor Carton! Kiss him for me!” (II, xxi)

Poor Carton, indeed! Poor Dickens! Little Lucie is not much better, for in Paris, after her father's condemnation, when her mother is mercifully unconscious and unaware of Carton's presence, she cries out in sweet childish innocence to friend Sydney:

“Oh, Carton, Carton, dear Carton! … Now that you have come, I think you will do something to help mamma, something to save papa! Oh, look at her, dear Carton! Can you, of all the people who love her bear to see her so?” (III, xi)

Out of the mouths of babes! At this point there is obviously nothing for Sydney to do but head straight for the nearest guillotine.

But Sydney is not to be left wholly without his own dream girl. Just as the purified Darnay is permitted to live out his life with the “attained” (and untainted) Lucie, so the dying Carton is accompanied to his execution by the virgin-victim, the innocent seamstress whom he solaces and strengthens until the final moments of their love-death, although her first glance had revealed that he was not the man Darnay whom she had previously admired.

Since the pattern of attainability is characteristic of the primary “virgin” in this novel, the figure of the decayed virgin, the older freak and enemy, is markedly absent from it. A few novels back, Dickens had had such characters in the immortal Sairey Gamp (Martin Chuzzlewit) and Mrs. Pipchin (Dombey and Son); he was to have the most horrifying of them all in his very next novel (Great Expectations) in the person of Miss Havisham. Here Miss Pross, although she has many of the elements of the “freak” in the best Dickensian tradition, is all benevolence, with her red-headed queerness overshadowed by her devoted love and affectionate care of the virgin-queen to whom she is a substitute mother, with no flaw except her unconquerable belief in the virtue and nobility of her erring brother Solomon. Just as she, the benevolent mother-protectress, is herself merely an aged virgin, so her counterpart and rival is the childless wife (also a devoted, albeit vindictive, sister), Thérèse Defarge. The word rival is used advisedly, for while there is no sign of overt rivalry between the two during nine-tenths of the novel, Dickens goes out of his way to bring them face to face at the end. He strains all of his plot structure to bring Mme. Defarge to the Manette dwelling on the day of the execution to have Miss Pross left there alone to face her. Then a melo-dramatic physical encounter ensues between the two women, neither of whom can, in any sense of the words, speak the other's language. Lucie's bad angel falls dead (accidentally, of course, by her own hand), but the good angel is not unscathed, and if, in her later life, her “queerness” is augmented by the ear-trumpet which she will no doubt use, yet all will know that she came by this crowning, though no doubt humorous, affliction in a good cause.

Although the category of mother-figure is limited, there is no lack of father-counterparts, for the law-as-father has become blended with the fear of condemnation by society, which thereby also becomes a symbolic father-figure. Society and its moral sanctions constitute the only fly in the ointment of adolescent happiness in a sinful love. We have noted that, as a propitiatory gesture, Charles's wicked father-enemy is not his father (as he well might have been) but his thoroughly aristocratic twin-uncle, who, being French, is more villainous than any British father-enemy might have been. Mr. Stryver, in his vampirish relationship with Carton, is another figure of the worthless “father” who sucks the blood of his talented “son.” And since Dickens almost always maintains a balance between evil and virtuous figures in all categories, we have, on the benevolent side, Mr. Lorry, another unmarried “father,” the only living figure in the gallery of scarecrows who inhabit Tellson's Bank. Midway between the two classes is the hagridden Ernest Defarge, whose every attempt at benevolence is thwarted by his vengeful wife and her abettors, the allegorically named Vengeance and the members of the society of Jacques. This last-named group produces one brilliantly sketched psychopath, the sadistic, finger-chewing Jacques Three.

The one remaining father-figure is the most interesting, complex, and well-developed character in the whole novel, Dr. Manette. Since he could not have been much more than twenty-five years old when he was torn from his newly-wedded English wife to be imprisoned in the Bastille for nearly eighteen years, he must have been less than forty-five when we first met him in Defarge's garret. And Dickens, let it be remembered, was forty-five when he wrote of him. Here is his portrait:

A broad ray of light fell into the garret, and showed the workman, with an unfinished shoe upon his lap, pausing in his labour. His few common tools and various scraps of leather were at his feet and on his bench. He had a white beard, raggedly cut, but not very long, a hollow face, and exceedingly bright eyes. The hollowness and thinness of his face would have caused them to look large, under his yet dark eyebrows and his confused white hair, though they had been really otherwise; but they were naturally large, and looked unnaturally so. His yellow rags of shirt lay open at the throat, and showed his body to be withered and worn. (I, vi)

Of course the appearance of great age in a middle-age man is rationally explained by the suffering entailed by his long, unjust imprisonment. Yet, nearly eighteen years later (the repetition of the number is meaningful), when he has become the unwitting agent of his son-in-law's destruction and has been unable to use his special influence to procure Charles' release, he is pictured as a decayed mass of senility.

“Who goes here? Whom have we within? Papers!”

The papers are handed out and read.

“Alexandre Manette. Physician. French. Which is he?”

This is he; this helpless, inarticulately murmuring, wandering old man pointed out.

“Apparently the Citizen-Doctor is not in his right mind? The Revolution-fever will have been too much for him?”

Greatly too much for him. (III, xiii)

Carton envisions his complete recovery, but we have some difficulty in believing it.

In the interim, however, he is pictured as a stalwart, middle-aged medical practitioner. His sufferings have caused a period of amnesia, with occasional flashes of painful recollection, as in the scene in which he hears of the discovery of a stone marked D I G in a cell in the Tower of London. We never know, by the way, whether his recollection at this moment is complete and whether he has, even furtively, any recall of the existence of the document of denunciation found by M. Defarge. The aspects of conscious and repressed memory are here handled with great skill by Dickens. Generally, his amnesia is reciprocal; he cannot recall his normal life during the period of relapse, or vice versa, especially when his relapses are triggered by events and disclosures which bring up memories of his old wrongs. His reversion to shoemaking for a short time after Charles proposes marriage to Lucie and again for a longer time following Lucie's marriage and Charles's final revelation of his long-suspected identity foreshadow the great disclosure which is to make him the unwitting aggressor against the happiness of his loving and beloved daughter.

When we consider Dr. Manette's conduct, however, we find that, whether Dickens consciously intended it to be or not, the doctor of Beauvais is a good psychiatrist, at least in the handling of his own illness. His shoemaking is superficially pictured as a symptom of mental regression and decay, but in its inception it must have been a sign of rebellion against madness rather than a symptom thereof. He relates that he begged for permission to make shoes as a means of diverting his mind from its unendurable suffering. Shoemaking, truly an example of vocational therapy, was the only contact with reality that his distracted mind, otherwise cut off from reality, possessed. It was, therefore, a means of bringing about his recovery. Lucie fears the shoemaking, but she realizes that her loving presence, coupled with the availability, if needed, of the vocational contact with reality, will serve to draw him back to normal adjustment. It would seem, then, that the act of Mr. Lorry and Miss Pross, carried on furtively and guiltily, of destroying his shoemaker's bench and tools after his spontaneous recovery from the attack following Lucie's wedding, was a great error, an error against which the doctor, giving an opinion in the anonymous presentation of his own case by Mr. Lorry, strongly advises. For when he once again falls into a state of amnesia and confusion, after the realization of the damage he has done to Charles and his impotence to remedy that damage, he calls for his bench and tools, but they are no longer to be had, and he huddles in a corner of the coach leaving Paris, a pitiful picture of mental decay from which we can see no hope of recovery despite the optimistic vision of Carton's last moments.

The basic aim of this paper has been, of course, psychological interpretation; but the psychological critic has sometimes been accused of neglecting the critical function of evaluation, and possibly a few concluding words might be added on that score.

In a lecture on criticism given at Harvard in 1947, E. M. Forster distinguished beautifully between the function and method of creation and the function and method of criticism.

What about the creative state? In it a man is taken out of himself. He lets down, as it were, a bucket into the unconscious and draws up something which is normally beyond his reach. He mixes this thing with his normal experience and out of the mixture he makes a work of art. … After this glance at the creative state, let us look at the critical. The critical state has many merits, and employs some of the highest and subtlest faculties of man. But it is grotesquely remote from the state responsible for the works it affects to expound. It does not let buckets down into the unconscious. It does not conceive in sleep or know what it has said after it has said it. Think before you speak, is criticism's motto; speak before you think is creation's. Nor is criticism disconcerted by people arriving from Porlock; in fact it sometimes comes from Porlock itself.8

What Mr. Forster has set forth can best be understood in the light of the road which has been taken by psychological, particularly psychoanalytic, criticism in the more than twenty years which have elapsed since the delivery of that lecture in 1947. The psychoanalytic critic of today would like to think that he comes from Xanadu rather than Porlock. He cannot claim that he consistently writes before he thinks, but his thinking is to some extent based on material which the bucket lowered into the depths has brought up for him.

What can he say about the permanent literary value of the work which he is discussing? He cannot of course undertake to give any absolute final judgment; it will hardly be suitable for him to do what so many academic critics do, that is, to report the state of critical opinion in the “in-group” that usually passes critical judgment in academic circles. I have suggested elsewhere that the function of the psychoanalytic critic in evaluation is to prognosticate rather than to judge. I can do no better than to quote here my preferred authority, Norman Holland:

Saying a literary work is “good,” then, from the point of view of our model, is predicting that it will pass the test of time; that it “can please many and please long”; that it is a widely satisfying form of play; or, more formally, that it embodies a fantasy with a power to disturb many readers over a long period of time and, built in, a defensive maneuver that will enable those readers to master the poem's disturbance.9

A Tale of Two Cities does, it seems to me, give every indication, even apart from its past history, that it “can please many and please long.” Its use of the dynamic scapegoat pattern with the employment of the pattern of multiple projection, which it has been my aim to point out in this essay, does indeed embody a fantasy, a fantasy which was disturbing to Dickens and is still undoubtedly disturbing to many readers, and has used that device of multiple projection as the defensive maneuver that enables readers to master that disturbance. In that sense, there seems to be little doubt about the continuance of the perennial popularity of this often maligned but still frequently read novel of Dickens' later period.

But all of that is really by the way. Criticism of the kind which I have attempted is designed to furnish information rather than critical judgment, even of a prognostic nature; it is the kind of criticism which was described by Arthur Symons in his introduction to the Biographia Literaria of Coleridge:

The aim of criticism is to distinguish what is essential in the work of a writer. It is the delight of the critic to praise; but praise is scarcely part of his duty. … What we ask of him is that he should find out for us more than we can find out for ourselves.


  1. See Laurance Hutton, ed., The Dickens-Collins Letters (New York 1892), p. 6.

  2. Preface to the First Edition (November 1859), reproduced in Walter Allen's Perennial Classic Edition of A Tale of Two Cities (New York, 1965), p. xvi. His text is taken from the Charles Dickens Edition of 1868–70.

  3. Quoted in Dame Una Pope-Hennessy, Charles Dickens (London, 1945), pp. 361–62.

  4. Ibid., pp. 362–63.

  5. Dickens-Collins Letters, pp. 78–80 (2 August 1857).

  6. The Charles Dickens Originals (London, 1925), p. 68.

  7. Charles Dickens: His Tragedy and Triumph (New York, 1952), II, 973.

  8. V. S. Pritchett, article on E. M. Forster, New York Times Book Review, 29 December 1968, VII, p. 1.

  9. Norman N. Holland, The Dynamics of Literary Response (New York, 1968), p. 203; originally published in Literature and Psychology, XIV, No. 2 (1964), 43–55.


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A Tale of Two Cities Charles Dickens

The following entry presents criticism of Dickens's novel A Tale of Two Cities (1859). See also, Hard Times for These Times Criticism, Our Mutual Friend Criticism, and Little Dorrit Criticism.

A Tale of Two Cities was originally serialized in Dickens's own periodical, All the Year Round, in 1859 and chronicles the lives of a number of characters prior to and during the French Revolution. While immensely popular with the reading public, critical response to the novel was mixed. Perhaps the least characteristic of Dickens's works, A Tale of Two Cities prompted more than a few critics to note that the novel lacked the author's trademark humor and that, while it does address important social issues, the time and place depicted are far removed from the author's typical Victorian/Industrial Revolution era concerns. Nonetheless, despite its initial less-than-enthusiastic critical reception A Tale of Two Cities has come to occupy a central place in Dickens's body of work.

Plot and Major Characters

The novel's events begin in Paris, roughly fourteen years prior to the French Revolution. Dr. Alexandre Manette has been released from the Bastille after having been unjustly imprisoned for eighteen years for trying to bring two members of the noble St. Evrémonde family to trial for their crimes. His daughter, Lucie, whom he has not seen since she was a small child, has traveled to Paris from London with Jarvis Lorry, a family friend, to bring him home. Lucie and Lorry arrive in Paris at the wineshop of Monsieur and Madame Defarge, who are both active in the movement to incite a peasant revolution. Dr. Manette, now old, feeble, and too mentally impaired to recognize his daughter, has been staying in a room above the shop, where he works at a shoemaker's bench in the belief that he is a cobbler.

Five years later in London, the Manettes are called to testify in the treason trial of Charles Darnay, whom they had met during their return from France. Darnay, a French language tutor who is the nephew of the Marquis St. Evrémonde, has been accused of spying for the French. Darnay is acquitted when his attorney, C. J. Stryver, confuses a witness by presenting his law partner, Sydney Carton, who so closely resembles Darnay that the witness is unable to make a positive identification. Carton, who has a brilliant legal mind but suffers from alcoholism, becomes attracted to Lucie and through his feelings for her finds new direction in his life. Darnay, Carton, and Stryver, all of whom seek Lucie's hand in marriage, become frequent visitors at the Manette household, which is governed by Miss Pross. In the interim, the situation in France worsens as its citizens grow more angry and dissatisfied with the French aristocracy. Though Darnay has taken his mother's maiden name in an effort to shed his connection with his noble family, he feels compelled to return to France when his uncle runs down a peasant child with his carriage. Darnay pleads with his uncle to make amends for the past deeds committed by the family, but the Marquis refuses. Later that night, the Marquis is killed in his sleep by Gaspard, the father of the child he killed.

Darnay returns to England and asks Manette for his daughter's hand in marriage. He tries to reveal his true name to the old man, but Manette tells him to wait until the morning of his wedding day. Carton is also in love with Lucie, but she refuses his proposal of marriage. Carton tells her never to forget that he will do anything he can to help her and those she loves. Six years later, the Bastille is stormed and the French Revolution begins. Darnay again returns to France, this time in an effort to save a loyal family servant from the revolutionaries. When his true identity is discovered, Darnay is arrested and put on trial. Lucie and Dr. Manette come to Paris on his behalf, and Manette's sympathetic testimony at Darnay's trial succeeds; Darnay is released, but under condition that he remain in France. Shortly thereafter, Darnay is arrested again, accused of crimes against the people by Defarge and an unknown party. In an effort to help, Carton, Miss Pross, and Jerry Cruncher, an employee of Lorry's, arrive in Paris, where they encounter Miss Pross's long-lost brother, Solomon, whom Cruncher recognizes as John Barsad, the man who accused Darnay of being a spy almost fourteen years before. At Darnay's trial, Defarge testifies against him, claiming that Dr. Manette is the second accuser, presenting papers he recovered from Manette's cell in the Bastille in which Manette chronicled the various crimes of the St. Evrémonde family and showed how they were responsible for his imprisonment. Darnay is found guilty and sentenced to death. Carton blackmails Barsad, a prison turnkey, and gains access to Darnay's cell. He then drugs Darnay and has him taken away so that he may pose as the Frenchman and take his place. While attempting to prevent the Manettes from leaving Paris, Madame Defarge is shot and killed during a struggle with Miss Pross. Lucie and Darnay escape to England, and Carton sacrifices himself, taking Darnay's place at the guillotine.

Major Themes

For Dickens, prisons are symbolic of the grave—a comparison he makes throughout his works. Critics note that the prevalence of this theme may be related to Dickens's father's incarceration in debtors' prison. Coupled with this notion in A Tale of Two Cities is the possibility of resurrection: Manette is “resurrected” upon his release from the Bastille, and Carton, who serves as a Christ-figure in his act of self-sacrifice, essentially lives on in the form of his double, Darnay. Additionally, Dickens uses memory as a driving force in the novel, whether as an instrument of destruction or of hope. While it is the memory of the rape and deaths of her siblings that prompts Madame Defarge's hatred of the aristocrats, it is the memory of Manette's dead wife that begins the process of his resurrection from the grave of his prison and insanity. Carton, in fact, is referred to by Stryver as “Memory Carton” for his brilliant legal mind; Carton renounces the memory of his former life when he dies with the words, “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done.”

Critical Reception

Though A Tale of Two Cities was immensely popular with general readers, many of Dickens's contemporary critics found fault with the novel. These critical attacks essentially focused on three fronts: that the novel is flawed as history, mechanical and unrealistic in its construction, and uncharacteristic of Dickens. It is perhaps upon this last point that most critics choose to base their criticisms; many argue that the novel lacks the characteristic humor usually present in Dickens's work, and that the events with which it concerns itself are too far removed from the Victorian issues that Dickens typically chose to address. Rather than examine the novel on its own merits, these critics often fall into comparisons of A Tale of Two Cities with Dickens's other works. Regardless of the initial criticisms leveled at the novel, A Tale of Two Cities has come to receive a great deal of praise from modern critics, and it continues to be included on high school and college reading lists.

David D. Marcus (essay date 1976)

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SOURCE: “The Carlylean Vision of A Tale of Two Cities,” in Charles Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities, edited by Harold Bloom, Chelsea House Publishers, 1987, pp. 23-35.

[In the following essay, first published in 1976, Marcus compares aspects of Thomas Carlyle's French Revolution with A Tale of Two Cities.]

A Tale of Two Cities is the most disparaged and least understood of Dickens's late novels. Overwhelmingly, the critics have judged the work a failure and dismissed it as intellectually superficial. According to this view, Dickens held only the most simpleminded view of history, and although the novel fictionalizes events whose memory haunted the Victorian era, it never places those events in the context of a coherent understanding of the processes of social change; the book is an amalgam of romantic melodrama based on Dickens's experience as an actor in Wilkie Collins's Frozen Deep and fragments taken from Carlyle's French Revolution, a work from which Dickens unsystematically borrowed details but not any conceptual framework. Thus understood, the novel splits in two; its connection between romance and the French Revolution seems tenuous and contrived. As Georg Lukács complains, “neither the fate of Manette and his daughter, nor of Darnay-Evrémonde, the least of all of Sidney Carton, grows organically out of the age and its social events.” Taylor Stoehr's very different approach to the novel also admits this split by disregarding Dickens's political ideas and interpreting the historical events as a ritual expiation through violence for the sexual violation that is the original cause of the action.

But in fact, the two plots are closely related, and that relationship points toward a much more complex vision of history than criticism has so far allowed. My discussion of this relationship will also suggest that Dickens's conceptual debt to Carlyle is much greater than recent criticism has recognized. Dickens and Carlyle share a common quest that informs the historical vision of A Tale of Two Cities: both writers seek ways in which people can socialize their energies in an age whose institutions seem at odds with any humanly valuable purpose. Dickens's exploration of revolutionary France resembles Teufelsdröckh's spiritual pilgrimage in Sartor Resartus and the exhortatory social criticism of Past and Present in the connection that it draws between the social and the psychic dimensions of historical crisis; the humane man finds himself caught in the mechanism of historical processes that move according to their own laws and that destroy any possibility of useful action. It is precisely this tie between the social and the psychic that unites the romantic and revolutionary plots of A Tale of Two Cities.

As Robert Alter has noted of the novel's French episodes, they are “intended to dramatize the ways in which human beings become the slaves of impersonal forces, at last are made inhuman by them.” But the English as well as the French episodes deal with the problem of historical dehumanization. At the end of the novel, Darnay and Dr. Manette retreat into the tranquillity of a secluded domestic circle, and that retreat has to be seen in the light of their failure as public men to influence the course of events. Thus their retreat and the quasi-religious redemption through love and self-sacrifice are actually strategies for coping with the characters' need to find a sense of fruitful relatedness in the face of the impossibility of solving social problems. For Dickens, the family and religion serve much the same function as religion and the corporate spirit did for Carlyle: they are means of humanizing the void left in the individual life by mechanistic social institutions.

In describing the relationship between Carlyle and Dickens, I am emphasizing the social and secular sides of Carlyle's works and his role as the interpreter of the Romantic tradition to Victorian England. In commenting on Carlyle's phrase “natural supernaturalism,” M. H. Abrams has said of the Romantic era that “the general tendency was, in diverse degrees and ways to naturalize the supernatural and to humanize the divine” (Natural Supernaturalism: Tradition and Revolution in Romantic Literature). Certainly this description applies to Carlyle himself; for all of his explicitly religious interpretation of experience, the end result even in Sartor Resartus is a reorientation of the individual that allows him to experience a sense of purpose in his work. As George Levine has pointed out, Carlyle's contemporaries as well as many later readers saw Teufelsdröckh's spiritual pilgrimage as a call for “a moral and social as well as a religious revolution” (The Boundaries of Fiction: Carlyle, Macauley, Newman). Whether Carlyle is historically the only source of Dickens's efforts at dealing with the problem of the individual's relationship to his culture is not strictly demonstrable, although Dickens's own sense of himself as a disciple of Carlyle's certainly lends an air of plausibility to such speculation. But Carlyle did crystallize these problems for his age, and both men saw the crisis of their culture in similar terms. Thus Carlyle provides at the very least a useful model for understanding Dickens, and for seeing Dickens as the heir to the Romantic era's tendency to internalize historical phenomena. Like Carlyle and the Romantic poets, Dickens is concerned with defining the possibilities for self-fulfillment in a society whose institutions seem inimical to all that is distinctively human.

From the beginning of A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens concentrates on the difficulty of understanding public events for those immersed in them. The famous opening paragraph presents the reader with a series of neat antitheses that in sum offer confusion rather than clarity:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the age of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

At first, this passage seems to be a direct authorial commentary, but the attribution of these extreme opinions to some of the age's “noisiest authorities” invites us to question whether the noisiest and most extreme authorities of any age are to be trusted. The patterned rhetoric of the passage reveals confusion rather than understanding. The difficulties of reaching any clear knowledge of one's own era emerge through the novelist's explicit comparison of the past to the present and through the irony that both history and the novelist lend to the eighteenth-century's view of itself: “In both countries [England and France] it was clearer than crystal to the lords of the State preserves of loaves and fishes, that things in general were settled for ever” (bk. 1, chap. 1). As Dickens points out immediately afterwards, the year is 1775, and with both the American and French Revolutions impending, things in general are anything but settled forever. As the novel's first paragraph makes clear, both the age's noisiest authorities and its powers that be are unaware of the significance of the historical forces that are shaping the future.

Only in retrospect do events assume a clear order. The novel's French episodes invite the reader to view every incident in the light of his historical knowledge and to recognize events as pieces in a larger pattern that is known a priori. All of the French action appears first as a foreshadowing and later as a realization of the Revolution, and Dickens eschews subtlety in favor of a directness that always keeps before the reader the relationship of each action to larger historical forces. Thus the opening French scene with its broken wine cask flooding the street suggests in its sacramental overtones the blood that will one day flow in the streets; but Dickens is not content to leave matters at the level of suggestion: “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” (bk. 1, chap. 5). Taylor Stoehr's rhetorical analysis of this and succeeding French episodes very thoroughly points out the linguistic methods through which Dickens creates a strong sense of the links among all of these events. Even the novel's web of closely interrelated characters is only a transformation of French historical forces into personal terms.

Similarly, the French characters have no individuality but exist only to play their roles in the revolutionary drama. They are defined exclusively in terms of their class. Our first glimpse of the Marquis is at a reception at which he is singled out only after a very Carlylean critique of a degenerate aristocracy whose only function has become self-aggrandizement: “Military officers destitute of military knowledge; naval officers with no idea of a ship; civil officers without a notion of affairs; brazen ecclesiastics, of the worst world worldly … all totally unfit for their several callings, all lying horribly in pretending to belong to them, but all nearly or remotely of the order of Monseigneur, and therefore foisted on all public employments” (bk. 2, chap. 7). Although the marquis is out of Monseigneur's favor, he is nevertheless the perfect aristocrat: he can respond to others only in terms of their class and recognizes no common bonds of humanity. His carriage kills a child, and he can see the event only in terms of his contempt for the poor: “I would ride over any of you very willingly, and exterminate you from the earth” (bk. 2, chap. 7). To his nephew Charles Darnay, he laments the deterioration of the power of the aristocracy: “Our not remote ancestors held the right of life and death over the surrounding vulgar” (bk. 2, chap. 9). The Marquis despises Darnay for his humane feelings. And of course, there are the events related in Dr. Manette's prison diary in which the Marquis and his brother destroy a peasant family in order to exercise their droit du seigneur.

If the French Revolution is a form of retribution for such distortions of humanity, it is also paradoxically a continuation of them; the new order merely perpetuates the dehumanizing class-consciousness of the old. Just as the Marquis and the society he represents were trapped within a system that allowed them to perceive others only in terms of their position within the social system, so too are the revolutionaries trapped within their own inversion of that system. Charles Darnay's journey into France most clearly dramatizes how little the overthrow of the old institutions has changed the premises behind French society's judgments of human beings. As he prepares to leave England, Darnay comforts himself with the belief that his renunciation of his social position and his efforts to assist his impoverished tenants will protect him (bk. 2, chap. 24); but the reader, who has seen the condemnation of the Evrémonde race by Defarge and his fellow conspirators, recognizes that Darnay's very reasonable point of view is a misunderstanding, a projection of his own humanity into a very inhumane situation. To the new order, Darnay can be nothing more than the representative of a doomed aristocratic family.

One's position as a citizen subsumes all other ties, and revolutionary France has as little respect as the late Marquis for the feelings that bind families together. Dr. Manette's belief that his suffering now has value as a means of saving his son-in-law from the guillotine proves an illusion; the Revolution is unconcerned with the purely personal. The populace has revived the “questionable public virtues of antiquity,” so that the President of the court that is about to condemn Darnay draws cheers from the crowd by telling Dr. Manette “that the good physician of the Republic would deserve better still of the Republic by rooting out an obnoxious family of Aristocrats, and would doubtless feel a sacred glow and joy in making his daughter a widow and her child an orphan” (bk. 3, chap. 10). Madame Defarge plots to destroy the remaining members of the Evrémonde family—Lucie, her child, and Dr. Manette—by using their human feelings against them; she is going to accuse them of grieving for Darnay, and in revolutionary France even grief is subject to legal regulation: mourning for a victim of the guillotine is itself a capital offense (bk. 3, chap. 12).

Dickens emphasizes the inhumanity of the French Revolution not merely for sentimental reasons but as a means of distinguishing social upheaval from substantive change. On the one hand, social upheaval comes about as the inevitable result of oppression and exploitation. As the tumbrils roll through the streets of Paris toward the guillotine, Dickens gives a direct warning: “Crush humanity out of shape once more, under similar hammers, and it will twist itself into the same tortured forms” (bk. 3, chap. 15). On the other hand, substantive change can occur only when people discard the “mind-forg’d manacles” within which they are trapped, the state of mind that remains long after the external exploiters and oppressors have been destroyed. Of course, such change can occur only within the individual, but that is not to say that Dickens is naive: for if the true instrument of oppression is a state of mind, what possible institutional solution is there? Dickens's lack of faith in political action and the inward direction of his social criticism is more than the Victorian fear of revolution. He is the heir to the inward turning that took place in Wordsworth and Coleridge in the wake of the failure of their faith in the French Revolution. As Carlyle counseled his readers in Past and Present,

It were infinitely handier if we had a Morrison's Pill, Act of Parliament, or remedial measure, which men could swallow, one good time, and then go on in their old courses, cleared from all miseries and mischiefs! Unluckily we have none such; unluckily the Heavens themselves, in their rich pharmacopoeia, contain none such. There will no “thing” be done that will cure you. There will a radical universal alteration of your regimen and way of life take place; there will a most agonizing divorce between you and your chimeras, luxuries and falsities, take place … that so the inner fountains of life may again begin, like eternal Light-fountains, to irradiate and purify your bloated, swollen, fouler existence, drawing nigh, as at present, to nameless death.

Without such an inner transformation, the new order in France can only perpetuate the old oppression by continuing the inherited class-based assumptions about what human beings are. For Dickens, revolution is institutional, but change is psychic.

The religious transformation that takes place within Sidney Carton illustrates both this concern for the inner life of the individual as the only possible means of change and Dickens's use of religious motifs as a way of talking about that inner life. As Carton stands at the guillotine ready to die, he has, according to the observers that Dickens places at the scene, “the peacefullest man's face ever beheld there” (bk. 3, chap 15). He is in the grip of a prophetic vision, one that even offers him a form of redemption through Lucie's as yet unborn child: “I see that child who lay upon her bosom and who bore my name, a man winning his way up in that path of life which once was mine. I see him winning it so well, that my name is made illustrious there by the light of his. I see the blots I threw upon it, faded away” (bk. 3, chap. 15). But Carton's vision secularizes the religious theme of immortality by substituting the continuity of generations for religious mystery. There is no suggestion that he will survive in any other sense; he refers to his coming death as a “far, far better rest … than I have ever known” (bk. 3, chap. 15). Carton's vision simply asserts the newfound sense of relatedness that has led him to sacrifice his life; he now feels himself linked by human ties to a future that he will not personally see. He is no longer the “disappointed drudge” who cares for no one and is cared for by no one (bk. 2, chap. 4). The spirit of optimism in his prophecy arises not out of a faith in God but from a faith in the best that men can become.

The novel's religious symbols follow this pattern: they reflect human attitudes and actions within social boundaries rather than a teleology. Dickens strips religion of any necessary connection with God so that it becomes simply the human potential for good or ill, for the loving self-sacrifice of a Sidney Carton or the indiscriminate destruction of the French revolutionaries. Religious feeling at its best now functions as a basis for human community, a way in which men can reach beyond themselves, experience a sense of fruitful relatedness, and grow beyond the loneliness that many other Victorian writers—Marx, Mill, Arnold, and especially Carlyle—describe as a universal malady of their age. But Dickens recognizes that this positive relatedness is only one possible recasting of Christianity in human terms. The fury of the Carmagnole—“a something once innocent, delivered over to all devilry” (bk. 3, chap. 5)—is another form of community; the Cross can also be transformed into the guillotine: “It was the sign of the regeneration of the human race. It superseded the Cross. Models of it were worn on breasts from which the cross was discarded, and it was bowed down to and believed in where the Cross was denied” (bk. 3, chap. 4). In popular mythology, the French now worship St. Guillotine “for the great sharp female was by that time popularly canonised” (bk. 3, chap. 5). Thus in France, the redefinition of religious faith precludes those human values that have been traditionally associated with Christianity. As an enraged mob finally hangs the hated Foulon on a lamppost after repeated failure, the author remarks “then, the rope was merciful,” a pointed reminder of the virtue that is lacking in the mob (bk. 2, chap. 22).

Similarly, as Robert Alter points out, the four incendiaries who burn the Marquis's chateau suggest the four horsemen of the apocalypse. We do not, however, have the biblical apocalypse, but a fear that the death of the old order may also be a foreshadowing of the death of all order. The one incendiary Dickens describes at length appears in the midst of a barren, unproductive landscape and is ominously portrayed as “a shaggy-haired man, of almost barbarian aspect” (bk. 2, chap. 23). As he sleeps, the reader comes to see him through the eyes of the road-mender who is the sole observer within the scene:

Stooping down beside him, the road-mender tried to get a peep at secret weapons in his breast or where not; but, in vain, for he slept with his arms crossed upon him, and set as resolutely as his lips. Fortified towns with their stockades, guard-houses, gates, trenches, and drawbridges, seemed to the mender of roads, to be so much air as against this figure. And when he lifted his eyes from it to the horizon and looked around, he saw in his small fancy similar figures, stopped by no obstacle, tending to centres all over France. (bk. 2, chap. 23)

In each sentence, Dickens reminds us that this vision of destruction is taking place within the mind of the road-mender. Apocalypse thus acquires a social meaning in two ways: it figures the widespread devastation that actually takes place within France, but it also conveys the consciousness of that devastation, the disappearance of any faith in the stability of things. Historically and psychically, the symbolism of apocalypse is, like the symbolism of the guillotine, an inversion of tradition that leaves only the horror with none of the hope.

English society, by contrast, does offer some hope, although of a very limited sort. Dickens creates a number of similarities between Britain and France, similarities that undermine any self-satisfied confidence in the inherent superiority of British institutions and attitudes. England has no special historical foresight as the references to the American Revolution in the opening chapter and at Darnay's trial make clear (bk. 2, chap. 3). Dickens also suggests that the English have a potential for violence very like that of the French. He labels the crowd at Darnay's English trial “ogreish” in its interest (bk. 2, chap. 2). And the spectator who describes “with a relish” the gruesome penalty for high treason (bk. 2, chap. 2) is as much the connoisseur of death as Jacques Three who contemplates “like an epicure” his vision of Lucie and her daughter in the hands of the executioner (bk. 3, chap. 14). The mob that turns the supposed funeral of John Barsad, the spy, into a near riot palely but surely echoes the grotesque French mobs that dance wildly through the streets of Paris. And like both the French monarchy and the revolutionaries who succeed it, the English law indiscriminately employs the services of the executioner who can be seen “to-day taking the life of an atrocious murderer, and to-morrow of a wretched pilferer who had robbed a farmer's boy of six-pence” (bk. 1, chap. 1).

But in England, unlike France, it is impossible to see all events as parts of a pattern. Much to everyone's surprise, Charles Darnay is acquitted in England. Moreover, there is a disjunction between public and private life. Despite his assurances that he is “a mere machine” in the service of Tellson's (bk. 1, chap. 4), Mr. Lorry does develop an emotionally rich personal existence through his acquaintance with the Manette family. In contrast to the French scenes that show the relationships of people to one another and to the events around them as controlled by the pattern of French history, the early English scenes emphasize the uncertainty of both the reader's and the character's perceptions and how little the characters know of one another. As Mr. Lorry rides toward Dover, Dickens tells us that the coach “was in its usual genial position that the guard suspected the passengers, the passengers suspected one another and the guard, they all suspected everybody else, and the coachman was sure of nothing but the horses” (bk. 1, chap. 2). The passengers keep themselves so separated from one another that at Darnay's English trial, Mr. Lorry is unable to say—and indeed we never learn—whether Darnay was in the coach. As Jerry Cruncher returns to London bearing Mr. Lorry's cryptic message, the narrator meditates on human isolation and concludes with a rhetorical question: “In any of the burial-places of this city through which I pass, is there a sleeper more inscrutable than its busy inhabitants are, in their innermost personality, to me, or than I am to them?” (bk. 1, chap. 3). In England, there are limitations on one's ability to perceive, and in sharp contrast to France, the reader is no longer able to place data in context, to see the coherence of events.

Dickens treats this secrecy that shrouds every individual with characteristic ambivalence. The early coach scenes portray a social atmosphere of constant distrust and fragmentation; as Dickens tells us, “the highwayman in the dark was a City tradesman in the light” (bk. 1, chap. 1). The example of Jerry Cruncher makes abundantly clear that one's private existence is not necessarily a haven in which domestic virtue flourishes. Moreover, the narrator's commentary on the inability of people to know one another implies a loneliness that is developed more fully in the portrait of Sidney Carton. But for all these limitations, the possibility of a private identity has the great advantage of making England a culture in which personality can be multidimensional, in which the publicly visible self is but one part.

In such a society, the individual can think of himself and others in a variety of contradictory terms, and this process of conflict allows the individual to change. This most clearly takes place in the tensions that beset Dr. Manette. At his first appearance in the novel, he is a man completely stripped of his identity by the ordeal of his imprisonment; he works quietly at his shoemaking and passively submits to others. But after a period in England, another side of his personality dominates, a side that completely reverses the passivity of the prisoner: “He was now a very energetic man indeed, with great firmness of purpose, strength of resolution, and vigour of action” (bk. 2, chap. 10). This reversal of his personality does not mean that he has escaped the past, for he continues to bear the prisoner within him. At crucial moments, he reverts or attempts to revert to his shoemaking: when he suspects Darnay's true identity (bk. 2, chap. 10), when he finally learns it (bk. 2, chap. 17), and when he ultimately feels himself responsible for Darnay's condemnation by the revolutionary tribunal (bk. 3, chap. 12). Doctor Manette is able to accept Darnay and to recover from his ordeal because he thinks of himself not only as the wronged prisoner but as Lucie's father. As Darnay hints of his actual descent, the doctor responds that if there are “any fancies, any reasons, any apprehensions, anything whatsoever, new or old, against the man she really loved—the direct responsibility thereof not lying on his head—they should all be obliterated for her sake” (bk. 2, chap. 10). As the doctor's final relapse makes clear, that obliteration is an incomplete process, but he is able to achieve a new inner balance in which the old wrongs are outweighed by his love for his daughter.

Such change has effects that are felt only within the sphere of immediate relationships. It is not the result of dedication to great causes but of following the injunction that Carlyle borrowed from Goethe: “Do the Duty which lies nearest thee.” Thus Sidney Carton finds a sense of purposefulness through his devotion to Lucie to whom he has said “For you, and for any dear to you, I would do anything” (bk. 2, chap. 13). Like Dr. Manette, Carton exemplifies the contradictory possibilities inherent in human nature. He has told Darnay after the courtroom scene of this sense of emotional isolation (bk. 2, chap. 4), and he tells Lucie, “I am like one who died young. All my life might have been” (bk. 2, chap. 13). But as he walks through Paris with his mind set on sacrificing himself to help Lucie and her family, a sense of relatedness returns; he remembers his father's funeral, and the words of the burial service pass through his mind (bk. 3, chap. 9). And his changed state appears to the very last not only in the dramatic act of dying in the place of another but also in the kindness that he displays toward the seamstress who precedes him to the guillotine. Carton's love for Lucie has aroused the sympathetic capacity within his nature, and by caring for another, he finally emerges from the self-imposed prison of indifference. He is finally able to respond to those around him.

Clearly Dickens is not giving us any formula for the regeneration of the human race; the most radical effect that individual change brings about is reconciliation within families. This emphasis on intimate relationships does imply a view of society, but that view is largely negative: the individual must not be excessively burdened by his social identity, he must have room to develop with the contradictory fullness that is distinctively human. But even within a culture that offers that possibility, society does not offer any encouragement to the best human impulses. If Doctor Manette is recalled to life from the grave of his imprisonment, John Barsad parodies that same theme in his mock funeral and reappearance in France as precisely what he has always been, a spy. If Charles Darnay uses the freedom from the past that England offers him to make a new and productive life, Sidney Carton, the character who so uncannily resembles Darnay, is too paralyzed to realize either his emotional or professional capabilities except in his final self-sacrifice. The love of Lucie Manette acts as a regenerative force, but not all women have that power. Miss Pross maintains an unquestioning loyalty to her brother, a loyalty that has no effect other than relieving her of all her property, and Jerry Cruncher remains through most of the book insensible to his wife's prayers. Lucie is clearly a force for the good, but the French episodes, with their portrait of the bloodthirsty Madame Defarge and her companions, effectively undercut any notion that Dickens uncritically idealizes women as moral forces. In A Tale of Two Cities, no external circumstance can do more than create an atmosphere in which change is possible; the individual's readiness is all.

A Tale of Two Cities does not pose domesticity and religion as remedies for the great social problems of the nineteenth century; at most, Dickens's versions of faith and family offer the individual some refuge from the void left by the futility of public action. For whatever solutions Dickens offers are given with the same awareness that is the basis of Carlyle's social criticism: the old clothes of society—its beliefs, its institutions, its politics—are worn out and no longer fill human needs. Thus the novel's tale of private romance becomes a confession of public despair. At the end of the book, the characters retreat into domesticity only after both Darnay and Dr. Manette have tried to influence the course of public events and have clearly failed. Institutions seem impervious to human effort: good men waste their lives if they engage in activism. What Dickens can do on a miniature scale—redefine traditional institutions so that a small group can be based on human values—he cannot do for his culture. Like the author of Sartor Resartus, Dickens recognized the death of the old world but could not visualize the birth of a new.

Certainly as so many critics have claimed, this novel leaves the reader dissatisfied, and part of that dissatisfaction is rooted in Dickens's tendency toward facile moralizing. But the novel also deliberately engenders dissatisfaction through its presentation of the extreme disparity between public and private life. Institutions exist not only as social mechanisms but also through the states of mind they create within their culture, and to destroy the mechanisms cannot in itself bring about substantive change. The old order in France had created a society of unidimensional men who in the overthrow of the past could not break away from the enslaving spirit of their history. The French Revolution abolishes the monarchy, abolishes the aristocracy, abolishes the financial exploiters, but in its perverse way, it embodies the values of these traditional oppressors.

The malaise that Dickens sees in the French Revolution is characteristic of his anatomy of society in his late novels. A Tale of Two Cities presents in its most extreme form the same inability to translate private virtue into public action that in other novels plagues English society; the Circumlocution Office in Little Dorrit and the Court of Chancery in Bleak House poison the will of Englishmen. These institutions work according to their own internal logic and not to fulfill any human need, and as Daniel Doyce and Richard Carstone learn, they dehumanize anyone who comes into contact with them. Such institutions respond to nothing outside of themselves. It is better, Dickens says, to retreat into a sphere of a few close relationships where action becomes meaningful, to make one's garden grow; but whatever hope Dickens offers for private life grows out of an acceptance of social despair.

Unlike Dickens, Carlyle seems to offer some hope that the process by which men change themselves and dedicate their energies to the fulfillment of their immediate duties can perhaps in the long run transform society. It is likely that this hope struck a responsive note in his contemporaries and brought Carlyle to the height of his popularity in the late 1830s and the 1840s. It is also probably the extinction of that hope that brought to the fore Carlyle's more authoritarian tendencies and that to some degree alienated him from a part of his audience. But the differences between Carlyle and Dickens should not obscure the basic similarity of their outlooks: both writers believe that man's self-realization can occur only in a social context and yet that contact with society is inherently destructive. Like Wordsworth and Coleridge in the aftermath of the French Revolution, both Carlyle and Dickens are seeking a means by which people can experience a sense of purposeful action in a society whose institutions are devoid of all human purpose and whose populace has come to reflect that inhumanity.

Principal Works

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*Sketches by Boz, Illustrative of Every-Day Life and Every-Day People (sketches and short stories) 1836

The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, Edited by “Boz” (novel) 1836–[1838]

Oliver Twist; or, The Parish Boy's Progress, by “Boz” (novel) 3 vols. 1838

Memoirs of Joseph Grimaldi, Edited by “Boz” (novel) 2 vols. 1838

The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby (novel) 1839

Barnaby Rudge. A Tale of the Riots of 'Eighty (novel) 1841

The Old Curiosity Shop (novel) 1841

American Notes for General Circulation (travel essay) 1842

A Christmas Carol, in Prose: Being a Ghost Story of Christmas (short story) 1843

The Chimes: A Goblin Story of Some Bells That Rang an Old Year Out and a New Year In (short story) 1845

The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit (novel) 1844

The Cricket on the Hearth: A Fairy Tale of Home (short story) 1846

Pictures from Italy (travel essay) 1846

Dealings with the Firm of Dombey and Son, Wholesale, Retail, and for Exportation (novel) 1847

The Personal History of David Copperfield (novel) 1850

Bleak House (novel) 1853

Hard Tmes. For These Times (novel) 1854

Little Dorrit (novel) 1857

A Tale of Two Cities (novel) 1859

Great Expectations (novel) 1861

The Uncommercial Traveller (sketches and short stories) 1861

Our Mutual Friend (novel) 1865

No Thoroughfare [with Wilkie Collins] (drama) 1867

The Mystery of Edwin Drood (unfinished novel) 1870

Charles Dickens' Book of Memoranda: A Photographic and Typographic Facisimile of the Notebook Begun in January 1855 (notebook) 1981

*All of Dickens's novels were first published serially in magazines, usually over periods of one to two years.

Lawrence Frank (essay date 1979)

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SOURCE: “Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities: The Poetics of Impasse,” in American Imago, Vol. 36, No. 3, Fall, 1979, pp. 215-44.

[In the following essay, Frank states that the hero of the novel is not Sydney Carton, but Charles Darnay. Using Georg Lukacs's The Historical Novel, Frank argues that Darnay is a “modernist hero.”]

A Tale of Two Cities has, for too long, been Sydney Carton's novel. The sheer melodramatic force of his last, unspoken words continues to obscure the significance of Charles Darnay's moral and psychological dilemma. Of course, Darnay is all too often a prig, a bourgeois pilgrim en route, like David Copperfield, to a secular celestial city. But he is, however ambiguously, the novel's hero. It is Carton, not Darnay, who is the foil. In the popular imagination, their rôles are commonly reversed. For who can resist either the novel's insistence in that cadenced conclusion, “‘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’”; or memories of Ronald Coleman as Sydney Carton? Dickens himself had been fascinated by Carton's precursor, Richard Wardour, a character in Wilkie Collins' The Frozen Deep. He helped to fashion the part of Wardour and then portrayed it in private, and finally, public performances of the play in 1857: Richard Wardour, like Sydney Carton, is a man who dies saving his rival's life. A Tale of Two Cities does not specifically emerge out of Dickens' suspicious identification with Wardour, but The Frozen Deep undeniably works its subversive way through a novel whose subject seems to be the French Revolution.1

Its ostensible subject, revolution and social change, suggests at once that A Tale of Two Cities is serious in ways The Frozen Deep is not. But its true seriousness is not that of the historical fiction it proclaims itself to be. There is a profoundly ahistorical thrust to the novel. Georg Lukács approaches the truth when he claims, in The Historical Novel, that the French Revolution serves as a “romantic background” to the fates of Lucie, Doctor Manette, Carton and Darnay.2 Dickens is not primarily concerned with the forces of historical determinism. He may, in the prophetic first chapter of the novel, seek to invoke a revitalized historical imagination alert to the meaning of the past and committed to social change in the present. But the incantatory phrases of the opening pages finally give way to the nightmare vision of social chaos and personal impasse with which the novel ends. The French Revolution becomes the Carmagnole, a frenzied dance in which dehumanized revellers, their individual and even sexual identities obscured by their depravity, belie the original promise of the Revolution itself. The Carmagnole speaks of timeless, dionysian forces beyond history.

A Tale of Two Cities is not, then, one of Lukács' realist fictions in which “man is zoon politikon,” in which the “individual existence … cannot be distinguished from [its] social and historical environment.”3 It is precisely the sundering of the characters' “specific individuality” from the “context in which they [are] created” which occurs in the novel. Charles Darnay's individuality is not rooted in the social reality into which he is born. He becomes one of Lukács' modernist heroes, because the decadence of the French aristocracy in the eighteenth century merges with a more permanent reality, enduring irrevocably throughout the whole of human history.

Certain unchanging facts of human existence begin to emerge tentatively in the second chapter of the novel.4 The Dover Mail appears, immersed in a “steaming mist … dense enough to shut out everything from the light of the coach-lamps but these its own workings, and a few yards of road …”5 The coach suggests the self-contained nature of the little world it is, and the irremedial solitude of the three passengers, each “hidden under almost as many wrappers from the eyes of the mind, as from the eyes of the body, of his two companions.” The passengers' isolation is beyond the transforming influence of peaceful, or violent, social change. It is a given of the human condition: “Man thus conceived is an ahistorical being. … Man is now what he has always been and always will be. The narrator, the examining subject, is in motion; the examined reality is static.”6

Lukács, the subtle Marxist critic, perceives the ahistorical tendency in Dickens' imagination. He accounts for it by calling Dickens hopelessly bourgeois: for Lukács, the emphasis on the irremedial isolation of the individual, rather than on social alienation, involves a distortion of man's true being. But if Dickens is bourgeois, which he certainly is, it is not finally a self-serving class blindness to which he falls prey. He believes in the isolation he depicts. And Dickens' bourgeois vision shapes the characteristic manner in which he imagines change and renders the origins of the French Revolution. Dickens, the subtle bourgeois novelist, inevitably imagines historical situations in domestic, familial, terms. Most readers of A Tale of Two Cities, and I include myself, tend to forget that the novel, literally and figuratively, originates in a rape. The dying woman whom the St. Evrémonde twins summon Doctor Manette to attend, on a December night in 1757, will prove to be the ravished sister of Thérèse Defarge. The episode is charged with social and historical implications: the rape points to the ruthless exploitation of one class by another, and to the consequences which must follow. But the rape has other, more volatile implications which come to dominate the novel. In their patriarchal relationship to their tenants, the St. Evrémonde twins prey upon those who stand, figuratively, in the place of sons and daughters to them. Unwittingly, Doctor Manette, himself a potentially rebellious son, finds himself in the midst of a primal scene in which the father is engaged in dark and unspeakable acts. He is confronted, in the starkest terms, by the power of the father.

Dickens has initiated a family drama in which generations impinge upon each other's fate. The national struggle Dickens sets out to depict becomes a generational one in which ideology and class cease to be central. The conflict between generations presents itself as recurring and inescapable, not subject to amelioration as social conditions are, at least hypothetically, subject to change. Generation is forever pitted against generation; sons, and daughters, writhe forever in the grasp of unyielding fathers. And it is Charles Darnay, not Sydney Carton, whose career reveals the son's complex, perhaps doomed, struggle to free himself from the father's tyranny.

The unyielding nature of the father, and the past for which he stands, is embodied in the St. Evrémonde château: “It was a heavy mass of building, that château of Monsieur the Marquis, with a large stone court-yard before it, and two stone sweeps of staircase meeting in a stone terrace before the principal door. A stony business altogether … [as] if the Gorgon's head had surveyed it, when it was finished, two centuries ago” (II, ix). The inertia of the French aristocracy, its stony indifference to the needs of the poor, its arrogant effort to deny time and to perpetuate itself forever are there in Ruskinian terms. The present Marquis is no more than an extension of the house, at best a living version of one of the “stone faces of men” adorning it. He gazes at the world from behind his “fine mask” of stone, enduring a self-inflicted paralysis as he speaks for his class, and the primacy of the father and the past.7 His charge, as he sees it, is to transmit to his nephew, Darnay, the Gorgon's spell under which he has lived, the St. Evrémonde legacy of social and personal repression. For the Marquis, “‘Repression is the only lasting philosophy’” (II, ix). In denying the claims of those beneath him and the fact of his own mortality, the Marquis is almost as dead as the gargoyles his own face resembles.

The Marquis St. Evrémonde is indistinguishable from his château. The pile of stones, like the dust mounds of Old John Harmon in Our Mutual Friend, expresses the father's determination to perpetuate himself, in defiance of time and his heirs, even through life-denying forms. In this way, A Tale of Two Cities is analogous to another, later, novel exploring the fate of dynastic ambitions. In William Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!, as John Irwin observes, “ … Sutpen's revenge requires that he found a dynasty, for the proof that he has succeeded in becoming the father will finally be achieved only when he bequeaths his authority and power to his son as an inheritance (a gift, not a right), thereby establishing the son's dependence on his father and thus the father's mastery.”8 The Marquis does not quite seek Sutpen's revenge upon a society which has affronted him. Perhaps his effort to achieve the “father's mastery” of the son involves a bizarre protest against his own acquiescence to his “‘natural destiny’” as others once saw it. But the Marquis, as the twin of Darnay's dead father, clearly stands in the place of the biological father as his surrogate.

Darnay's sense of the wrongs perpetrated by his family involves him in a complex relationship, both to the uncle and the dead father. His defiance of his uncle's command that he accept his destiny is an attack upon the past, the “father's time,” upon the father himself: “‘ … [I am] bound to a system that is frightful to me, responsible for it, but powerless in it; seeking … to have mercy and to redress; and tortured by seeking assistance and power in vain’” (II, ix). Darnay speaks, far more directly than usual, for all the troubled sons, and daughters, of Dickens' later novels. They confront the father's authority, his will, his legacy, binding them to the past, to sterile repetitions of the habitual stance of the dead father. In Our Mutual Friend, the all-too-literal Harmon Will tempts John Harmon into an acceptance of his father's twisted values, into becoming a mere instrument, or appendage, of the father. In acquiescing, Harmon would forfeit his right to be a father on his own terms. To Darnay, the Marquis speaks of the primacy of the father's time, a chronicle of social injustice, murder and rape. In his defiance, Darnay renounces a dead, and a potentially deadening, past: he affirms his right to create a new, more viable tradition.9

On the night of Darnay's formal renunciation of his country, his property and his family name, Gaspard assassinates the Marquis St. Evrémonde. The two events merge in the narrative line of the novel. But this is not melodramatic coincidence. Darnay's renunciation is a form of rebellion: he has dealt a fatal blow to his uncle, his family and the repugnant values of the past. The Marquis' murder serves as a seal to Darnay's decision, made five years before, to confer upon himself a new name, and a new identity as a good bourgeois. The implications of Darnay's act, metonymically fused with Gaspard's, are all too clear. The mender of roads, who brings the news of Gaspard's execution to the Defarges, has heard the villagers whispering “‘ … that because [Gaspard] has slain Monseigneur, and because Monseigneur was the father of his tenants—serfs—what you will—he will be executed as a parricide’” (II, xv). The bankrupt feudalism of Bourbon France still tries to assert the validity of the patriarchal relationship between master and tenant that it has itself subverted. The dead Marquis has failed in every way as the “father” of his peasants, even as the surrogate father of his nephew. But the inviolable person of the father remains a cornerstone of the philosophy of repression by which the Marquis lives, and dies. Assassins like Gaspard have been traditionally dealt with as parricides. Their punishment is a warning to every restive son:

“One old man says at the fountain, that his right hand, armed with the knife, will be burnt off before his face; that, into wounds which will be made in his arms, his breast, and his legs, there will be poured boiling oil, melted lead, hot resin, wax, and sulphur; finally, that he will be torn limb from limb by four strong horses.” (II, xv)

The assassin's right hand, “‘armed’” with the knife, is mutilated so that no other hand or arm will be raised against the father. The assassin's body is so completely violated that no one at the execution may think even of his body as his own; it belongs to the father. The body, the self, is subject to mutilation at the father's whim. To threaten the father, even as Darnay does, is to commit the ultimate sin against the society and the past for which the patriarchal figure stands.

Gaspard's execution is less barbaric than those in earlier reigns: he is merely hanged. But vestiges of the old ritual persist: “‘On the top of the gallows is fixed the knife, blade upwards, with its point in the air’” (II, xv). The knife is symbolic by design, standing for the hand and arm that wielded it, while conjuring up the old terror of the father's revenge upon the sons who challenge him. By bringing Darnay and Gaspard together upon the night of the Marquis' assassination, Dickens effectively unites them. Darnay, in his act of renunciation, has incurred the guilt of the parricide.

The trial in the Old Bailey is chronologically prior to the Marquis' death, but it serves, in spite of its mockery of justice, to raise the complex issue of Darnay's guilt. Darnay's perception of the crowd in the courtroom anticipates the description of the executions of Gaspard and those parricides who were his predecessors: “The accused, who was (and who knew he was) being mentally hanged, beheaded, and quartered, by everybody there, neither flinched from the situation, nor assumed any theatrical air in it” (II, ii). “Treason” and parricide are one, the punishment for either crime the same. Darnay is figuratively on trial for his continuing rebellion against France (not England) and the father. But, surely, evil fathers, like corrupt regimes, must be defied. The son is not obligated to acquiesce to a tyrannical father or to the past he embodies. But if the son's defiance, regardless of its form, is perceived by father and son as parricide, the son's own sense of his necessary act becomes shrouded in guilt. If the need to create new personal and social forms leads to the original sin against the father, it becomes a task from which most men shrink. Self-assertion, viewed always as parricide, becomes impossible.

Darnay's muted heroism lies in his effort to change and to become free of the father through the creation, ex nihilo, of a new identity. He incurs the parricide's guilt. Nonetheless, his remains a flawed reunciation, a suspect rebellion. His dying mother, in imploring him “‘to have mercy and to redress,’” has committed him to a Sisyphean labor. Darnay falters before his all-too-accurate perception of the “‘misery and ruin’” about him. He speaks of a “‘curse’” on the land, and thinks only of placing the St. Evrémonde property “‘into some hands better qualified to free it slowly (if such a thing is possible) from the weight that drags it down … ’” (II, ix). But there are no hands better qualified than his own. He may not delegate his responsibilities to others, to minor functionaries like the befuddled Gabelle. In his renunciation Darnay reveals a tendency to self-deception. He wants to obliterate the past, to elude the responsibility he has acknowledged as his alone.

The authenticity of Darnay's revolt is undermined by other factors. Through his spies the Marquis has learned of his nephew's relationship to Doctor Manette and Lucie. The Marquis is a cynic, revelling in ironies of which Darnay cannot be aware. But cynics more than occasionally touch the raw nerve of truth: “‘A Doctor with a daughter. Yes. So commences the new philosophy!’” (II, ix). For the Marquis Darnay is fulfilling his destiny, repeating a version of that act to which Doctor Manette became an unwilling witness. The Marquis also senses that Darnay is a little too eager to accept the idea of a curse upon the St. Evrémondes. Darnay calls England his refuge. But it is not England as much as the Manette household in Soho which lures Darnay away from his native France. The “new philosophy” of which the Marquis speaks with such disdain may, after all, be founded primarily on Darnay's selfish desire for Lucie and the tranquility over which she presides. The son's rebellion, with all its inherent risks, has been almost emptied of meaning. Darnay faces a new risk, akin to that described by V. E. von Gebsattel in “The World of the Compulsive”:

We see that an action can be completely executed, in the sense that it has served to implement a purpose, without being completed—or indeed, having occurred at all—in terms of its life-historical meaning. Although it is done, it is as if it had not been done. The person, as a living being moving ahead in time, does not enter into the objective performance of his action, and therefrom arises—after the completion of the action—doubt as to the reality of its occurrence.10

“Although it is done, it is as if it had not been done.” Darnay is a “parricide” who has not accepted the implications and consequences of his act. He has defied the primal taboo, and has achieved nothing.

In fleeing the social and personal paralysis embodied in the St. Evrémonde château, Darnay unwittingly embraces it. He moves from an unyielding past towards a tentative future with Lucie which is, itself, but another encounter with everything he has denied. He is Oedipus fleeing Corinth, only to find himself on the road to Thebes. The trial in the Old Bailey, quite apart from its chronological place in the novel, introduces Darnay to the fate with which he dimly struggles throughout A Tale of Two Cities. His guilt is multiple and paradoxical: he is the would-be parricide and the man for whom the act has had no “life-historical meaning.” He is fixed in an untenable situation, aware of a sense of guilt which is finally existential in nature: he is in a treasonous relationship, to himself and others.

Over Darnay's head “there [is] a mirror, to throw the light down upon him”:

Crowds of the wicked and the wretched had been reflected in it, and had passed from its surface and this earth's together. Haunted in a most ghastly manner that abominable place would have been, if the glass could ever have rendered back its reflections, as the ocean is one day to give up its dead. Some passing thought of the infamy and disgrace for which it had been reserved, may have struck the prisoner's mind … he looked up; and when he saw the glass his face flushed. … (II, ii)

This is a uniquely Dickensian moment. Darnay's reflection mingles, if only in his own imagination, with the reflections of “the wicked and the wretched” who once stood where he now stands. The experience defines Darnay's unconscious relationship to himself and to others. Momentarily, Darnay has looked into the hidden currents of himself, those currents suggested in Dickens' brooding meditation in the third chapter of the novel: “No more can I look into the depths of this unfathomable water, wherein, as momentary lights glanced into it, I have had glimpses of buried treasures and other things submerged” (I, iii, italics mine). The face floating beneath the mirror's surface cannot be effaced because it exists at some level within Darnay's own consciousness, and potentially within the consciousness of others.11 In ways he does not yet acknowledge, he shares in the guilt of all those who have stood in the prisoner's dock and who have been condemned, rather than exonerated. The Marquis St. Evrémonde has failed to turn Darnay into another stone figure like himself. But, the ambiguities of Darnay's flawed rebellion have, ironically, fixed Darnay's guiltridden image of himself. During his trial Darnay pulls back from his moment of intuitive self-knowledge. But this vision of himself lurks within Darnay, waiting to return from the depths, “as the ocean is one day to give up its dead.”

Dickens has suggested forms of culpability, and their consequences, unacknowledged by any court of law, but present in the court of one's own consciousness. Yet, for much of A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens avoids a direct exploration of the impact of Darnay's bad faith upon his life. Rather, he explores Darnay's condition indirectly. Even Sydney Carton, as the “Double of coarse deportment,” only cryptically signals that beneath the façade of Darnay's conventional self there is a deep-seated dislocation of the spirit. As the jury deliberates, Darnay and Carton stand “side by side, both reflected in the glass above them” (II, iii). A process of displacement occurs, as it does later in the novel in the metonymic relationship of Darnay and Gaspard. The mirror fleetingly contains two identical reflections. But only fleetingly, for Carton's reflection usurps Darnay's, at least that reflection Darnay has glimpsed buried in the mirror, and in the self. Detached from its origin, it gains an autonomous existence of its own.12 Carton suggests Darnay's passive and guilty self, the self which can tell Lucie, “‘I am like one who died young. All my life might have been’” (II, xiii). He attests to the state of paralysis in which the respectable Darnay will, in fact, be living until the outbreak of the Revolution.

This relationship between counterparts underlies all that happens when Darnay and Carton are left alone together in the darkness outside the Old Bailey. Darnay is still “‘frightfully confused regarding time and place’”; he feels “‘ … hardly … to belong to this world again’” (II, iv). Under such oircumstances, before the reprieved conventional self has managed to re-establish its primacy, the shadow self asserts its existence. Carton, only now, and perhaps never again, speaks freely of his own self-abhorrence and warns his Double of the dangers facing him. Carton, an artist of despair, knows the subtle ways in which the will may be subverted. His own sense of “the blight on him,” to which he has resigned himself, has attuned him to the same blight secretly at work in others. He tries to pierce the complacency of Darnay, who may eventually misuse his own talents, but he fails. The episode ends with Carton in earnest discourse with his image, reflected in a glass upon the tavern wall. He has perceived a version of himself from which he is irrevocably cut off: he is as alienated from conventional potentialities within himself as Darnay seems to be from those darker potentialities he has implicitly denied.

Curiously, this meeting never leads to an evolving, complex relationship. Dickens knowingly exploits Doppelgänger relationships in his most successful psychological fiction. But in A Tale of Two Cities none of the dramatic intensity of David Copperfield's friendship with Steerforth or of Eugene Wrayburn's obsession with Bradley Headstone emerges from the interview between Darnay and Carton. Darnay dismisses the evening with Carton from his consciousness, repressing any understanding of the man who has saved his life. He can speak of Carton only “as a problem of carelessness and recklessness”; he chooses to see no more. Dickens has decided to make Carton's life as shadowy as possible, in part a consequence of his similarity to the character of Richard Wardour in The Frozen Deep.13 Carton, unlike Darnay, seems to lack a significant past. There are vague references to a “youth of great promise,” to student days in Paris, and to his father's death. But Carton remains in the shadows, a literary blank cheque to be called upon at the novel's end to resolve the apparently irresolvable.

However, Darnay and Carton are linked by a shared experience, the common fate of every son. Their lives are significantly shaped by dead fathers and the father surrogates they encounter. Darnay defies his uncle, the Marquis; Carton contends with Stryver, “a man of little more than thirty, but looking twenty years older … ” (II, iv). Old enough, in appearance, to be Carton's father. Stryver even bullies Carton in a parental way: “‘You summon no energy and purpose. Look at me’” (II, v). Carton's response implicitly condemns Stryver: “‘ … you were always somewhere, and I was always—nowhere’” (II, v). This is the son's eternal complaint against the father who refuses to give him space in which to exist.14 It is the only challenge to Stryver that seems potentially telling. In his self-destructive manner, Carton defies Stryver's summons to a conventionally energetic life of “‘driving and riving and shouldering and pressing”’ which denies the integrity of others. Stryver, the pale English version of the Marquis St. Evrémonde, asks Carton to model himself upon him, to shoulder his way through the world: but Carton prefers not to.

Fathers and forms of parricide remain at the center of A Tale of Two Cities. Dickens chooses to dwell occasionally upon Darnay's experience in England as a bourgeois hero. But Darnay's economic strivings are really only of secondary importance. His relationship to Lucie, and especially to her father, is far more significant. Darnay has come to England to fulfill his destiny through his encounter with the Manettes. Lucie and the Doctor have taken lodgings near Soho-square. The courtyard of the house in which they live brandishes “a golden arm starting out of the wall of [a] front hall,” the emblem of “some mysterious giant,” an invisible worker in precious metals who shares the building with the Manettes by day (II, vi). The detail seems hardly worth noting. Yet it points to the true nature of Darnay's evolving relationship to Manette. The presence of the seemingly anomalous golden arm is related to Dickens' conscious pun upon Manette's name, “la main,” French for hand, and becomes a part of the parrioidal matrix in the novel. The golden arm has a specific, and telling, antecedent in David Copperfield. When he first meets Mr. Spenlow in Doctors' Commons, David notices Spenlow's gold watch-chain: “[it] was so massive, that a fancy came across me, that he ought to have a sinewy golden arm, to draw it out with, like those which are put up over the gold-beaters' shops.”15 The similarities between David Copperfield's and Charles Darnay's situation are clear enough: the play with Dickens' own initials simply emphasize them. Like David and Mr. Spenlow, Darnay and Manette are fated to become rivals, not only for Lucie's love, but for supremacy in their own relationship. Lucie only appears to be the center of the “tranquil bark” anchored in the quiet corner in Soho. The golden arm of the “mysterious giant” does not proclaim Lucie's maternal dove, but Manette's potency, the father's potency of arm and hand. In his new life, Manette has become “a very energetic man indeed, with great firmness of purpose, strength of resolution, and vigour of action” (II, x).

Darnay has fled his “‘natural destiny’” in France, only to encounter it in England. He has denied one father in the form of the Marquis; now he meets in Manette the father he might have chosen for himself. Quite apart from the issue of the St. Evrémonde legacy and Manette's imprisonment, there occurs the mythical meeting of the son seeking to become a parent in his own right and the father who may thwart his efforts. And, as in David Copperfield, the fate of the father becomes problematic: must Manette, too, die, as Mr. Spenlow does, to make way for the son?

Manette is a far more complex, and powerful, father surrogate than the others abounding in Dickens' novels: the golden arm, the emblem of force and potency, attests to that. The virtual sterility of characters like Mr. Jarndyce in Bleak House, Daniel Doyce in Little Dorrit and Noddy Boffin in Our Mutual Friend makes them attractive to those who seek them out. Their goodness, and their childlessness, is reassuring: they pose no threats to Esther Summerson, Arthur Clennam or John Harmon, whose real parents, living or dead, are formidable, and destructive, figures. But Manette has experienced real suffering and managed a precarious recovery. He is neither ineffectual nor childless. His love for Lucie competes with Darnay's, as Darnay himself vaguely recognizes: “‘I know,’ said Darnay, respectfully, ‘… that between you and Miss Manette there is an affection so unusual, so touching, so belonging to the circumstances in which it has been nurtured, that it can have few parallels …’” (II, x). Darnay's language suggests Cordelia and Lear, Dickens' own little Nell and her grandfather. It also hints at the ambiguity of Manette's love for his daughter, who has entered his life not as an asexual child, but as a young woman. Darnay's persistent, and unnerving, scrupulosity takes him closer and closer to the truth: “‘I know that when [Lucie] is clinging to you, the hands of baby, girl, and woman, all in one, are round your neck’” (II, x). Darnay thinks he understands the sanctity of Manette's and Lucie's love for each other. He has, however, defined Manette's relationship to Lucie as a marriage to the idealized Victorian bride.16 Inevitably, he and Manette are rivals. But Darnay vows not to displace the father, not to lay hands upon him: “‘ … I look … [not] to divide with Lucie her privilege as your child, companion, and friend; but to come in aid of it, and bind her closer to you, if such a thing can be’” (II, x). But “‘such a thing’” cannot be. Poor Manette can answer only with silence, and a “look which [has] a tendency in it to dark doubt and dread.” He suspects Darnay is a St. Evrémonde and recognizes the various threats his future son-in-law must pose to himself.

Darnay continues upon an increasingly labyrinthine process of self-deception. He cannot fulfill his vow to Lucie's father. If Manette were Jarndyce, Doyce or Noddy Boffin, things would be different. But the golden arm of the mysterious giant retains its emblematic force. Darnay has promised that loyalty to the father which, if he is to become both husband and father himself, he cannot honor. Eventually, he must raise his own hand and arm against Manette, if only figuratively. He must, in time, assert himself and his own rights and deny those of Manette. Once again, Darnay is flirting with fixation and arrest. Even the benign father must finally give way before the legitimate claims of the young. Perhaps, for once, the transfer of power from father to son will not necessitate either the father's death or the son's defeat.

The dead-end into which Darnay is moving is complicated by other factors which are directly connected to his decision to leave France. He tries earnestly to identify himself with Manette as a “‘voluntary exile from France; like [him], driven from it by its distractions, oppressions and miseries'”: “‘ … I look only to sharing your fortunes, sharing your life and home, and being faithful to you to the death’” (II, x). This speech can be accepted at face value only if we ignore the ominous ambiguity of the word, “‘death,’” and if we abandon our capacity to make important moral distinctions. Darnay's experience has not been Manette's. He has been victimized by his own class in the sense that he feels repugnance for the moral and political heritage he is expected to uphold. But Darnay has not been persecuted as Manette, Thérèse Defarge, Gaspard and countless others have. The only legitimate basis for Darnay's identification with Manette lies in his renunciation of his title: he has refused to perpetuate the crimes of the past. But he has also abdicated his responsibilities to his own class and to the peasants who continue, as he knows, to suffer. France remains unchanged in spite of Darnay's gesture of revolt.

Darnay, as son and social rebel, clings precariously to the fragile conception of himself formulated in his interview with Manette. The interview ends upon a masterstroke of rectitude designed to consolidate Darnay's identity. Darnay asks Manette to speak to Lucie neither in his favor, nor against him. The Doctor is effectively stymied. He has no real choice but to say, “‘ … [if there were] any fancies, any reasons, any apprehensions, anything whatsoever, new or old, against the man she really loved—the direct responsibility thereof not lying on his head—they should all be obliterated for her sake’” (II, x). Manette's words fail to arouse curiosity, or foreboding, in Darnay although they allude, however indirectly, to all the facts that Darnay's account of himself has skirted. But Manette has conferred that absolution Darnay has been seeking: absolution from those crimes he has not himself committed, but which his class and his family have. An absolution devoutly to be wished. But one which no man, not even a victim of the St. Evrémondes, may confer. In A Tale of Two Cities, there is no absolution for the father's deeds, no refuge from generational conflict.

Darnay's marriage to Lucie Manette resolves nothing. It leads only to another act of parricide on Darnay's part. His revelation of his true identity, confirming what Manette already suspects, causes the Doctor's relapse: after the ceremony “… Mr. Lorry observed a great change to have come over the Doctor; as if the golden arm uplifted there, had struck him a poisoned blow” (II, xviii). The golden arm no longer stands for Manette's paternal strength alone. Now it announces the son's emerging power. The phrasing in the passage recalls the murder of the Marquis and the punishment inflicted upon parricides like Gaspard, whose corpse has been left hanging from the gallows, poisoning the village well below it. Once more Darnay is the unwitting parricide, subject to the guilt and punishment which is the parricide's timeless fate. This time Manette recovers after regressing to his pathetic condition as the shoemaker of the North Tower. But he remains vulnerable to future, more final, blows from the son's arm.

A Tale of Two Cities, like so many of Dickens' novels, has led to impasse, to a sense of the impossibility of normal change and growth. Darnay seems condemned to a perpetual repetition of that parricidal act he has committed in France. It undermines all that he does. He may prosper in London. He may marry and have children. But his life remains false, based upon a denial of his guilt and his responsibility. In their nocturnal interview Carton has warned, “‘Don’t let your sober face elate you, … you don’t know what it may come to’” (II, iv). The face with which Darnay meets the world masks that other face he has glimpsed in the Old Bailey mirror. As usual, in Dickens' novels, the issue is defined in an indirect way. The news of Darnay's impending marriage reaches the Defarges in Saint Antoine through John Barsad, now a spy for the French monarchy: “‘And speaking of Gaspard …, it is a curious thing that [Manette's daughter] is going to marry the nephew of Monsieur the Marquis, for whom Gaspard was exalted to the height of so many feet; in other words, the present Marquis'” (II, xvi). Barsad's apparently casual observations connect Manette's persecution, the Marquis' murder, Gaspard's execution and Darnay's marriage. Darnay would protest that he is not “‘the present Marquis,’” that he has relinquished the title. But one ‘father’ has been slain. The ‘son,’ his heir, lives in self-imposed exile while the peasants of the St. Evrémonde estate endure their scarecrow existence in the midst of a France that is now a wasteland. Darnay, the father, has left unchanged the lives of those to whom he is directly responsible. He lives “‘unknown in England,’” where he is “‘no Marquis'”: unknown to his tenants in France; unknown to his wife; unknown, finally, to himself.

Darnay's trial for treason has never ended. It pursues its subterranean course during the years of domestic tranquility in Soho. But the outbreak of the Revolution in 1789 brings this period of serenity to its necessary end. The failure to produce change in France, in part, Darnay's failure, leads to violent upheaval. A “living sea,” an “ocean of faces,” sweeps across France, engulfing the old order. In Saint Antoine its “scarecrows” raise a “forest of naked arms,” struggling “in the air like shrivelled branches of trees in a winter wind: all the fingers convulsively clutching at every weapon or semblance of a weapon that was thrown up from the depths below …” (II, xxi). Arm, hand, blade join in the final, convulsive assault upon the father. The day of judgment has come at last. This ocean of faces, “whose depths were yet unfathomed and whose forces were yet unknown,” returns us to the mirror in the Old Bailey: “Haunted in a most ghastly manner that abominable place would have been, if the glass could ever have rendered back its reflections, as the ocean is one day to give up its dead.” In Paris the ocean yields up its dead. In their lust for retribution, the revolutionaries incur the guilt of “the wicked and the wretched” who once stood in the prisoner's dock. The language Dickens uses indicates that they exist in that relationship to Darnay which he has so long denied, that he participates in the events of the Revolution.

Once begun, the national orgy of retribution becomes a frenzied vegetation rite, an attempt to placate the gods and to rid France of its moral pestilence. The ritualistic element in the Revolution expresses itself in the capture and execution of old Foulon, who has “‘caused himself to be represented as dead, and [has] had a grand mock-funeral’” (II, xxii). The people of Saint Antoine resurrect Foulon, whose crime has been to tell “‘the famished people that they might eat grass.’” They resurrect, and punish him: Foulon's severed head is impaled “upon a spike, with grass enough in the mouth for all Saint Antoine to dance at the sight of” (II, xxii). Old Foulon becomes a version of Frazer's corn-god effigy, standing simultaneously for the king and the father: he is mutilated and returned to the earth, so that the nation, the people and the wasted land be renewed.

In a remarkably compressed sequence of events Dickens merges the social and personal dimensions of the novel. Foulon's ruse is only one of a series of feigned deaths to which others have resorted. The most extravagant example is the mock-funeral of Roger Cly, informer and cohort of John Barsad (himself dead to his original name, Solomon Pross). But the Marquis St. Evrémonde has been dead to the suffering of the people. Even Charles Darnay has died: he has entered a limbo of complicity in which he still exists. Events sweep over Foulon, Darnay and France itself. Water transforms itself into fire, in this period of elemental chaos, and reaches out to destroy the St. Evrémonde château which has stood for both social and personal paralysis throughout the novel. The revolutionaries' naked arms, earlier compared to the “shrivelled branches of trees,” cease to be atrophied and ineffectual. As a living forest of smoke and flame, they now attack the château which seems “as if it were the face of the cruel Marquis, burning at the stake. …”17 We are very close to the world of Totem and Taboo here. The assassination of the Marquis, repeated in the ritualistic execution of Old Foulon, is performed once more, as if a single act of parricide is not enough. The château, and all it represents, disintegrates: “Molten lead and iron boiled in the marble basin of the fountain; the water ran dry; the extinguisher tops of the towers vanished like ice … and trickled down into four rugged wells of flame” (II, xxiii). The father's effort to perpetuate himself through a tyrannical social system, impregnable stone and subservient progeny has come to this. The Gorgon's spell is broken at last. Revolution has become the only way to alleviate social and personal impasse. The political event mirrors the individual upheaval to which figures like Darnay will soon be exposed. The Revolution inundates France with blood and flame: it is one parricidal act which seeks to run its full course.

The patriarchal forces encouraging impasse and denying change and evolution succumb to the Revolution. Sustained tyranny causes and demands retribution, which may itself be subverted by the intensity of its fervor. Even Charles Darnay, who has futilely tried to elude his responsibility through exile and marriage, finds himself resurrected into the flux of events. The identity, the self, he has so carefully shaped more than fourteen years before, when he appeared on the packet-ship, “‘in the dead of night,’” must yield, like the St. Evrémonde château, to the chaos of the times: Darnay must relinquish his present identity or become its victim.

The opportunity for change first presents itself to Darnay at Tellson's in London. With the Revolution the Bank functions as the refuge of Monseigneur “as a class,” a class which has taken to its collective heels, abandoning France to her fate. Darnay inevitably finds himself talking to Mr. Lorry in the midst of the vain chatter and complaints of people to whom he is still related in ways he prefers not to understand: “And it was such vapouring all about his ears, like a troublesome confusion of blood in his own head, added to a latent uneasiness in his mind, which had already made Charles Darnay restless, and which still kept him so” (II, xxiv). The disorientation Darnay once felt on the night of his trial for treason returns. All the repressed doubts about the legitimacy of his past acts are aroused. Through Gabelle's letter, addressed to “‘Monsieur heretofore the Marquis St. Evrémonde, of France,’” Darnay's natural destiny inescapably confronts him.18 The disparaging observations by the emigrés and Stryver about “the Marquis who was not to be found” ironically hit the mark. Each malicious comment possesses that element of truth he can’t ignore: he is “‘a craven who [has] abandoned his post’”; there is “‘contamination in such a scoundrel’” (II, xxiv). However unwittingly, Darnay, like old Foulon, has in effect told his tenants to eat grass. He has struck Manette a poisoned blow by his very presence in England. Gabelle's letter, his plea to the emigrant to whom he has remained loyal in his way, almost to death itself, transforms a “latent uneasiness” into a crystallized realization.

Darnay moves out of Tellson's into the quiet of the Temple near which the heads of executed felons were once “exposed … with an insensate brutality and ferocity worthy of Abyssinia or Ashantee” (II, i). Temple Bar alludes to the trial in the Old Bailey and to the fates of the Marquis and old Foulon. It is the appropriate place in which Darnay's uneasiness can finally express itself: “… in his horror of [his uncle's murder] …, and in the aversion with which his conscience regarded the crumbling fabric that he was supposed to uphold, he had acted imperfectly … in his love for Lucie, his renunciation of his social place … had been hurried and incomplete” (II, xxiv). In these reflections, Darnay confronts the common omissions and failures of men everywhere, in all ages. He has succumbed to the temptations time always offers: “… the events of this week annihilated the immature plans of last week, and the events of the week following made all new again; … to the force of these circumstances he had yielded:—not without disquiet, but still without continuous and accumulating resistance” (II, xxiv). Darnay's life in England has hardened into an imprisoning conception of himself which no longer seems valid. The cynicism of the dead Marquis has been confirmed by events. And Darnay must now live with the wreckage of an obsolete self.19

Such insights into one's most tenaciously held illusions are inevitably disquieting. Once again, Darnay recoils in an effort to convince himself of his innocence: “… he had oppressed no man, he had imprisoned no man; … [he had] thrown himself on a world with no favour in it, won his own private place there, and earned his own bread” (II, xxiv). But in earning his own bread, in the best bourgeois manner, he has permitted others to starve. He has failed to unify his private and his social obligations: he remains, in spite of his protests, “the Marquis who was not to be found.” The barren fields of the St. Evrémonde estate and its peasants' gaunt faces belie his right to a private place, with its negation of broader responsibilities. Darnay's “illusion” that he may “guide this raging Revolution that was running so fearfully wild” lacks a real basis. His sense of superiority to the revolutionaries, “bad instruments” working out “bad aims,” his confidence that “he [is] better than they,” reveal how easy, and necessary, it may be to repair the broken web of one's existence with threads of fancy. Darnay, but not Dickens, fully expects his intentions to be “gratefully acknowledged in France” as if they were achieved realities (II, xxiv). Such thoughts reveal the extent to which good, but misguided, men have shared in the making of the Revolution, and their inability to perceive clearly their guilt.

Darnay succumbs to his own half-truths and to the lure of Paris, the Loadstone Rock: “In seasons of pestilence, some of us will have a secret attraction to the disease—a terrible passing inclination to die of it. And all of us have like wonders hidden in our breasts, only needing circumstances to evoke them” (III, vi). Darnay's failure to comprehend his true situation, and how he will be seen by those in France, is his disease, corresponding to “the leprosy of unreality” which has struck down the ancien régime. His journey to Paris becomes a ritual shaping the endings of Dickens' mature novels. David Copperfield travels to Yarmouth through a violent storm, to find Steerforth's body washed ashore, almost at his feet. Esther Summerson pursues Lady Dedlock through the London maze, until she discovers her, dead, near Nemo's grave. Eugene Wrayburn seeks out Lizzie Hexam in the mill town on the Thames, where he is attacked and nearly drowned. In each case the physical journey is an inner, psychic one, a descent into a personal maelstrom. An unresolved dilemma comes to pose a threat to the character's existence. Darnay's renunciation of the St. Evrémonde name has not led to personal autonomy and integrity; not even to authentic fatherhood. “Unknown” even to his own family, he is a true father neither in England nor in France.

Darnay's journey to France involves a return to that moment in which he has tried to deal with the past by denying its claims upon him. At first, he claims that he has returned “‘of [his] own will.’” But, at last, he must see that he has no choice, that he responds to forces within himself not fully understood. As one revolutionary cries, “‘His cursed life is not his own!’” (III, i). The ride towards Paris through the soggy darkness is a personal nightmare. He is compelled to recognize that he “‘[is] lost. … All here is so unprecedented, so changed, so sudden and unfair, that [he is] absolutely lost’” (III, i). The circumstances are not even primarily Dickens' comment upon the chaos and the injustice of the Reign of Terror. Through them he reveals not only universal flux and discontinuity, but the further erosion of Darnay's conventional notions of himself.

The “mire-deep roads” and the darkness lead to the prison, La Force, a place metaphorically under water. Darnay enters the watery depths of the Old Bailey mirror, of himself, to encounter an aristocratic version of “the wicked and the wretched” faces once reflected there. The prisoners, “spectral” in the “squalor and misery” of La Force, rise ceremoniously to greet him, as the imagined faces in the mirror greeted him before. Darnay's sense that the prisoners are “Ghosts all!” confirms his own deadness and culpability. He belongs with them. The “long unreal ride,” like “some progress of disease,” has culminated in this crisis of a will infected with paralysis. Darnay has been plunged into the depths from which he has pulled back, just as so many characters in Our Mutual Friend, both sons and fathers, are plunged into the baptismal waters of the Thames. His confidence in his own innocence has proved false. Now he finds himself among those who, like himself, confront the paradox of innocence and guilt. With the appearance of the gaoler, “so unwholesomely bloated, both in face and person, as to look like a man who had been drowned and filled with water,” Darnay finally knows despair: “‘Now am I left, as if I were dead’” (III, i). It is never clear that Darnay perceives that there is a certain justice in a fate that he has partially forged for himself.

The root of Darnay's despair remains the falseness of his relationship to himself and others. Dickens captures this, as always, through oblique allusions to Darnay's condition. The revolutionary Tribunal addresses him as “Charles Evrémonde, called Darnay,” denying that he has established in England an identity worthy of its recognition. The novel, in its sub-plots, plays repeatedly with this issue. Even Miss Pross' encounter with her long-lost brother, Solomon, echoes this central concern. The exposure of Barsad's double identity with its moral duplicity poses a real threat to his life. Jerry Cruncher's comic wonder about Pross' true “name,” combined with his first-hand knowledge of Rodger Cly's mock-funeral, deftly connects the issues of identity and responsibility, authenticity and bad-faith. Darnay, like Solomon Pross, could be subjected to a version of Jerry Cruncher's interrogation about his two names. St. Evrémonde was not his name “‘over the water’” in England: “‘which of the two goes first,’” which has priority, the family name of St. Evrémonde or the self-conferred name, Charles Darnay? Darnay insists that he has ceased to be a St. Evrémonde, that he is innocent of crimes against the French people. But his first acquittal by the Tribunal is followed almost immediately by his subsequent arrest on new charges. This second arrest is true to Darnay's condition, to a state of psychic “arrest,” growing out of his failure to cope with the suspect nature of his claims to innocence.

As usual, the father, in his various aspects, presides over these events. Doctor Manette arrives in Paris with Lucie, ostensibly to save Darnay's life. As a former victim of the ancien régime, he returns to Paris as one of the few sons who has raised his hand against the father and survived to become, himself, a father. Manette feeds upon the disorder of the Reign of Terror. He passes through maddened men and women, sharpening their weapons at the grindstone, and pushes “the weapons aside like water.” He is a Mosaic figure, determined to lead his family safely out of France: “For the first time he felt that in that sharp fire [of captivity], he had slowly forged the iron which could break the prison door of his daughter's husband, and deliver him” (III, iv). He is once more the mysterious giant of the golden arm. Lucie and Mr. Lorry turn to a Manette “exalted by the change” and rely upon him. He has successfully displaced Darnay as the father, reasserting the claims to ascendancy he has apparently relinquished for so many years.

With this transformation, Manette exists as a formidable threat to Darnay. He secures Darnay's acquittal by the Tribunal during the first trial. And a thrill of exultation resonates in his words to Lucie: “‘You must not be weak, my darling, … don’t tremble so. I have saved him’” (III, vi). Manette has won a victory in court—and a victory over Darnay. For Darnay will always be in debt to Manette, always owe him his very life. The father may triumph in many ways: the hostility of the Marquis St. Evrémonde may, finally, be less potent than the benevolence of Manette. Darnay may once again be effectively cut off from fatherhood and the right to father forth himself in the presence of the now truly patriarchal Manette.

Dickens' uneasiness on this very point informs the conclusion of A Tale of Two Cities. Manette's renewed ascendancy is fleeting. With Darnay's return to prison, Manette's “new life,” set in motion after years of dormancy, ends. For even the benevolent father must be felled, preferably not by the son's hand, but by another Gaspard or the force of circumstances. Manette becomes one of Darnay's accusers. His written account of the events leading to his imprisonment is his legacy, his will: a curse upon the St. Evrémondes and “‘their descendants, to the last of their race’” (III, x). It is a son's curse upon the father and the decadent patriarchy of which Darnay, as the present Marquis, is a part; it is a father's curse upon the son-in-law who threatens the father's dominance. As son to Darnay's father, as father to Darnay's son, Manette has never fully granted the absolution Darnay has sought. Now he has reached out to point an accusing finger at his son-in-law. His word could send Darnay to La Guillotine, which the revolutionaries jestingly speak of as “the best cure for the headache[:] it infallibly [prevents] the hair from turning grey …” (III, iv). La Guillotine is the Gorgon's head of the Revolution; its impact reaches out to touch everyone. It cures the headache caused by time by inflicting upon its victims either the stasis of death or psychic trauma. The tormented man who denounced the St. Evrémonde race becomes not so unlike the dead Marquis who once urged Darnay to accept the curse of his natural destiny. And he suffers a similar fate. With Darnay's second arrest, Manette is turned “into stone … as if he were a statue …” and becomes, yet again, the broken prisoner of the Bastille.

By now Darnay's destiny is clear: he is always to be the parricide. Manette wanders the streets of Paris aimlessly, only to return to Mr. Lorry's chambers, pleading in “a whimpering miserable way” for the shoemaker's bench that once sustained him. Surely the golden arm has descended once again to strike another poisoned blow. But, as in the murder of the Marquis, the significance of Manette's undoing is obscured. Manette seems the victim of poetic justice: his curse upon the Evrémondes, “‘to the last of their race,’” includes his own daughter and grandchild and justifies his own ruin. For Dickens the struggle between father and son never leads to unqualified victory for one or the other. Instead, it produces yet another impasse. Manette is overcome by his seemingly gratuitous act of vengeance. Darnay's triumph, if it occurs, will inevitably involve the near destruction of Lucie's father. There is no simple way, perhaps no way at all, to resolve the impasse. The victory of the father or the son entails a price few would willingly exact. Finally, Dickens himself chooses to circumvent the logic inherent in his own fiction. Characteristically, he seeks a resolution, one which seems to acknowledge the son's claims. He calls upon Darnay's “Double of coarse deportment” to prevent Darnay's fixation in his role as unwilling parricide, and to rescue him from death.

Sydney Carton has also responded to the pull of the Loadstone Rock, to the “secret attraction” of the pestilence raging in France. The siren call of death touches him, as it has Darnay. The two share in a single venture involving despair, ‘death’ and the possibility of a genuine autonomy. As Doubles they may participate in a process which frees them from the father and the past. But one of them may have to die so that the other may survive. In Beyond Psychology, Otto Rank offers an interpretation of “twin-traditions” which may illuminate some of the dynamics at work in A Tale of Two Cities:

In our modern conception of the Double, the killing of the alter-ego invariably leads to the death of the hero himself, that is, suicide; at earlier stages [in history], on the contrary, the sacrifice of one of the twins was the condition for the survival of the other. hence, in twin-mythology the typical motif of fratricide turns out to be a symbolic gesture on the part of the immortal self by which it rids itself of the mortal ego.

The twin who dies stands for the mortal self; the surviving twin, freed from his mortal part, becomes immortal, no longer subject to time and death. But the significance of twins goes beyond a simple dualistic conception of the self:

… twins were considered self-created, not revived from the spirit of the dead, but generated through their own magic power, independent even of the mother. In the totemistic system … no fatherhood was acknowledged. The twins have dispensed with the mother, too, and are dependent only upon each other.

Mothers are strangely absent from A Tale of Two Cities. The idealized Lucie remains ineffectual other than as the guiding angel both of Darnay and Carton. It is the masculine Miss Pross, a later Betsey Trotwood, who suffers deafness in her effort to save Lucie and the others from Thérèse Defarge, a truly sensual creature, who has forsaken her sexuality for the pleasures of retribution. If there is a potential mother in the novel, it must be the sister of Thérèse Defarge: the woman whose death sets in motion the complicated events surrounding Darnay's heroic saga. The novel, having dispensed, however violently, with the mother, moves to dispense with the father too. The hero, whom Otto Rank sees as the historical successor to the twin in those myths dealing with fratricide, possesses the unique ability to create himself. The immortality of the surviving twin leads to that “utter independence which makes the twin the prototype of the hero.”20 The hero has no need to acknowledge, or to turn against, a progenitor—male or female—who threatens his primacy and autonomy. He becomes the father, even the mother, of himself through the agency of the twin who dies for him. Dickens' use of the Double becomes his way of resolving that which is irresolvable on a realistic level: the relationship between parent and child, the dead and the living.

Sydney Carton, as Charles Darnay's mortal self, has been dragged for years “in [Stryver's] wake, like a boat [or a corpse?] towed astern” (II, xxi). He is the son who has not defied the father, but who has settled into what he calls “‘rust and repose.’” He surfaces in Paris at the moment Miss Pross and Jerry Cruncher are badgering Solomon Pross about Pross' true identity. When he strikes in to identify Barsad, Carton solves the riddle of identity for Darnay as well. His death will serve to unify the split within Darnay's consciousness and resolve his perplexing duties as son and father. In the process, Carton will both dispense with the father, by saving Darnay, and propitiate him, as Gaspard has done before him. It is clear to Miss Pross that he has undergone a transformation: “… there was a braced purpose in the arm and a kind of inspiration in the eyes, which not only contradicted his light manner, but changed and raised the man” (III, viii). The reference to the arm is fleeting. But it suggests, once more, the arm, the hand, the blade. In his altered state Carton is no longer dissipated, irresolute. He has become a son capable of raising his hand against the father. He is the son who has rebelled against the slain Marquis, the son who has inadvertently struck down the apparently benevolent Manette. And as Darnay's mortal twin, Carton also embodies the unacknowledged failure of Charles Evrémonde, called Darnay. Carton's death will free Darnay from the social guilt of the St. Evrémondes as a family. It will also serve to placate the dead father, the murdered uncle and the stricken Manette. For in Dickens' imagination the hero-son must be spared any of the consequences for asserting his right to exist.

As he wanders through Paris, awaiting the verdict of Darnay's last trial, Carton thinks of his own father: “These solemn words, which had been read at his father's grave, arose in his mind. … ‘I am the resurrection and the life, saith the Lord: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: and whosoever liveth and believeth in me, shall never die’” (III, ix). The Christian implications of the passage are powerful, and moving. But they should not obscure the central preoccupations in the novel: the dilemma posed by the father's death; the yearning for absolution and rebirth through self-creation; the desire to be freed from the paradoxes of being in time. None of these complex issues is satisfyingly resolved by Carton's death or by allusions to the Crucifixion.21 Rather, they are swept away just as everything that Carton sees before he dies “flashes away” with the fall of the blade. The “crowd … that … swells forward in a mass, like one great heave of water” (III, xv), baptizes Carton unto death, and delivers Darnay back to life.

But that life will remain as specious as the other life he has lived prior to his return to France. In prison Darnay has dreamed of being “free and happy, back in the old house in Soho. … A pause of forgetfulness, and then he had even suffered, and had come back to [Lucie], dead and at peace, and yet there was no difference in him” (III, xiii). The dream reveals Darnay's strong will to live. But the nature of that life he envisions is, in fact, a form of death. For only death may confer upon Darnay forgetfulness and peace. Carton's prophetic vision at the end of the novel is irrelevant. There is no life without conflict; without moral ambiguity and divided loyalties; without the unrelenting pressures of the father and the past. The whole of A Tale of Two Cities is a testament to this fact. But Darnay's dream denies all this: it is a return to an imaginary time prior to the father. Darnay wants to be restored, “with no change in him,” to Lucie whose proper abode is the world of dreams. And, yet, the Marquis St. Evrémonde has been assassinated. Doctor Manette has been destroyed, reduced to a helpless, whimpering old man. The fires of the Revolution still burn. The peasants on the St. Evrémonde estate continue to assert their legitimate claims within the context of Dickens' own patriarchal, even feudal, imagination. With Carton's death these realities flash away as if they were, after all, only a dream. Darnay's obligations, to the living and to the dead, are severed by the ironically “‘innocent atonement’” Darnay's mother has prophesied: the literally though not figuratively innocent Carton dies so that the guilty Darnay may survive.

Within A Tale of Two Cities the structure of the poetics of impasse emerge in almost crystalline form. The death of Sydney Carton, the twin, makes at best only ritualistic sense, as it evades and obscures the other issues posed by the novel. Dickens imagines with remarkable clarity the recurring encounter between father and son: the impetus to become a father which requires the setting aside of the good or the bad father with the inevitable claims he makes upon the son through his very existence. Dickens, like Faulkner, simply cannot imagine a viable resolution to the encounter, the voluntary stepping aside of the father to make way for the son: “The primal affront that the son suffers at the hands of the father and for which the son seeks revenge throughout his life is the very fact of being a son. …”22 There is no imaginable way, other than that of ritualistic sacrifice, to effect the transfer of authority and power from one generation to the next. Such a transfer becomes, for Dickens, inseparable from the act of parricide. This vision of the son's dilemma leads to the ahistoricism of this apparently historical novel. For parricide is both an inevitable and an intolerable crime: the father remains sacrosanct in the face of the son's most legitimate claims to be free of him. The only resolution is to die, to gain access to that “‘better land’” of which Sydney Carton speaks before his execution: “‘ … there is no Time there, and no trouble there.’” The world of A Tale of Two Cities remains one of intolerable impasse or unthinkable chaos. Not even Carton's sacrifice, the act which has made the novel so ineradicably his, can end the recurring struggle between generations, between fathers and sons.

In the closing pages of A Tale of Two Cities, impasse reigns. Allusions to the filial heroism of Christ's atonement, muted parallels to the mythology of twins, do not convincingly depict that passing on of authority from father to son that Dickens wishes to effect. Doctor Manette's condition at the end of the novel captures the paradox Dickens has posed. His is the defeat of a legitimately rebellious son at the hands of a St. Evrémonde who, in spite of his protests, stands in the father's place, after all, in his relationship to Manette. Yet, the defeat is also, clearly, that of the father who has sought control of the son's destiny. The broken Manette, the quintessential Double in the novel, suggests the fate of every son, of every father. It is a fate that Dickens as son, father and artist cannot imaginatively accept. In Great Expectations and in Our Mutual Friend, Dickens will once again explore the eternal encounter of fathers and sons. For if Jerry Cruncher is, at last, only a comic and ineffectual Resurrection-Man, Dickens the artist is the Resurrection-Man in earnest, striving to recall to life those thwarted sons, and fathers, whose natural destiny, like Charles Darnay's, threatens finally to overwhelm them.


  1. See Robert Louis Brannan, ed., Under The Management of Mr. Charles Dickens: His Production of “The Frozen Deep” (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1966); and Philip Collins, “A Tale of Two Novels: A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations in Dickens' Career,” Dickens Studies Annual, 2 (1972), 336-351.

  2. George Lukács, The Historical Novel, trans. Hannah and Stanley Mitchell (Boston: Beacon Press, 1963), p. 243. See, also, Michael Goldberg, Dickens and Carlyle (Athens: Univ. of Georgia Press, 1972), pp. 100-128.

  3. Georg Lukács: Realism In Our Time, trans. John and Necke Mander (New York: Harper & Row, 1971), p. 19.

  4. Lukács, Realism, p. 20. I am paraphrasing Lukács' quotation of an observation by Thomas Wolfe.

  5. Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities, The New Oxford Illustrated Dickens (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1949), Bk. I, ch. ii. Subsequent quotations of this edition of A Tale of Two Cities will be followed by book and chapter numbers in parentheses.

  6. Lukács, Realism, p. 21.

  7. I would like to acknowledge my debt, at this point, to Steven Marcus' discussion of Barnaby Rudge in Dickens: from Pickwick to Dombey (New York: Basic Books, 1965), pp. 169-212; and to Taylor Stoehr's discussion of Dickens' style in general and A Tale of Two Cities in particular in Dickens: The Dreamer's Stance (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1965), pp. 1-33 and pp. 195-203.

  8. John T. Irwin: Doubling and Incest/Repetition and Revenge (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1975), p. 105.

  9. Much of my discussion of A Tale of Two Cities is influenced by José Ortega y Gasset, “History as a System,” in History as a System and other Essays Toward a Philosophy of History, trans. Helene Weyl (New York: W. W. Norton, 1961), pp. 165-233.

  10. V. E. von Gebsattel, “The World of the Compulsive,” trans. Sylvia Koppel and Ernest Angel, in Existence, ed. Rollo May, Ernest Angel and Henri F. Ellenberger (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1958), p. 177.

  11. My discussion of the mirror has been influenced by Jacques Lacan, but especially by Maurice Merleau-Ponty, “The Child's Relations with Others,” trans. William Cobb, in The Primacy of Perception, ed. James M. Edie (Evanston: Northwestern Univ. Press, 1964), pp. 96-155. See particularly Merleau-Ponty's discussion of the “stade du miroir,” pp. 135-144.

  12. See Otto Rank, The Double: A Psychoanalytic Study, trans. Harry Tucker, Jr. (Chapel Hill: The Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1971), and “The Double as Immortal Self,” in Beyond Psychology (New York: Dover Publications, 1958), pp. 62-101.

  13. For a more traditional psychoanalytic discussion of A Tale of Two Cities see Leonard Manheim, “A Tale of Two Characters: A Study in Multiple Projection,” Dickens Studies Annual, 1 (1970), 225-237.

  14. See Irwin, p. 113: “Is there no virgin space in which one can be first, in which one can have authority through originality?”

  15. Charles Dickens, David Copperfield, The New Oxford Illustrated Dickens (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1948), ch. xxiii.

  16. See Alexander Welsh, “The Bride From Heaven,” in The City of Dickens (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Pres, 1971), pp. 141-179.

  17. See Stoehr, pp. 21-25.

  18. See Stoehr, pp. 197-198.

  19. See Ortega, p. 215: “Man invents for himself a program of life, a static form of being, that gives a satisfactory answer to the difficulties posed for him by circumstance. He essays this form of life, attempts to realize this imaginary character he has resolved to be … he comes to believe deeply that this character is his real being. But meanwhile the experience has made apparent the short-comings and limitations of the said program of life.”

  20. Rank, Beyond Psychology, p. 92, 96.

  21. See Irwin's discussion of Abraham and Isaac, God the Father and Jesus the Son, pp. 125-135.

  22. Irwin, p. 117.

Further Reading

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Beckwith, Charles E., editor. Twentieth Century Interpretations of “A Tale of Two Cities.” Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1972, 122 p.

Collection of critical essays addressing a variety of themes in A Tale of Two Cities.

Collins, Philip, editor. Dickens: The Critical Heritage. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1971, 641 p.

Collection of critical reviews on Dickens's novels and articles, including A Tale of Two Cities.

Daleski, H. M. “Imagining Revolution: The Eye of History and of Fiction.” The Journal of Narrative Technique 18, No. 1 (Winter, 1988): pp. 61-72.

Compares the extent to which the historian and the novelist may or may not actually be shown to write in a similar manner. Includes a discussion of A Tale of Two Cities.

Eigner, Edwin M. “Charles Darnay and Revolutionary Identity.” Dickens Studies Annual, Vol. 12, edited by Micheal Timko, et al. New York: AMS Press, 1983, pp. 147-59.

Discusses Darnay as the romantic hero of A Tale of Two Cities.

Gibson, Frank A. “The Saddest Book.” The Dickensian LX, No. 342 (January, 1964): pp. 30-32.

Discusses the lack of humor Dickens displays in A Tale of Two Cities.

Gilbert, Elliott L. “‘To Awake From History’: Carlyle, Thackeray, and A Tale of Two Cities.Dickens Studies Annual, Vol. 12, edited by Micheal Timko, et al. New York: AMS Press, 1983, pp. 247-65.

Compares Carlyle's French Revolution and Thackeray's Vanity Fairwith A Tale of Two Cities within a historical context.

Glancy, Ruth. A Tale of Two Cities: Dickens's Revolutionary Novel. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1991, 135 p.

Provides detailed analysis of the novel, including literary and historical context.

Gross, John, and Gabriel Pearson, editors. Dickens and the Twentieth Century. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1962, 244 p.

Contains essays on a number of Dickens' works, including A Tale of Two Cities.

Hamilton, J. F. “Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities.The Explicator 53, No. 4 (Summer, 1995): 204-08.

Examines some “paradoxical pairs” in the novel.

Myers, Richard M. “Politics of Hatred in A Tale of Two Cities.Poets, Princes, and Private Citizens: Literary Alternatives to Postmodern Politics,edited by Joseph M. Knippenberg and Peter Augustine Lawler. New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 1996, pp. 63-74.

Explores the dynamics of human emotion in a revolutionary atmosphere.

Newlin, George. Understanding “A Tale of Two Cities”: A Student Casebook to Issues, Sources, and Historical Documents. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1998, 252 p.

Valuable resource offering a variety of materials related to A Tale of Two Cities.

O'Mealy, Joseph H. “Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities.The Explicator 42, No. 2 (Winter, 1984): 10-12.

Discusses the power of fate in A Tale of Two Cities.

Additional coverage of Charles Dickens's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Dictionary of Literary Biography,Vols. 21, 55, 70, 159, and 166, and Something about the Author, Vol. 15.

Murray Baumgarten (essay date 1983)

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SOURCE: “Writing the Revolution,” in Dickens Studies Annual, Vol. 12, edited by Michael Timko, et al., AMS Press, 1983, pp. 161-76.

[In the following essay, Baumgarten examines the significance of writing in A Tale of Two Cities.]

Lives are saved by bits of paper on which a few words have been written in A Tale of Two Cities and they are also doomed by them. Letters of safe passage make it possible for Lucie and her father, Jarvis Lorry and Pross to leave France at the end of the novel; but no passport is available for Charles Darnay in his own name and he must use his double's. Madame Defarge's knitting is a deadly form of writing. Gaspard writes on the walls in wine what he will later inscribe in blood. Despite the intentions of their authors, these written messages are ambiguous, just as the inscriptions of servitude Monseigneur inflicts upon his peasants and servants do not lead to desired effects. Meanings change. Sense turns into non-sense. This world is characterized by contradiction from which writing is not excluded. Writing saves here but it also attaints and is tainted.1

The inherent difficulties of writing come to a focus in the narrative of Doctor Manette's imprisonment. Serving as the testimony that condemns Evremonde-Darnay, the tale—despite Doctor Manette's later change of heart and acceptance of Darnay into his family—fulfills its original purpose. Recounting the events that brought Manette to his living death in the Bastille, his narrative justifies the absolute judgment, beyond question or qualification, with which it ends. “I, Alexandre Manette, unhappy prisoner, do this last night of the year 1767, in my unbearable agony, denounce” the Evremondes “and their descendants, to the last of their race”—“to the times when all these things shall be answered for. I denounce them to Heaven and to earth”2 (III, 10, 361). Like Madame Defarge's knitting, Doctor Manette's writing is a pledge to be redeemed by the future.

The condition of the inexorable purpose that encompasses this tale is that it be inscribed—that is, written—in this instance on paper and thus made objective. Only such reification will remove it from the changeable subjectivity governing human life. A statement of value, Manette's account like Madame Defarge's knitting (and in another mood Monseigneur's privileges) is a desperate vow that attempts to remove words and deeds from their contingent situation and render them unconditional.

Like money, this writing of Doctor Manette's and Madame Defarge's is a promise of future payment. (By contrast the ancien régime functions on the gold standard). Like money in the era of the rise of capitalism, this writing is the promissory note and coin of moral judgment, to be redeemed at the trial and physical execution of all the Evremondes.

When the revolution calls this note in for payment its signator, the author of the testimony, regrets the uses to which his writing has been put, but does not disavow the intention that led him to his writing. Even its intended victim sympathizes with the conditions and feelings that led his father-in-law to frame his tale and oath, and as he is being led away Charles explicitly tells him not to blame himself or feel remorse at the destruction his writing has wrought. Unable to deal with the unbearable contradictions in which he is caught and which he has helped to articulate, Manette breaks down, reverting to the living death of the beginning of the novel.

Unlike the reader of this scene, Manette does not acknowledge that even written words, like the social order of France to which they are connected, are not unchanging and immortal. Neither Ozymandias' statue nor beaten gold stand outside of time that changes everything into its opposite, nothing, as we know from the Second Law of Thermodynamics, and makes of sense non-sense. We know that all symbols, be they written or hieroglyphic, as well as the phrases they construct (even repeated and rephrased as Madame Defarge's are in her knitting to ensure the doom of the enemies of the people) cannot help but be ambiguous, despite the fixed intentions of their writers: even dollars signed by Ivy Baker Priest change their value. Madame Defarge finds her death in seeking to call the knitted symbols of her writing in for payment. The Marquis is killed because he believes in the eternal authority of the coin of his privilege. Sydney Carton offers himself as ransom for Manette's promissory note. Reunited with Lucie and Charles, who has been miraculously recalled to life, Manette escapes from the consequences of his writing. All the resources of the plot are needed to help Jarvis Lorry, astute banker and man of business, manage to rescue him a second time.

An account of great power, Manette's testimony has the shape of gothic fiction, functioning as a novel in miniature. As such it provides a model of mis-reading, in which writing is taken absolutely, and becomes an imprisoning code. Set in the novel as the mechanism that brings on the final entanglement of Darnay's personal and public life, of his English and French destinies, it forces us to confront the meaning of writing in this novel.

The moral judgment proclaimed by Manette's written testimony is absolute because of its condition as writing. There is no oral context which would shade its meaning, no human presence to recover the conditions and contingencies that led to its production. We remember that Charles Darnay, the person it condemns, has earned his living in England as a teacher of French—of reading and writing. When his double, Sydney Carton mounts the scaffold, his final vision is an unwritten piece of autobiographical writing, voiced beyond any imprisoning code and opening into the prophetic realm where writing is absolute and true.

One of the most remarkable sufferers by the same axe—a woman—had asked at the foot of the same scaffold, not long before, to be allowed to write down the thoughts that were inspiring her. If he had given an utterance to his, and they were prophetic, they would have been these:

And Carton's vision takes us through the written word to the theatrical spectacle of his self-imagined, self-redeeming execution, concluding with the almost written flourish of his epitaph.3 In this doubling and redoubling of the theme of writing we cannot help but be reminded of the presence of the author of the book in which these characters and their writing figure. Dickens made his living as a writer and producer of the written word and here surely reflects upon—perhaps more than half-consiously—the conditions and meanings of his profession and his livelihood. In A Tale of Two Cities Dickens encounters—along with his readers and so many of his characters—the revolutionary meanings of writing the revolution.

Is there any logic, we ask, to this “Thing called La Revolution, which, like an Angel of Death, hangs over France, noyading, fusillading, fighting, gun-boring, tanning human skins?” Carlyle's phrasing, with which Dickens was familiar, like ours is retrospective and concerned with texts and evidence, in short, with writing. “La Revolution is but so many Alphabetic Letters,” Carlyle says, “a thing nowhere to be laid hands on, to be clapt under lock and key: where is it? what is it?” Perhaps, we respond, it is like scrip printed by a private institution, in an economy off the gold standard but not yet governed by a central banking system. Or is it a new kind of writing not yet accepted by the many? A form of value inchoate and inarticulate? It is all of these and as well the impulse underlying the forms of social organization. In Carlyle's powerful phrasing,

It is the Madness that dwells in the hearts of men. In this man it is, and in that man; as a rage or as a terror, it is in all men. Invisible, impalpable; and yet no black Azrael, with wings spread over half a continent, with sword sweeping from sea to sea, could be a truer Reality.4

The sources of this reality we find articulated in the work of a “sixty-year-old smiling public man” who himself helped to make revolution, cultural, political, and social—in Yeats, who recalls its meanings to life in some of his greatest poems. We encounter its power of confusion in the charismatic world of “The Second Coming”

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned.(5)

These lines evoke not only Yeats's personal experience of historical upheaval but as well the events, mood, and much of the feeling not only of Carlyle's history but also of Dickens' novel of revolution and terror. The nightmare of rebellion begins, Yeats wryly notes in an earlier poem, when sexual energy powers revolutionary will, and individuals take on mythic roles. Playing Helen of Troy, Maud Gonne like Madame Defarge, teaches “to ignorant men most violent ways,”—inciting them as a woman, half-myth, half-dream, until with courage equal to desire, they “hurled the little streets upon the great” (“No Second Troy,” p. 89). Here Yeats captures the insurrectionary tenor of the revolutionary century before our own totalitarian one, reminding us that what we hear in Dickens' novel as in Carlyle's great history is the effort to fathom the meanings of a world gone topsy-turvy, and Humpty Dumpty fallen.

Enter Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity, who make democracy a theme of life and art, and endow writing with a political edge. That is what Manette the writer, counts on—an emergent social order that will be governed, as Yeats said in setting for himself a literary program, by the “emotion of multitude.” Here, too, Yeats defines the parameters of the inquiry because his enterprise as a writer depends upon its decoding. His phrase helps us to realize how Dickens' novel becomes a form open to the demands of his age. Large enough to encompass democracy and to examine the comedy of its triumph, it is also forceful enough to create the revolutionary emotion of multitude. The novel becomes for Dickens a loose and baggy monster that serves the purposes of the democratic revolution of his era in allowing him to mimic its tumult, dramatize its historical conflicts, and invent the theatre of its personal struggles.

Dickens' interest in the French Revolution was focused by his friendship with Carlyle. A Tale of Two Cities echoes much in Carlyle's great history. Not only is Dickens influenced by Carlyle, as Goldberg points out, but the differences between A Tale of Two Cities and The French Revolution depend upon the priority of the latter. The result is not that the two are in effect the same work; rather Carlyle's historical writing as we shall see makes possible the somewhat different mode of the novel.6 It is worth noting that in the 1830s as he worked on his history, Carlyle found the revolution fascinating and personally compelling. He confided to Froude, his friend and biographer, that his spiritual health depended upon plumbing its meanings. Carlyle wrote as well to bring the presence of the Revolution to a troubled England and warn it of impending danger. In 1859, when Dickens wrote and published A Tale of Two Cities, twenty-two years after the publication of The French Revolution, personal and public concerns again came together, as they had for Carlyle.

Remember that 1859—miraculous year—saw among others the publication of Karl Marx's Critique of Political Economy, John Stuart Mill's On Liberty, Charles Darwin's Origin of Species, Samuel Smiles's Self-Help, and George Eliot's Adam Bede, not to forget Wilkie Collins's Woman in White, Edward Fitzgerald's The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, and the first four parts of Tennyson's Idylls of the King. Along with Dickens these writers explored what Asa Briggs calls a “turning point in the late Victorian revolt against authority”—the crisis in the relations between older and younger generations.7 Thereby they wrote out the meanings of the revolution which, begun in the last decades of the eighteenth century, yet governed the shape of their lives and art. Brandishing victorious and murderous democracy over their heads, it led them to sort out the contradictory logic of its revolutionary presence.

In A Tale of Two Cities revolution leads inevitably to “Republic one and indivisible.” Following inexorably upon Liberty come Equality and Fraternity. And then Dickens undermines the slogan—“or Death” (III, 2, 287), the narrator adds, collapsing the years of shifting conflict and sporadic uprising into the Terror. If the political content of the novel is complicated by the sardonic addition of death to the revolutionary motto it is further vexed, in this novel of parallels and doubles, by the parallel sarcasm with which the narrator comments on the responses of French aristocracts and “native British orthodoxy.” They “talk of this terrible Revolution as if it were the one only harvest ever known under the skies that had not been sown—as if nothing had ever been done, or omitted to be done, that had led to it” (II, 24, 267).

As the narrative records this belief, it at the same time dissociates the narrator by means of an ironic distancing from the view that the revolution is senseless. Whatever revolution is, no reader of Dickens will call it nonsense. Rather, this novel charts the meaning and sense animating the sea of emotion and action, confusion, fury, and hatred that is the Revolution. Like Carlyle's remarkable history, A Tale of Two Cities depends upon the organic imagery of horticulture to frame one of its central themes. The last chapter of the novel roots the awful terror of the Revolution in this context and projects it forward as a warning:

Along the Paris streets, the death-carts rumble, hollow and harsh. Six tumbrils carry the day's wine to La Guillotine. All the devouring and insatiate Monsters imagined since imagination could record itself, are fused in the one realization, Guillotine. And yet there is not in France, with its rich variety of soil and climate, a blade, a leaf, a root, a sprig, a peppercorn, which will grow to maturity under conditions more certain than those that have produced this horror. Crush humanity out of shape once more, under similar hammers, and it will twist itself into the same tortured forms. Sow the same seed of rapacious license and oppression over again, and it will surely yield the same fruit according to its kind. (II, 15, 399)

This brief chapter as well brings the book to its conclusion with Carton's meditation on the happy harvest made possible by his act of self-sacrifice.

Writing the revolution, Dickens is neither conservative nor radical, but politically multifarious, as the prose of his novel—simultaneously distancing and bringing closer the actions it recounts—sweeps us with him into the shifting historical process. Suspended in the novel's dreamlike ambience, narrator and reader find themselves sympathizing with the revolutionary actors at the same time that they are revolted by their excesses.

Insisting on the organic analogy, neither Carlyle nor Dickens provides us with adequate historical explanations for the Revolution, though they do thereby remind us of the systematic and dynamic qualities of social existence. Novelist and historian share a common rhetoric and a misperception of the crisis that overtook the ancien régime. Hunger did not topple it. Prosperity and the revolution of rising expectations brought forward a new class—paper-using notaries and lawyers, merchants dealing in Wemmick's celebrated portable property—to lead the peasantry and emergent proletariat against an uncertain aristocracy. Of this social process, remarked upon by John Stuart Mill and Karl Marx, Dickens and Carlyle remain ignorant. For them France is going downhill, promulgating constitutions and printing paper-money. Certificates of promised sense, like the assignats of the French Revolution, for historian and novelist they turn out to be without value. Intended sense becomes nonsense. The vaguely Christian interests of Dickens and Carlyle as well as their concern to use the revolution in France as a moral touchstone for impending English social convulsion moved both to devise a style that engaged the reader while distancing him into an examination of his own country's situation.

Basing his work on that of his friend, Dickens tells us in the Preface to the First Edition that he yet “hopes to add something to the popular and picturesque means of understanding that terrible time, though no one can hope to add anything to the philosophy of Mr. Carlyle's wonderful book.” Dickens' uncharacteristic modesty masks the anxiety of influence and directs us toward an evaluation of the differences between them. Carlyle, the historian, makes it possible for Dickens, the novelist, to represent the revolution in a different form and way. Unlike Carlyle, who brings that time to life by a process of visualization, commentary, and evocation that depends upon our seeing everything through the eyes of the historian who is examining the evidence and questioning the available texts, Dickens engages us through the dreamlike contradictions, split characters, and omniscient narrator—who keeps disappearing into his own apothegms—in the process of decoding the logic of revolution. Carlyle's footnotes remind us of the ontological status of the actions and events he discusses while Dickens implicates us in their unfolding fictional life by means of the gesture of writing repeated throughout the novel.

Carlyle's achievement is the breaking of neoclassic narrative. That accomplishment leads him from the linear order of narrative to a lyric method of portraying the simultaneity of action. Remaining nevertheless just within the bounds of historical writing Carlyle dramatizes a strategy for reading the evidence of the past. Like Michelet he verges on fictional writing, and his hypotactic style refuses to close the meanings of a given event or action into cause and effect. Still, Carlyle does seek the deep structure that determines surface events, locating it in beliefs and moral opinions. In his famous review, John Stuart Mill praised Carlyle's work as a poem and the trust of histories. It brings the conditions, actions, and events which helped bring on the Revolution to life for the reader. By comparison, however, with Dickens' work, Carlyle's remains within the parameters of history. What we are reading is a pointing toward the thing itself, not as in Dickens its evocation as a magic theatrical realm in which we participate as actors as well as spectators.

Carlyle's hero worship is based on the hope of putting Humpty Dumpty together again. He seeks to persuade all the king's horses and all the king's men to their work, thinking perhaps thereby he might recall traditional order to life once more. By contrast Dickens is a democrat who is comfortable with the dissipation of character into role. His narrator is everywhere and nowhere, by contrast with Carlyle's who has a fixed place from which to assay his world. In Dickens' novel the narrator orchestrates the different voices, playing all the parts. The differences between Carlyle's treatment and Dickens' are instructive. Consider how the Carmagnole figures in the two works.

In Carlyle's account we see the origins of this revolutionary dance. It is a ritual that replaces the unthinking Catholicism of the French with another spectacle. Carlyle quotes newspaper reports and eyewitness accounts (including that of Mercier, which Dickens used), in rendering the event:

In such equipage did these profaners advance toward the Convention. They enter there, in an immense train, ranged in two rows; all masked like mummers in fantastic sacerdotal vestments; bearing on hand-barrows their heaped plunder,—ciboriums, suns, candelabras, plates of gold and silver.

The narrator functions as a journalist, recording the progress of the event. “Not untouched with liquor,” they

crave … permission to dance the Carmagnole also on the spot: whereto an exhilarated Convention cannot but accede. Nay “several Members” continues the exaggerative Mercier … “quitting their curule chairs, took the hand of girls flaunting in Priest's vestures, and danced the Carmagnole along with them.” Such old-Hallowtide have they, in this year once named of Grace 1793 (III, Book V, Chapter 4, 226-227).

Having rendered the scene the narrator of this history reflects upon its meaning:

Out of which strange fall of Formulas, tumbling there in confused welter, betrampled by the Patriotic dance, is it not passing strange to see a new Formula arise? For the human tongue is not adequate to speak what “triviality run distracted” there is in human nature.

Sharing the prejudices of his readers, this narrator cannot take the revolutionary ecstasies of the French seriously. To defend himself against them he reverts to his prejudices:

Black Mumbo-Jumbo of the woods, and most Indian Wau-waus, one can understand: but this of Procureur Anaxagoras, whilom John-Peter, Chaumette? We will say only: Man is a born idol-worshipper, sight-worshipper, so sensuous-imaginative is he; and also partakes much of the nature of the ape.

Carlyle's sarcasm colors his account, and while it does not keep him from mentioning the orgiastic details, it does ensure their categorization as animalistic.

Always quick to seize on religious values, Carlyle explores the ways in which the new ritual is an unconscious parody of the old:

For the same day, while this brave Carmagnole-dance has hardly jigged itself out, there arrive Procureur Chaumette and Municipals and Departmentals, and with them the strangest freightage: a New Religion! Demoiselle Candeille, of the Opera; a woman fair to look upon, when well rouged; she, borne on palanquin shoulderhigh; with red woolen nightcap; in azure mantle; garlanded with oak; holding in her hand the Pike of the Jupiter—Peuple, sails in: heralded by white young women girt in tricolor.

The piling up of details renders the scene grotesque. The narrator quickly draws the appropriate moral: “Let the world consider it! This, O National Convention wonder of the universe, is our New Divinity: Goddess of Reason, worthy, and alone worthy of revering. Her henceforth we adore.”

Despite the ironic tone, the description is faithful to the ideological context. The changing situation is caught in terms of the emotions and beliefs that underlie it:

And now, after due pause and flourishes of oratory, the Convention, gathering its limbs, does get under way in the required procession towards Notre-Dame;—Reason, again in her litter, sitting in the van of them, borne, as one judges, by men in the Roman costume; escorted by wind-music, red nightcaps, and the madness of the world.


Reason sat in azure mantle aloft, in a serene manner. … “And out of doors … were mad multitudes dancing round the bonfire of Chapel-balustrades, of Priests' and Canons' stalls; and the dancers,—I exaggerate nothing,—the dancers nigh bare of breeches, neck and breast naked, stockings down, went whirling and spinning, like those Dust-vortexes, forerunners of Tempest and Destruction.” … Other mysteries, seemingly of a Cabiric or even Paphian character, we leave under the Veil, which appropriately stretches itself “along the pillars of the aisles,”—not to be lifted aside by the hand of History. (III, Book V, Chapter 4, 228-229)

Carlyle upholds the dignity of Clio as he renders her orgiastic undoing. The scene is powerfully described, miming the rush of events in a revolutionary time, expressing the entanglement of politics, religion, and sexuality. Piling up phrases in series, the narrator rushes us from event to event, leaving little time for meditation or even feeling. What we feel and think of all this he is sure to tell us, for the narrative voice is the locus of judgment in this work.

By contrast Dickens' use of the Carmagnole is restrained. Where Carlyle used it as an occasion for an implicit lesson, Dickens makes it an ironic occasion of rejoicing for Darnay that in its very excess prepares us for the ensuing disaster of his arrest and conviction. Having been vindicated, the mob embraces Darnay:

They put him into a great chair they had among them … over which they had thrown a red flag … not even the Doctor's entreaties could prevent his being carried to his home on men's shoulders, with a confused sea of red caps heaving about him, and casting up to sight from the stormy deep such wrecks of faces, that he more than once misdoubted his mind being in confusion, and that he was in the tumbril on his way to the Guillotine.

The crowd winds its way forward “in wild dreamlike procession.” Bringing Darnay to his wife in triumph

a few of the people fell to dancing. Instantly, all the rest fell to dancing, and the court-yard overflowed with the Carmagnole. Then, they elevated into the vacant chair a young woman from the crowd to be carried as the Goddess of Liberty, and then swelling and overflowing out into the adjacent streets, and along the river's bank, and over the bridge, the Carmagnole absorbed them every one and whirled them away. (III, 6, 314-315)

This narrator, impersonator of all the roles of his world, forces us to take all the events seriously. None of them can be dismissed with a cry of nonsense; unlike Carlyle the novel's narrator does not seek to provide a desperate demonstration of their ultimate unreality.

Echoing Carlyle's account, Dickens compresses it, shaping it to the needs of his fiction. He can do this because Carlyle mediates between him and the historical material. At the same time Dickens has a broader sympathy that allows him to take on the point of view of the participants. Even the terrible aspect of the Carmagnole moves us:

There could not be fewer than five hundred people, and they were dancing like five thousand demons. There was no other music than their own singing. They danced to the popular Revolution song, keeping a ferocious time that was like a gnashing of teeth in unison. Men and women danced together, women danced together, men danced together, as hazard had brought them together.

They are the multitude caught up in emotion, the moving feeling of their revolutionary frenzy which expresses the camaraderie, the sharing that joins the individual to the mythic life. Instead of Carlyle's noun-heavy prose that heaps adverbial and prepositional clauses upon each other, Dickens' Carmagnole is all movement, all active verbs:

They advanced, retreated, struck at one another's hands, clutched at one another's heads, spun round alone, caught one another and spun round in pairs, until many of them dropped. While those were down, the rest linked hand in hand, and all spun round together: then the ring broke, and in separate rings of two and four they turned and turned until they all stopped at once, began again, struck, clutched, and tore, and then reversed the spin, and all spun round another way.

What is the meaning we wonder of all this movement? “Suddenly they stopped again, paused, struck out the time afresh, formed into lines the width of the public way, and, with their heads low down and their hands high up, swooped screaming off.” In their midst, Lucie stands as a point of reference to set off their barbarism:

No fight could have been half so terrible as this dance. It was so emphatically a fallen sport—a something, once innocent, delivered over to all devilry—a healthy pastime changed into a means of angering the blood, bewildering the senses, and steeling the heart. Such grace as was visible in it, made it the uglier, showing how warped and perverted all things good by nature were become. The maidenly bosom bared to this, the pretty almost-child's head thus distracted, the delicate foot mincing in this slough of blood and dirt, were types of the disjointed time. (III, 5, 307-308)

As a dance turns into an ecstatic orgy, we witness a world convulsed by polar extremes. In an instant, sense becomes nonsense with no ground between. Dickens has devised a form of writing in which contradiction is central. In this world things are simultaneously real and fantastic, distant and close at the same moment, past and future at once.

In Carlyle's work the narrator stands at the crossing point of opposites, and we share his struggle to force them into sensible shape. The fragments of his world are solid and his standpoint is clear, though the meanings and values of his enterprise as historian and prophet are clouded. By contrast the narrator of A Tale of Two Cities disappears into the rendered object, character, or scene. Here where everything must be accounted for, nothing is outside the dream. Narrator and reader experience the disembodied anxiety of the dreamer's stance.

In the dreamer's world events and actions may appear senseless yet are always meaningful. In dreaming, the effort to ascertain the logic of contradictions is fraught with danger. Dream-telling, as Taylor Stoehr points out, is the narrative form that provides access to the dream-work.8 The contradictions in the dream are also the opposites tugging at the dream-telling narrator. Here writing is the central gesture of decoding and encoding—the trope of narration enacted as the narrative of dream-telling. For Carlyle writing may be difficult but its meaning is always positive, while for Dickens it is a code that imprisons as well as expresses. As Jarvis Lorry tells Lucie when he meets her at Dover, “I carry about me, not a scrap of writing openly referring to it. This is a secret service altogether. My credentials, entries, and memoranda, are all comprehended in the one line, ‘Recalled to Life;’ which may mean anything” (I, 4, 58). Writing is a code connected in some way to the social order. Revolution is an effort to undo existing sense and make of existing social relationships non-sense. But in this novel all social experience might as in a dream or revolution be undone: sense teeters on the edge.

Consider how Jarvis Lorry uses the word nonsense, one of his favorite expletives. It serves him as a way of denying to Charles that he is going to France for reasons not of business but of “gallantry and youthfulness,”—those motives that at the end of the same chapter will take Darnay himself on his fateful journey (II, 24, 267). In Jarvis Lorry's tone we hear the opposite meaning of the sense of his words. His tone depends upon a flexible comprehension of the difference between business and non-business, the role of messenger and that of actor, the distinction between order and disorder—something outside the grasp of characters like Stryver, who brands Darnay's actions in renouncing his claims as an Evremonde as “the most pestilent and blasphemous code of devilry that ever was known” (II, 24, 269).

The marriage plot of A Tale of Two Cities engages these issues. When the Defarges discuss what revolutionary revenge on the Evremondes implies, the husband comments: “‘I hope, for her sake, Destiny will keep her husband out of France.’” Defarge pleads with his wife to recognize the senselessness of condemning Darnay and Solomon/Barsad in the same breath:

“But it is very strange—now, at least, is it not very strange”—said Defarge, rather pleading with his wife to induce her to admit it, “that, after all our sympathy for Monsieur her father, and herself, her husband's name should be proscribed under your hand at this moment, by the side of that infernal dog's who has just left us?”

Madame Defarge brushes aside his plea with a comment that reaffirms her willingness to plunge into logical contradiction for the cause of revenge: “‘Stranger things than that will happen when it does come,’ answered madame. ‘I have them both here, of a certainty; and they are both here for their merits; that is enough’” (II, 16, 215).

Madame Defarge lives for the onset of the charismatic world of revenge—for the second coming of revolution in which the order of the past will be replaced by the disorder of the present. When Charles marries Lucie and is accepted by Doctor Manette into their family, the three create civilization out of the sources of hate. The cost of accepting his persecutor's descendant as his son-in-law is also a purchase for Doctor Manette of the right to experience, confront, and thus release himself from the traumatic past. He does not imprison the events of his history in a secret code, to be read out as judgment of revenge and knitted fate, as does Madame Defarge: he implicitly repudiates then the meaning of the written account that later, despite his wishes, will condemn Darnay. Unlike Manette's, Madame Defarge's is the world of the Capulets and Montagues, not that of Juliet and Romeo. For sublime Defarge the revolution will never be over, whereas for beautiful Lucie the bosom of her family can replace the riving search for revenge. In the ordered world glimpsed by Carton at the moment of his apotheosis, there is a difference between sense and nonsense, whereas in the charismatic state the two meet as the juncture of contradiction.

The dramatic situation and the narrator's ability to play all the roles lead to a confusion of sense and nonsense on the part of the actors of the drama. Stryver himself uses these words to explain away the meaning of what he has done in imagining he might ask for Lucie Manette in marriage. “Having supposed that there was sense where there is no sense,” he assures Jarvis Lorry, “I am well out of my mistake” (II, 12, 178). Stryver's error is to deny the motive that had brought him to his earlier choice. He strives always to define himself on the side of apparent sense—that is, with the winners. Mistakes are something Stryver does not allow himself, for they would hurt his ability to shoulder his way into society and up the ladder of success. His refusal to acknowledge the existence of change and misperception range Stryver with the French aristocrats who cannot see the humanity of those they oppress. Observing Stryver's reversals as he makes himself into a hypocrite, we understand that we are in a world in which instead of the realistic distinction between sense and nonsense, “the strange law of contradiction … obtains” (III, 4, 302). It is of course what the novel has offered us from its beginning sentence. Sense and nonsense are the unending moebius strip of this body politic as contradiction is its literary mode.

What is literature nowadays, Carlyle proclaims in his letters and his published work, but a newspaper. What he objects to, Dickens, the journalist, embraces. The characterization of Sloppy in Our Mutual Friend will also serve for Dickens: “He do the Police in different voices” (III, 43). One of the most “fundamental aspects of comic style” Bakhtin reminds us, is this “varied play with the boundaries of speech types. …” The “comic novel makes available a form for appropriating and organizing heteroglossia that is both externally very vivid and at the same time historically profound.”9

Like Carlyle, Yeats too will ultimately turn to classical models for his work, whereas Dickens, availing himself of the democratic cultural forms of his time, will evoke his world as spectacle and carnival rather than epic. Joyce follows his lead, imbedding the traditional forms in Ulysses, while writing it as Bloomsday—one day in the newspaper life of his city and his culture. It is important to note that for Joyce as for Dickens the columns of the newspaper fold over: we are not in linear but in urban time, where mythic encounters may occur at any street corner. Dickens' representation of the conditions of modern life was echoed by Marinetti in his Futurist Manifesto, when he called for the writing of “the multi-colored polyphonic tides of revolution in the modern capitals.”10 Dickens begins a process in A Tale of Two Cities that Joyce will carry further.

Following through the analogy with the history of music, I call this method polyphony. (Carlyle, by contrast, tends to be monophonic and rely on the succession of events.) Dickens' scenes and situations do not function spatially, as Stoehr using Joseph Frank's analogy suggests, but musically. It is worth remembering that Bakhtin's analysis, which is based on the novel's links with rhetoric, focuses on the “hybrid discourse” of the “more complex artistic forms for the organization of contradiction … that orchestrate their themes by means of languages—” a method characteristic of “profound models of novelistic prose.”11 The materials Dickens works with are arranged in groups like chords—what counts is not the development of a single melody, as in monophony, but the ordering and progression of the whole. Carlyle's great history has the appearance of a polyphonic work; close reading, nevertheless, reveals the ways in which each thread of the narrative is developed as a separate melodic line in counterpoint with the others. By contrast, Dickens emphasizes his intention when he notes that All the Year Round, which A Tale of Two Cities initiated, is not a magazine he edited but as he comments on the title page “Conducted.” In A Tale of Two Cities, in contrast with Carlyle's work, different sections recall each other; characters reflect each other—“split” apart they echo their double's movement. Each situation has a characteristic key signature which modulates into those that follow, as it grows from those that come before. In one trial we hear all the others, culminating in the final deferred execution of Carton, that to carry the musical analogy forward resolves the previously diminished sevenths into the cadence of his self-sacrifice.

Like Beethoven, Dickens can dispense with monophony because the chordal structures and dynamic possibilities available to him are powerful enough to resolve even the most difficult of his disharmonies. (How different for Carlyle who believes no forms exist any longer that can contain the violent energies of the tool-using barbarians of the nineteenth century.) The wild cacophony of the Terror, like the strange sounds of the Chorus in Beethoven's Ninth, leads to resolutions for Dickens that do not shatter their enclosing form. The reality of urban life and its journalistic chronicle for Dickens is unquestioned. It is the condition of his culture and his tale that hurtles us between its two greatest avatars, London and Paris. Even as they change, their norm as the idea of civilization persists. They authorize for Dickens the minting of the coin of his prose—an economy of the imagination no longer available to those who come after.


  1. See Gilles Deleuze, Logique Du Sens (Paris: Les editions de Minuit, 1969), especially the first ten series.

  2. Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1970), III, 10, 361. Subsequent citations from this novel will be to this Penguin edition and will be noted in the text.

  3. I owe this insight to Linda Paulson.

  4. Thomas Carlyle, The French Revolution, Centenary Edition (London: Chapman & Hall, 1896), Volume III, Book 6, Chapter 1, p. 248. Subsequent citations to The French Revolution will be from this edition and will be noted in the text.

  5. William Butler Yeats, The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats (New York: Macmillan, 1970), pp. 184-185. Subsequent citations from Yeats will be from this edition and will be noted in the text.

  6. See Michael Goldberg's Carlyle and Dickens (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1972), especially Chapter Seven, pp. 101 and 128.

  7. Asa Briggs, Victorian People (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970), p. 298, quoted by Albert D. Hutter, “Nation and Generation in A Tale of Two Cities,PMLA, 93 (1978), 448.

  8. Taylor Stoehr, Dickens: The Dreamer's Stance, (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1965), especially Chapters Three and Four.

  9. M. M. Bakhtin, “Discourse in the Novel,” in The Dialogic Imagination, edited by Michael Holquist, translated by Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981), pp. 308 and 301. For a penetrating comment on Bakhtin, see the review by Hayden White in Partisan Review, Fall, 1982.

  10. “Manifesto of Futurism,” in Marinetti: Selected Writings, edited by R. W. Flint and translated by R. W. Flint and A. A. Coppotelli (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1972), p. 42

  11. M. M. Bakhtin, “Discourse in the Novel,” The Dialogical Imagination, op.cit., p. 275.

J. M. Rignall (essay date 1984)

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SOURCE: “Dickens and the Catastrophic Continuum of History in A Tale of Two Cities,” in ELH, Vol. 51, No. 3, Fall, 1984, pp. 575-87.

[In the following essay, Rignall discusses the relationship between “narrative form and historical vision” in A Tale of Two Cities.]

It is not surprising that the most remembered scene in A Tale of Two Cities is the last, for this novel is dominated, even haunted, by its ending. From the opening chapter in which the “creatures of this chronicle” are set in motion “along the roads that lay before them,” while the Woodman Fate and the Farmer Death go silently about their ominous work, those roads lead with sinister inevitability to the revolutionary scaffold.1 To an unusual extent, especially given the expansive and centrifugal nature of Dickens's imagination, this is an end-determined narrative whose individual elements are ordered by an ending which is both their goal and, in a sense, their source. In a historical novel like this there is a transparent relationship between narrative form and historical vision, and the formal features of A Tale—its emphatic linearity, continuity, and negative teleology—define a distinctive vision of history. As Robert Alter has argued in his fine critical account of the novel,2 it is not the particular historical event that ultimately concerns Dickens here, but rather a wider view of history and the historical process. That process is a peculiarly grim one. As oppression is shown to breed oppression, violence to beget violence, evil to provoke evil, a pattern emerges that is too deterministic to owe much to Carlyle and profoundly at odds with the conventional complacencies of Whig history. Instead of progress there is something more like the catastrophic continuum that is Walter Benjamin's description of the historical process: the single catastrophe, piling wreckage upon wreckage.3 And when, in the sentimental postscript of Carton's prophecy, Dickens finally attempts to envisage a liberation from this catastrophic process, he can only do so, like Benjamin, in eschatological terms. For Benjamin it was the messianic intervention of a proletarian revolution that would bring time to a standstill and blast open the continuum of history; for Dickens it is the Christ-like intervention of a self-sacrificing individual that is the vehicle for a vision of a better world which seems to lie beyond time and history. The parallel with Benjamin cannot be pressed beyond the common perception of a pernicious historical continuum and the common desire to break it, but the coexistence of these two elements in A Tale is, I wish to argue, important for an understanding of the novel, lending it a peculiarly haunted and contradictory quality as Dickens gives expression to a vision of history which both compels and repels him at the same time.

In Carton's final vision of a world seemingly beyond time, the paradigm of the apocalypse mediates between what is known of history and what may be hoped for it.4 That hope is not to be dismissed as mere sentimentality, whatever the manner of its expression. However inadequately realized Carton's prophecy may be in imaginative terms, it is significant as a moment of resistance to the grimly terminal linearity and historical determinism of the preceding narrative. That resistance is not confined to the last page of the novel, for, as I shall show, it manifests itself in other places and in other ways, creating a faint but discernible counter-current to the main thrust of the narrative. This is not to say that Dickens presents a thorough-going deconstruction of his own narrative procedures and version of history in A Tale, for the process at work here is more ambiguous and tentative than that. There is a struggle with sombre fears that gives rise to contradictions which cannot be reduced to the internal self-contradictions of language. What the novel presents is, rather, the spectacle of an imagination both seized by a compelling vision of history as a chain of violence, a catastrophic continuum, and impelled to resist that vision in the very act of articulation, so that the narrative seems at the same time to seek and to shun the violent finality of its ending in the Terror. The nightmare vision is too grim to accept without protest, and too powerful to be dispelled by simple hopefulness, and the work bears the signs of this unresolved and unresolvable contradiction.

In his preface Dickens maintains that the idea of the novel had “complete possession” of him, and the state of imaginative obsession in which A Tale of Two Cities was written can be sensed in two rather different aspects of the work: in the way that it presses on relentlessly toward its violent ending, and in the way that particular scenes take on a visionary intensity, seemingly charged with obscure and powerful emotions that are neither fully controlled nor comprehended. The scenes of frenzied collective violence are the most striking examples of this kind of writing, but there are other moments, less obviously related to the main track of the story, when images and ideas erupt into the text with a spontaneous energy that arrests rather than furthers the momentum of the narrative. The first-person meditation on the death-like mystery of individuality which opens Chapter Three (“The Night Shadows”) is just such an intervention:

A wonderful fact to reflect upon, that every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other. A solemn consideration, when I enter a great city by night, that every one of those darkly clustered houses encloses its own secret; that every room in every one of them encloses its own secret; that every beating heart in the hundreds of thousands of breasts there, is, in some of its imaginings, a secret to the heart nearest it! Something of the awfulness, even of Death itself, is referable to this. No more can I turn the leaves of this dear book that I loved, and vainly hope in time to read it all. No more can I look into the depths of this unfathomable water, wherein, as momentary lights glanced into it, I have had glimpses of buried treasure and other things submerged. It was appointed that the book should shut with a spring, for ever and for ever, when I had read but a page. It was appointed that the water should be locked in an eternal frost, when the light was playing on its surface, and I stood in ignorance on the shore. My friend is dead, my neighbour is dead, my love, the darling of my soul, is dead; it is the inexorable consolidation and perpetuation of the secret that was always in that individuality, and which I shall carry in mine to my life's end. In any of the burial-places of this city through which I pass, is there a sleeper more inscrutable than its busy inhabitants are, in their innermost personality, to me, or than I am to them? (44)

Both the form and the substance of this meditation set it clearly apart from the surrounding narrative. The brooding first-person voice is never heard again in the novel, even though the same sombre note is struck by the impersonal narrator. The directness and urgency of the first-person utterance invite us to look for a significant relationship between these reflections and the main themes of the novel, but it is not easy to find one. The passage is only awkwardly related to the scene on the Dover road which it punctuates, since its insistence on the essential, metaphysical mystery of individuality is out of proportion to the condition of the passengers in the coach. Their mutual suspicion and ignorance are occasioned simply by the hazards of the journey. Nor can it be said to illumine the general condition of life as it appears in this novel. Although there is some connection between the separateness of individuals and the characters and fates of Dr. Manette and Carton, Dickens's handling of character is basically at odds with such an absolute assertion of impenetrable otherness. His imperious command of his characters is never subject to epistemological uncertainty, and even the most estranged figures, like Dr. Manette and Carton, are in the end not mysterious but knowable and known. Except in its tone the excursus is altogether out of place: Dickens here steps out of his own fiction to generalize about character and individuality in life rather than in books, while paradoxically using the metaphor of the book to do so.

This reflection on character and the metaphor that it employs cast a significant light on Dickens's own practice in the novel. By implication, both his presentation of character and his use of an ending are identified as simply matters of literary convention. To see death in terms of the premature closing of a book is to raise the possibility of different relationships among death, narrative, and endings from those presented by A Tale itself. Discontinuity is a fact of life and, implicitly, a narrative possibility, and to imply as much is to challenge both the conventional structure of this particular narrative and the vision of historical determinism that it projects. The challenge is only momentary and implied, but the moment is not entirely isolated. Although Dickens primarily uses the death of Carton and the ending of the novel to complete a pattern of meaning rather than to effect a premature closure, there are occasions in the novel when the desire for such a closure surfaces in the text as if in reaction to the chain of violent events that leads relentlessly to the guillotine. The first-person plural dramatization of the Darnays' flight from Paris (386-7) provides, for instance, a kind of alternative premature ending for those privileged characters who are allowed to escape the logic of the historical process. The scene is both related and opposed to the “Night Shadows” meditation and Mr. Lorry's journey to Dover: this time the characters in the coach are not suspicious, but united by love and shared apprehension; they are not mysterious and unfathomable, but familiar and transparent. Nevertheless, the “awfulness of death” threatens them from without, and, as the narrative assumes the urgency and immediacy of the first-person plural and the present tense, the scene comes to suggest a flight of the imagination from the foredoomed finality of the guillotine and the novel's preordained ending. It is a flight which necessarily carries the characters beyond the boundaries of the novel, which is headed to only one conclusion, and they never again appear directly in it. Pursued not by the Revolution but, as it turns out, only by a reflection of their own fears, they may be said to be escaping from history: “the wind is rushing after us, and the clouds are flying after us, and the moon is plunging after us, and the whole wild night is in pursuit of us; but, so far we are pursued by nothing else” (387). In fleeing the ending of the novel they have fled beyond the process of history.

There is a less direct and more complex suggestion of flight from the grim logic of the historical process in the scene of the mob around the grindstone, observed by Mr. Lorry and Dr. Manette. What they witness is an appalling spectacle of bestial violence and moral degradation as Dickens lets his wildest and deepest fears rise to the surface. The chain reaction of violent oppression and violent rebellion has passed beyond human control, and in this mass frenzy all distinctions of individuality and even sex are submerged:

The eye could not detect one creature in the group free from the smear of blood. Shouldering one another to get next at the sharpening-stone, were men stripped to the waist, with the stain all over their limbs and bodies; men in all sorts of rags, with the stain upon those rags; men devilishly set off with spoils of women's lace and silk and ribbon, with the stain dyeing those trifles through and through.

Then, as if appalled by the terrors he has let loose, Dickens, in John Gross's words, “reaches for his gun”:5

And as the frantic wielders of these weapons snatched them from the stream of sparks and tore away into the streets, the same red hue was red in their frenzied eyes;—eyes which any unbrutalised beholder would have given twenty years of life, to petrify with a well-directed gun.

All this was seen in a moment, as the vision of a drowning man, or of any human creature at any very great pass, could see a world if it were there. They drew back from the window, and the Doctor looked for explanation in his friend's ashy face. (291-2)

Clearly signalled as the vision of a drowning man, the scene is the product of an imagination in extremis. It is a bourgeois nightmare of anarchy unleashed by the rebellion of the oppressed.6 Even if it is the logical culmination of the violent oppression that has preceded it, the violence is, when it eventuates, too great to bear. The “well-directed gun,” with its sudden change of focus from dramatic scene to violent, judgmental reaction, looks like an authorial intervention aimed at terminating the nightmare. The curious insistence on the eyes of the frenzied crowd emphasizes that vision is the vital element, and the urge to “petrify” those eyes can be read as the expression of a desire to put an end to that vision. The action is transposed from subject to object: it is not their eyes that Dickens the narrator wishes to close, but his own. For a moment he seeks to retreat from his own vision of the historical process.

There is, then, a form of resistance here to the catastrophic continuum of history, but at the same time Dickens reveals something about the emotional dynamics of that historical process in a way that is more penetrating than the melodramatic simplifications of Madame Defarge and her desire for vengeance. The violent reaction of the “well-directed gun,” an answering of violence with violence, implicates the writer himself in the very process he is presenting. This is characteristic of the open and unguarded nature of his procedure in A Tale: violent fears and violent reactions are given direct, unmediated expression, so that unwitting parallels emerge between the reflexes of the author/narrator and those of the fictional characters. In this case there is an obvious affinity between the “well-directed gun,” with what has been aptly termed its “true ring of outraged rate-paying respectability.”7 and the response of the blustering bourgeois Stryver to news of the Revolution:

Among the talkers, was Stryver, of the King's Bench Bar, far on his way to state promotion, and, therefore, loud on the theme: broaching to Monseigneur, his devices for blowing the people up and exterminating them from the face of the earth, and doing without them: and for accomplishing many similar objects akin in their nature to the abolition of eagles by sprinkling salt on the tails of the race. (267)

The reaction of the character is held firmly in focus and identified by means of irony as excessive and senseless, while the author/narrator in the grindstone passage repeats that reaction without the containing frame of any critical awareness. And both reactions have the function—the one deliberate, the other involuntary—of revealing the emotional resources that drive the catastrophic continuum of history. Dickens thus does more than simply project a deterministic vision of history; he shows how that determinism is rooted in commonplace and familiar emotions, how the potential for violence is not confined to a savage past and an alien setting, but lies very close to home. The effect is to detach history from the safety of the past and to suggest that its violent continuum may not have expired with the Revolution.

The persistence of that violence is amply demonstrated by Dickens's own susceptibility to the kinds of powerful emotions that are at work in the novel. As a caricature of the conquering bourgeois, the figure of Stryver belongs as much in the nineteenth century as the eighteenth, and Dickens himself could display distinctly Stryverish leanings in his response to contemporary events. In the same letter to Forster in which he outlines his intentions in A Tale of Two Cities and which he must have written about the same time as the grindstone passage,8 there is a revealing outburst of verbal violence. The letter begins with a discussion of the case of the surgeon Thomas Smethurst, found guilty of poisoning his bigamous “wife.” The trial judge, Sir Jonathan Frederick Pollock, strongly supported the verdict in the face of public unease and of moves to persuade the Home Secretary to quash or commute the sentence.9 Dickens gives his fervent support to Pollock, and in doing so presents another example of an outraged, violent reaction to an act of violence:

I followed the case with so much interest, and have followed the miserable knaves and asses who have perverted it since, with so much indignation, that I have often had more than half a mind to write and thank the upright judge who tried him. I declare to God that I believe such a service one of the greatest that a man of intellect and courage can render to society. Of course I saw the beast of a prisoner (with my mind's eye) delivering his cut-and-dried speech, and read in every word of it that no one but the murderer could have delivered or conceived it. Of course I have been driving the girls out of their wits here, by incessantly proclaiming that there needed no medical evidence either way, and that the case was plain without it. Lastly, of course (though a merciful man—because a merciful man I mean), I would hang any Home Secretary (Whig, Tory, Radical, or otherwise) who should step in between that black scoundrel and the gallows.10

The protestations of his mercifulness are convincing only as a respectable garment for his Stryverish pugnacity, and the emotional pattern of the passage recapitulates that of the grindstone scene so closely as to provide striking evidence for taking the “well-directed gun” as an authorial intervention. What is more interesting, however, is that the violence spills over into his account of his intentions in writing A Tale:

But I set myself the little task of making a picturesque story, rising in every chapter with characters true to nature, but whom the story itself should express, more than they should express themselves, by dialogue. I mean, in other words, that I have fancied a story of incident might be written, in place of the bestiality that is written under that pretence, pounding the characters out in its own mortar, and beating their own interests out of them. If you could have read the story all at once, I hope you wouldn’t have stopped half way.11

As violent an exception is taken to conventional forms of story-telling as is taken to an alleged murderer, and when Dickens writes of “pounding” and “beating” his characters it seems that violence is not only central to his vision of history in this novel but is also inherent in his means of expressing that vision. This formal violence, which could be interpreted in one sense as the forcible subordination of character to the story of incident, is as revealingly related to the creation of a narrative and historical continuum as is the earlier emotional violence. The expressed intention is to prevent the reader from stopping halfway, to maintain a compelling momentum in the narrative, and this momentum also serves the vision of historical determinism by subjecting individuals to a sequence of violent events that is beyond their power to control.

What exactly Dickens means by beating his characters' own interest out of them is open to question. It might be taken to refer to the way in which they are forcibly harnessed to allegorical meanings, like Darnay with the “Everyman” implications of his original family name, or the sentimental equation of Lucie Manette with a “golden thread.” But the only character who has any real interest to be beaten out of him, Carton, is not the object of any direct allegorizing. Indeed, in his case meaning is deliberately withheld rather than allegorically asserted, and no cogent reasons are offered for his alienation. This mystification has the effect of directing the search for significance away from the personal life towards the general condition of existence. Lukács's contention that Carton's fate is the one that least of all “grows organically out of the age and its social events”12 is justified only if the wider historical process is ignored, for it is as a victim of general social values and forces—and hence, by implication, of the historical continuum—that interest and significance are beaten out of him. As Lukács sees, he is a marginal figure, but he can be said to be significant precisely for that reason: he has been marginalized, so to speak, by the energy and values embodied in Stryver who, more properly than Darnay, is his alter ego. In his gloomy estrangement Carton suggests the neurotic price that may be exacted by the aggressive pursuit of individual success, by the bourgeois ethos of individual endeavor in its most crassly careerist form. The accusation that he levels at Stryver evinces a social as much as a personal truth: “‘You were always driving and riving and shouldering and pressing, to that restless degree that I had no chance for my life but in rust and repose’” (120-1). A world dominated by the energy and purpose of such as Stryver claims its moral and psychological victims within the dominant class. The triumph of the bourgeois will creates its opposite in the aimless, drifting existence of a character whose self-image—“‘I should ask … that I might be regarded as an useless … piece of furniture’” (237)—betrays the marks of a reified consciousness. And to the extent that Stryver partakes of the violent spirit which is at work in the larger historical events, Carton comes to stand, too, as the victim of the catastrophic continuum of history, a role which he then, at the end, consciously assumes.

To define Carton in these terms is to spell out bluntly what is only intimated indirectly, for it is Dickens's refusal to define and explain precisely that gives Carton a greater degree of density and interest than the other characters. With Carton, indeed, Dickens comes closest to creating something like the mystery and opacity of individuality that he refers to in the “Night Shadows” meditation, but only up to a point, since in the final scenes of the character's transformation there is a movement back toward conventional coherence and transparency. If, as Benjamin argues, the meaning of the life of a character in a novel is revealed in his death,13 then Carton could be said to constitute himself as a character by choosing to die by the guillotine. He gives himself a goal and a purpose, and in so doing gives shape and meaning to his life. What has been aimless and indefinite becomes purposive and defined, and continuity is established between beginning and end, between promising youth and exemplary death. He achieves character in both a formal and a moral sense, and in the process realigns himself with the other representatives of English bourgeois life, exhibiting reflexes reminiscent of Stryver's in sensing a desire to strike the life out of the wood-sawyer (341) and reflecting on the desirability of raising Madame Defarge's arm and striking under it sharp and deep (371).

Carton's transformation is clearly intended to be read as the redemption of a wasted life, but such a reading has to ignore the qualifying ambiguities that are involved in it. As he decides on his course of action, resolution is strangely mixed with fatalism:

“There is nothing more to do,” said he, glancing upward at the moon, “until tomorrow. I can’t sleep.”

It was not a reckless manner, the manner in which he said these words aloud under the fast-sailing clouds, nor was it more expressive of negligence than defiance. It was the settled manner of a tired man, who had wandered and struggled and got lost, but who at length struck into his road and saw its end. (342)

The term “end” carries a double meaning: in one sense it has to be read as “goal,” stressing Carton's new-found sense of purpose and smuggling into the novel on the level of the individual life the positive teleology that is so markedly absent on the level of history. But the stronger meaning here is that of “conclusion,” and a conclusion that is approached with a sense of release rather than a sense of achievement. The “tired man” is simply seeking repose, and in his desire for an end he makes explicit that resistance to the narrative and historical continuum which has been intimated elsewhere in the novel and now surfaces as the deepest yearning of a particular character.

He wishes to escape but, significantly, the mode of escape he chooses merely confirms his status as a victim of socio-historical circumstances. The act of self-sacrifice—an idea which haunts Dickens's imagination in this novel as powerfully and melodramatically as images of revolutionary violence—cannot be seen as simply the ultimate expression of altruism, since it is obscurely rooted in the same values that have significantly contributed to Carton's estrangement in the first place. The puritan ethic of disciplined personal endeavor demands renunciation such as Carton has been neurotically making all along, and its final act is the renunciation of life itself.14 Thus the very step which makes sense of his life is as perverse as it is noble, as much a capitulation to the uncontrollable forces that have governed his life as a transcendence of them. To seek to escape sacrifice by sacrificing oneself is the expression of a truly desperate desire for an ending.

These more questionable implications of Carton's self-chosen end are largely disguised by Dickens's narrative and rhetorical strategies in the closing chapters. The polarization and pathos of melodrama are engaged to elicit acceptance of him as an exemplary altruist, while the Christian rhetoric of death and resurrection serves to present his self-sacrifice as a positive act of redemption rather than an expression of world-weary resignation. The character is, as it were, borne along by an affective and rhetorical current which obscures contradictions, and this same current is clearly intended to carry the reader, unquestioning, from Carton's death under the Terror to the resurrection of civilized order in his prophetic vision of the future. This attempt to make the historical regeneration of France and the domestic happiness of the Darnays seem continuous with what has preceded them is, however, hardly convincing, as the only element of continuity is the continuing strain of imaginative resistance to the destructive historical continuum. That the historical process of escalating violence should issue in a benign future is scarcely conceivable in this context, and Dickens passes perfunctorily over how it could come about with a casual reference to “evil … gradually making expiation for itself and wearing out” (404). The suggestion of entropy in that last phrase is significant. It is not so much a vision of redeeming historical development that is bestowed on Carton as a vision of the end of time. “‘There is no Time there’” (403), he says to the seamstress of the “better” land to which both are going; and his own vision of a better land, with its “beautiful city” and “brilliant people” (404) rising from the abyss, appears similarly otherworldly, having a greater affinity with the New Jerusalem of the Apocalypse than with nineteenth-century Paris. Indeed, the apocalyptic note in this conclusion stresses finality rather than resurrection, and death haunts even the conventional pieties of the domestic happy ending: Lorry is seen “passing tranquilly to his reward” and the Darnays, “their course done, lying side by side in their last earthly bed” (404). Lives are shown passing to a peaceful end, and all this individual and historical “wearing out” is envisaged by a man who is himself gratefully embracing death as a welcome release. Even in his famous mawkish last words it is not the heroic deed but the long-sought repose, the “far, far better rest” (404), that receives the final emphasis.

Weariness, both of character and of creative imagination, is the keynote of this ending, and it betrays the intellectual and imaginative impasse in which Dickens finds himself. Since he sees revolution as just another link in the chain of violence and oppression, and presents the efforts of individuals, like Darnay's journey to Paris, as powerless to influence the course of historical events, he can conceive no possibility, to use Benjamin's phrase, of blasting open the continuum of history by social and political action.15 Unlike Benjamin, Dickens can advance no alternative vision of time and history. The claim once made for Middlemarch that it replaces “the concepts of origin, end and continuity” by “the categories of repetition, of difference, of discontinuity, of openness”16 can certainly not be applied to A Tale of Two Cities. Origin and end, feudal oppression and revolutionary retribution, are linked by a causal chain which affirms the predominance of continuity. Repetition, on the other hand, as Dr. Manette's recurrent trauma illustrates, is here simply the mark of a mind imprisoned in the past, not a new, liberating category of temporal experience. Even the moments of discontinuity discussed earlier only challenge the narrative and historical continuum by revealing a desire to evade it. Carton's prophecy is simply a final evasive move, and one that gives itself away by its weary insistence on death and its eschatological suggestion of the end of time. Only by turning away from the course of human history can Dickens find a refuge for hope, and to express hope in such terms is tantamount to a confession of despair. In this novel of imprisonments and burials alive the writer himself remains imprisoned in a rigorously linear, end-determined narrative and the grimly determinist vision of history which it articulates. The resistance he offers is that of a mind vainly struggling to escape and thereby confirming the power of that which holds it captive. This vision of history as a catastrophic continuum is only made more powerful by the clear indications in the text that Dickens is expressing what is deeply repugnant to, yet stronger than, all that he can hope and wish for.


  1. A Tale of Two Cities, ed. George Woodcock (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1970), 37, Further references to this edition are given after quotations in the text.

  2. Robert Alter, “The Demons of History in Dickens' Tale,Novel 2 (1968-9): 135-142.

  3. Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn, ed. Hannah Arendt (London: Fontana, 1973), 255-266 (257). See also Gesammelte Schriften, ed. Rolf Tiedemann and Hermann Schweppenhäuser (Frankfurt, 1974), 1(3): 1244: “Die Katastrophe als das Kontinuum der Geschichte.”

  4. Alter, 138, gives an illuminating account of apocalyptic allusions in the novel.

  5. John Gross, “A Tale of Two Cities,” in Dickens and the Twentieth Century, ed. John Gross and Gabriel Pearson (London, 1962), 192.

  6. Benjamin, in his opposition to the notion of historical continuity, stresses the importance of isolated moments of vision like this: “To articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it ‘the way it really was' (Ranke). It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger. Historical materialism wishes to retain that image of the past which unexpectedly appears to a man singled out by history at a moment of danger” (Illuminations, 257). Whereas Benjamin was thinking of the revolutionary proletariat as the subject of such a vision, recapturing the experience of its oppressed forebears, Dickens could be said to be presenting the bourgeois counterpart of such an experience, where the man singled out by history at a moment of danger relives the perennial fears of the property-owning class.

  7. Gross, 192.

  8. The weekly part containing the “Grindstone” chapter was published on September 24, 1859. In this letter of August 25, Dickens tells Forster that he has asked the publisher of All The Year Round to send him “four weeks' proofs beyond the current number, that are in type.” The current number would be that of August 20: the four weeks in proof would cover the numbers up to 17 September, leaving the “Grindstone” part as not yet in type, and most probably either just completed or still being worked on. For the letter of August 25 see The Letters of Charles Dickens, ed. Walter Dexter (London: Nonesuch Press, 1938), 3:117-119.

  9. See Philip Collins, Dickens and Crime, 2nd ed. (London, 1964), 246.

  10. Letters, 3:118.

  11. Although this quotation comes from the same letter as the preceding one, I have here cited the text as given by Charles Dickens the Younger in his introduction to A Tale of Two Cities (London: Macmillan, 1902), xx. He points out that Forster, in quoting the letter in his Life, alters “bestiality” to “odious stuff.” Dexter, Letters, 3: 118, follows Forster's diluted version.

  12. Georg Lukács, The Historical Novel, trans. Hannah and Stanley Mitchell (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969), 292.

  13. Illuminations, 100-101.

  14. The irrational act of self-sacrifice could thus be said to point to a general irrationalism in history and society at large, as is suggested in a different context by Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, trans. John Cumming (London, 1973), 55: “The irrationalism of totalitarian capitalism … has its prototype in the hero who escapes from sacrifice by sacrificing himself. The history of civilisation is the history of the introversion of sacrifice. In other words: the history of renunciation.”

  15. Illuminations, 264.

  16. J. Hillis Miller, “Narrative and History,” in ELH Essays for Earl R. Wasserman, ed. Ronald Paulson and Arnold Stein (Baltimore and London, 1975), 165-183 (177).

Harland S. Nelson (essay date 1988)

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SOURCE: “Shadow and Substance in A Tale of Two Cities,” in The Dickensian, Vol. 84, Part 2, No. 415, Summer, 1988, pp. 96-106.

[In the following essay, Nelson argues that elements of The Substance and the Shadow, a romance by John Frederick Smith, influenced Dickens while writing A Tale of Two Cities.]

A Tale of Two Cities took Dickens a long time to tell, if we count the year and a half which John Forster says passed between the first ‘vague fancy’, which struck him while he was acting in Wilkie Collins's The Frozen Deep in August 1857, and March 1859, when ‘he fairly buckle[d] himself to the task he had contemplated so long’.1 On 30 January 1858 it was not clear that he had anything more in mind yet than to distract himself from his domestic unhappiness:

If I can discipline my thoughts into the channel of a story, I have made up my mind to get to work on one: always supposing that I find myself, on the trial, able to do well. Nothing whatever will do me the least ‘good’ in the way of shaking the one strong possession of change impending over us that every day makes stronger. … Sometimes, I think I may continue to work; sometimes, I think not. What do you say to the title, ONE OF THESE DAYS?2

Nothing in that title suggests A Tale of Two Cities, and it is ‘a story’ he would begin, not ‘the story’. A year later he was still struggling to find a way into his material: ‘I cannot please myself with the opening of my story, and cannot in the least settle at it or take to it’.3 He was much absorbed then in his dispute with Bradbury and Evans, and in his plans for the new journal for which he had only recently settled on the name All the Year Round. For his novel Dickens did not reach that stage, so necessary to him before he could really get on, until 11 March: ‘I have got exactly the name for the story that is wanted; exactly what will fit the opening to a T. A Tale of Two Cities’.4

What Dickens says of his opening in both of these letters—first that he has not got it yet, then that he has—implies that he does now have the essentials of the story in prospect. Some part of the whole he had already in March 1858, clearly, when he sent Forster a short list of possible titles: Buried Alive, The Thread of Gold, The Doctor of Beauvais.5 How much, then or a year later, is impossible to say; Forster does not record that Dickens gave him a prospectus for A Tale of Two Cities of the sort that he did for Dombey and Son in July 1846. But even such a sketch would be no more than ‘the stock of the soup’, to which ‘all kinds of things [would] be added’, in the course of ‘all the branches and off-shoots and meanderings that come up’ (as Dickens wound up his summary of Dombey and Son to Forster).6 Dickens's number plans show how much had still to be invented from month to month, or week to week, even though he knew the general shape and substance of his story; and the Book of Memoranda Dickens began keeping in January 1855 indicated to Forster, as to others since, that he was no longer so confident inspiration could be counted on to produce the necessary material on demand.

It is plausible, then, that during this period in early 1859 Dickens should be looking about him for ideas as he struggled to get started. I think he found some imaginative stimulus—and indeed, at least two specific details—in a hack romance by John Frederick Smith, The Substance and the Shadow, then being serialized in the weekly Cassell's Illustrated Family Paper. Smith's title turns up first as a thematic image in chapter 4 of Book the Second, where ‘the abstraction that overclouded [Dr Manette] fitfully, without any apparent reason’, in his new life in England was ‘as incomprehensible to those unacquainted with his story as if they had seen the shadow of the actual Bastille thrown upon him by a summer sun, when the substance was three hundred miles away’.7 In chapter 3 of Book the Third, ‘The Shadow’, it is Madame Defarge whose menace shades Lucie and her hopes (p. 298). Finally, Smith's title turns up only slightly transmuted as the title of chapter 10, Book the Third; here ‘The Substance of the Shadow’ on Dr Manette's mind and soul is revealed in his narrative of his ordeal, introduced in evidence at Charles Darnay's second trial before the revolutionary court.

The other detail, corroborating that these are echoes of Smith's title and not just coincidental use of a common phrase, is Madame Defarge's companion The Vengeance, the otherwise nameless ‘short, rather plump wife of a starved grocer’ of Saint Antoine (Book the Second, chapter 22, p. 251). In Smith's serial a woman freed from the Bastille after years of imprisonment names herself Vengeance.8 She does not otherwise resemble the grocer's wife, and although she turns out to have some importance to the plot, it is not that but the way she comes before Smith's readers which makes me think she caught Dickens's eye and was transformed into one of his ominous knitters before the guillotine. I shall explain this shortly, in the course of my argument for the likelihood that Smith's serial would have attracted Dickens's notice.

There are also a substantial number of elements in Smith's story which have parallels, if not identical counterparts, in A Tale of Two Cities. Smith opens in 1773, and after a certain amount of groundlaying (vastly more than Dickens does in opening his novel in 1775, as there is vastly more material: Smith begins in England and ends in Ireland, with a long central segment set in France), and moves forward to 1789, as Dickens does too. Smith depends heavily in his French segment on letters de cachet, those warrants by authority of which the rich and powerful were believed to be able to keep enemies imprisoned indefinitely, to account for his characters' disappearance into prison, which his plot requires of them with great frequency; such a document figures in Dickens's plot (but only once), presumably the authority for Dr Manette's entombment in 105 North Tower for almost eighteen years. There is a father confined in Smith's Bastille too, for fifteen years (to Dr Manette's nearly eighteen). Many prisoners freed from Smith's Bastille do not remember their own names; that father, like Dr Manette, calls himself only by a number (9 April, p. 292); though on being freed, he bursts into mad laughter and announces his name is Destiny. Destiny is soon to figure in an incident that parallels Sydney Carton's service to Charles Darney. Having been freed, he becomes a gaoler himself at the prison where the young hero, whirled by the changing winds of the revolution, lands in spite of his service at the fall of the Bastille; in that capacity Destiny is able to effect the hero's escape by disguising him as himself (30 April, p. 339). The hero, as events will prove, is the gaoler's son. I shall not attempt any further opening of the plot, which is wildly complicated, and of no interest generally in relation to A Tale of Two Cities.)

If Dickens saw all or some of this claptrap, it is not out of reason to suppose him making use of usable bits. He disliked intimations that he owed any of his creations to other sources than his own imagination and his own observations, but he obviously did have such debts, both before and after he resorted to his Book of Memoranda. John Butt's chapter ‘The Topicality of Bleak House’ in his and Kathleen Tillotson's Dickens at Work (London, 1957) demonstrates convincingly how Dickens's fictional concerns in Bleak House gathered up current topics of general concern dealt with in the daily press, and some special topics developed in his own Household Words; and similar cases have been made out for Great Expectations and Our Mutual Friend.9 Furthermore, The Substance and the Shadow began appearing 4 December 1858, and of the details I have mentioned all were in print well before any of A Tale of Two Cities appeared.

But were they in print in time for Dickens to have drawn on them in his own composing? It is not clear how far ahead of the printer Dickens was able to stay. In July, when he was actively considering a reading tour in the United States, he wrote confidently of finishing by late September, and on 15 October all six remaining parts were indeed in proof.10 But on 9 July, when the eleventh part (Book the Second, chapters 10-11) had just appeared, Dickens was no more than holding his ground—‘my old month's advance’.11 It is true that he implies he had been doing better before illness and heat slowed him down, but there is no sure evidence of that. A letter to his subeditor Wills earlier still, on 30 June, indicates only that the two installments beyond the one for 2 July were in proof;12 and on the question whether Dickens had more than the ‘old month's advance’ in hand at the outset, there is only the evidence that he enclosed with his letter to Wills of Monday 11 April ‘two more weekly parts'—so there were, then, at least three parts in hand.13 But this was only two weeks before the first number of All the Year Round would have been sent to the printer.

At any rate, Smith's nameless prisoner appeared in good time for Dickens to have noticed him, in Cassell's for 9 April, more than five weeks before Dr Manette is found, still calling himself ‘one Hundred and Five, North Tower’ (in part 4, published 21 May, and in the printers' hands 16 May). Vengeance appeared in the next number of Cassell's (16 April), while Dickens's Vengeance did not turn up until part 19, published 3 September: plenty of time here, too. Destiny's stratagem for the hero's escape is in Cassell's for 30 April (p. 339), and Sydney Carton's plans for Charles Darnay's escape begin in part 25, published 15 October. However, Dickens clearly laid that ground much earlier, in part 5 (28 May), when Carton (‘the wigged gentleman with his hands in his pockets', p. 92) is on hand at Darnay's trial in England to confound the prosecution with his resemblance to Darnay. So the case is not so clear-cut about this detail: only four weeks intervene between the publication of Destiny's stratagem and the number of All the Year Round in which Dickens's intent for Carton is laid down. And while Dickens regularly revised in proof, it is unlikely that such a crucial development as the means of Darnay's acquittal would have been a last-minute idea.

Nor do I mean to claim that the structural parallels I noted earlier do in themselves prove Dickens's indebtedness. The idea for ‘a story in two periods—with a lapse of time between, like a French drama’ had occurred to him several years earlier—it makes an entry belonging to 1855 in the Book of Memoranda—and lettres de cachet appear in Carlyle's French Revolution as well as in Smith's plot. His use of such a document in his plot does not, in fact, indicate Dickens's debt to Smith so much as their common reliance on Carlyle. Smith's dependence on him is obvious: he begins his French segment in the last days of Louis XV, which is when Carlyle opens, and his historical characters follow Carlyle. Dickens's admiration for ‘Mr Carlyle's wonderful book’, of course, is well known. In fact his idea for a story in two periods may itself owe to his long familiarity with Carlyle's handling of the chronology of the revolution and its prelude; the comparison which comes to him—‘like a French drama’—seems to me suggestive.14

But these elements in Smith's novel which eventually were paralleled in Dickens's Tale could have had their effect, given the formative stage of Dickens's creation, if Dickens had reason to look over such a journal as Cassell's. And he did have reason. Canny businessman that he was, and with All the Year Round in the planning, Dickens would surely have been looking calculatingly at the competition. Cassell's Illustrated Family Paper was certainly that. It sold for one penny (All the Year Round was to be priced at twopence), and though it was eventually to lose ground to All the Year Round, when it was founded in 1853 it quickly gained circulation and a reputation for good value. According to the Edinburgh Guardian, at the age of seven weeks Cassell's ‘already equals, if it do not exceed, the London Journal, which up to that recent date stood in this respect at the head of the weekly periodicals. … At the price of one penny it contains eight folio pages of interesting and instructive matter, crowded with illustrations, in many cases of wonderful merit. … Among the benefactors of his country, Mr Cassell, by the singular versatility and vigour of his effects in the elevation of the popular taste, must undoubtedly rank’.15

And if Dickens inspected Cassell's, he could hardly avoid The Shadow and the Substance, on the front page from the first installment in the number for 4 December 1858 until 4 June 1859, when a new Smith serial took over that spot, and The Shadow and the Substance retreated to the inner pages for its remaining five weekly parts. With his own story in mind, Dickens would have been mentally primed to pick up details that chimed with his own conception (in much the same way details registered with me, I suppose, when I was first leafing through Cassell's on the watch for something else). It would not have been literary excellence that caught his attention. Smith was ‘the great exemplar of the penny periodical romance’, first for the London Journal, then Cassell's.16 According to the notice of his death in The Athenaeum, his work ws ‘too slapdash’, but he did have ‘the faculty of invention’.17 To which the author of ‘Penny Fiction’ would have protested that his stories were all ‘identically the same’; but the two accounts agree that Smith was much the most widely read English writer of fiction.

Dickens would not have envied Smith the style which made him popular, but there was something about his presence in Cassell's which would have attracted Dickens's notice. The front page of Cassell's was mainly given over to pictorial matter: the title across the top, embellished with a picture of a family group and symbols of art and learning, and an illustration for the current serial occupying the bottom half. Given Dickens's own intensely visual imagination, and his painstaking attention to illustrations for his own novels, Cassell's front page would surely catch his eye. Glancing at the number for 15 January, then, he would have seen ‘Ruth visits her father in the prison’. (See page 96). His own novel (still without a name) by now certainly involved an old man in prison, too, if in March 1858 he had those tentative titles in mind that Forster reports: Buried Alive, The Thread of Gold, The Doctor of Beauvais. And surely Lucie Manette already existed in his conception. So this illustration would have had some mild interest for him.

The story itself, this week, would not have had. But next week, the illustration was a scene at the royal court of France (‘Presentation of Miss Macnamara to Louis XV’), as Smith moved his action to France; and the first sentence was such as now to attract Dicken's attention to the story itself, too: ‘The eighteenth century propounded a problem which its successor, the nineteenth, has not yet succeeded in solving, at least satisfactorily—the French revolution’ (22 January, p. 113). After this there is a chunk of historical background larded with rather arch commentary before the plot resumes. And from here on, through the rest of the months that Dickens was shaping his own novel and writing the early installments, Smith's story was unfolding in France. The letters de cachet appear on the average of once a week; in the installment for 19 March Smith moved the action through the years following Louis XV's death, and reached 1789 in the next number; the attack on the Bastille came in the part published 2 April; and the following week the old prisoner was discovered who says he has no name, only a number, and then with a manic laugh takes the name of Destiny (9 April, p. 292).

The illustration for this number reinforces the impression made by the one of the young woman and her father (see page 100). Here ‘the son succeeds in discovering his father's dungeon’ (though he does not know who the prisoner is), a doubling, as it were, of the theme: an idea of such interest to Dickens as to make the corresponding scene in A Tale of Two Cities, Lucie Manette meeting her father in Defarge's garret in Saint Antoine, the subject for one of the illustrations in the monthly part edition (it appears in the Penguin English Library edition, p. 77). There is, however, another detail about this incident which anticipates something in A Tale of Two Cities. The old man (Destiny) is not discovered among the regular prisoners, but in a secret dungeon, access to which is from the Prevot's Tower. When the Bastille is overrun in A Tale of Two Cities (Book the Second, chapter 21), Defarge demands the meaning of ‘One Hundred and Five, North Tower’, and is led to the remote secret cell where (as is revealed at Darnay's fatal second trial in Paris) he finds the manuscript containing Dr Manette's narrative. (Dickens cannot have found the germ of this in Carlyle, as he did for such memorable scenes as the sharpening of weapons by the maddened mob during the massacres.18

There is a still more striking development, however, in the next installment (16 April): the appearance of the counterpart to Dickens's character The Vengeance. Smith's Vengeance has been in the Bastille for years (by authority of a lettre de cachet, naturally), and takes her distinctive name on hearing of the old man who calls himself Destiny. Having been introduced and named, she is sent offstage until the end of the week's installment, when she is discovered standing at the foot of the scaffold (p. 308). That, in fact, is the moment depicted in the week's illustration the first thing to catch a reader's eye (see page 102).

But the explanation of what she is doing there comes in the 23 April installment. To the question ‘What seek you here?’ she replies, ‘I wait’.

‘Have you ever seen the vulture perched immovably upon the branch of some blasted oak, overhanging the ravine below’, demanded the female, in a harsh, disagreeable voice, which reminded her hearers of the croak [sic] bird she named.

‘More than once’.

‘And never wondered what it was waiting for?’

‘It was unnecessary to do so; for its prey’.

And yet the fool asks me what I am waiting for!’ screamed the woman, with a hideous, mocking laugh.

‘I do not understand you’.

‘I wait for mine’.

The words were uttered in a tone so cold and passionless, that Redmond [the young hero] felt a chill of terror creep through his veins as he listened to them. (p. 321)

The value of finding a source for something in Dickens is not in adding to the list of such sources, but in seeing how he transformed it to his own use. Thus a river scavenger in Henry Mayhew's London Labour and the London Poor, interested in salvage of every kind, becomes Gaffer Hexam in Our Mutual Friend, a specialist in a more thematically resonant work, dredging the murky Thames for the bodies of the drowned. Here in Smith's The Substance and the Shadow is a character who I feel sure, from the complex of evidence I have been sketching, is the original for Dickens's character The Vengeance. The names are the obvious point of identity. But the singular quality of Smith's Vengeance—‘I wait for mine’—is given to another character, Madame Defarge. Like Vengeance, she carries implacable rage in her heart, and she too waits for her prey; unlike her, whose voice is rarely ‘so cold and passionless', Madame Defarge normally conceals her ruling passion, her demeanor calm, serene, and composed. Both of them, and Madame Defarge's admiring lieutenant The Vengeance, embody the driving force of the revolution as Carlyle saw it: ‘disimprisoned Anarchy’, how it ‘bursts-up from the infinite Deep, and rages uncontrollable, immeasurable, enveloping a world …’.19

Dickens's special touch is first, to show that force under control, contained, ordered, and concentrated by an iron will: what makes Madame Defarge so formidable to all who know her is precisely that. Second, he picks up a suggestion in Carlyle, the ‘citoyennes' who bring their knitting to Jacobin Society meetings ‘and shriek or knit as the case needs',20 and infuses that image of domesticity and practicality with the rage of ‘disimprisoned Anarchy’. Smith's Vengeance waiting alone at the scaffold becomes in Dickens The Vengeance, one of a whole company of women, knitting at the guillotine, ‘never faltering or pausing in their work’, counting their stitches as they do the motions of ‘the crashing engine that constantly whirrs up and falls …’. If Dickens saw and feared ‘disimprisoned Anarchy’, as he surely did; and how ‘corrupt worn-out Authority’ (in Carlyle's phrase) was bound to loose that anarchy on the world, as he also did; he saw too that mere discipline and order (even such order and system as he governed his own life by) are not enough to rule the rage of the unforgiving heart. Only love can do that; only Miss Pross, who will buy her beloved Lucie's safety with her own life, can conquer Madame Defarge. If Dickens found some substance in J. F. Smith's shadows to help him body forth that vision in his Tale of Two Cities, we have something to thank Smith for.


  1. The Life of Charles Dickens, ed. J. W. T. Ley (London and New York, 1928), Book IX, chapter ii, p. 729. Dickens's description of the original idea to Angela Burdett-Coutts does not sound like such a ‘vague fancy’, however, as Forster makes out: ‘… Sometimes of late, when I have been very excited by the crying of two thousand people over the grave of Richard Wardour [his part in The Frozen Deep], new ideas for a story have come into my head as I lay on the ground, with surprising force and brilliance’ (5 September 1857; The Letters of Charles Dickens, ed. Walter Dexter [Bloomsbury, 1938], II, 876). George Woodcock discusses the importance of that experience to the genesis of A Tale of Two Cities in his excellent introduction to the Penguin English Library edition. (Page references for quotations from the novel are to this edition.)

  2. Letters, III, 5 (to Forster).

  3. Letters, III, 95 (21 February 1859, to Forster).

  4. Letters, III, 95 (to Forster).

  5. Life, IX, ii, 729.

  6. Life, VI, ii, 472-3.

  7. Book the Second, chapter 4, pp. 109-10.

  8. Cassell's Illustrated Family Paper, 16 April 1859, p. 306. From here on I will locate references to Smith's novel in my text, by date and page.

  9. See Harry Stone, ‘The Genesis of a Novel: Great Expectations’, in Charles Dickens 1812-1870, ed. E. W. F. Tomlin (New York, 1969). On Our Mutual Friend see my article ‘Dickens's Our Mutual Friend and Henry Mayhew's London Labour and the London Poor’, Nineteenth-Century Fiction 20 (1965-66), 207-22; and Harvey Peter Sucksmith, ‘Dickens and Mayhew: A Further Note’, Nineteenth-Century Fiction 24 (1969-70), 345-49.

  10. Letters, III, 112 (July, to Forster) and 125-6 (to F. J. Régnier).

  11. Letters, III, 110 (to Forster).

  12. Letters, III, 108-9.

  13. Letters, III, 99.

  14. He has the Dauphin and Dauphiness, learning of Louis XV's death, fall on their knees and exclaim, ‘Heaven direct us! We are too young to reign’ (26 February, p. 196)—flattening Carlyle slightly, who has them saying, ‘O God, guide us, protect us; we are too young to reign!’ (Volume One, Book First, chapter 4).

  15. Quoted in Simon Nowell-Smith, The House of Cassell 1848-1958 (London, 1958), p. 40.

  16. ‘Penny Fiction’, Quarterly Review, July 1890, pp. 162-3.

  17. 15 March 1890, p. 343.

  18. Book the Third, chapter 2, ‘The Grindstone’, pp. 291-2, where he dramatizes a single sentence from Carlyle, Volume III, Book First, chapter 4, ‘September in Paris': ‘Man after man is cut down; the sabres need sharpening, the killers refresh themselves from wine-jugs'. There is no reference to secret dungeons in Carlyle's chapters on the fall of the Bastille (Volume I, Book Fifth, chapters 6 and 7).

  19. The French Revolution, Volume I, Book Sixth, chapter 1.

  20. Volume III, Book Second, chapter 5.

Cates Baldridge (essay date 1990)

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SOURCE: “Alternatives to Bourgeois Individualism in A Tale of Two Cities,” in Studies in English Literature 1500-1900, Vol. 30, No. 4, Autumn, 1990, pp. 633-54.

[In the following essay, Baldridge explores an aspect of the French Revolution depicted in A Tale of Two Citiesthat he claims has been neglected by critics: the assertion that “the group, the class, the Republic—and not the individual—comprise, or should comprise, the basic unit of society.”]

Dickens's ambivalence toward the Revolution he depicts in A Tale of Two Cities has been the subject of much thoughtful comment, and over the past few decades a number of differing causes for this ambivalence have been proposed. George Woodcock, for instance, sees in the “vigor” with which the author depicts the scenes of Revolutionary violence a kind of vicarious retribution against the society which betrayed him in his youth: “in one self [Dickens] is there, dancing among them, destroying prisons and taking revenge for the injustices of childhood.”1 Others have interpreted it as the result of the author's fitful attempts to work out an overarching theory of history, or to adapt Carlyle's ideas on historical necessity to the needs of his fictional genre.2 Some critics have even pointed out parallels between the methods of the Jacquerie and the literary techniques employed by Dickens himself.3 What I shall do here is to focus upon one particular aspect of the Revolutionary regime in A Tale which has received less attention than most, and attempt to put forward a largely political explanation for Dickens's ambivalence concerning it. The aspect I refer to is the Revolution's assertion that the group, the class, the Republic—and not the individual—comprise, or should comprise, the basic unit of society. The corollaries which spring from this belief (and which are themselves fully depicted in the text) will also be considered: that all merely personal claims must defer to those of the polity as a whole; that the minds and hearts of citizens must be laid bare to the scrutiny of the community; and that virtues and guilt, rights and responsibilities, inhere in groups rather than in individuals. My contention is that Dickens's deep dissatisfaction with the social relations fostered by his own acquisitive and aggressively individualist society leads him at times to explore with sensitivity and even enthusiasm the liberating possibilities offered by an ideology centered elsewhere than upon the autonomous self. As we shall see, what emerges is a subversive subtext to the narrator's middle-class horror at the collectivist Revolutionary ideology promulgated behind the barricades of Paris.

In what follows I shall be employing the interpretive strategies of neo-Marxist hermeneutics in a way which some readers may find troubling, in that it might appear that I am crediting Dickens with mounting some sort of proto-Marxist critique of his society. In fact, nothing of the kind is intended. Rather, I mean only to suggest that while Dickens finds much to disparage in the Revolutionary regime he depicts, he nevertheless understands at some level that it offers stark alternatives to the social relations undergirding those aspects of Victorian England that he also thoroughly despises, and that because of this an undercurrent of sympathy makes its way into the text despite his explicit intention to paint the Jacquerie as bloodthirsty, implacable, and deranged. Dickens, who will have no truck with schemes of social amelioration which depend upon class-conflict, is far from being a cultural materialist, even when he thunders most vehemently against the abuses of industrial capitalism. One can, however, safely credit him with comprehending a relationship between a society's view of the individual and the economic and interpersonal texture of its daily life. This act of understanding is all I mean to burden Dickens with by way of an “authorial intention,” and surely much of the sympathy I find for the Revolution in A Tale of Two Cities escaped the novelist's conscious control. If the terminology I employ to describe all this is that of our century rather than his, this is not done in order to paint Dickens the Marxist he wasn’t, but rather to bring to bear what I believe to be a reasonably precise and nuanced hermeneutical technique upon a text whose politics is complicated by its author's peculiar set of personal ambivalences and historical limitations.


Clearly, we should not expect any such countervailing current of thought as the one outlined above to emerge except in thoroughly disguised and displaced forms, for, as W. J. Harvey long ago pointed out, the assumptions of bourgeois individualism are central to the enterprise of Victorian novelists generally and to that of Dickens in particular. Middle-class orthodoxy posits the discrete human subject as primary and inviolable, a move which Harvey declares to be the indispensable core of Classical Liberalism, that ideology which he credits both with nurturing the infant genre of the novel in the eighteenth century and assuring its triumph in the nineteenth. Broadly defined, Liberalism is, says Harvey, a “state of mind [which] has as its controlling centre an acknowledgment of the plenitude, diversity and individuality of human beings in society, together with the belief that such characteristics are good as ends in themselves,” and he goes on to assert that “tolerance, skepticism, [and] respect for the autonomy of others are its watchwords” while “fanaticism and the monolithic creed [are] its abhorrence.”4 Harvey's phrasing may strike some as overly laudatory, but it does help to underscore why the chronically permeable barriers of the self in A Tale of Two Cities constitute such a politically dangerous issue: in depicting the Revolution, the text takes pains to portray—and to roundly denounce—a counter-ideology to Classical Liberalism, in which the claims of the individual are assumed to be secondary to those of the collectivity, and in which the individual is seen as anything but sacrosanct. It should come as little surprise, then, that Dickens's most forceful statement of subversive sympathy for the Revolution's attack upon the idea of the discrete subject, his most anguished confession of ambivalence concerning the bourgeois notion of an inviolable individual, comprises what has long been considered merely an “anomalous” or “digressive” portion of the text—I refer specifically to the “Night Shadows” passage, a striking meditation upon the impenetrable barriers separating man from man which has proved perennially troublesome to readers.

A wonderful fact to reflect upon, that every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other. A solemn consideration, when I enter a great city by night, that every one of those darkly clustered houses encloses its own secret; that every room in every one of them encloses its own secret; that every beating heart in the hundreds of thousands of breasts there, is, in some of its imaginings, a secret to the heart nearest it! Something of the awfulness, even of Death itself, is referable to this. No more can I turn the leaves of this dear book that I loved, and vainly hope in time to read it all. No more can I look into the depths of this unfathomable water, wherein, as momentary lights glanced into it, I have had glimpses of buried treasure and other things submerged. It was appointed that the book should shut with a spring, for ever and for ever, when I had read but a page. It was appointed that the water should be locked in an eternal frost, when the light was playing on its surface, and I stood in ignorance on the shore. My friend is dead, my neighbour is dead, my love, the darling of my soul, is dead; it is the inexorable consolidation and perpetuation of the secret that was always in that individuality, and which I shall carry in mine to my life's end. In any of the burial-places of this city through which I pass, is there a sleeper more inscrutable than its busy inhabitants are, in their innermost personality, to me, or than I am to them? (p. 44)

The relationship of this passage to the major concerns of the novel has struck many a critic as problematic. Some have sought to link it with the rest of the text merely by pointing out its similarities to Carlyle's practice of dramatizing the miraculous hidden within the mundane, and thus to account for it as yet another example of the literary influence of Dickens's occasional mentor.5 A more ambitious explanation of its thematic significance is attempted by Catherine Gallagher. She, claiming that Dickens depicts the Revolutionary ideology as ruthlessly inquisitive in order to make his own, novelistic invasion of the private sphere appear benign by comparison, sees the passage as a reassuring statement that novelists are needed by modern society to overcome a “perpetual scarcity of intimate knowledge,” despite the lines' melancholy ring.6 I shall return to this argument later.) Most critics, however, follow the lead of Sylvère Monod in simply seeing it as an anomaly. Monod, who posits several distinct narrators for A Tale, asserts that he who speaks this address is employing “the philosopher's I” and that such a device “is used for general statements, not in order to convey any impression of the narrator as an individual person.”7 J. M. Rignall agrees, insisting that “the brooding, first-person voice is never heard again in the novel,” that the passage is at best awkwardly related to the scene which immediately follows it, and that it cannot be said to illuminate “the general condition of life as it appears in the novel.”8

It is Rignall's contention that I specifically wish to take issue with, for I believe that there is in fact a broadly thematic resonance to the passage—a resonance which is crucial to the book's attitudes concerning bourgeois individualism and its supposedly detested alternatives. To begin with, it is significant that all the above critics, whatever their varying degrees of bafflement or insight, call attention to the passage's tone, for it is that aspect of the “digression” which, I believe, can most quickly lead us into its involvement with the novel's political contradictions. While the adjectives used to describe this supposed fact concerning contemporary social relations are not explicitly derogatory, the atmosphere of the paragraph as a whole is distinctly—nay, poignantly—that of a lament. What clearly comes across is a deeply felt sadness and frustration before the impermeableness of the barriers between self and self—a despairing desire to merge the discrete and opaque personalities dictated by Gesellschaft and to enter a state of communal knowledge and even communal being. Reflecting upon the iron-clad separation of souls within the “great city” may indeed provoke wonder and awe—but it also clearly elicits a wish that things might be otherwise.

The imagery employed in the passage is also pertinent if we remember that the working title of A Tale was “Buried Alive,” for the passage continually attempts to blur the distinction between life and death, presenting a portrait of urban existence as a kind of living entombment. Not only does the incommunicability of souls have “something of the awfulness, even of Death itself … referable” to it, but the narrator, in his quest for closer communion with his fellow beings, speaks of himself as looking into “depths” for “glimpses of buried treasure.” Furthermore, the deaths of his friend, neighbor, and love are described as “the inexorable consolidation and perpetuation” of their isolated, living states—as if these people are most true to their nature only after they have ceased to breathe. The final sentence, in which the corpses in actual graveyards are declared to be “sleepers” no more “inscrutable” than the town's “busy inhabitants,” completes the equation of the living community with that of the dead. What the narrator has accomplished here is graphically to portray the “great city” as a metropolis in which everyone is virtually “buried alive”: to depict a condition of society in which each citizen goes about his everyday offices—and even endures his supposedly most intimate moments—enclosed in a sarcophagus of impenetrable individuality. As we shall see, this damning critique of the way we live now inaugurates the subversive subtext which runs beside and beneath the narrator's subsequent denigration of the French Revolution's insistence that collectivities must supersede the individual as the fundamental unit of social life; it is here that we can apprehend the first movement of that counter-current which dares to consider the ideology of the Jacquerie as a possible escape from the “solitary confinement” mandated by bourgeois individualism.

We should now briefly glance at the narrator's “official” condemnation of the Revolution's propensity to merge individuals together into larger conglomerations, for much of what is denigrated here will appear later in altered forms which the novel will tacitly approve. One technique which Dickens employs in this regard is that of taking the Revolutionary government's organization of Paris by supposedly socially homogeneous “sections” a step further and relentlessly anthropomorphizing the district of Saint Antoine. Needless to say, the section, as a character, is almost always depicted as a villain: “The hour was come, when Saint Antoine was to execute his horrible idea of hoisting up men for lamps to show what he could be and do. Saint Antoine's blood was up. … ‘Lower the lamp yonder!’ cried Saint Antoine, after glaring round for a new means of death” (p. 249). Indeed, all the Republic's citizens seem to move from one place to another as a single entity, and the tone used to describe such occurrences is always fraught with fear and condemnation. Instances here come quickly to mind: the echoing footsteps which merge the tread of suffering individuals into the thundering of a vengeful herd,9 the “sea” and “tide” of the Revolutionary mob breaking over the walls of the Bastille, and the dancing of the Carmagnole, during which the sexes seem to merge into a horrid androgyny and “five hundred people” become “five thousand demons” (p. 307). For our purposes the last of these is especially important, because in Dickens's assertion that the dancers' frightening communal gyrations are “types of the disjointed time” (p. 308), we can see his insistence that the morally detestable practice of subsuming the individual into the group has penetrated beyond the strictly political sphere and pervasively tainted other aspects of life. Clearly, then, the implication of all these passages is that collective action is necessarily evil action, that mass-movements by definition can give expression only to the basest instincts of the individuals who comprise them. Dickens's fear of mobs is of course a critical commonplace, but the very word “mob” only refers to a specific subclass among crowds—those inspired with violent intentions—whereas what in fact comes across from A Tale is the more blanketing notion that the moment any conglomeration of people can merit a collective lable, one is already in a politically disruptive realm: after all, the “character” who sows the Revolution is the equally hydra-headed “Monseigneur.” At the level of the novel's explicit rhetoric, Dickens doth protest too much.

The author also gets a good deal of mileage out of the revolutionary conspirators' habit of referring to each other by the code-name “Jacques”—indeed, when more than two plotters come together in a scene Dickens deliberately makes it difficult to remember who is speaking:

“How goes it, Jacques?” said one of the three to Monsieur Defarge. “Is all the spilt wine swallowed?”

“Every drop, Jacques,” answered Monsieur Defarge. …

“It is not often,” said the second of the three, addressing Monsieur Defarge, “that many of these miserable beasts know the taste of wine, or of anything but black bread and death. Is it not so, Jacques?”

“It is so, Jacques,” Monsieur Defarge returned. …

“Ah! So much the worse! A bitter taste it is that such poor cattle always have in their mouths, and hard lives they live, Jacques. Am I right, Jacques?”

“You are right, Jacques,” was the response of Monsieur Defarge. (pp. 64-65)

Although some of these exchanges verge upon the comic, there is, from the Victorian standpoint, always a palpable air of threat about them, for this blurring of personality and agency always takes place amidst talk of a violent conspiracy, thereby undermining the middle-class faith that guilt and innocence can be doled out in just portions to discrete and self-responsible subjects. These plotters eventually receive numbers, but, with the exception of the overtly sadistic Jacques Three, the effect is just the opposite of endowing them with distinct personalities. At the storming of the Bastille, for instance, we get the following call to arms, ostensibly from Defarge: “Work, comrades all, work! Work, Jacques One, Jacques Two, Jacques One Thousand, Jacques Two Thousand, Jacques Five-and-Twenty Thousand; in the name of all the Angels or the Devils—which you prefer—work!” (p. 245). And, as with Monsieur Defarge's lieutenants, so with Madame's, for it has been noted that “The Vengeance” is one of several nicknames indicative of “the tendency toward generalization and abstraction” in the novel.10 This “tendency,” given the political concerns of A Tale, becomes highly subversive, for in a world of merely generic entities, the discriminations upon which bourgeois law and political economy depend simply cannot be made—the idea that “we are all equally guilty” is anathema to Victorian orthodoxy.

This brings us, of course, to Madame Defarge's attitudes concerning who deserves to suffer for the sins of the Ancien Regime, for these constitute the most sinister instance of moral collectivism the novel has to offer. When Darnay is arrested and flung into prison his defense rests upon his assertion that he is not personally responsible for the crimes either of the aristocracy in general or of his family in particular. This argument carries no weight with Madame, however, for her mind is simply incapable of focusing upon any moral entity so small and discrete as an individual—her roster of victims and villains being filled exclusively with the names of groups. Speaking of the Evrémondes, she says that “for other crimes as tyrants and oppressors [she has] this race a long time on [her] register, doomed to destruction and extermination” (p. 370, italics mine). Halting the slaughter at those who can claim innocence only for themselves and not their class strikes her as unsound:

“It is true what madame says,” observed Jacques Three. “Why stop? There is great force in that. Why stop?”

“Well, well,” reasoned [Monsieur] Defarge, “but one must stop somewhere. After all, the question is still where?”

“At extermination,” said Madame.

“Magnificent!” croaked Jacques Three. The Vengeance, also, highly approved. (p. 369)

Lucy—apparently intuiting the bent of Madame's mind in the heat of distress—appeals to her for mercy as a “sister-woman” as well as a wife and mother, but this bit of rhetoric, meant to mask a personal appeal in collectivist diction, fails to take in Madame Defarge: “We have borne this a long time. … Is it likely that the trouble of one wife and mother would be much to us now?” As Madame makes her way through the streets on her way to kill Lucy and the child, the narrator sums up that blind spot in her moral vision which the champion of bourgeois individualism cannot help but abhor: “It was nothing to her, that an innocent man was to die for the sins of his forefathers; she saw, not him, but them” (p. 391). Perhaps it is this mote, as much as the “red hue” of animalistic violence, which the narrator perceives in the eyes of the mob gathered round the bloody grindstone—eyes he wishes to “petrify with a well-directed gun” (p. 292).


I will now turn from A Tale of Two Cities’ explicit rhetoric to its countervailing subtext and examine those passages in which the novel's repressed desire to escape the constraints of its own prevailing ideology can best be discerned. My argument is that the sentiments voiced in the “anomalous” Night Shadows passage do in fact recur throughout the text, but that Dickens's sincere allegiance to the commonplaces of Classical Liberalism forces him to displace them in two directions: toward the comic and toward the private. The former movement is expressed through Jarvis Lorry's at best intermittently successful suppression of his own personal claims in the interest of Tellson's Bank, a process which is rendered yet more innocuous by that institution's exaggerated traditionalism and firm allegiance to bourgeois social practices. (This despite the fact that even the musty “House” is shot through with reminders of the darker results of collectivist modes of thought brewing across the Channel.) The latter—and more important—movement manifests itself in the trajectory of Sydney Carton's career. As we shall see, Carton's progress through the text first underscores the pernicious effects of bourgeois-capitalist conceptions of individualism, then affirms the heroic potential unleashed by abandoning them, only to turn back upon itself and to reaffirm the tenets of Classical Liberalism in its last hours. Furthermore, Carton is allowed to escape the culturally dictated bounds of the self only in a manner which obfuscates the process's ideological import: for a few crucial moments he and Darnay genuinely transcend those traditional barriers which wall off the inviolable individual from all his fellow beings, but this merging of a single discrete self with one other deflects a broad social goal of the Revolution into the realm of private psychology—and then too, it is performed as part of an attempt to thwart the very revolutionary practices it imitates in miniature.

Throughout the novel, Jarvis Lorry fights a losing battle to deny his individuality, constantly insisting that he possesses no “buried life” whatsoever, and that all his aims and desires are perfectly congruent with those of the institution for which he labors. In his first interview with Lucy, for instance, he begs her not to “heed [him] any more than if [he were] a speaking machine” (p. 54). He then goes on to explain that all his dealings with Tellson's customers are devoid of private emotional entanglements:

His [Manette's] affairs, like the affairs of many other French gentlemen and French families, were entirely in Tellson's hands. In a similar way I am, or I have been, trustee of one kind or other for scores of our customers. These are mere business relations, miss; there is no friendship in them, no particular interest, nothing like sentiment. I have passed from one to another in the course of my business life, just as I pass from one of our customers to another in the course of my business day; in short, I have no feelings; I am a mere machine. (p. 54)

In such capacity does Lorry claim to turn his “immense pecuniary Mangle” with “no time for [feelings], no chance of them.” Goaded by Carton about the way his loyalty to Tellson's seems to take personal proclivities, the banker testily reminds him that “men of business, who serve a House, are not [their] own masters” and “have to think of the House more than [them]selves” (p. 113). Indeed, when Lorry shakes hands, he does so “in a self-abnegating way, as one who shook for Tellson and Co”—a trait “always to be seen in any clerk at Tellson's who shook hands with a customer when the House pervaded the air” (p. 172). “The House,” of course, is both the shorthand name for Tellson's as a whole and the only title ever bestowed upon its director—touches which heighten the sense of the Bank as a single organism, staffed only by a host of undifferentiated cells.

Lorry's relentless assertion that he gladly subsumes his own will into that of the firm “whose bread [he has] eaten these sixty years” (p. 266)—the fact that he claims (and at times truly seems) to have no desires which can be distinguished from the collective aims of “the House”—clearly suggests a parallel with the Jacquerie. The banker, like the model citizen of the Revolutionary Republic, defines himself first and foremost as part of a collectivity, and only secondarily as an individual. Related to this is Lorry's contention that he is a completely transparent being, the entire contents of whose mind and heart can be effortlessly read because they are writ large upon the public aspirations of the collectivity he serves. Now as Gallagher points out, it is precisely the Revolution's adamant “demands for transparency” and its practice of the “universal watchfulness” (p. 275) needed to insure it that “the narrator finds particularly abhorrent,” since, as the novel purports to demonstrate, such a state of affairs can only be guaranteed by “a whole population practic[ing] surveillance on itself, a surveillance that ultimately destroys.”11 A paradox clearly arises: the parallels enumerated above would all appear to denigrate Lorry, but of course the banker's career emerges as anything but sinister. Indeed, as Albert Hutter rightly notes, Lorry seems to gain mobility, strength, and even renewed youth from his unswerving devotion to Tellson's,12 and no one can dispute the fact that his subsumption of self into the collective enterprise of the Bank endows his life both with a beneficent purposefulness and (for all his talk of heartlessness) an unproblematic sociality which that of A Tale's protagonist signally lacks. But with so many ties to the dogmas of Paris, why should this be so? The explanation, I think, can be approached by recalling the Night Shadows passage, for if Lorry's immaculate “citizenship” within Tellson's associates his service with the totalitarian aspirations of the Tribunals, it also exempts him from residence in the “great city” depicted by that striking segment. In other words, Lorry's devotion to “The House” renders him largely devoid of the terrifying and impenetrable secrets possessed by the denizens of that bourgeois metropolis of the prematurely buried, where the most significant fact about individuality is the utter opacity with which it confronts all attempts at genuine knowledge and communion. If the Revolutionaries of Paris are blind and intoxicated in their frenzied hurtlings, the inhabitants of the Night Shadows city are frozen in ice, and to the extent that the elderly banker inclines toward the practice of the former, he avoids the paralysis of the latter. The enveloping shackles of bourgeois orthodoxy thus partially cast off, Lorry is free to act as the novel's factotum of beneficence until Carton awakes from his own lethargy. Already Dickens's “digression” on the unknowable nature of his fellow citizens begins to nudge its way towards the novel's (suppressed) thematic center.

The physical depiction of Tellson's itself is likewise imbued with palpable ambivalence. On the one hand, what keeps Lorry's selfless devotion to the Bank safely within the confines of the comic is that institution's unswerving allegiance to a fusty—and exceedingly English—tradition. Indeed, its partners' unashamed pride in its “smallness,” “darkness,” “ugliness,” and “incommodiousness” (p. 83) links Tellson's with the decidedly unreformed England of 1780 and allows it to function as a specifically Burkean counterweight to the programmatic rationalism of the Revolution. Thus while Lorry's devotion to the House may resemble the Jacquerie's commitment to the Republic, the entity he serves could not be more different. Moreover, banking is a profession which in some measure depends upon secrecy and opacity, and which often serves interests opposed to those of the state. When Lorry is sent to France late in the book, for instance, he sets about saving what he can of his clients' property from the Revolution's program of confiscation and nationalization.

Still, there are odd echoes of the Terror cheek by jowl with the comic “Olde England” trappings of Tellson's. For instance, if the single-minded business sense of Lorry and the Bank as a whole are, as claimed above, reminiscent of the Revolution's totalizing dynamic, it should come as no surprise that Lorry labors over “great books ruled for figures, with perpendicular iron bars to his window as if that were ruled for figures too, and everything under the clouds were a sum” (p. 172). More graphically still, Tellson's is linked to the Revolution by its alarming proximity to the corpses of those executed by the state and the consequent violent intrusion of the political sphere into a previously sacrosanct domestic realm:

Your lighter boxes of family papers went up-stairs into a Barmecide room, that always had a great dining-table in it and never had a dinner, and where, even in the year one thousand seven hundred and eighty, the first letters written to you by your old love, or by your little children, were but newly released from the horror of being ogled through the windows, by the heads exposed on Temple Bar with an insensate brutality and ferocity worthy of Abyssinia or Ashantee. (p. 84)

Perhaps, though, the ambivalence with which the novel views Lorry's position can best be shown by a statement of the banker's which abuts upon two well-known Dickensian attitudes: a belief, on the one hand, in the Carlylean gospel of work and, on the other, a view of childhood as a realm to be protected at all costs from the intrusion of adult anxieties and responsibilities because it is the age when the crucial imaginative faculty is either nurtured or starved. Late in the book Lorry confesses to a resurgent Carton: “I have been a man of business, ever since I have been a man. Indeed, I may say that I was a man of business when a boy” (p. 339). No passage better illustrates the promises and costs which are implicitly weighed against one another in Lorry's comic renunciation of the “buried life” which is both his birthright and curse in Liberal society.


In turning our attention to Sydney Carton we must adopt a more diachronic approach, for whereas the very constancy of Lorry's relationship with Tellson's plays a part in revealing Dickens's ambivalence about Revolutionary notions of individualism, it is precisely the sudden, erratic reversals in Carton's career which do the most to illuminate A Tale's subversive subtext. When we first encounter Sydney, he appears to be the very embodiment of the secretive and unfathomable individual lamented in the Night Shadows passage.13 Darney, his outward double, feels as if he is in “a dream” in his presence (p. 114), and indeed no one else—not Lorry, certainly, or even Stryver—has much of a clue as to what he is really about. The political implications of Carton's opaque character come to the fore as soon as we recall the work he performs, for as Stryver's “jackal” he enacts what can almost be termed a parody of the division of labor which upholds bourgeois capitalism. He and Stryver, it should be remembered, divide between them what should rightly be the labor of a single person, and furthermore, this “division” is anything but equitable—Carton performs the labor, Stryver garners the credit. Moreover, the very nicknames “jackal” and “lion” seem to replicate the social practices of Victorian society at large, heaping opprobrium upon the faceless who sell their labor, lauding the famous who purchase it. As Rignall—pointing to this same connection between unreadable character and exploitative labor relations—puts it, Carton's “gloomy estrangement … suggests the neurotic price that may be exacted by the aggressive pursuit of individual success, by the bourgeois ethos of individual endeavor in its most crassly careerist form.”14 Carton, then, though distinctly odd, is in a real sense a typical citizen of Dicken's nocturnal city of unknowable individuals: the victim of alienated labor, he too is “buried alive.” Thus, if we now recall Lorry's attitude toward his “business” at Tellson's—so fraught with Revolutionary connotations—and contrast them with Carton's view of his own labors, the following exchange between Sydney and the banker takes on a new significance:

“And indeed, sir,” pursued Mr. Lorry, not minding him, “I really don’t know what you have to do with the matter. If you’ll excuse me, as very much your elder, for saying so, I really don’t know that it is your business.”

“Business! Bless you, I have no business,” said Mr. Carton.

“It is a pity you have not, sir.”

“I think so too.”

“If you had,” pursued Mr. Lorry, “perhaps you would attend to it.”

“Lord love you, no!—I shouldn’t,” said Mr. Carton. (p. 113)

Carton possesses “no business” and further confesses that he has always “fallen into” his proper “rank,” which he describes as “nowhere” (p. 120). Now, since in Lorry's case it is precisely “doing business” which beneficently makes him as one with the collectivity of the House, Carton's having no business can be taken as yet another marker of his perverse (but socially endemic) isolation from all larger communities, an isolation which renders his life and labor meaningless.

With all this in mind, I would like to suggest a reading of Carton's name which will perhaps prove more useful than the various scramblings of the author's initials attempted in the past. “Carton,” in nineteenth-century parlance, refers to layers of paper which have been treated and pressed until they have attained the sturdiness of cardboard or pasteboard, while the related word “carton-pierre” denotes a kind of papier-mâché used to imitate much harder materials such as stone or bronze. Even more suggestive is the term “cartonage,” by which archaeologists signified the layers of linen or papyrus which were pressed and glued together to fashion the close-fitting mummy cases of the ancient Egyptians. In light of what has been said so far, it thus seems plausible to see the name as a cautiously hopeful comment upon the protagonist's enforced estrangement from his fellow beings. On the one hand, it is a label which draws attention to his predicament of isolation amidst a society whose creed of acquisitive individualism goes far towards turning all its citizens into selfenclosed enigmas—or, if you like, mummies in the nocturnal City of the Dead. Simultaneously, however, it seems to hint at the original flimsiness and permeability of those barriers, reminding us that what encloses and separates is merely a superfluity of material actually translucent, or gossamer calcified. The name then, is one which both diagnoses the protagonist's moral ailment and hints at the availability of a cure.

As it happens, Sydney does eventually puncture the “carton” walls which close him off from the world; he does finally emerge from his sarcophagus of “cartonage.” This is accomplished through his remarkable commingling with Darnay on the eve of his execution, an escape from the constraints of bourgeois individualism which is prepared for by the fact that Carton and Darnay bear a strong physical resemblance to each other. It is important to remember, however, that up until the time when the novel's main characters are all assembled in Revolutionary Paris, Sydney is at best a radically defective Doppelgänger of Charles. In fact, early on, the former's “doublings” of the latter serve merely to emphasize the distance which separates them. When first juxtaposed at the trial, they appear “so like each other in feature, so unlike each other in manner” (p. 108), and soon afterwards Carton admits that he resents a mirror-image who only serves to remind him “what [he has] fallen away from” (p. 116). In England, Darnay appears as a close-dangling but ultimately frustrating possibility, his physical resemblance suggesting that closer communion between men should be possible, the pair's mutual unintelligibility underscoring how difficult it is, under prevailing circumstances, to achieve. It is only later in Paris, when Sydney determines to sacrifice himself for Darnay and Lucy, that the doublings become nearly perfect. Indeed, “doubling” is too pallid a word to describe adequately what goes on, for such a term still implies two separate identities, two discrete selves, whereas what actually occurs is more properly described as a veritable merging of two individuals into one.

The central irony which emerges from Carton's successful commingling with Darnay in prison is that Sydney's “cure” is effected in the shadow of the novel's explicit condemnation of the very practice which heals him, for while he participates in a process whereby one man is able to transcend the suffocating barriers of the bourgeois self, the Revolution's insistence that the same is to be done for all men meets with nothing but scorn. And here one can anticipate an objection: the obvious fact that Sydney and the Jacquerie see the annihilation of the conventional barriers between individuals as the means to ends which are diametrically opposed does not weaken this irony to the extent that one might initially suppose. Yes, Carton abandons his personal claims for the protection of bourgeois domesticity (one might even say for the Victorian hearth, since Sydney's figurative descendents are to recount his story for generations) while the Paris Tribunal demands that the individual subsume himself into the polity in order to speed the flourishing of, as the narrator puts it, the Republic One and Indivisible of Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, or Death. But my point is that the former cause rests upon the foundation stone of bourgeois individualism while the latter is committed to its destruction, and that Carton can only ensure the safety of Liberal society (in the form of the Darnays, Manette, Lorry, and Pross) by temporarily violating one of its fundamental tenets. To put it another way, Carton can only make the world safe for discrete subjects by temporarily ceasing to be one himself and thereby blocking the plans of a regime bent on abolishing the entire concept of the discrete subject forevermore.

Before taking up Sydney's story again, though, we must once more look briefly at the novel's orthodox denigration of Revolutionary practices. As Darnay's second trial gets underway, the Tribunal's attack upon “selfish” bourgeois individualism is in full swing. When Manette protests that he would never violate his domestic circle by denouncing his son-in-law to officers of the state—on account of his “daughter, and those dear to her” being “far dearer to [him] than [his] life”—the President reminds him that his priorities are dangerously counter-revolutionary:

“Citizen Manette, be tranquil. To fail in submission to the authority of the Tribunal would be to put yourself out of Law. As to what is dearer to you than life, nothing can be so dear to a good citizen as the Republic.”

Loud acclamations hailed this rebuke. The President rang his bell, and with warmth resumed.

“If the Republic should demand of you the sacrifice of your child herself, you would have no duty but to sacrifice her. Listen to what is to follow. In the meantime, be silent!” (p. 346)

Later, when Manette's own testament has been read and the inevitable verdict of “guilty” delivered, the narrator's account is strangely divided between horror and understanding. With biting irony, he recounts how the President suggests “that the good physician of the Republic would deserve better still of the Republic by rooting out an obnoxious family of Aristocrats, and would doubtless feel a sacred glow and joy in making his daughter a widow and her child an orphan” (p. 362). One can clearly hear in this passage the revulsion of a good Victorian—and yet, when explaining the scene as a whole, he calmly and fair-mindedly informs us that “one of the frenzied aspirations of the populace was, for imitations of the questionable public virtues of antiquity, and for sacrifices and self-immolations on the people's altar” (p. 362). For now, we will leave the book's conventional depiction of the Revolution with the surprising mildness of the phrase “questionable public virtues” still resonating and turn once more to Carton.

As Sydney takes his famous midnight walk the night before the second Parisian trial, his steps are dogged by religious images, and he repeats “I am the resurrection and the life” continually to himself as he wanders. At one point, though, he pauses to sleep, and, in a moment obviously fraught with symbolic meaning, awakes to find an analogue of his life in the motions of the Seine:

The strong tide, so swift, so deep, and certain, was like a congenial friend, in the morning stillness. He walked by the stream, far from the houses, and in the light and warmth of the sun fell asleep on the bank. When he awoke and was afoot again, he lingered there yet a little longer, watching an eddy that turned and turned purposeless, until the stream absorbed it, and carried it on to the sea.—“Like me!” (p. 344)

When one considers that Sydney has resolved to sacrifice himself in order to thwart the collectivist wrath of the Revolution, this passage reads curiously indeed, for cutting across the obvious message concerning Carton's lassitude giving way to action, there is the further hint that to do so involves subsuming himself in a larger entity. One could perhaps suggest that he is being “absorbed” into the greater life of humanity at large or into the Christian dispensation were it not for the quite programmatic way in which “tide” and “sea” have been associated throughout A Tale with the Revolutionary mob. The “strong tide, so swift, so deep, and certain” which now appears as Carton's “congenial friend” and into which his life is “absorbed” may not partake of the violence of that which breaks against the Bastille, but the provocative choice of simile cannot help but alert us to a parallel between Sydney's path to personal salvation and the Revolution's recipe for a secular utopia beyond the constraints of bourgeois individualism.

This hint of a parallel between Sydney's desideratum and that of the Jacquerie is reinforced as his plan of rescue gets underway. On the evening after Darnay has been condemned, Carton urges Manette to try his influence with the judges one final time. Lorry, watching the doctor depart, opines that he has “no hope” that the old man will succeed. Carton agrees, and explains why he has sent him on what must be a futile mission. What is striking about this passage is that since Sydney has already made up his mind to replace Darnay upon the guillotine, but has not told the banker of his plan, he and Lorry have two different individuals in mind when they employ the pronouns “his” and “he”:

“Don’t despond,” said Carton, very gently; “don’t grieve. I encouraged Doctor Manette in this idea, because I felt that it might one day be consolatory to her. Otherwise, she might think ‘his life was wantonly thrown away or wasted,’ and that might trouble her.”

“Yes, yes, yes,” returned Mr. Lorry, drying his eyes, “you are right. But he will perish; there is no real hope.”

“Yes, He will perish: there is no real hope,” echoed Carton. And walked with a settled step, down-stairs. (p. 367)

This sharing of pronouns, causing momentary confusion about who is being referred to, is reminiscent of nothing so much as those passages in which Jacques speaks to Jacques. It is as if Carton had already ceased to be a discrete subject, his personality commingling with that of Darnay's as he approaches his salvational moment. This process of merging reaches its climax during the scene in Charles's cell, where the two, having already exchanged boots, cravats, coats, and ribbons, write what amounts to a joint letter to Lucy, Carton dictating as Darnay holds the pen. As the latter scribbles, Sydney gradually applies his hidden narcotic, so that we see Charles's individuality diffusing itself too, his consciousness drifting beyond its normal boundaries as he attempts to record Carton's sentiments:

“What vapour is that?” he asked.


“Something that crossed me?”

“I am conscious of nothing; there can be nothing here. Take up the pen and finish. Hurry, hurry!”

As if his memory were impaired, or his faculties disordered, the prisoner made an effort to rally his attention. As he looked at Carton with clouded eyes and with an altered manner of breathing, Carton—his hand again in his breast—looked steadily at him.

“Hurry, hurry!”

The prisoner bent over the paper, once more.

“‘If it had been otherwise;’” Carton's hand was again watchfully and softly stealing down; “‘I never should have used the longer opportunity. If it had been otherwise;’” the hand was at the prisoner's face; “‘I should but have had so much the more to answer for. If it had been otherwise—’” Carton looked at the pen and saw it was trailing off into unintelligible signs. (p. 381)

As any reader will attest, it is nearly impossible to read this passage without backtracking, for Dickens makes it especially difficult to keep the speakers straight for any length of time. And it is not only we who are confused as to who is being referred to, for soon afterwards Basard finds Sydney's unorthodox use of pronouns disconcerting:

“Have no fear! I shall soon be out of the way of harming you, and the rest will soon be far from here, please God! Now, get assistance and take me to the coach.”

“You?” said the Spy nervously.

“Him, man, with whom I have exchanged.” (p. 382)

Although Carton exchanges literal freedom for imprisonment in this scene, he simultaneously effects his escape from Dickens's solipsistic City of Dreadful Night, for the entombing barriers surrounding the discrete subject of Liberal society have momentarily been shattered. Furthermore, the imagery and wordplay here associate Sydney with the self-subsuming Jacquerie at the very moment when he prevents the Tribunal from executing the man Madame Defarge defines as the last of the “race” of Evrémondes.

That Dickens was aware at some level of the parallels he had drawn can be deduced from the violent reaction which occurs in the novel's final pages, for there he takes pains to insist that although Carton is in one sense just another face among a crowd of the condemned—one more victim of what is essentially a mass murder—he nevertheless stands out as a distinct individual whose personality will remain intact even beyond the grave. This reaction begins as the narrator follows his protagonist from cell to guillotine. After emphasizing that the prison officials are exclusively concerned about the “count” in the tumbrils—that there be fifty-two bodies in it—he goes on to provide us with a catalogue of the condemned's deportment which makes it clear that they are all quite discrete personalities:

Of the riders in the tumbrils, some observe these things, and all things on their last roadside, with an impassive stare; others, with a lingering interest in the ways of life and men. Some, seated with drooping heads, are sunk in silent despair; again, there are some so heedful of their looks that they cast upon the multitude such glances as they have seen in theatres, and in pictures. Several close their eyes, and think, or try to get their straying thoughts together. Only one, and he a miserable creature, of a crazed aspect, is so shattered and made drunk by horror, that he sings, and tries to dance. (p. 400)

Carton's own possibly “prophetic” speech at the foot of the scaffold gives us a taste of individualism triumphant, with Sydney personally persisting through the generations. He sees Lucy “with a child upon her bosom, who bears [his] name,” a child who eventually “win[s] his way up in that path of life which once was [his]” and who in turn fathers a “boy of [Carton's] name,” to whom he “tell[s] … [Sydney's] story, with a tender and faltering voice” (p. 404). Chris Vanden Bossche sums up the tone succinctly: “The image of self-sacrifice created by this speech puts the authenticity of that very self-sacrifice into question by envisioning a future that nearly effaces Darnay (only portraying his death) and foretelling a line of sons names for Carton.”15 Indeed, Sydney's “cartonage” of middle-class individuality seems so firmly and solidly back in place that not even the worm can worry it, and this sense of the protagonist's “haunting” both the place of his death and future generations is very much to the point, for it cancels out several passages in which the Revolution's practice of mass killing threatens to endorse their anti-individualist ideology by sheer weight of numbers and frequency. We have been told, for instance, that “before their cells were quit” of the fifty-two, “new occupants were appointed; before their blood ran into the blood spilled yesterday, the blood that was to mingle with theirs to-morrow was already set apart” (pp. 375-76). Earlier, the narrator informed us that death under the Revolutionary regime had become “so common and material, that no sorrowful story of a haunting Spirit ever arose among the people out of all the working of the Guillotine” (p. 343). Now haunting is the individualist pursuit par excellence—only individuals may haunt the living, not groups or classes. And thus Carton's death—and his subsequent life after death—stridently refute the collectivist ideology, insisting as they do both upon the individual's persistent influence in secular history and hinting of the spiritual indwelling which is the religious sanction for the discrete subject of Classical Liberalism, a subject conceived of as retaining its individuality even beyond the grave. As the author of A Tale of Two Cities was well aware, serious contemplations concerning the obscuring walls of the bourgeois self have “something of the awfulness, even of Death” about them.


Dickens's novel of the French Revolution follows Little Dorrit in his canon, and much has been written about what attracted the author to a subject which, on the face of things, seems rather distant from his usual literary milieu. Of course we have Dickens's own words in the Preface explaining how he “conceived the main idea of the story” while acting in Collins's The Frozen Deep. The similarities between the central dramatic conflict of the play and the novel, however, tell us little as to why he chose to set his work mainly in Revolutionary Paris—after all, one may sacrifice oneself for a loved one and a rival in any number of possible situations. And then too, there is the problem of covering ground already pronounced upon—there is no other word for it—by his friend and mentor Carlyle. The obsequious tone of the Preface, in which he states that “it has been one of [his] hopes to add something to the popular and picturesque means of understanding that terrible time” while simultaneously assuring us that “no one can hope to add anything to the philosophy of Mr. Carlyle's wonderful book” (p. 29) betrays the awkwardness and risk inherent in his project. I would suggest that it is possible the Revolution attracted him precisely because it allowed him to study, confront—and to some extent flirt with—modes of thought which claimed to offer a solution to what he perceived to be one of the pervasive diseases of his own society. To understand how clearly he did in fact see the endemic and secretive individualism which underlay his acquisitive culture as a blighting phenomenon, we need only glance back as far as his preceding novel. As Arthur Clennam walks the streets of London, his thoughts give rise to images which, as George Levine says, “speak with remarkable appropriateness as representative both of the plot(s) of Little Dorrit and of the texture of its world.”16 Notice again how in this passage, as in Sydney's case, opacity of character is inseparable from acquisitive activity—how nefarious economic practices are protected by the obscuring partitions which mask self from self:

As he went along, upon a dreary night, the dim streets by which he went seemed all depositories of oppressive secrets. The deserted counting-houses, with their secrets of books and papers locked up in chests and safes; the banking-houses, with their secrets of strong rooms and wells, the keys of which were in a very few secret pockets and a very few secret breasts; the secrets of all the dispersed grinders in the vast mill, among whom there were doubtless plunderers, forgers, and trust-betrayers of many sorts, whom the light of any day that dawned might reveal; he could have fancied that these things, in hiding, imparted a heaviness to the air. The shadow thickening and thickening as he approached its source, he thought of the secrets of the lonely church-vaults, where the people who had hoarded and secreted in iron coffers were in their turn similarly hoarded, not yet at rest from doing harm; and then of the secrets of the river, as it rolled its turbid tide between two frowning wildernesses of secrets, extending, thick and dense, for many miles, and warding off the free air and the free country swept by winds and wings of birds. (pp. 596-97)17

We are back in the “great city” of the Night Shadows passage, the city from which barricaded Paris, whatever its barbarous cruelties, allows Carton, his author, and us, a momentary escape. Dickens also writes in the Preface to A Tale: “I have so far verified what is done and suffered in these pages, as that I have certainly done and suffered it all myself” (p. 29). After tracing Lorry and Carton's well disguised escapes from the constricting confines of bourgeois individualism, one understands better just how secretly liberating the “doing” part of Dickens's enterprise must have seemed to him, and how truly he bespoke his deep frustration with Victorian culture in calling the era of the Revolution both the best and the worst of times.


  1. George Woodcock, Introduction to A Tale of Two Cities (New York: Penguin, 1970). All subsequent citations from the novel refer to this edition.

  2. See J. M. Rignall, “Dickens and the Catastrophic Continuum of History in A Tale of Two Cities,ELH 51, 3 (Fall 1984): 575-87, and Jack Lindsay, “A Tale of Two Cities,” in Twentieth-Century Interpretations of “A Tale of Two Cities,” ed. Charles E. Beckwith (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1972), pp. 52-63.

  3. See Catherine Gallagher, “The Duplicity of Doubling in A Tale of Two Cities,DSA [Dickens Studies Annual] 12 (1983): 125-45.

  4. W. J. Harvey, Character and the Novel (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1968), p. 24.

  5. Richard Dunn, “A Tale for Two Dramatists,” DSA 12 (1983): 117-24, 121, and Michael Timko, “Splendid Impressions and Picturesque Means: Dickens, Carlyle, and the French Revolution,” pp. 177-95, 186-87.

  6. Gallagher, p. 141.

  7. Sylvère Monod, “Dickens's Attitudes in A Tale of Two Cities,NCF [Nineteenth-Century Fiction] 24, 4 (March 1970): 488-505, 497.

  8. Rignall, p. 577.

  9. Franklin Court, in “Boots, Barbarism, and the New Order in Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities,VIJ [Victorians Institute Journal] 9 (1980-81): 29-37, 34, points out that “by employing this particular stylistic device, Dickens can more convincingly present thousands of people—either the mob or the aristocracy—as a single power. The footsteps raging in Saint Antoine and echoing simultaneously in London can be viewed, therefore, as one gigantic, inanimate foot of a body that, in this instance, is the revolutionary mob.”

  10. Gordon Spence, “Dickens as a Historical Novelist,” Dickensian 72, 1 (January 1976): 21-29, 25, and Robert Alter, “The Demons of History in Dickens's Tale,Novel 2, 2 (Winter 1969): 15-42, 138-40.

  11. Gallagher, pp. 133-34.

  12. Albert D. Hutter, “Nation and Generation in A Tale of Two Cities,PMLA 93, 3 (May 1978): 448-62, 453.

  13. Rignall, p. 583.

  14. Rignall, p. 583.

  15. Chris R. Vanden Bossche, “Prophetic Closure and Disclosing Narrative: The French Revolution and A Tale of Two Cities,DSA 12 (1983): 209-21, 211.

  16. George Levine, Darwin and the Novelists: Patterns of Science in Victorian Fiction (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1988), p. 166.

  17. Charles Dickens, Little Dorrit (New York: Penguin, 1978).

Lisa Robson (essay date 1992)

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SOURCE: “The ‘Angels' in Dickens's House: Representation of Women in A Tale of Two Cities,” in Dalhousie Review, Vol. 72, No. 3, Fall, 1992, pp. 311-33.

[In the following review, Robson discusses Dickens's depiction of women in A Tale of Two Cities.]


A Tale of Two Cities is not a woman's text; indeed, there is little chance of its being mistaken for one. In his interpretation of the causes and effects of the French Revolution, Charles Dickens focusses on a patriarchal world of politics and historical development in which men dominate the scene, both privately and publicly. Yet several women characters factor rather importantly in the novel's development, and, as such, merit close scrutiny. The current body of criticism concerning A Tale of Two Cities concentrates mainly on the political and historical elements of the text, while conspicuously absent is a detailed examination of the female role in Dickens's representation of the Revolution. On the other hand, although various studies of the women in Dickens's fiction have been offered (for example, Michael Slater's Dickens and Women and Sylvia Jarmuth's Dickens' Use of Women in his Novels), most are general in nature and provide little more than a cursory examination of, if they explore at all, the women in A Tale of Two Cities. In this paper, therefore, I intend to present a detailed analysis of the women in this historical novel, particularly the two main female characters, Lucie Manette and Madame Defarge, as well as the most prominent secondary female character, Miss Pross.

Specifically, I am concerned with Dickens's manipulation of the angel in the house image as a Victorian representation which idealizes women for their femininity. In terms of this ideal, these three women form a complex triangle; each woman corresponds to the other two either as some form of double or antitype. Lucie Manette and Madame Defarge, for example, represent England and France, middle-class lady and peasant, the perfect angel and her complete opposite. Miss Pross, on the other hand, is Lucie's lower-class comic counterpart, enough like her mistress to act as substitute and do what Lucie, as a middle class woman, cannot. Finally, Madame Defarge and Miss Pross, two women of similar social standing on opposite sides of the novel's personal conflict, appear to have little in common, yet are deceivingly similar. However alike or unlike these characters may seem to be, the one quality which links them all is an apparent lack of conventionality. As participants in the turbulent French conflict of 1789, these three representatives of Dickens's female characters are often seen in unconventional situations and positions, exposing social problems and exploring new spaces for women to inhabit. Yet, although Dickens appears to allow these women to adopt non-traditional female roles, he consistently reverts to granting them representation only as passive, silent, marginal figures. In fact, A Tale of Two Cities seems to allow women to break free from traditional sexual boundaries only to recontain them more forcefully in their traditional positions.

When discussing representations of women in Victorian literature, the angel in the house figure, of course, is far from unconventional; she is a most traditional female representation, her image largely reflecting the highly repressive conditions governing women's activity (or the lack thereof) during the period. Like so many of his contemporaries, Dickens often turns to this stereotypical figure in his fiction. Alexander Welsh explains how, while idealizing the home and hearth as alternatives to his vision of the dark and destructive nineteenth-century city, Dickens frequently reduces women to angel figures whose role is to fill the home with comfort and a sense of security (141-63). However, in A Tale of Two Cities Dickens moves beyond the specifically traditional metaphor to highlight the angel's supposedly innate redemptive and regenerative abilities, her capacity to function as a type of savior figure, and the consequent elevation she receives as a spiritual creature to be worshipped. In this manner, Dickens's portrayal of women as angels in Tale points to a progressive potential in this Victorian ideal. While the angel figure as reflected in the women in the novel adheres to convention in its insistence on the female as the gentler, purer sex, it also emphasizes women's vital role as men's redeemers. Such a focus on women's determining capacity highlights an apparent transgression of conventional assumptions concerning the relations of gender, sexuality and activity by creating a possibility of women's intervention into history as agents of redemption and regeneration, agents who may reach beyond the novel's moral to its social sphere. To this end, Dickens presents a series of “resurrections,” beginning with Dr. Manette's return to England after eighteen years of incarceration in a French prison, aided by his daughter, Lucie, who is the novel's most pronounced angel in the house.

Following the initial excitement of the Doctor's escape, Lucie reclaims her father from his mental abstraction, bringing him back to life from his living death in prison. It is Lucie's feminine attributes, her trust, her kindness, her unselfish concern, her willing self-sacrifice, which gradually coax the old man to rejoin the living world. In a description of Lucie's importance to her father, Dickens defines his feminine angel. He writes:

Only his daughter had the power of charming this black brooding from his mind. She was the golden thread that united him to a Past beyond his misery, and to a Present beyond his misery: and the sound of her voice, the light of her face, the touch of her hand, had a strong beneficial influence with him almost always. Not absolutely always, for she could recal[l] some occasions on which her power had failed; but they were few and slight, and she believed them over. (110)

Dickens endows Lucie with “a power of charming,” suggesting a sense of magic and mystery surrounding her unique restorative powers. His description renders her almost otherworldly in her capacity to transcend time, to erase the barriers of past and present for those who feel trapped within them. Although Dickens later admits that her powers of recall have limits (she is unable to reclaim her father from his relapse at the conclusion of the novel), he asserts that she “believes them [her failures] over,” suggesting a religious framework of faith wherein the feminine approaches the semi-divine; in fact, by the end of the novel, Carton, her would-be lover, refers to Lucie as “Her.” A woman whose very name suggests “light,” Lucie's ability to redeem others depends upon her capacity to love them and sacrifice herself for them.

To reinforce her spiritual elevation and yet grant her some measure of corporeal authenticity, Dickens includes domestic and physical references in the above description. He refers to Lucie as the “golden thread” that unites, an image which gestures toward a mythic connection with the Greek Fates as the weavers of destiny. This mention of the traditionally female activities of spinning and sewing suggests the novel's metaphor of redemption, or the feminine saint image, by highlighting the domesticity of feminine figures in their roles as preservers and reconcilers of the family. Calling upon an iconographical tradition which links a woman's physical appearance with her personal and moral worth, Dickens's reference to Lucie's voice, face and hand further confirms her femininity by exposing her beauty and the healing power of her touch as outward manifestations of her inner, angelic qualities. (He also repeatedly refers to her lovely forehead as indicative of her sincerity.) Throughout the novel, Lucie appears as a dutiful daughter and wife, unwilling to marry her greatest love, should her father disapprove, standing by her husband with level-headed practicality and emotional fortitude when he faces the French Tribunal, and always maintaining a beautiful home, whether in Soho or Paris. As an idealized feminine figure, Lucie is everything to everyone; she is innocent child to her father, loving (yet pure and nonsexual) wife to her husband, and compassionate friend and moral inspiration to those who love her. Through this firm affirmation of Lucie and her redemptive capacity, Dickens offers such feminine virtue, charitable love and self-sacrifice as alternatives to the violence and inhumanity which dominate his representation of the French Revolution.

Accompanying such overt praise of Lucie, Dickens further endorses this idealized representation of women through mockery of a comical, lower-class nonconformist. Miss Pross, Lucie's faithful servant, is an ugly, wild spinster who, in the absence of a husband, has become so strong in order to survive in a patriarchal society that Mr. Lorry, the Darnays' friend and epitome of English common sense, initially takes her for a man. Lorry first encounters the bizarre woman when Lucie faints in his presence at the news of her father's survival and release. Miss Pross flies into the room like a fury, the redness of her hair and dress representative of the wildness within, and physically throws Lorry across the room. Lorry responds to Miss Pross in a typically patriarchal fashion, fascinated by her oddity but repulsed, at least initially, by her apparent masculinity. Without marriage or motherhood, supported by her strength, independence and passion, Miss Pross refuses to surrender to traditional standards of femininity, and Dickens presents her as a distortion of the feminine ideal in the novel by ridiculing the oddness of her physical appearance and her behavioral eccentricities.

Such derision, however, never becomes complete rejection because Miss Pross is masculine only in a superficial sense; in terms of her spiritual nature and moral sensitivity, she is another feminine angel. As Lorry grows to know Miss Pross, Dickens writes:

Mr. Lorry knew Miss Pross to be very jealous, but he also knew her by this time to be, beneath the surface of her eccentricity, one of those unselfish creatures—found only among women—who will, for pure love and admiration, bind themselves willing slaves, to youth when they have lost it, to beauty that they never had, to accomplishments that they were never fortunate enough to gain, to bright hopes that never shone upon their own sombre lives. He knew enough of the world to know that there is nothing in it better than the faithful service of the heart; so rendered and so free from any mercenary taint, he had such an exalted respect for it, that in the retributive arrangements made by his own mind—we all make such arrangements, more or less—he stationed Miss Pross much nearer to the lower Angels than many ladies immeasurably better got up both by Nature and Art, who had balances at Tellson's. (126)

Dickens affirms Miss Pross's femininity by highlighting the unselfish disposition “found only among women” which she shares, her selfless, if somewhat pathetic, devotion to that which she desires but does not have: youth, beauty, accomplishment, hope. She is a woman of “pure heart,” free of “mercenary taint” or self-concern, and her maternal dedication to Lucie and her untiring, sisterly support of her undeserving brother, Solomon, confirm her spiritual goodness. However distorted and masculinized she may appear to the naked eye, such feminine self-abnegation, incessant fidelity and unqualified compassion nullify the negative effect of her masculine idiosyncrasies and gain her respect and exaltation in the mind of Lorry who, with his strong sense of practicality and dedicated business mind, is an apt representative of the English patriarchy.

As something of a feminine aberration, Miss Pross receives further vindication in terms of the novel's construction of class relations. References to her social position in the above quotation confirm her social acceptability. As a member of the English lower classes, Miss Pross knows her place and thus “binds” herself as a “willing slave” to Lucie, her social superior. She constrains herself to servitude without question, happily forfeiting her possible pleasures and goals, and in the end her hearing too, to fulfil her duty and save Lucie and her family. Although Miss Pross may love the younger woman like a daughter, Lucie remains, nonetheless, her employer, and in protecting the Darnays successfully while in France Miss Pross secures her own employment and financial security. In her “faithful service,” even as an angel Miss Pross assumes her “station” among their “lower” ranks, confirming her moral superiority to those wealthy women who may have external beauty but lack this working woman's inner worth. It is in part because Miss Pross participates in Dickens's angelic ideal and happily accepts her status among the English servant classes that ridicule of her eccentricities stops short of repudiation.

In terms of both class and gender, then, Miss Pross valorizes the “thematics of suppression” (Kucich 130) in the novel and suggests the impossible position in which patriarchal society, with its hierarchical structure and masculine bias, places women. Despite their supposed elevation as agents with a redemptive, moral mission, women's subjugation to a patriarchal agenda frustrates their ability to act as feminine savior figures. In her examination of the woman-as-savior image, Nancy Klenck Hill explains: “the spiritual dimension of life which they [women] control is necessarily subservient to the material realm commanded by men, even though men recognize women's spiritual function as being higher than their own material one” (98-99). As second-class citizens, women are denied agency by a patriarchal order which demands passivity; however, hailed as idealistic, feminine redeemers, they are expected to effect salvation. Required to modify without governing, women in a patriarchal society cannot adequately meet such extravagant expectations. This impasse, in part, explains the dull and lifeless representation of Lucie in the text, because in order to survive under such circumstances Lucie must remain an “unconscious and happy” (227) heroine with little personality. By thus restricting his female characters within a patriarchal structure, Dickens places the women in his novel in an ambiguous, illogical position.

Although the effects of such ambiguity are largely masked by Lucie's initially secure, domestic happiness and by the predominantly comic treatment of Miss Pross, other similar figures in the lower classes who are represented in darker ways, grotesque rather than humorous, reveal some of the consequences of this unreasonable situation. As they attempt to fulfil their “duties” despite patriarchal constraints, women such as Mrs. Cruncher grow increasingly susceptible to male brutality. In his examination of Dickens's work in general, H. M. Daleski suggests that Dickens's characters are often related in complex patterns of analogy. Indeed, as already illustrated, Miss Pross, in many ways, can be viewed as Lucie's double, and a similar parallel can be drawn between the heroine and Mrs. Cruncher. Isolated from the main action except through the participation of her husband, Jerry, who works for Mr. Lorry in England and France, Mrs. Cruncher displays common feminine virtues such as domesticity, submissiveness and religiosity. In the end she helps successfully to redeem her husband through her example, so that he repents his unChristian disbelief and ill-treatment of her, but throughout the novel he abuses her emotionally, psychologically and physically for her “flopping,” or prayer (184). Mrs. Cruncher, then, at least in some sense, acts as a feminine savior figure like Lucie; unlike Lucie, however, Mrs. Cruncher is brutalized by her husband for her efforts. The poor woman's experience exposes the universality of female insecurity in a patriarchal culture by demonstrating that a woman's safety and well-being largely depend upon the personality of her husband. Dickens may indirectly blame Lucie for Charles's quick return to England and partial renunciation of his title in France (he returns to be with her), but never is Lucie at risk because Charles loves her and is gentle of temperament. In contrast, Mrs. Cruncher's subordinate gentleness and subjugation to her husband's violence exposes the possibilities of victimization implicit in all feminine self-sacrifice.

Dickens forces such patriarchal oppression to an extreme in Dr. Manette's letter describing the events leading to his imprisonment: the rape and subsequent death of Madame Defarge's sister. In this letter, Dr. Manette quotes the girl's brother as he explains that, despite their father's despair for their future, his sister remained optimistic. He says:

‘Nevertheless, Doctor, my sister married. He was ailing at that time, poor fellow, and she married her lover, that she might tend and comfort him in our cottage—our dog-hut, as that man would call it. She had not been married many weeks, when that man's brother [the Marquis] saw her and admired her, and asked that man [Charles's father] to lend her to him—for what are husbands among us! He was willing enough, but my sister was good and virtuous, and hated his brother with a hatred as strong as mine.’ (354-55)

Exhibiting a family loyalty shared by the girl, the brother, the speaker in this passage, does not reveal the girl's name, and this partial anonymity underscores her position as a typical representative of her gender and class. As a “good,” “virtuous” and, as the Doctor soon discovers, pregnant young woman, she is another idealized angel who marries the man she loves despite his illness, in order to “tend” or nurse him, to save and comfort him. The reference to the cottage as a “dog-hut” points to the poverty among the lower classes, and the disrespect shown towards the husbands by the Marquis and his brother highlights a sense of callous, aristocratic indifference which helps to create the class hatred identified by the Defarge brother. Unaffected by the girl's virtue, Charles's uncle cruelly rapes her, an abusive act which symbolizes the aristocratic exploitation of and barbarity toward the lower classes. Although this rape generates the action which comprises the novel, rather than affirming women's agency, this event denies their ability to act. Regarded as an object or piece of property to be “admired” and “lent” by the aristocracy, the girl lies immobile on her deathbed, unable to speak save in mad ravings, acted upon by the Marquis and the Doctor, and spoken for by her brother. Madame Defarge's sister represents the epitome of feminine innocence thrust into a hostile, masculine world, exploited by abusive men and initiating action only through her violation and her death.

Such a depiction of severe male violence against women pointedly questions the novel's advocacy of feminine self-sacrifice as a means of redemption and the proposed importance of women's endless love, forgiveness and submission. Certain critics (such as Albert D. Hutter, who examines the relations between father and sons in “Nation and Generation in A Tale of Two Cities”), suggest that Dickens indicts the patriarchal system in Tale, and it is true that Dickens levels much criticism against the hierarchical social and political world of his novel. However, any criticism of the patriarchy concerns women only in a narrow sense. Although Dickens's representation of women's exploitation indicates his recognition of some of the difficulties women face and his interest in their plight, his investigation goes no further. In fact, Dickens may expose some of the ambiguities in his feminine ideal and acknowledge some of the dangers of women's subordination within a patriarchal system, but his text offers no relinquishment of its sentimentalized perception of women; rather, the novel continues to affirm and cherish a feminine ideal according to which women continue to be victims. Dickens may emphasize the angel's redemptive powers, thereby allowing for the possibility of her effective agency, but because she cannot meet the contradictory demands placed on her within a patriarchal system, she is rendered passive and silent.


As Dickens rather abruptly shifts the novel's focus from England to France, from the private, relatively ordered world of the Manettes and Darnays in London to the public disorder of Paris, the accompanying contrast in nationality and class presents an opportunity for a somewhat different representation of women. Although Miss Pross and several other, more minor English characters are of a lower class, Dickens mainly focusses his attention on the middle classes in England, while he concentrates on the lower classes in France and their oppression by the aristocracy. Through depiction of these French working-class women in the Revolution, Dickens's text apparently overcomes some of the limits of the woman-as-savior ideal already described by granting women an active role in public life.

From an historical perspective, the vastly different views expressed by critics regarding the positions of working women during the period serve as some indication of the complexity of women's roles in the French Revolution. Jane Abray, for instance, in “Feminism in the French Revolution,” insists on the existence of a feminist movement during France's political upheaval, claiming that, “While it [revolutionary feminism] lasted it was a very real phenomenon with a comprehensive program for social change, perhaps the most far-reaching such program of the Revolution” (62). She asserts that, although revolutionary feminism began with a burst of enthusiasm, it failed as a result of tactical and strategical errors (such as the easy distraction of its members from their main concerns), political and managerial inexperience (or leaders acting in isolation from one another), and because women's general acceptance of the status quo and eighteenth-century definitions of femininity rendered feminism a minority movement (61-62). In an apparently contradictory but equally extreme view, Olwen Hufton, in “Women in Revolution 1789-1796,” sees working women as responding to the Revolution solely in terms of their traditional roles as mothers and wives bereft of a feminist or political agenda, seeking involvement only when famine threatens their families with destitution (90-108).

In a sense, Hufton's conservative and chauvinistic analysis gains support from a comparative examination of women before and after the Revolution, since the minimal and often illusory gains in their social and political status seem to deny any possibility of positive feminist assessment. Mary Durham Johnson explains, for instance, that despite the rapidly changing governments and administrations from 1789-1796, women remained subject to persistently traditional, patriarchal values (132). Her description of women in pre-revolutionary France as economically dependent, legal minors, exploited in the workplace, control of their person and property transferred from father to husband upon marriage, existing to perform conjugal duties and bear healthy children (107-110), recalls conventional roles assigned women in any patriarchal system. Although the Revolution may have raised hopes for change in the status of women, governmental retaliation for female protests reasserted a paternalistic demand for obedience and dependence in order to reinforce traditional sex roles. When Napoleon came to power, his reversal of any legal and civic progress made during the Revolution regarding women's social position (in education and divorce laws, for example), and the implementation of even more sophisticated mechanisms for controlling women's behavior than had existed in the ancien régime, confirmed the continuation of patriarchal standards (Johnson 130-31). Such uninterrupted repression seems to illustrate a continuing failure of women's political influence.

Yet, despite their social subordination and lack of overt socio-political advancement, working women did have an impact during the Revolution, taking roles which were not strictly traditional. Harriet Branson Applewhite and Darline Gay Levy, for example, approach the period from women's perspectives in order to demonstrate that, while institutions may not have changed during the period, women's political awareness did. Finding a middle ground between Abray and Hufton as a basis for interpretation, Levy and Applewhite suggest that French revolutionary women “were not feminists, and their goals were often the age-old concerns of wives and mothers for the survival of their families, but they learned to use revolutionary institutions and democratic tactics to secure political influence” (“Women of the Popular Classes” 9). In the October insurrections of 1789, for instance, when they marched to Versailles in order to demand a stable supply of bread at affordable prices, women played an instrumental role in helping to topple the monarchy by bringing the king back to Paris with them (66). As the Revolution wore on, women made use of petitions, clubs and assemblies to gain a forum for their political views, they resorted to taxation populaire, or confiscation of merchants' goods to be sold at reasonable prices, and they even obtained a short-lived institutional base for their political influence in the form of the Society of Revolutionary Republican Women. Employing untraditional methods to voice traditional grievances, revolutionary women seemed to evolve from submissive subjects to participating citizens who had an impact on their government as they gained a new outlook toward themselves and their roles in society (Applewhite, Johnson and Levy 312). Even if such women were unaware of the political implications of their actions, their ability merely to act and influence public events within a patriarchal system confirms their untraditional social position.

Of course, such historical reconstructions of women's roles in the Revolution are quite recent. As for A Tale of Two Cities and the material to which Dickens might have been exposed when writing his novel, most scholarship confirms that Dickens's historical perspective was greatly informed by Thomas Carlyle's The French Revolution. The two main studies which explore Dickens's influences, Michael Goldberg's Carlyle and Dickens and William Oddie's Dickens and Carlyle: The Question of Influence, demonstrate that Dickens relied on Carlyle's text, as well as the resource material Carlyle used in writing it, as research for his historical novel (Goldberg 101; Oddie 61-63). (Oddie also leaves room for other sources, although he does not define these possibilities clearly.) L. M. Findlay explains, furthermore, that in his historical book, Carlyle portrays the women of the Revolution in a highly conservative and repressive manner, a representation which helps define the limits of his political radicalism (130-34). Nevertheless, Dickens's representation of revolutionary women in his version of the French insurrection appears strikingly modern; in fact, in many ways, it seems to echo Applewhite and Levy's discussion.

As the main representative of the French women in this rebellion, Dickens presents Thérèse Defarge, valued and trusted confidante of her husband, Ernest, and his circle of lower-class conspirators. Dickens removes Madame Defarge from a typical, domestic feminine realm to place her in the midst of the turbulent Revolution. Thus, because of her combative posture, she seems to renegotiate or redefine Dickens's feminine contradiction; as a dynamic revolutionary, she is neither submissive victim nor saintly savior. Madame Defarge demonstrates her capacity as a politically active woman responding to class suppression, for example, in the storming of the Bastille episode, when she stands out as a leader of women, forcefully declaring female equality in her sadistic cry, “We can kill as well as the men when the place is taken!” (245). Such determination, near-perfect self-control and consistency of purpose render her hateful yet admirable. Although Dickens makes no attempt to indicate Madame Defarge's political awareness, instead rendering women's involvement in the Revolution a result of hunger or a sense of personal wrong, his acknowledgement, through Madame Defarge, of women's participation and what appears to be their often powerful influence, seems to recognize the progressive nature of their role. As a politically determined and apparently determining being, Madame Defarge appears to avoid some of the restrictions placed on other women in the novel.

This inclination toward decisive action, however, finally leads Madame Defarge to seek the execution of Lucie and her family, and as she travels the Paris streets on her way to realize her desire, Dickens writes:

There were many women at that time, upon whom the time laid a dreadfully disfiguring hand; but, there was not one among them more to be dreaded than this ruthless woman, now taking her way along the streets. Of a strong and fearless character, of shrewd sense and readiness, of great determination, of that kind of beauty which not only seems to impart to its possessor firmness and animosity, but to strike into others an instinctive recognition of those qualities; the troubled time would have heaved her up, under any circumstances. But, imbued from her childhood with a brooding sense of wrong, and an inveterate hatred of a class, opportunity had developed her into a tigress. She was absolutely without pity. If she had ever had the virtue in her, it had quite gone out of her.

It was nothing to her, that an innocent man was to die for the sins of his forefathers; she saw, not him, but them. It was nothing to her, that his wife was to be made a widow and his daughter an orphan; that was insufficient punishment, because they were her natural enemies and her prey, and as such had no right to live. To appeal to her, was made hopeless by her having no sense of pity, even for herself. (390-91)

In this passage, Dickens singles out Madame Defarge as a magnified representation of the unnatural horror of revolutionary violence; he also pointedly connects her with Lucie Manette. He begins by suggesting that Madame Defarge, like the other women of the Revolution, is disfigured by the “time.” This statement implies that Madame Defarge is negatively distorted by her environment, that, had she been exposed to different circumstances, she might have turned out quite differently, perhaps even like Lucie herself. But the years leading to the Revolution turn her into a ruthless, strong, fearless, shrewd woman. Her readiness and determination render her wholly unfeminine, and the reference to her “beauty” secures her position as the fair, angelic Lucie's dark-haired antithesis. She substitutes her knitting needles of revenge, which she uses to denounce traitors, for Lucie's golden thread of harmony, and in lieu of the compassionate emotions to which Lucie often succumbs, Madame Defarge is utterly devoid of the “virtue” of pity. Certainly, she derives motivation from fidelity to her natural sister, but she distorts that devotion in order to seek vengeance and death rather than forgiveness and life. While Lucie gives birth to angelic creatures like herself and tends them with love and concern, Madame Defarge has no children, an absence which ironically connects her with the aristocratic women whom Dickens also criticizes for lacking maternal affection. (He suggests that, although upper class ladies give birth, peasant women raise the children and are, thus, more deserving of the exalted title of “Mother,” 137). In short, Dickens depicts Madame Defarge as a woman of distorted potential, a woman of powerful feelings who, as the result of a lifetime of pain and oppression, turns to destruction. Because he connects her so obviously with Lucie, Madame Defarge represents a perversion of Dickens's feminine-savior figure.

The above reference to Madame Defarge's physical appearance, furthermore, while contrasting with Lucie's comeliness, also asserts that the older woman's beauty is of a different “kind,” one that imbues her with, or which she transforms into, power and violence. Because only instinct can recognize the firmness and animosity behind her beauty, and because her “brooding sense of wrong” derives from her childhood, a time of innocence and lack of worldly understanding, Dickens underscores the primal nature of her desires and her basic animality. Although Dickens grants her small personal and political justification for her “inveterate hatred” in the forms of her sister's rape and her own subjection to class suppression, Madame Defarge is a “tigress” who hunts her “natural enemies” and her “prey.” The way in which she toys with Foulon, for example, letting the captured aristocrat go then pulling him back several times before he is finally executed, confirms her catlike nature. (Again, Madame Defarge is connected to the aristocracy; Dickens underscores the equally brutal and basic ferocity of the upper classes by referring to the Marquis as a “refined tiger,” 156). The gender-specificity of Dickens's reference to Madame Defarge as one of the “women” rather than one of the people disfigured by the times highlights female brutality as being even more disturbing than the barbarity of male revolutionaries, since such savagery contrasts so greatly with the novel's idealized perception of women's potential as realized in Lucie.

In fact, this description of Madame Defarge recalls Nina Auerbach's monster in its horrified representation of women's latent powers let loose upon the world. In her comprehensive examination of Victorian female stereotypes, Auerbach suggests that, while Victorian men traditionally valued women for their sense of morality and purity, these men also feared the metamorphic power implicit in female spirituality (1-24). Auerbach goes on to claim that literary evidence for this fear of women directly reveals itself in the dark side of the angelic metaphor, taking, for example, the form of monsters, witches, sorceresses and demons (4). In terms of Auerbach's argument, then, Madame Defarge represents one such threatening monster. Although, as the above citation indicates, she is fully cognizant of and blindly driven by patrilineal ties, seeking restitution for “the sins of his [Darnay's] forefathers,” Madame Defarge heedlessly attempts to subvert the familial bonds which help support a patriarchal system in her desire to kill Charles, an act which would render Lucie and her child defenceless widow and orphan. She dares to defy time and death through her unconcern, confirming her demon-like, irrational evil in her absolute lack of pity “even for herself.” As a woman she achieves status among the revolutionaries, but she does so only at the expense of human compassion and remorse. Depicting her persistent and insatiable brutality, Dickens portrays Madame Defarge as a force of nature as well as an animal, identifying her as an elemental, and hence unconquerable presence; she says to her husband, “tell Wind and Fire where to stop … but don’t tell me” (370). Such appeals to nature dehistoricize Madame Defarge, removing her from her culture and from the Revolution in order to render her effectively non-feminine and non-human, a mythic Fury.

As exaggerated as this description of Madame Defarge may appear to be, her representation echoes legends surrounding actual women of the Revolution. In Carlyle and Dickens, Michael Goldberg connects the activities of Madame Defarge with those of Théroigne de Méricourt (118), and Linda Kelly, in Women of the French Revolution, discusses various myths which grew around Théroigne as a revolutionary figure (11-23, 48-59). According to Kelly, Théroigne, who intoxicated the Revolution with her beauty, became famous for flashing through crowds in a blood-red riding habit with a sabre and pistol in hand, leading a mob to the Bastille. She subsequently came to personify the fury of the Revolution as well as women's desires to show solidarity and help in the Revolution's defense (90). However, although Théroigne apparently supported radical ideas such as a women's armed battalion, Kelly asserts that she did not help storm the Bastille, and that, in fact, much of her story is myth (11), since her eccentricity and exhibitionism denied her much revolutionary impact (35). Nevertheless, Théroigne's celebrity snowballed until she was imprisoned in connection with an attempted assassination of the Queen (47), only to be released for lack of evidence. Soon thereafter, she reportedly went mad (59). Other women such as Charlotte Corday (whose single act, the assassination of a radical journalist, Marat, supposedly performed with the intent of saving thousands of lives from the brutal measures he advocated, earned her legendary status, 100-102), Marie Antoinette (114) and Olympe de Gouges (who wrote The Rights of Woman and the Citizen in response to the omission of women's rights from the Revolutionary document, The Rights of Man and the Citizen, 122-6) were commonly depicted as monsters similar to Théroigne (102). According to such historical descriptions, therefore, the exaggeration with which Dickens depicts the brutality and inhumanity of Madame Defarge seems to owe a debt to legends concerning such revolutionary women.

More importantly, Dickens's treatment of Madame Defarge recalls the actual recontainment experienced by women in the Revolution. In the years following 1789, many men seemed to fear politically active women as subversive of male authority, suggesting that they were susceptible to manipulation by counter-revolutionary factions (Graham 247). In fact, government reaction to women's only organized seat of political power, the Society of Revolutionary Republican Women, acted upon such an apprehension. In response to public disturbances with which the Society was associated, Jacobin Deputy Amar of the Committee of General Security reportedly informed the Revolutionary Convention that women do not have the physical or moral strength to discuss political considerations and recommend resolutions; consequently, the government passed a law to restrict women from holding public meetings, from exercising political rights and from taking active roles in governmental affairs (Blum 213). As a first step in a series of repressive measures which multiplied through the reign of Napoleon, the government attempted to justify its actions through idealization of family cohesion and women's “natural” functions within the home. The political establishment promoted Rousseau's ideal of pregnant and nursing women as personifications of the regeneration of France, appealing to marriage and motherhood, to women's roles as educators within the home and family, in order to deny women political rights while exalting them as goddesses of reason (Graham 250). In partial demonstration of the limits of France's initial test of democracy (Applewhite and Levy, “Women, Democracy and Revolution” 64), the patriarchal government silenced women by legalizing female subservience in 1793.

By dismissing the unfeminine Madame Defarge as other than human and portraying women revolutionaries as beasts, Dickens apparently endorses this type of denial of women's moral and intellectual suitability for public affairs. Dickens impedes women's access to power in his representation of the Revolution by focussing on a disfigured monster whose influence is more primal than political. He thereby contains female subversion and denies women access to effective political agency by characterizing their social activities as aberrant rather than “natural” behavior. Furthermore, by endorsing only those women, such as Lucie, who do not disturb the patriarchal agenda or threaten men's supremacy, Dickens reconfirms women's subordinate status. As a half-French woman, Lucie serves as an example for her French “sisters” because she embodies Rousseau's ideal, constantly remaining a politically submissive complement to the patriarchy represented in her husband and father. Through this acceptance of Lucie and rejection of Madame Defarge, Dickens affirms the exclusion of women from political life and reveals a patriarchal fear of women becoming equal partners in the Revolution.

Beyond this bestial, demon-like version of women, at the height of the Revolution Dickens digresses even further from his ideal to blur sexual differentiation altogether. In “The Grindstone” chapter (287), for example, Dickens presents “men devilishly set off with spoils of women's lace and silk and ribbon” (291). As both sexes gather to sharpen their weapons, the general cover of blood and physical disguises prevents the accurate and easy determination of gender and identity. More pointedly, in his description of the Carmagnole, a musical celebration performed by the revolutionaries, Dickens writes:

Men and women danced together, women danced together, men danced together, as hazard had brought them together. … No fight could have been half so terrible as this dance. It was so emphatically a fallen sport—a something, once innocent, delivered over to all devilry—a healthy pastime changed into a means of angering the blood, bewildering the senses, and steeling the heart. Such grace as was visible in it, made it the uglier, showing how warped and perverted all things good by nature were become. The maidenly bosom bared to this, the pretty almost-child's head thus distracted, the delicate foot mincing in this slough of blood and dirt, were types of the disjointed time. (307-308)

The participants in this revelry recall the French peasants who rejoice in the streets at the beginning of the novel when a wine cask is spilled; however, in the Carmagnole, these people celebrate the destructive spirit of the Revolution rather than the life-giving nourishment provided by the wine. Dickens underscores the horror of this spectacle as a perversion of a religious, Christmas dance by referring to the lack of discrimination and the irrelevance of sexual distinction in the selection of dance partners. In the fever of revolutionary passion, extremes collide to enforce a disruption of the presence, or at least of the usual importance, of sexual identity.

Nevertheless, despite this temporary disintegration into androgyny, the language of this passage identifies the Carmagnole as a decidedly feminine sport. Although men participate, a woman, La Vengeance, who is Madame Defarge's second-in-command and a personification of the revolutionary spirit in the novel, leads the “terrible” dance. Dickens represents the Carmagnole as a “fallen” sport, in a reference which suggests a traditional description of prostitutes or supposedly unchaste women as having “fallen” from grace and respectability (Hutter 457). His insistence on the transformation that occurs during the dance, a conversion of what was innocent, full of grace and “good by nature,” into something warped, perverted and ugly, lends further support to this conventional image of an impure woman who has distorted and abused her feminine attributes. Moreover, Dickens's reference to the celebration as affecting the blood, senses and heart suggests that this dance appeals to human emotions rather than the mind, and such feeling is conventionally recognized as the feminine equivalent of masculine intelligence. He then reduces the dancers to types, all of whom are described in feminine terms: maidens, pretty children and dancers with “delicate” feet. Sexual difference may carry little import in the Carmagnole, but Dickens's description of the event appeals to an underlying sense of gender specificity.

In fact, Dickens seems to break down sexual barriers only to re-create a negative image of the Revolution itself as feminine. L. M. Findlay suggests that Carlyle defines femininity in The French Revolution in part by means of Maenadic reference, a depiction which helps to perpetuate patriarchal domination (135-40).1 Here is a point where Dickens's and Carlyle's women begin to meet, since Dickens emulates this type of representation in his historical novel. Greek mythology characterizes Maenads, or the women worshippers of the god, Dionysus, largely by their shared capacity for irrationality, for their uncontrollable, emotional, senseless, and therefore feminine, dancing and singing, and Dickens's portrait of the feminine figures in the Carmagnole echoes this description. Additionally, unreasonable and passionate French women such as Madame Defarge and La Vengeance tend to characterize most revolutionary scenes (Hutter 457), exceeding men in their savagery and strength, and dominating Dickens's representation of insurrection. It is important to note, however, that, despite their energy and fervor, and like the Maenads who depend upon their relationship to Dionysus to define their identity (Findlay 138), Dickens's women rely on men, or the circle of Jacques, to direct their activities. Therefore, while women are marginalized through denial of their independence, excessive revolutionary activity and its agents are negatively represented by reference to the feminine.

The two prevailing images which symbolize not only the effects, but also the causes of the Revolution in Dickens's analysis are, accordingly, female. Dickens presents Medusa, or “The Gorgon's Head” (149), as a symbol of the corrupt aristocracy whose misrule helps to create conditions which demand retaliation on the part of the oppressed. As a mythological female figure who turns those who look at her to stone, Medusa represents the stone-like, upper class indifference to the poor, the legacy of social and personal repression which the Marquis attempts to pass on to Charles through the “Gorgon's spell” (Frank 137).2 Of course, Dickens includes male embodiments of the mythological figure, in particular, the Marquis, who represents the evil in the French patriarchal system, but the image itself remains female. On the other hand, Dickens personifies the consequent peasant response to this exploitation in the form of an ironic feminine savior or goddess. He says that, “Above all, one hideous figure grew as familiar as if it had been before the general gaze from the foundations of the world—the figure of the sharp female called La Guillotine” (302). Dickens raises La Guillotine to near mythic status by suggesting her timelessness and universal familiarity, and clearly identifies as female this symbol of the bloodthirstiness of revolutionary vengeance. Just as his extreme portrayal and rejection of Madame Defarge and his exaggerated depiction of Lucie as a desired feminine form demonstrates patriarchal anxiety about powerful women, so Dickens's use of feminine and female symbols to represent the French Revolution, its causes and effects, underscores a need for containment of such convulsion and a fear of revolution itself.

A careful examination of the women in Dickens's novel, therefore, clearly reveals the underlying patriarchal bias of his text. Thus, it seems rather ironic that, as the novel draws to a close, women instead of men take part in the final, decisive, climactic battle. In a revolution in which men govern activity even when women are participants in it, patriarchal traditions anticipate male orchestration and enactment of decisive action; yet Dickens allows Miss Pross and Madame Defarge to decide whether the Darnays' final flight to England will succeed. As their contest begins, Dickens writes:

Miss Pross had nothing beautiful about her; years had not tamed the wildness, or softened the grimness, of her appearance; but, she too was a determined woman in her different way, and she measured Madame Defarge with her eyes, every inch.

‘You might, from your appearance, be the wife of Lucifer,’ said Miss Pross, in her breathing. ‘Nevertheless, you shall not get the better of me. I am an Englishwoman.’

Madame Defarge looked at her scornfully, but still with something of Miss Pross's own perception that they two were at bay. (395)

The potential irony involved in representing a physical battle between women rather than men is subdued by a recognition that these combatants are the two most masculine women in the novel, and Dickens reinforces this perception by restating Miss Pross's lack of beauty, her wildness and grimness which even time can neither tame nor soften. Once again, Dickens connects women with animals, indicating the primal nature of these two opponents in their powers of “perception,” or their intuitive abilities to understand one another while “at bay” and despite their language barrier. In fact, Miss Pross's reference to Madame Defarge as the “wife of Lucifer,” contrasting as it does with her own appeal to Heaven several paragraphs later, suggests that these two figures represent elemental forces more than individual women, symbolizing a revolutionary battle between evil and good, inhuman barbarity and selfless devotion. Certainly Lucie is the more obvious female embodiment of goodness, but as a woman of higher class and angelic purity, her participation in such barbaric activity would be inappropriate, so Miss Pross serves as an adequate stand-in. By suggesting that Miss Pross is determined “in her different way,” a distinction which affirms her basic femininity in spite of her masculine eccentricities, Dickens carefully differentiates her from her opponent; thus, when the English woman kills Madame Defarge “with the vigorous tenacity of love, always so much stronger than hate” (397), through masculine agency Miss Pross is able to confirm the efficacy of feminine values in her certain victory over the non-feminine. (As an “Englishwoman,” she also affirms England's superiority and dissociation from France's revolutionary violence.) Consequently, their individual fates pay homage to paternalistic demands for the pacification of women, as Madame Defarge, a woman who affronts femininity, experiences ultimate silencing in her death, while Miss Pross, whose feminine goodness cannot wholly atone for the murder she commits, must withdraw into the mute world of her own deafness. (Lucie, too, travels in a carriage to England in silence and passivity.) Dickens thereby allows two women to perform the climactic battle in the text without compromising patriarchal expectations.

Through manipulation of the angel in all of her various manifestations, then, Dickens is able to present women as representative of both solution and problem in the events surrounding the French insurrection of 1789 and the devastation which follows, as a source of redemption (Lucie and, to a certain extent, Miss Pross) and a symbol of revolutionary insanity (Madame Defarge). Through his paternalistic and chauvinistic polemics, he simultaneously exalts and denigrates women, exposing their ideal femininity, or lack thereof, as a measure of possible social amelioration. By twisting and distorting seemingly unconventional feminine images, Dickens recontains the women in his novel, restricting their movements and influence by forcing them to assume illogical and untenable positions in a patriarchal society. This circumscription of a potentially progressive depiction of women by a chauvinistic need for their repression and confinement underscores Dickens's gender bias.


  1. In Book Seven, chapters four through eleven of The French Revolution (251-89), Carlyle describes women as Maenads in reference to the October days insurrections. He refers to them as “angry she-bees” or “desperate flying wasps” (254) who need guidance and find it in the form of a man, Maillard, around whom they cluster. Carlyle paints the scene as a wild spectacle enlivened by uncontrollable women whose “inarticulate fury” Maillard miraculously manages to translate into coherent speech in order to communicate with the government and the king. In this description of the event, Carlyle displays a consistently patronizing attitude toward women and their activities, thereby somewhat restricting their revolutionary impact.

  2. In “The Laugh of the Medusa,” Hélène Cixous refers to the Medusa figure as a metaphor for women's uniqueness which Cixous insists needs to be expressed and released through oral and written language (245-64). As she calls for a revaluation of women's difference, she suggests that Medusa need not seem ugly or destructive; on the contrary, in her attempt to incite women to “laugh” or speak their differences, Cixous asserts that women need to explore Medusa, look at her and recognize her beauty. Cixous suggests that Medusa is traditionally rejected as a horrible creature only because men, who fear women's uniqueness and powers as a threat to their supremacy, describe and represent her as a monster (255). To apply Cixous's argument to A Tale of Two Cities, then, because Dickens employs the image of Medusa in its conventionally negative connotation, the “Gorgon's head” reinforces his participation in a patriarchal fear and rejection of women.

    I also find it worth noting that Medusa is destroyed by a man, Perseus, who with the aid of the gods cuts off her head with a magic sickle. This proposed resolution to the myth confirms the appropriateness of Dickens's use of the Medusa image in terms of the guillotine and his affirmation of male dominance and control over threatening women.

Works Cited

Abray, Jane. “Feminism in the French Revolution.” The American Historical Review 80.1 (Feb. 1975): 43-62.

Applewhite, Harriet Branson and Darline Gay Levy. “Women, Democracy, and Revolution in Paris, 1789-1794.” French Women and the Age of Enlightenment. Ed. Samia I. Spencer. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1984. 64-79.

———. “Women of the Popular Classes in Revolutionary Paris, 1789-1795.” Women, War and Revolution. Eds. Carol R. Berkin and Clara M. Lovett. NY: Holmes and Meier, 1980. 9-35.

Applewhite, Harriet Branson, Darline Gay Levy and Mary Durham Johnson, eds. and trans. Women in Revolutionary Paris 1789-1795. Chicago: U of Illinois P, 1979.

Auerbach, Nina. Woman and the Demon: The Life of a Victorian Myth. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1982.

Blum, Carol. “The Sex Made to Obey.” Rousseau and the Republic of Virtue: The Language of Politics in the French Revolution. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1986. 204-215.

Carlyle, Thomas. The French Revolution: A History. 1839. London: Chapman and Hill, 1900. 3 vols.

Cixous, Hélène. “The Laugh of the Medusa.” Trans. Keith Cohen and Paula Cohen. Signs: A Journal of Women in Culture and Society 1.4 (1976): 875-93.

Daleski, Herman M. Dickens and the Art of Analogy. NY: Schocken, 1970.

Dickens, Charles. A Tale of Two Cities. 1858. Ed. and intro. George Woodcock. London: Penguin, 1988.

Findlay, L. M. “‘Maternity must forth’: The Poetics and Politics of Gender in Carlyle's French Revolution.Dalhousie Review 66.1/2 (1986): 130-54.

Frank, Lawrence. “The Poetics of Impasse.” Charles Dickens and the Romantic Self. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1984. 124-50.

Goldberg, Michael. Carlyle and Dickens. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1972.

Graham, Ruth. “Loaves of Liberty: Women in the French Revolution.” Becoming Visible: Women in European History. Eds. Renate Bridenthal and Claudia Koonz. Boston: Houghton, 1977. 236-54.

Hill, Nancy Klenck. “Woman as Savior.” Denver Quarterly 18.4 (1984): 94-107.

Hufton, Olwen. “Women in Revolution, 1789-1796.” Past and Present (1971): 90-108.

Hutter, Albert D. “Nation and Generation in A Tale of Two Cities.PMLA 93.3 (1978): 448-62.

Jarmuth, Sylvia L. Dickens' Use of Women in His Novels. NY: Excelsior, 1967.

Johnson, Mary Durham. “Old Wine in New Bottles: The Institutional Changes for Women of the People During the French Revolution.” Women, War, and Revolution. Eds. Carol R. Berkin and Clara M. Lovett. NY: Holmes and Meier, 1980. 107-143.

Kelly, Linda. Women of the French Revolution. London: Hamish Hamilton Paperback, 1987.

Kucich, John. “The Purity of Violence: A Tale of Two Cities.Dickens Studies Annual 8 (1980): 119-37.

Oddie, William. Dickens and Carlyle: The Question of Influence. London: Centenary P, 1972.

Slater, Michael. Dickens and Women. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1983.

Welsh, Alexander. The City of Dickens. London: Oxford UP, 1971. 141-63.

Tom Lloyd (essay date 1992)

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SOURCE: “Language, Love, and Identity: A Tale of Two Cities,The Dickensian, Vol. 88, No. 428, Part 3, Autumn, 1992, pp. 154-70.

[In the following essay, Lloyd discusses the “precarious nature of identity” illustrated by Dickens in A Tale of Two Cities.]

Thirty years ago G. Robert Stange criticized the ‘excessive artificiality’ of Charles Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities, writing that ‘its construction constantly calls attention to itself’ (74). Much has changed in the critical realm since 1957, for now this is exactly what commends the novel to the attention of those nurtured on post-structuralist ideas. A number of writers in recent years have analysed Dickens's fascination with language, including ‘redoubling of the theme of writing’ (Baumgarten 163), closure, hidden desires (Vanden Bossche 211), and in general the strong influence of Thomas Carlyle's Romantic Irony on Dickens's work.1A Tale of Two Cities does question the value of language divorced from feeling and experience, but in the end affirms the value of the word. By stressing the act of writing throughout the novel, Dickens creates a discomfort in the reader owing to the fact that the fiction is thereby robbed of its capacity to enchant the reader into a willing suspension of disbelief. But this is not to deny meaning; instead, it calls into question the reader's command of the word. This is especially true with Carton's ambiguous ‘prophecy.’2 Near the end of the novel we learn that the French aristocrats were unable to read the signs of the times and see how the ‘powerful enchanter, Time’ might turn fancy carriages into tumbrils headed for the guillotine (399). Dickens's text forces the reader to strip away the veil and explore the mysteries that lie at its heart, just as Lorry and Carton must explore their inner beings and resurrect life and language. But the difficulty which interpretation entails does not presuppose the ‘blankness' Dr Manette fears.

The problem with language that pervades A Tale of Two Cities is very similar to the one evoked by Carlyle in The French Revolution.3 Like Friedrich Schlegel, Carlyle identifies a logically irreconcilable tension between words and things, interpretations and essences. He argues that in revolutionary France the Constitutionalists led by Sieyès tried to construct a ‘paper’ constitution too far removed from social realities, while the extremists wanted to ‘govern a France free of formulas. Free of formulas! And yet man lives not except with formulas' (4:68).4 It is necessary that we read history, or any other text, from a never-ending ironical perspective, which does not deny transcendental meaning but instead shocks us in the direction of the ineffable. Failure to do so leads to imprisonment in formulas or chaos. Thus in Dickens's novel the aristocrats are blinded by false words, while the most extreme sans-culottes try to obliterate language in their vengeance against the old order. In between are those characters who, like Lorry, Carton, and Manette, must establish identities, workable ‘formulas' for themselves, amidst those varieties of fragmentation of self. Indeed, even M Defarge clings to language and meaning in the presence of his wife and the storming of the Bastille; she alone of the major characters seeks to obliterate everything and everyone, her incessant knitting of shrouds a parodic, non-verbal language which prefigures dissolution rather than the reconstruction of meaning.5

Throughout A Tale of Two Cities Dickens illustrates the precarious nature of identity in a world torn between decrepit language and destruction, where with varying degrees of success characters try to comprehend and name the ‘mystery’ that lies at the centre of the self. Stripped of his reason, for instance, the dignified Dr Manette becomes an ‘it’; throughout the novel he alternates without control between identities as a dehumanized shoemaker partially resurrected from the Bastille, and the melancholy Doctor who seeks stability through love for his daughter Lucie.6 The fear that he will be forgotten and his place made a ‘blank’ in the memories of others causes him to seek in Lucie a stable past that will formulate his identity.7 The prison comes close to reducing Darnay to an ‘it’ as well when, alone in a cell, his thoughts descend into a confused stream of consciousness, scraps of his tenuously retained selfhood ‘tossing and rolling upward from the depths of his mind’: ‘Let us ride on again, for God's sake, through the illuminated villages with the people all awake! ****He made shoes, he made shoes, he made shoes. ****Five paces by four and a half’ (287).8

Identities need formulas, yet words can falsify if they fail to reflect the organic nature of character. After all, the sign in itself is arbitrary; personalities change, while texts can become brittle. Thus Manette's letter of vengeance against the Evrémondes comes back to haunt him at Darnay's second Paris trial. Under Lucie's influence he has rediscovered love and sympathy, and can accept as his son-in-law the heir of the family that tormented him. But the letter, buried all those years in the Bastille until discovered by Defarge, was aimed at fixing the future, which throughout the novel is presented as mysterious and ambiguous: ‘I, Alexandre Manette, unhappy prisoner, do this last night of the year 1767, in my unbearable agony, denounce to the times when all these things shall be answered for. I denounce them to Heaven and to earth’ (361). This is as destructive to identity, which is always in a process of change and formulation, as the superficially different sans-culottic endeavour to destroy words and naming altogether.

There is an even more frightening alternative: the autobiographical word may disappear altogether, and identity may not be preserved in the memories of others. This is the significance of the second buried letter in A Tale of Two Cities. Darnay tells Lucie and her father about the discovery of the almost undecipherable sign ‘D.I.G.’ in a Tower of London prison. Under it, many years before, a now anonymous prisoner hid some writing, which now is reduced to ashes: ‘There was no record or legend of any prisoner with those initials, and many fruitless guesses were made what the name could have been’ (131). Isolated from the outer world, where living memories can be generated through relations with other people, the individual must fall back on the language and memories he already has. These may be inadequate. Naturally Manette is shaken when he hears Darnay's story, not only because he recalls his own still buried writing in Paris, but because this calls to mind his old fear that, in the end, one's place may be just a ‘blank’ (219).9

The partial, parodic, and transcendent resurrections that occur in A Tale of Two Cities have received considerable analysis in the past.10 Less well known is the relationship between resurrected selves and the word revivified through love, represented above all in Lucie Manette. Lorry, for instance, progresses from regarding himself as a machine bereft of feeling (54), to a more insightful man who rediscovers the meaning of the heart and his childhood. This is accomplished through Lucie's agency, for she becomes the centre of a domestic realm which draws Lorry away from his imprisoned public self.11 In his last conversation with Sydney Carton, he acknowledges a redemption through love and memory that echoes Wordsworth's poetry of loss and redemption through the ‘philosophic mind’:

‘I travel in the circle, nearer and nearer to the beginning. It seems to be one of the kind smoothings and preparings of the way. My heart is touched now, by many remembrances that had long fallen asleep … by many associations of the days when what we call the World was not so real with me.’ (340)

Lorry's identity is not as threatened as Manette's by burial and blankness because the business institution into which he projects himself remains intact, even in Paris.12 Furthermore, in his function as protector of Lucie, which he first assumed when he carried her as a baby across the Channel, Lorry has a perception of language denied to others. All along he can read character and comprehend the dubieties of language. Consider how he parries Stryver's assumption that he is ‘eligible’ to marry Lucie Manette. The meretricious ‘striver’ avoids the truth about his suitability by formulating his ‘verdict’ to himself in legal jargon. Blinded by his own words, he is analagous to those French aristocrats who place their trust in plausible formulas that are at variance with nature:

As to the strength of his case, he had not a doubt about it, but clearly saw his way to the verdict. Argued with the jury on substantial worldly grounds … it was a plain case, and had not a weak spot in it. (171)

The detachment of Stryver's language from reality is recognized by Lorry, who sardonically replies to his question whether he is ‘eligible’ to marry Lucie: ‘Oh dear yes! Yes. Oh yes, you’re eligible! … If you say eligible, you are eligible’ (174). Like the dragon in Carroll's ‘The Hunting of the Snark’, he affirms the truth of Stryver's ‘eligibility’ by repeating it three times. The irony is lost on the portly suitor, who then asks, ‘Am I not prosperous?’13

Dickens analyses the imprisonment of Stryver, the British legal system, and above all the French aristocracy in words that deny human paradox and mystery, or quantify them in rational forms. Like the self-satisfied empiricists Carlyle lampoons in Sartor Resartus for thinking they have ‘scientifically decomposed’ man's ‘spiritual Faculties', the court philosophers and scientists at the grand hotel of Monseigneur in Paris think they can control things by controlling language.14 But they are as wide of the mark as Johnson's mad astronomer in Rasselas, who thinks he can control the movement of the planets by thinking:

Unbelieving Philosphers who were remodelling the world with words, and making card-towers of Babel to scale the skies with, talked with Unbelieving Chemists who had an eye on the transmutation of metals, at this wonderful gathering accumulated by Monseigneur. (136)

But ‘belief’ in words and people is the key to every genuine transmutation in A Tale of Two Cities, above all Carton's change from wastrel to hero.15

Yet these rationalists believe that they believe their words, like Carlyle's philosophers with their ‘dream-theorem[s]’ and their ‘Words well bedded … in good Logic-mortar’ (54). Dickens's analysis of the ‘leprosy of unreality’ (137) among the French intellectuals mirrors Carlyle's quite closely. Phoney words about the ‘Centre of Truth’ and the like are employed to justify a system that rests in fact on brute force, a situation dramatized by Carlyle in The French Revolution.16 For example, immediately after the scene at the grand hotel, the Marquis runs down Gaspard's son without remorse or even the loss of his composure. His life centres around correct dress and composure; his face, like a ‘fine mask’ (140), reflects the language that has conditioned him. The narrator refers to Madame Defarge, the arch-sans-culotte, as a ‘tigress' (391), and to Darnay's uncle as a ‘refined tiger’ who wears a mask of civility, dismissing the poor as ‘dogs' but maintaining an ‘unchanged front, except as to the spots on his nose’ (142). Like Madame Defarge, he is obsessed with exterminating his enemies from the earth (142, 369). In fact, they are both essentially nihilists, one basing his meaning on meaningless formulas and ‘repression’, the other rejecting formulas altogether.

The Marquis tells Charles Darnay that his only philosophy is ‘repression’. He enslaves those less powerful than he, and in turn lives in fear of Monseigneur and others above him. But his repression has another dimension as well. He has no ‘within’, no healthy centre of self or heart, but instead, like Friedrich Schiller's ‘barbarian’ in the Aesthetic Education of Man, has allowed culture to destroy his feelings, making him merely the inverse of the mob's ‘ungovernable fury’ (25).17 He and the ‘dogs' are equally given over to their material impulses. His refined sensibility denies nature its proper place in human emotions, but lets it run free in his egoistic philosophy of repression and his demonic ‘assumption of indifference’. His denial of nature is evident in the fact that even his blush is not the product of an honest emotion: ‘a blush on the countenance of Monsieur the Marquis was no impeachment of his high breeding; it was not from within; it was occasioned by an external circumstance beyond his control—the setting sun’ (144).18 Schiller argues that the repressed rationalist and the revolutionary mob are equally the products of a loss of psychological harmony in individuals, whether brought on by false principles or an oppressive social order. But the ‘cultivated classes' are morally responsible for society's relapse into ‘the kingdom of the elements' (27). Once the poor ‘erupt’, to cite Madame Defarge's volcano metaphor, they are ‘changed into wild beasts, by terrible enchantment long persisted in’ (63). The Marquis represses his emotions and maintains his composure. The court rationalists also deny feeling, treating words as components of self-contained systems that adumbrate nature, rather than rise from it organically. His underlying brutality links Darnay's uncle with the sans-culottes, who seem to follow Carlyle's injunction to ‘gather whole hampers' of ‘sham Metaphors' and ‘burn them’ like ‘pallid, hunger-bitten and dead-looking’ rags (Sartor Resartus 73-4).

Madame Defarge embodies in its most absolute form the inevitable release of what Schiller terms the ‘crude, lawless instincts' of those repressed politically and psychologically (Aesthetic Education 25).19 Based on Mlle Théroigne in Carlyle's The French Revolution. she is like a force of nature whose instinctual patience is indicated by the ‘register’ she stores in her memory of who is to be saved and who executed once the energies of Saint Antoine are unleashed to sweep away the enervated aristocracy.20 Madame Defarge seems conscious of the natural energy she represents, consistently comparing the Revolution to a natural force and denying that it can be quantified or defined.21 For example, she tells her more conventional husband that ‘it does not take a long time … for an earthquake to swallow a town,’ but stresses the inadequacy of formulas in adding the question, ‘Tell me how long it takes to prepare the earthquake?’ (207-8) She refuses to try to hurry the time of vengeance, saying that ‘When the time comes, let loose a tiger and a devil; but wait for the time with the tiger and the devil chained’ (208).

M. Defarge retains a need for clear definitions and manifestations of things, which his wife recognizes, telling him, ‘you sometimes need to see your victim and your opportunity, to sustain you’ (208). She regards as a weakness his desire to know when the violence will begin and end, insisting that such quantification is impossible, like trying ‘to make and store the lightning’ (207). Psychologically in a realm beyond formulas, she cannot set limits to her philosophy of ‘extermination’, and therefore opposes her husband's assertion that the Terror ‘must stop somewhere’ (369). But M Defarge seeks meanings even when he participates in the storming of the Bastille. Though no one is presently in the North Tower where Manette was imprisoned for eighteen years, he demands that one of the guards take him there so that he can understand the meaning of One Hundred and Five: ‘Does it mean a captive, or a place of captivity? Or do you mean that I shall strike you dead?’ (246) In an environment where identities are scrambled or extinguished and people are reduced to ‘ghosts' of their former selves, Defarge wants a clear definition of the mystery called Manette. The ‘indifference’ of the Marquis and the ‘absolute’ extermination of Madame Defarge are antitypes of the endeavour to connect words with things.22 Defarge's violent destruction of the furniture in Manette's old cell to find a written or other key to his mystery reflects a paradoxical desire to obliterate and know; we later discover that he found the manuscript in the chimney, a place of ashes as well as energy.23 His search is normally fruitless, for he finds only a dead text which no longer reflects the spiritual essence of its author.

In A Tale of Two Cities there is a non-verbal communication based on vengeance, and another based on love. Madame Defarge repudiates formulas in favour of absolute violence and mysterious signs based on knitting, roses in handkerchiefs, and noncommittal allusions to natural forces. But at a time when the word is falsified and dead, such signs are more efficacious than M Defarge's futile search for definitions amidst the carnage at the Bastille. Those able to read history—Dickens places his reader in this advantaged position—can read the non-verbal message contained in the Cross of Blood drawn in the air by Madame Defarge's brother (356), or the verbal sign BLOOD Gaspard scrawls on a wall with wine (61). But there are also transcendent non-verbal signs based on love and sympathy, for instance in the eyes of Darnay's mother, which give meaning to her assertion that he must ‘have mercy and redress' the wrongs perpetrated by his family on the poor (154). Above all, Lucie Manette has this ability. By standing outside Darnay's Paris prison she can revitalize him, reversing his initial, precipitous slide into insanity. Madame Defarge's inability to comprehend this alternative form of communication is revealed by her plot to denounce Lucie for ‘making signs and signals to prisoners' (373).

Yet she is forced to effect a non-verbal communication with Miss Pross in the climactic scene where the sans-culotte comes hunting for Lucie, who is in the process of escaping from Paris. Here her energies are thwarted, and she is spent like any natural storm or earthquake. The cessation of her power through Pross's pistol shot foreshadows the retreat of the violently daemonic and the reconstitution of the word, symbolized by the power of the signed papers to get Darnay (disguised as Carton), Manette, and Lucie out of the country. Like Thomas Mann's demonic Cipolla, Defarge is suddenly rendered lifeless, as though a violent disrobing of civilized control and language have played themselves out, leaving Pross deaf but free. In this grotesque encounter the two cannot understand each other's words: ‘Each spoke in her own language; neither understood the other's words; both were very watchful, and intent to deduce from look and manner, what the unintelligible words meant’ (395). Miss Pross dismisses her opponent's language as ‘nonsensical’ (396). Yet they communicate non-verbally, one motivated by the ‘vigorous tenacity of love’ (397), the other by sheer hatred. As with Darnay and his mother, and Carton and the young girl at the end of the novel, the eyes are the key to this non-rational language:

‘It will do her no good to keep herself concealed from me at this moment,’ said Madame Defarge. ‘Good patriots will know what that means. Let me see her. Go tell her that I wish to see her. Do you hear?

‘If those eyes of yours were bed-winches,’ returned Miss Pross, ‘and I was an English four-poster, they shouldn’t loose a splinter of me. No, you wicked foreign woman; I am your match.’ (395)

Madame Defarge's attack is a parodic version of Sydney Carton's self-sacrifice in the next chapter: ‘if she had been ordered to the axe to-morrow,’ her only response would have been ‘a fierce desire to change places with the man who sent her there’ (391); rendered ‘lifeless' by a pistol shot, she symbolically re-enters the unseen world when Pross locks her body in and throws the key into the same river Carton has already mentally followed to death (344).24

The guillotine itself symbolizes the revolutionary rage against language, for it ‘hushed the eloquent, struck down the powerful, abolished the beautiful and good’ (302). Foulon's execution and the glee with which the sans-culottes stuff his mouth with grass likewise illustrate the affinity between revolutionary vengeance and the obliteration of words.25 This descent into chaos is inevitable, for the rulers' failure to read what Carlyle terms ‘importunate’ words necessitates both physical and perceptual destruction before meaning can be reconstituted.

In Dante's Inferno, Dante-pilgrim's descent through Hell involves a series of encounters with deceptive and chaotic speech forms that mirror the collapse of identity among the damned. For instance, thieves have become endlessly metamorphosing creatures that ‘split words', while Satan himself inarticulately slobbers and beats his wings. Darnay has a similar experience at La Force prison, when he meets the general prison population on the way to his solitary cell. They are ‘ghosts', just like their brethren who ‘haunt’ Tellson's in London, where their money used to be. Throughout France the very ‘names' of the aristocrats are being blotted out, and yet these prisoners, most of them bound for the guillotine, desperately try to keep up civilized appearances:

The ghost of beauty, the ghost of stateliness, the ghost of elegance, the ghost of price, the ghost of frivolity, the ghost of wit, the ghost of youth, the ghost of age, all waiting their dismissal from the desolate shore, all turning on him eyes that were changed by the death they had died in coming there. (285)

Obsessed with naming no less than Madame Defarge is with extermination, they first ask Darnay about his ‘name and condition’ (285), politely echoing Farinata's fixation on learning Dante's lineage. They persist in the belief that naming, not essence, is the substance of their humanity.

Sydney Carton is also a ghost until he redeems himself; he ‘haunts' Lucie Manette's neighbourhood until brought to life through an ‘intention’ to reveal his feelings to her (179). In the novel he moves from the ‘rust and repose’ for which he rebukes himself to purposeful activity, as if to illustrate Teufelsdroeckh's Aristotelian assertion that a thought is worthless until it is translated into an action.26 Lorry's statement that Cruncher should repent ‘in action—not in words' for his nocturnal activities as a ‘fisherman’ likewise illustrates the idea that ‘The end of Man is an Action, and not a Thought’ (Sartor Resartus 155). But there is an intermediary step between thought and action: belief. Just as Teufelsdroeckh must translate speculation into conviction, and into conduct (195-6), Sydney Carton must discover belief before he can proceed from self-analysis to meaningful activity. Lucie Manette provides the means:

Will you let me believe, when I recall this day, that the last confidence of my life was reposed in your pure and innocent breast, and that it lies there alone, and will be shared by one? (182)

Like Lorry, who circles back to his childhood, he seeks to revive ‘old shadows' and ‘old voices' (181) that have nearly expired. Lucie's belief that he might be ‘much, much worthier’ of himself inspires his statement that ‘I would embrace any sacrifice for you and for those dear to you’ (183), and is echoed in his last words (404).

His moral crisis is like that of Tennyson's Ulysses, who knows that to stop striving for new experiences is to lose the constantly replenished pasts that are vital to identity; just as Sydney Carton would like to translate his ‘rust and repose’ into activity, Ulysses would rather ‘shine in use’ than ‘rust unburnished’ (1. 23). Without mind-expanding experiences there can be no selfhood. Ulysses's statement that ‘I am become a name’ (1. 11) is conditioned by his realization that names must be constantly redefined: without memory and experience, the name becomes a hollow shell. If he decides to remain on Ithaca and never again seek ‘a newer world’, he will be like the ‘savage race’ he rules, who ‘hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me’ (11. 4,5).

The idea that one must constantly strive to redefine and affirm identity and avoid psychological burial is also important in Faust. Trapped in the ‘prison’ of his study, and conditioned by books rather than by passionate experiences, Goethe's learned Doctor is alternatively suicidal and restless for escape into the wider world. The central tenet of his blood pact with Mephistopheles is that he will be damned if he ever ceases striving to experience more of life and love: ‘If I ever say to the moment, linger, you are quite beautiful, then you can put me in chains.’27 To relax would confirm Mephistopheles' cynical statement to the Lord that for all his ideals, man is ‘more beastly than any beast.’28 But this devil is imprisoned by words, arguing that Faust needs only a poet to create the semblance of a name, and (incorrectly) that he will remain forever what he is.29 But the moment he sees Gretchen and falls in love he is transformed into a new Faust, having commenced the activity that will both imperil his soul and open the way to redemption.30

Like Gretchen, Lucie Manette embodies a principle of love that inspires belief and action, in her father as well as Sydney Carton.31 To the Doctor she is a repository of memories, the ‘golden thread’ that unites him ‘to a Past beyond his misery, and to a Present beyond his misery’ (110). Possessing the stable identity he seeks, she inspires him to try to save his imprisoned son-in-law, thereby ensuring the continuity of past, present, and future: ‘As my beloved child was helpful in restoring me to myself, I will be helpful now in restoring the dearest part of herself to her,’ he tells Lorry (300). In the Bastille Manette imagined two daughters, one ignorant of his existence and the other sympathetic, yet unable permanently to free him. The second one would

show me that the home of her married life was full of her loving remembrance of her lost father. My picture was in her room, and I was in her prayers. Her life was active, cheerful, useful; but my poor history pervaded it all. (219-20)

This second ‘and more real’ daughter embodies the principles of love, remembrance, and story-telling that are essential to the affirmation of another's identity; activity is pointless if it does not have a human object and inspiration, and thereby the means of perpetuating a living fame. Thus at the novel's close, Carton projects his need for love and remembrance into the future, seeing his golden-haired namesake, the grandson of Lucie, being brought to his Paris gravesite to hear his story (404).

Lucie Manette is another of Dickens's childlike women, less a rounded character than a repository for certain ideas about memory and sympathy. Her imaginative antecedents are to be found in Wordsworth's celebration of the child as ‘best Philosopher’ in the Poem ‘Ode: Intimations of Immortality’ and the like and, beyond that, in Schiller's concept of childhood innocence:

They are … not only the representation of our lost childhood, which eternally remains most dear to us, but fill us with a certain melancholy. But they are also representations of our highest fulfilment in the ideal.32 (Naive And Sentimental Poetry 85)

This idealization of the idea of the child is evident in the ‘childlike ingenuousness' of Sissy Jupe in Hard Times, who puts the cynically manipulative James Harthouse to shame and introduces an element of fellow-feeling and imagination into the utilitarian Gradgrind household.33 Similarly, Lucie Manette is whole and, in Schiller's terms, naive, in contrast to the artificiality and the divisions that characterize London and Paris. She inspires ghosts to become people through purposeful activity, but essentially this is a passive function.34 The struggling males perceive in her what ‘sentimental’ people see in nature and the idea represented by the child: ‘We love in them the tacitly creative life, the serene spontaneity of their activity, existence in accordance with their own laws, the inner necessity, the eternal unity with themselves' (Schiller, Naive And Sentimental Poetry 85).

Soon after his conversation with Lorry about memory and childhood, Sydney Carton experiences an epiphany in the Paris streets which centres around the revivification of language. The words of Jesus reverberate through his mind as he proceeds to carry out his self-sacrifice, inspired by the belief instilled in him by Lucie: ‘I am the resurrection and the life, saith the Lord: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: and whosoever liveth and believeth in me, shall never die’ (343). Significantly, these words come to him immediately after he carries a girl across a muddy street and asks her for a kiss.35 By rediscovering his heart through Lucie Manette and the idea of the child she and this girl represent, he is able in his mind to transform the Biblical Word from an echo into a living symbol of his own experience, much as Lucie is able to change ghosts into people through her sympathetic influence: ‘the words were in the echoes of his feet, and were in the air. Perfectly calm and steady, he sometimes repeated them to himself as he walked; but, he heard them always' (343).

Again it is helpful to turn to Carlyle for a fuller understanding of what Dickens means by a revivified word arising from belief. They both locate the transcendental experience and its symbolic language in the sympathetic marriage of minds; thus Teufelsdroeckh repeats Novalis's idea that ‘my Belief gains quite infinitely the moment I can convince another mind thereof’ (Sartor Resartus 214). Carlyle likewise stated that words must be read symbolically. Thus he chided his friend, the eccentric minister Edward Irving, for basing his faith in God ‘on a little text of writing in an ancient Book.’36 Furthermore, in Sartor Resartus, Teufelsdroeckh calls Jesus ‘our divinest Symbol’, who bodies a ‘Godlike’ that transcends any particular set of theological terms, including the Christian (224). That is, neither Jesus nor the Bible is final. His life is ‘a Symbol of quite perennial, infinite character; whose significance will ever demand to be anew inquired into, and anew made manifest’ (224). Carlyle reflects the popular German idea that Jesus was the Highest Humanity, whose example must be replicated to affirm the ideal and bring to new life the language of renunciation and belief. Each age, indeed each person, must emulate what Goethe termed the ‘Worship of Sorrow’ according to its own instruments and language. Jesus has to be ‘anew made manifest’.

Carton's own Christ-like renunciation is confirmed by his declaration to Lorry that ‘I am not old, but my young way was never the way to age. Enough of me’ (340). After this, he feels no doubts about his mission to die to save his mirror-image, Charles Darnay. Hutter writes that he follows the pattern of the ‘criminal-hero’ of the Newgate Calendar who ‘marches steadily towards his own destruction’, at which point his fate and his prophecy become transcendent (20-1). Beyond this, his self-sacrifice is based on Carlyle's ecstatic dramatization of Madame Roland's death in The French Revolution. Carton and Roland both discover a transcendental language that contrasts with the disintegration of language around them, but to do so they must exercise a renunciation that takes them out of the world; as I have argued elsewhere, Carlyle ‘imbues Madame Roland with Schillerian tragical traits that make hers an essentially passive and feminine ideal of conduct: he at once idealizes and dismisses his subject.37 Sydney Carton's death bears the imprint of Schiller as well as Carlyle; since harmonious self-development and ‘production’ cannot be said to begin on the scaffold (Sartor Resartus 197), we may conclude that his renunciation is not the Goethean kind enshrined in Teufelsdroeckh's declaration that ‘it is only with Renunciation (Entsagen) that Life, properly speaking, can be said to begin’ (191).

Both of their deaths are described as ‘sublime’: Carton looks ‘sublime and prophetic’ (403), while Madame Roland is ‘sublime in her uncomplaining sorrow (Works 4: 209). Their sublimity removes them from their chaotic environment and makes them exemplars of noble conduct in the face of inexorable historical forces. Thus Carlyle depicts his heroine as a Grecian art work, remote from her tumultuous age, nourished ‘to clear perennial Womanhood, though but on Logics, Encyclopédies, and the Gospel according to Jean-Jacques!’ (4: 211). Similarly, Dickens suggests the transcendental apartness of Carton by distancing his narrative perspective, switching like Carlyle to the present tense, and making his prophecy an ambiguous rumour of sublimity (‘They said of him … ’). To understand further the meaning of the sublime in these parallel death scenes, let us consider Schiller's theory of tragedy, which impressed Carlyle. In ‘On The Sublime’ the German writes that the ‘morally cultivated man’ is able mentally to defeat the physical forces arrayed against him ‘because he has by his own free act separated himself from everything that she can reach’ (Naive And Sentimental Poetry 195). At the moment of greatest crisis a feeling of sublimity ‘suddenly and with a shock … tears the independent spirit out of the net in which a refined sensuousness has entoiled it … often a single sublime emotion suffices to rip this web of deceit asunder’ (201-202). For instance, Schiller's Maria Stuart transcends her material and and emotional ‘nets' to experience a ‘worthy pride’ and a ‘noble soul’.38 For the first time, upon accepting the inevitability of death, she looks beyond herself to care for others, for instance Melvil (1. 3506). As with Sydney Carton, the renunciation of self leads to the rediscovery of the heart. As a sacrificial offering, Maria Stuart sets a noble ‘example’ for others, thus functioning the way Madame Roland and Carton do. Thus Darnay becomes ‘like a young child’ in Carton's hands: ‘with a strength both of will and action, that appeared quite supernatural’ (380), he forces the prisoner to change clothes with him. Carton's action is curiously like the role reversal in Maria Stuart that leaves Leicester passively doubting himself, while his former lover Maria Stuart exercises a moral will that leaves her ‘transformed’ on the scaffold.

In one sense Carton is closer to Maria Stuart than to Carlyle's Madame Roland: while the first two are ‘sentimental’ in their efforts to reconcile their mental divisions and seek the ideal, Madame Roland is a ‘naive’ ‘noble white Vision’ who naturally stands apart from the artificiality around her: she is ‘serenely complete’ from her youth to her death (Works 4: 211). Her death is a model of renunciation and composure, but she does not have to struggle to achieve either. Unlike the deeply flawed Sydney Carton and Maria Stuart, she is consistently pure and inviolate, removed from the mire of the world in which she exerts her subtle influences on the Girondins' political affairs. She is ‘genuine, the creature of Sincerity and Nature, in an age of Artificiality, Pollution, and Cant’ (2: 46). She is static, while Sydney Carton must pursue an ideal ‘mirage of honourable ambition’ through Lucie's inspiration before he can overcome the enervation of his will. In taking Darnay's place on the scaffold, he also steps into the shoes of Madame Roland and the childlike feminine transcendence she represents to Carlyle. He achieves something like the reconciled naive and sentimental visions Schiller postulates in an as yet unrealized ‘Idyllic’ art form, ‘a free uniting of inclination with the law … none other than the ideal of beauty applied to actual life’ (Naive And Sentimental Poetry 153).

In their death scenes, Dickens and Carlyle are interested in the relation between writing and the ineffable. Carlyle focuses on how Madame Roland asked in vain to be allowed ‘to write the strange thoughts that were rising in her … so in her too there was an Unnameable; she too was a Daughter of the Infinite; there were mysteries which Philosophism had not dreamt of! (Works 4: 211)39 Dickens's narrator marvels that every human being is a mystery ‘to every other’ (44); Carton is a mystery to others, and even to himself, unable to explain to Lucie Manette the ‘mystery of my own wretched heart’ (180). Dickens alludes to Madame Roland's request ‘to be allowed to write down the thoughts that were inspiring her’ (404), just before the prophecy in which Carton enters a realm beyond reality but just short of ineffability. The narrator underscores the tentativeness, the mystery if you will, of his last words by stressing the ‘if’: ‘if he had given utterance to his [thoughts], and they were prophetic, they would have been these:’ (404). Dickens leaves his reader to ponder his incapacity fully to probe the mysteries of language and personality. That the text is moving beyond language to probe transcendental mysteries is evident in a seemingly minor change Dickens makes in Carlyle's account. Madame Roland comforts the printer and Assignat-director Lamarche, emulating Maria Stuart in showing a weaker male how easy it is to die. But Sydney Carton comforts a young girl, for the second time since his final interview with Lorry. Significantly, she feels guilty because she ‘cannot write’, and therefore must leave her orphaned cousin ignorant about her execution (403). Their conversation while awaiting execution centres on the inefficacy of words as they prepare to enter a state where there is ‘no Time’ (403). Carton tells her it is better she can not write; he accepts the impermanence of words compared to love and sympathy, the positive emotions that can render language transcendental, so that (to cite Schiller's description of the aesthetic state) we have the ‘dignity of free spirits' and mentally are freed from ‘the degrading relationship with matter’ (Aesthetic Education 139). Thus Dickens stresses their eye contact and the comfort it gives: ‘Keep your eyes upon me, dear child, and mind no other object’ (402).

There is a temptation to regard Carton's prophecy as a denial of meaning rather than an evocation of mystery, as if the reader must go away with the idea that the book's doubt is a poor thing, but its nihilism a very intense experience. Certainly it is ambiguous, but whether Carton projects his wished-for union with Lucie into the future and kills off Darnay in the process is another question. Vanden Bossche writes that ‘the image of self-sacrifice created by his speech puts the authenticity of that very self-sacrifice into question by envisioning a future that nearly effaces Darnay’ (211). This is perhaps true. But another explanation is that Carton envisions a unity almost beyond naming, where even his desire for perpetuation through others' memories is subordinated to a vision of a future where divisions cease. He does not refer to himself, Darnay, or Lucie Manette by name. His most forceful assertion of identity is the ‘boy of my name’ brought to his Paris gravesite to hear his story:

I see that I hold a sanctuary in their hearts, and in the hearts of their descendants, generations hence. I see her, an old woman, weeping for me on the anniversary of this day. … I see that child who lay upon her bosom and who bore my name, a man winning his way up in that path of life which once was mine. I see him winning it so well, that my name is made illustrious there by the light of his. I see the blots I threw upon it, faded away. I see him, foremost of just judges and honoured men, bringing a boy of my name, with a forehead that I know and golden hair, to this place … and I hear him tell the child my story, with a tender and a faltering voice. (404)

As is the case when Carton comforts the young girl, sympathetic eyesight now takes precedence over writing and naming. In his prophecy, only those people who have failed to transcend naming through sympathetic acts retain their names: Barsad, Cly, Defarge, and the Vengeance (404).

In A Tale of Two Cities Dickens suggests that people are too mysterious to be reduced to mere names and formulas. M. Defarge's search for a key to Manette at the Bastille is fruitless because the essence of selfhood is only communicable through sympathy and memory. But the mystery at the core of the self always remains; as Manette tells Darnay concerning his daughter, ‘mysteries arise out of close love, as well as out of wide division’ (165). But this does not presuppose an absence of ultimate meaning; to doubt is not to deny. The prophecy, like so much else in the novel, reveals an insecurity on Dickens's part about our capacity to ‘name’ and thus control the future, an even more precarious act than defining our identities against the onrush of contemporary events. Like the lives of George Eliot's characters in Middlemarch, life does not achieve finality even at death, ‘but merely ceases' at the point determined by the writer. To close the text or project it into a knowable future is meretricious, for the mutability of existence precludes its ever being authoritatively ‘read’. At the end of A Tale of Two Cities Carton, like Madame Roland, enters the transcendental realm. Beyond the mystery there may be final knowledge and identity, or only blankness. But to insist on one or the other is to become no less trapped in words than Carlyle's dream theoreticians and Dickens's Paris Projectors are. To assert the absence of stable meaning is to articulate a code which denies authoritative codes.


  1. There has been a flurry of scholarly activity in recent years on A Tale of Two Cities; what follows is a representative sampling. Gross analyses the partial resurrections in the novel and states that Carton ‘might just as well be committing suicide as laying down his life for Darnay’ (23); but for MacKay his death represents a ‘transcendental achieving’ and ‘inviolate action’ (201). See also Hutter for a study of Carton's Christ-like resurrection (20) and its parodic counterpart in Cruncher's trade, the history of which he explores. Resurrection implies unburial and explosure, according to Gallagher, whose analysis of violations of the private are in the post-structuralist vein. She writes that the Terror ‘explicated the Revolution's insistence on transparency and its corollary of hidden plots' (134). Like Hutter, she compares Cruncher not only with Carton, but with the narrator, ‘in that both dig up the past and uncover buried mysteries' (137).

  2. Needless to say, there are differing interpretations of Carton's ambiguous prophecy. My approach emphasizes the idea of presence rather than that of absence, owing to the dynamics of the scene leading up to the prophecy and to the idealistic tradition on which Dickens draws, primarily through Carlyle. MacKay writes that his words ‘are at once unspoken and yet transcendently true’ (203). Baumgarten also affirms the truth of the prophecy within the terms set by the text: ‘his final vision is an unwritten piece of autobiographical writing, voiced beyond any imprisoning code and opening into the prophetic realm where writing is absolute and true’ (163). Rignall states that this is a ‘vision of a better world which seems to lie beyond time and history’ (575); see also Kuchich 168-77. But Vanden Bossche is less certain than the others about the authority of Carton's prophecy, noting that he effaces Darnay: his ‘vision of a peaceful Paris is problematic in the light of the reader's knowledge of its tumultuous history and other revolutions' (211).

  3. In his Preface Dickens states his debt to the ‘philosophy’ of Carlyle's history.

  4. See Lloyd 43. Schlegel wrote that ‘it's equally deadly for the mind to have a system and not to have one. Therefore it will just have to decide to combine the two’.

  5. This contrasts with the non-verbal communication based on sympathy which reaches its highest expression at the end of the novel, when Carton comforts a young girl on the way to execution. See below.

  6. Even Lucie is ‘afraid of it’ when she first sees him cobbling in his locked room in Paris (69).

  7. Compare John Keats's assertion that identity is created by the interaction of intelligence, the human heart, and the external world.

  8. Surrounded by aristocratic ‘ghosts' and removed from any immediate human contact in his cell, Darnay is thrown upon his intelligence, which begins to disintegrate, and his heart, which momentarily is distracted from Lucie Manette's influence. Her presence outside his window eventually recreates a precarious psychological harmony.

  9. When the letter is read at Darnay's trial, we learn that Manette most missed ‘tidings of my dearest wife’ during the eighteen years he was imprisoned (361). This would have filled his ‘blankness', just as Lucie fills Darnay's by standing below his cell window.

  10. Gross writes that in the novel ‘the grave gives up its dead reluctantly, and the prisoner who has been released is still far from being a free man’ (20).

  11. ‘Crush humanity out of shape once more, under similar hammers, and it will twist itself into the same tortured forms' (Tale 399). In a milder form, what applies to the sansculottes applies to Lorry. Tellson's is a more benign mirror of the Bastille, including its iron bars and its air of death and suppression of personality: ‘putting to death was a recipe much in vogue with all trades and professions, and not least of all with Tellson's (84). Lorry is twisted out of shape like all the others buried here: ‘When they took a young man into Tellson's London house, they hid him somewhere till he was old’ (85).

  12. He is not even shaken by the Paris Tellson's with its whitewashed Cupid and the bloody ‘whirlings of the grindstone’ in the courtyard (291).

  13. Compare Gradgrind's mental imprisonment in economic jargon in Hard Times, illustrated by his successful mediation of Bounderby's ‘proposal’ to Louisa.

  14. Instead of becoming trapped in our ‘Philosophical Systems', Carlyle writes, we must learn to read the ‘Volume of Nature’: ‘It is a Volume written in celestial hieroglyphs, in the true Sacred-writing; of which even Prophets are happy that they can read here a line and there a line’ (Sartor Resartus 54, 258).

  15. Lucie comforts Carton by believing in his capacity for good, and he in turn comforts the young girl at the scaffold (182, 403). Belief is contagious: see below.

  16. Dickens's depiction of the Marquis and his family history owes much to Carlyle, who analyses how the ruling classes concealed their savagery beneath an apparent refinement. ‘Philosophism sits joyful in her glittering saloons … and preaches, lifted up over all Bastilles, a coming millennium’ (Works 2: 30).

  17. Schiller writes that ‘man portrays himself in his actions. And what a figure he cuts in the drama of the present time! On the one hand, a return to the savage state; on the other, to complete lethargy’ (Aesthetic Education 25).

  18. The Marquis has no ‘within’, but Darnay's mother does. He recalls how he read both her words and her eyes, which implored him to ‘have mercy and redress' his family's crimes (154).

  19. Carlyle draws on Schiller's analysis in The French Revolution, but is more sympathetic about the motivations of the poor for rebelling. For a study of the mob psychology in Carlyle's history, see LaValley.

  20. Compare also Carlyle's description of the Sphinx riddle of Nature in Past And Present: ‘the face and bosom of a goddess, but ending in claws and the body of a lioness' (Works 10: 7).

  21. Carlyle also uses natural imagery to describe the French Revolution, which he defines as the rebellion and victory ‘of disimprisoned Anarchy against corrupt wornout Authority’ (Works 2: 211).

  22. Like Dickens, Carlyle and Schiller point to the difficulty of connecting words with things while affirming the need to try. Thus Carlyle writes that ‘words ought not to harden into things for us' (Works 5: 106), while Schiller points to the difficulty of finding language that can analyse, yet preserve the ‘living spirit’ of nature (Aesthetic Education 5).

  23. Thus in Hard Times, the fire into which Louisa often stares is a reflection of the abyss as well as of her own thwarted energies. In A Tale of Two Cities a tipsy Lorry ‘digs' in the ‘live red coals' of the fireplace at his Dover hotel, as if unconsciously searching for his buried self. This follows his repeated dream of burial in the coach, where the essential relation between him and Manette becomes apparent (51, 47).

  24. Once again she protects Lucie's sanctuary. See Gallagher 138.

  25. Foulon told the starving poor they should eat grass; Carlyle also dwells on his execution in The French Revolution as a clash between false words and the rage against words. Foulon and the sans-culottes have all turned away from true language. Compare MacKay's assertion that Madame Defarge's decapitation of the governor of the Bastille ‘paradoxically unifies him with the group, now an “ocean of faces” in Dickens' rhetoric of transcendence (199).

  26. Rust is an important motif in A Tale of Two Cities. Cruncher licks it from his fingers, for example, suggesting the symbolic failure of his ‘resurrections' compared to those of Lorry and Carton. Rust and writing are connected in Manette's buried letter, which he wrote with a ‘rusty iron point … in scrapings of soot and charcoal from the chimney, mixed with blood’ (348).

  27. ‘Werd ich zum Augenblicke sagen: /Verweile doch! du bist so schoen!/ Dann magst du mich in Fesseln schlagen’ (11. 1699-1701).

  28. Ein wenig besser wuerd er leben,
    Haettst du ihm nicht den Schein des Himmelslichts gegeben;
    Er nennt's Vernunft und braucht's allein,
    Nur tierischer als jedes Tier zu sein.

    (11. 283-86)

  29. ‘Du bleibst doch immer, was du bist’ (1. 1809).

  30. ‘Armsel’ger Faust! ich kenne dich nicht mehr’ (1. 2720).

  31. Lucie's power is not absolute: ‘she could recall some occasions on which her power had failed; but they were few and slight, and she believed them over’ (110). This is reflected in Manette's statement to her that the second, sympathetic daughter he imagined while in the Bastille ‘could never deliver’ him completely (220).

  32. Schiller writes that it is not the physical child or nature that inspires us: ‘it is not these objects, it is an idea represented by them which we love in them. We love in them the tactitly creative life, the serene spontaneity of their activity, existence in accordance with their own laws, the inner necessity, the eternal unity with themselves' (Naive And Sentimental Poetry 84-5).

  33. But unlike Lorry, Louisa Gradgrind has no childhood to which she can return in thought: ‘The dreams of childhood—its airy fables; its graceful, beautiful, humane, impossible adornments of the world beyond; so good to be believed in once, so good to be remembered when outgrown … what had she to do with these?’ (150-51)

  34. Still, she seems conscious of her function and doubts her capacity to perform it. Thus she exclaims, upon being told that she will see her father, ‘I am going to see his Ghost! It will be his Ghost—not him!’ (57)

  35. Mud is an important image in Dickens's novel: recall the mail-coach ride in the beginning, the environment of Tellson's (47), and the scramble in the mud for spilled wine outside Defarge's wine shop (43-44). Mud symbolizes a morally corrupt environment and burial, as it did for Carlyle, who recounted that he had to defeat the ‘foul and vile and soul-murdering Mud-gods of my Epoch’ (Reminiscences 281).

  36. Irving became obsessed with Corinthians 13 and speaking in tongues.

  37. For more information about Schiller's influence on The French Revolution, see my article in Prose Studies.

  38. ‘Die Krone fuehl ich wieder auf dem Haupt, /Den wuerd’gen Stolz in meiner edeln Seele!’ (11, 3493-4)

  39. Similarly, ‘strange’ thoughts appear in the mind of Tennyson's speaker in Lyric 95 of In Memoriam; he can not fully communicate their essence in ‘matter-moulded forms of speech’ (11. 25-32, 46).

Works Cited

Baumgarten, Murray. ‘Writing the Revolution’. Dickens Studies Annual 12 (1983): 161-76.

Carlyle, Thomas. The Centenary Edition of the Works of Thomas Carlyle. Ed. H. D. Traill. 30 vols. London, 1896-99.

———. Reminiscences. Ed. C. E. Norton. London: J. M. Dent & Sons, 1972.

———.Sartor Resartus. Ed. Charles Frederick Harrold. New York: The Odyssey Press, 1937.

Dickens, Charles. Hard Times. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1966.

———. A Tale of Two Cities. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1970.

Gallagher, Catherine. ‘The Duplicity of Doubling in A Tale of Two Cities’. Dickens Studies Annual 12 (1983): 125-45.

Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von. Werke. Hamburger Ausgabe in 14 Baenden. Hamburg: Christian Wegner Verlag, 1972. Vol. 3.

Gross, John. A Tale of Two Cities'. Twentieth Century Interpretations of A Tale of Two Cities. Ed. Charles E. Beckwith. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1972. 19-28.

Hutter, Albert D. ‘The Novelist as Resurrectionist: Dickens and the Dilemma of Death’. Dickens Studies Annual 12 (1983): 1-39.

Kuchich, John. Excess and Restraint in the Novels of Charles Dickens. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1981.

LaValley, Albert J. Carlyle And The Idea of the Modern. New Haven: Yale U. P., 1968.

Lloyd, Tom. ‘Madame Roland and Schiller's Aesthetics: Carlyle's The French Revolution’. Prose Studies 9 (1986): 39-53.

MacKay, Carol Hanbery. ‘The Rhetoric of Soliloquy in The French Revolution and A Tale of Two Cities’. Dickens Studies Annual 12 (1983): 197-207.

Rignall, J. M. ‘Dickens and the Catastrophic Continuum of History in A Tale of Two Cities’. ELH 51 (1984): 575-88.

Schiller, Friedrich von. On The Aesthetic Education of Man. Trans. Elizabeth M. Wilkinson and L. A. Willoughby. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967.

———. Naive And Sentimental Poetry and On The Sublime. Trans. Julias A. Elias. New York: Ungar, 1980.

———. Saemtliche Werke. 5 vols. Muenchen: Winkler Verlag, 1968. Vol. 2.

Stange, G. Robert. ‘Dickens and the Fiery Past: A Tale of Two Cities Reconsidered’. Twentieth Century Interpretations of A Tale of Two Cities. Ed. Charles E. Beckwith. Englewood Cliffs, N. J.: Prentice-Hall, 1972. 64-75.

Vanden Bossche, Chris R. ‘Prophetic Closure and Disclosing Narrative: The French Revolution and A Tale of Two Cities’. Dickens Studies Annual 12 (1983): 209-21.

Don Nardo (essay date 1997)

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SOURCE: “The Promise of a Better Future: Dickens and A Tale of Two Cities,” in Readings on A Tale of Two Cities, edited by Don Nardo, Greenhaven Press, 1997, pp. 14-27.

[In the following essay, Nardo discusses Dickens's background and its influence on his writing.]

The scene is a scaffold in Paris during the French Revolution. A large crowd of spectators has gathered to watch the brutal beheading of a group of condemned prisoners, most of them French aristocrats or persons condemned as sympathizers or accomplices of the nobility. In one of the carts heading for the scaffold stands a man holding a young girl's hand. “Down Evrémonde!” comes a cry from the bloodthirsty crowd. “To the Guillotine all aristocrats! Down Evrémonde!”

But unbeknownst to the crowd, the man in the cart is not Charles Darnay, relative of the now dead but still much hated Marquis St. Evrémonde, who frequently mistreated servants and other commoners. The prisoner heading to his death is instead Sydney Carton, an English lawyer. The night before, Carton, out of his own love and respect for Darnay's wife, Lucie, helped Darnay escape prison and now faces the dreaded blade in his place. Having wasted his life in idleness and drink, Carton finally feels that he is doing something good and worthy. Even as he stands near the steps of the scaffold, he continues to comfort the young girl, a seamstress.

“But for you, dear stranger, I should not be so composed,” she tells him. “I think you were sent to me by Heaven.”

“Or you to me,” says Carton. “Keep your eyes upon me, dear child, and mind no other object.” Seconds later, the crowd shouts its approval as she is executed; and then Sydney Carton himself begins his fateful ascent of the scaffold steps.

For most readers, this final scene of the novel A Tale of Two Cities is one of the most moving passages in all of literature. It must have been just as moving to write, for its author, Charles Dickens, closely identified with both Carton and Darnay, who in looks are nearly twins but whose characters are seemingly very different. In Dickens's mind, the two men—one worthy, the other unworthy—represent opposing sides of the human coin that is himself. As Dickens biographer Fred Kaplan puts it,

They become one figure, two parts of Dickens' personality that are united in art, though it is Carton whose energy and imagination most resemble his. Between the two characters, he creates … [a] self-portrait that, while it emphasizes the … potential for self-destruction, unites opposites into an idealized version of love. … Though Carton dies, he lives in Lucie, Darnay, and their daughter. At the end, Darnay is an idealized version of Carton transformed and Dickens fulfilled.

According to this view, Dickens was plagued by self-doubt about his own worth, both as an artist and a person, and used Carton's sacrifice as a way of working out his feelings. Put another way, Dickens seems to be saying that within every person, no matter how unworthy he or she might seem, dwells an element of goodness waiting for its chance to prove itself.


The man who used the themes of self-sacrifice and personal redemption to create grand drama in A Tale of Two Cities was born on February 7, 1812, in Landport, a section of Portsea (itself part of the greater city of Portsmouth), England, about seventy miles southwest of London. He was christened Charles John Huffham Dickens. His parents, John and Elizabeth Dickens, had seven other children, two of whom died in childhood; of those who survived, only one, Charles's sister Fanny, was older than he.

John Dickens worked as a clerk in the British Navy Pay Office at Portsea. His pay was modest and he and his wife were poor money managers, with the result that they were almost constantly in debt. Because of their inability to pay their bills, often including their rent, they were frequently compelled to move, usually to successively poorer lodgings. The navy also regularly reassigned the elder Dickens, necessitating more moves for the family, which eventually ended up in London. This combination of physical and financial instability took its toll on the children, including Charles, who only rarely benefited from any formal schooling. Nevertheless, his mother taught him to read and before the age of ten he often escaped from his insecure and sometimes unhappy home life by roaming through the imaginary worlds of books like Cervantes's Don Quixote, Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, and The Arabian Nights.

The family's financial downward spiral and the emotional anxieties that attended it reached their lowest ebb early in 1824. To help make ends meet, the Dickenses arranged for twelve-year-old Charles to work in a shoe-polish factory, Warren's Blacking, in a section of London called the Strand. In dingy, filthy, rat-infested surroundings, the boy had to endure long hours each day at the monotonous task of attaching labels to pots of shoe blacking. Most of his companions were lower class, illiterate, and ignorant and Charles, who dreamed of someday becoming a scholar, felt both humiliated and abandoned by his parents. It was a psychological wound that would never heal. He later wrote in his autobiography:

No words can express the secret agony of my soul as I sunk into this companionship; compared these everyday associates with those of my happier childhood; and felt my early hopes of growing up to be a learned and distinguished man, crushed in my breast. … My whole nature was so penetrated with the grief and humiliation of such considerations, that even now, famous … and happy, I often forget in my dreams that I have a dear wife and children; even that I am a man; and wander desolately back to that time of my life.

Making matters worse, less than a month after Charles began working at the factory, his father was arrested for failure to pay a debt. At the time, English law allowed a person to press charges against another for defaulting on a loan, and many debtors languished and even died in prison. In late February 1824, John Dickens was incarcerated in London's Marshalsea prison and his appeals to relatives and friends for the money needed for his release were unsuccessful. Unable to support herself and the children on her own, Elizabeth Dickens was forced to sell most of the family's possessions and then move, along with some of the children, into the prison cell with her husband.

Still employed at Warren's Blacking, Charles lodged with a kindly family friend, Elizabeth Roylance. But in his few free hours, mostly in the evenings, the lonely, underfed boy visited his family in the prison. The misery and degradation of prison life made a deeply powerful impression on him, so powerful that images of jails and the idea of imprisonment later became important recurring themes in his works. From Fleet Prison in The Pickwick Papers to the debtor's prison in Bleak House, to the workhouse in Oliver Twist, to the dreaded Bastille in A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens used prison as a symbol of despair, injustice, and inhumane treatment. At the same time, Dickens's fascination with and revulsion for imprisonment and injustice were intensified by what he viewed as his own servitude in the shoe polish factory. As literary scholar Edgar Johnson remarks:

All the rest of his life he lay under those two shadows—the shadow of the Marshalsea and the imprisoning shades of that dungeon workroom in which he had toiled day after despairing day. The experience opened the floodgates of his sympathy for all victims of injustice, all the neglected and misused, the innocent and suffering of the world. Their cause became his, because in the depths of his being they and he were one.


Luckily for young Charles Dickens and his beleaguered parents and siblings, their miserable situation soon began to improve. In late May 1824, John Dickens was released from prison under the Insolvent Debtor's Act, a bankruptcy provision that granted freedom to those who filed for release, but left them penniless and humiliated; and not long afterward he received a small inheritance from a deceased relative, enabling him to support his family once more, however modestly. In the early summer of that year Charles left the factory and finally began attending a formal school—Wellington House Academy, on Hampstead Road in London. But the boy's education was relatively brief. Feeling the pinch of the family's continued financial straits, in May 1827 Elizabeth Dickens took her son out of the Wellington school and found him a position as a low-level clerk in the office of a lawyer named Edward Blackmore.

Dickens's experience in the law office was a springboard to bigger and better things. He worked hard and learned as much as possible about the law; and all the while he acquired skills and interests that would become useful later. He learned shorthand, for example, which allowed him to become a court reporter while still in his teens, and he also became an avid theater buff, spending much of his free time organizing amateur play productions. His skill, ambition, and energy were impressive enough to get him admitted as a reporter to the British House of Commons (somewhat equivalent to the U.S. House of Representatives) in 1831, when he was only nineteen. He also hired out as a reporter for various well-known newspapers, including the True Sun, Mirror of Parliament, and Morning Chronicle.

During this period Dickens first tried his hand at writing fiction. He managed to publish some stories, for which he received no money, in the Old Monthly Magazine. Then, when the Morning Chronicle circulated an evening edition, he began contributing short comic “sketches” for pay under the pen name of “Boz.” A collection of these pieces appeared in book form under the title Sketches by Boz, the popularity of which was boosted by its beautiful and charming illustrations, supplied by the prominent artist George Cruikshank. While turning out the Boz sketches, Dickens worked closely with the manager of the new Evening Chronicle, George Hogarth, and soon began courting one of Hogarth's three daughters, Catherine. On April 2, 1836, Charles and Catherine were married.

The marriage seemed to signal the start of a happy and fruitful period for Dickens, for the ceremony took place just two days after he published the opening installment of his first important and successful work, The Pickwick Papers. Like so many of his works to come, including the immortal A Tale of Two Cities, Pickwick first appeared in monthly magazine installments and came out in book form later. By the end of its serialization in 1837, Pickwick was immensely popular and hugely profitable. From that time on, Charles Dickens was the most popular English novelist in his own lifetime and, arguably, has been ever since. Other fortunate events followed between 1837 and 1839, including the birth of the Dickenses' first three children, Mary, Kate, and Walter (they had ten children in all), and the beginning of Charles's friendship with journalist John Forster, who would eventually become his first biographer.

This two-year period also saw the serialization of Dickens's second novel, Oliver Twist, the story of the adventures of a poor foundling (a child abandoned by unknown parents) and his life among London's thieves and other streetwise characters. As scholar Walter Allen comments, the mood and content of Oliver Twist were quite different from those of The Pickwick Papers:

The two novels show the two sides of Dickens' genius. Pickwick is a work of pure humor, in which the crudities and miseries of the real world are sterilized by laughter and the vicious are objects of comedy. … The world of Pickwick is almost fairyland. In Oliver Twist, fairyland has become the country of nightmare; the bar fairies have become ogres. There is still laughter, but it has become savage, satirical. … On the surface, Oliver Twist is an exposure novel, an attack on the working of the poor law of the day, but its real theme is the fate of innocence and weakness. … From then on, fairyland and nightmare exist side by side in Dickens' novels.


Indeed, in work after work Dickens skillfully combined moments of charm, grace, and humor with gripping descriptions of poverty, snobbery and strife within and between classes, and other social ills of his time. And the author became so popular that his exposés of such ills were sometimes instrumental in helping to alleviate them. Nicholas Nickleby, for instance, which followed Oliver Twist in the late 1830s, was in part a concerted attack on those English schools, then quite common, in which cruel headmasters brutally beat and often half-starved their students. The public reaction to Dickens's vivid descriptions of abuse was immediate and extreme: Thousands of parents withdrew their children from such schools, which then were forced to close their doors. Such closings were so widespread, in fact, that in 1864 a school commissioner reported, “I have wholly failed to discover an example of the typical Yorkshire school with which Dickens has made us familiar.”

Similar criticisms and attacks on social ills appeared even in Dickens's shorter and ostensibly lighter works. A perfect example is the classic A Christmas Carol (variously defined as a long short story or short novel), first published in 1843. On one level the colorful and charming tale of the transformation of the mean, penny-pinching Mr. Scrooge by the three ghosts of Christmas, the work touches on three of Dickens's favorite recurring themes—the prison, the plight of the poor masses, and the insensitivity of the upper classes to this plight. The following scene, in which two men ask Scrooge to contribute to charity, strongly foreshadows the more complex development of these same themes in A Tale of Two Cities:

“At this festive season of the year, Mr. Scrooge,” said the gentleman, taking up his pen, “it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the poor and destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir.”

“Are there no prisons?” asked Scrooge.

“Plenty of prisons,” said the gentleman, laying down his pen again.

“And the union workhouses?” demanded Scrooge. “Are they still in operation?”

“They are.” …

“I wish to be left alone,” said Scrooge. … “I help to support the establishments I have mentioned—they cost enough; and those who are badly off must go there.”

“Many can’t go there; and many would rather die.”

“If they would rather die,” said Scrooge, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”

At the time A Christmas Carol appeared, Dickens was already a wealthy man. He built a large house for his immediate family, as well as a smaller one in the countryside for his parents, and maintained a very comfortable lifestyle thereafter. The bitter memories of his childhood poverty and humiliation remained sources of shame and emotional pain, however, and he periodically lost his temper with his parents, whom he held partially responsible.

Dickens nevertheless loved his parents and used them as models for various characters in his books. The colorful Mr. Micawber in David Copperfield, for example, was based in large degree on John Dickens. And both Mrs. Nickleby in Nicholas Nickleby and the strange, reclusive Miss Havisham in Great Expectations were patterned substantially after Elizabeth Dickens (in the latter case when she had turned senile shortly before her death in 1863).


Mr. Scrooge, Mr. Micawber, and Miss Havisham are but three of the hundreds of memorable characters Dickens created in his books and stories during a prosperous, thirty-year career. In fact, broadly drawn yet highly realistic characters—some delightfully quaint, some shifty or slimy, others bumbling and comic—became one of the author's trademarks. “There are creations of Mr. Dickens,” wrote English novelist and satirist William Makepeace Thackeray in 1852, “figures so delightful, that one feels happier and better for knowing them, as one does for being brought into the society of very good men and women.”

Among this remarkable gallery of literary personages was, for example, the sublimely comic Mrs. Gamp in the novel Martin Chuzzlewit, serialized in 1843-1844, shortly after Dickens returned from a tour of the United States. Dickens had been excited and optimistic about the visit beforehand, but his firsthand views of American slavery and the crudeness of American cultural pursuits, as compared with those in Europe, soured him; Martin Chuzzlewit is filled with unflattering caricatures of obnoxious American types. Other well-drawn and memorable Dickensian characters are Serjeant Buzfuz and Alfred Jingle in The Pickwick Papers (1837), Mr. Brass and Mr. Quilp in The Old Curiosity Shop (1840), Mr. Tappertit and Miss Miggs in Barnaby Rudge (1841), Uriah Heep in David Copperfield (1849), Harold Skimpole in Bleak House (1852), and Pip and Abel Magwitch in Great Expectations (1860).

Dickens created two of his greatest characters—Sydney Carton and Madame Defarge—for A Tale of Two Cities. But in this Dickens novel, unlike so many others, characterization took a backseat to plot and the epic sweep of the events the story described. These were the dramatic and bloody events of the French Revolution, which began in 1789, twenty-three years before Dickens was born. He had apparently been fascinated by the Revolution throughout his adult life but did not set himself to a fictional treatment of it until 1859. In that year he established the weekly literary magazine All the Year Round (he had for years been the editor of the journal Household Words), and the novel appeared in that publication in installment form between April 20 and November 26. The book version was released in December.

By this time, Dickens's private life was no longer as placid and happy as it had been during the first several years of his marriage. His wife, convinced that he was having an affair with an actress named Ellen Ternan (a charge that may or may not have been true; in any case, he had fallen in love with Ternan), pushed for a legal separation, which occurred in 1858, shortly before he began researching A Tale of Two Cities. His usual composure shaken, Dickens had thrown himself into his work with a vengeance, not only continuing with his writing, editing, and involvement in amateur theater productions, but also giving public readings of his works and lobbying politicians and others for social reforms (over the years, he periodically backed such causes as the establishment of a home for reformed prostitutes and the clearing or renovation of slum housing).

These and other often strenuous and/or stressful activities continued after the completion of Tale, and overwork steadily began impairing Dickens's health. In the late 1860s, he again toured the United States, this time for a series of readings. His opinion of Americans had improved somewhat, as evidenced by his description of one of his New York audiences: “They are a wonderfully fine audience, even better than Edinburgh [Scotland], and almost, if not quite as good as Paris.” But though the tour was an unqualified success, the strain exhausted his already frail constitution. He grew steadily weaker and died on June 9, 1870, while working on a new novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. He was buried in Westminster Abbey in London beside Chaucer and other English literary greats. One of the best and most touching tributes to Dickens's talent and contributions was given by the American writer Kate Douglas Wiggin (author of Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm) in her 1912 work, A Child's Journey with Dickens:

He had his literary weaknesses, Charles Dickens, but they were all dear, big attractive ones, virtues grown a bit wild and rank. Somehow when you put him—with his elemental humor, his inexhaustible vitality, his humanity, sympathy and pity—beside the Impeccables [those authors deemed more perfect craftsmen], he always looms large! Just for a moment, when the heart overpowers the reason, he even makes the flawless ones look a little faded and colorless.


To be sure, A Tale of Two Cities possesses all the qualities Wiggin cites as being typical of a Dickens novel—vitality, color, humanity, and pity—all in abundance. Indeed, the story is filled with the same kind of picturesque, quirky characters, highly atmospheric scenes, and deeply sympathetic treatment of the plight of the downtrodden that one normally associates with Dickens. Yet Tale is anything but a typical Dickens novel. One factor that sets it apart is that it is one of only two historical novels he wrote, the other being Barnaby Rudge, about England's anti-Catholic Gordon Riots of 1780.

The basic premise for the story of Tale came from The Frozen Deep, a play by Dickens's longtime theatrical friend, Wilkie Collins. Dickens had produced the play for the stage in 1857 and had himself played the role of a man, one of two who love the same woman, who gives his life to save that of his rival. Dickens openly acknowledges his debt to Collins's play in the first sentence of the novel's preface:

When I was acting, with my children and friends, in Mr. Wilkie Collins' drama of The Frozen Deep, I first conceived the main idea of the story. A strong desire was upon me then, to embody it in my own person; and I traced out in my fancy, the state of mind of which it would necessitate the presentation to an observant spectator, with particular care and interest.

The preface to Tale also acknowledges Dickens's debt to another friend, the great Scottish historian Thomas Carlyle. “No one can hope to add anything to the philosophy of Mr. Carlyle's wonderful book,” he writes, in reference to Carlyle's massive 1837 volume, A History of the French Revolution, which was already considered a classic of its kind. The book became an essential reference for Dickens in his attempts to construct a realistic and authentic historical background for his fictional characters and their exploits. In fact, Carlyle provided almost all of the primary source material for Dickens's research for the novel. When the novelist asked his friend to provide him with a few extra reference books about the Revolution, Carlyle sent him two large cartloads of volumes, many from his own impressive collection. Dickens endeavored to at least skim them all and so immersed himself in the subject that he read nothing else in the many months it took him to write Tale. One must not suppose, however, that Dickens simply reproduced Carlyle's style and philosophical views of the Revolution. As scholar of English literature Henry Hubert explains:

Dickens and Carlyle were quite different types: Carlyle, a noted scholar, collecting and sifting many documents to produce his great work; Dickens, a badly educated man who gathered his material through carefully observing the people and events about him. It was Dickens' genius that he could write about a city and an event about which he knew next to nothing and produce such a stirring, believable portrait of the time. … Carlyle, as he writes, stands aloof from the whirlpool, and one feels that if he had lived at the time he would have protested against the abuses [of the French peasants by the nobility] and left it at that. Whereas we have the feeling as we read A Tale of Two Cities that Dickens, a man who believed passionately in eradicating any social injustice he came upon, would have joined the mob and stormed the Bastille.

Another factor that makes Tale different from most of Dickens's other novels is that the work is driven by its plot rather than its characters. Novels such as David Copperfield and Great Expectations are full of well-drawn characters who become involved in numerous, and sometimes unrelated, incidents and interactions. The story lines are generally defined by these interactions and often seem to ramble along in an episodic fashion, so that the reader has no clear idea of what will happen next. By contrast, Tale has far fewer characters. And instead of being the main focus of the story, the principal characters are, in a sense, pawns carried along in the irresistible tide of the story's larger events. Because these events actually happened, to that extent the narrative is preordained and inevitable; historical events, therefore, determine in large degree the characters' actions.


Still another factor that makes A Tale of Two Cities an atypical Dickens novel is that it is shorter than most, only about 100,000 words, compared with more usual lengths of some 380,000 words. This is partly because he was attempting for the first time the very difficult task of serializing the book in both weekly and monthly versions of All the Year Round. Working on weekly and monthly installments at the same time forced him to condense his material more than he usually did, which proved frustrating and stressful. In August 1859, he wrote to John Forster, “Nothing but the interest of the subject, and the pleasure of striving with the difficulty of the forms of the treatment, nothing in the mere way of money, I mean, could also repay the time and trouble of the incessant condensation.”

Other factors troubled Dickens while he was working on Tale. Among them were the strain of meeting so many dead-lines, the extreme seriousness of the subject matter, the fact that he personally identified so strongly with the dissipated main character, Sydney Carton, and the stress brought on by his recent separation from his wife. All of these combined to make the writing of Tale an unusually difficult and emotional experience for Dickens. “Throughout its execution,” he said in the latter stages of the task, “it has had complete possession of me; I have so far verified what it has done and suffered it all myself.” At one point, he told Forster that certain aspects of the work “drive me frantic.”

Dickens's dark moods while writing the novel were likely partly motivated by and certainly reflected in the work's dark and serious themes. Noted modern Dickens biographer Peter Ackroyd points out that the story is

filled with images of horror and destruction, of dirt and disease, of imprisonment and violent death. The central image is one of resurrection, but this encompasses the stealing of dead bodies from their graves as well as the more spiritual resurrection which Sydney Carton so much longs for. This is a world of enormous shadows, of the setting sun, of night; the only illumination occurs in the glare of the French Revolution itself, as if the only alternative to the darkness of despair lies in the rage and destructiveness of that event.

No less morbid is Dickens's frequent use of symbols to suggest and reinforce images of death and bloodletting. In a striking example that appears early in the story, a wine cask shatters and spills its contents into a gutter. Dozens of people converge to lap up the wine and their feet, shoes, and mouths become stained with red, foreshadowing what will become real wounds in the frightening bloodbath of the Revolution to come. The only major incident in the novel that lifts the reader out of this seemingly relentless onslaught of gloom and doom is Sydney Carton's sacrifice, which allows Lucie and her family to escape, and at the same time redeems Carton from his own wasted life.


Indeed, it is the almost unrelenting seriousness of Tale's themes and tone that has prompted much of the literary criticism leveled at it over the years. One of the strongest objections to the novel's lack of humor comes from the noted scholar and Dickens authority George Gissing, who writes, “A Tale of Two Cities is not characteristic of Dickens in anything but theme (the attack on social tyranny). With humor lacking we feel the restraint throughout.” Gissing added that the novel “leaves no strong impression on the mind; even the figure of Carton grows dim against a dimmer background.” Countering this argument, Henry Hubert speaks for many other scholars who find no fault with the book's serious tone. “True,” he says,

humor is an obvious component of most of Dickens' other novels and many of Dickens' greatest creations are comic characters. It does not necessarily follow, however, that therefore there should be some great comic characters in A Tale of Two Cities. Strong humor would be out of place in this story. … Ironically, those people who have not read Dickens enjoy A Tale of Two Cities most, while ardent Dickens advocates are disappointed with it … largely because of the missing element of humor.

Another common scholarly criticism of Tale is that it lapses too often into sentimentality; that is, that the author overdoes certain passages of description and dialogue in a manipulative attempt to stir his readers' emotions. The scene in which Lucie first sees her father after his release from the prison and the stirring moments preceding Carton's death on the scaffold are often singled out as being too “weepy.” And still another frequently raised objection to the novel is Dickens's use, or in the critics' view overuse, of the device of coincidence. Edgar Johnson sums up his objection:

It is too neat that the wineshop-keeper Defarge should be Dr. Manette's old servant and that Madame Defarge should be a younger sister of that wronged pair whose deaths the Doctor had witnessed. It is somewhat forced that Darnay, the innocent scion [descendant] of the wicked St. Evrémonde family, should not only become the Doctor's son-in-law but should be drawn to Paris. … On top of these coincidences, John Basard, the prison spy and turnkey, turns out to be Miss Pross's brother, and Jerry Cruncher is opportunely at hand to provide Sydney Carton with a damaging piece of knowledge against him. Finally—the supreme coincidence of all—Carton resembles Darnay so closely as to be able without detection to substitute for him. Cleverly though Dickens prepares for these implausibilities, even his consummate ingenuity leaves it unconvincing that there should be so many of them.

Yet such objections to some of the literary devices Dickens employs in the novel ultimately appear minor when the work is viewed as a whole. In spite of continued differences of opinion about the overuse of sentiment and coincidence and other supposed shortcomings of the work, no critic denies the overall power of the story's narrative, its epic sweep and color, its often gripping human situations and dilemmas, and the compelling dramatization of Carton's final transformation and redemption. Who, on reading the climactic scene, has not imagined him- or herself in the same harrowing situation and wondered if he or she would act as unselfishly, bravely, and nobly as Carton does?

In fact, it is the dramatic, heartrending, and compelling nature of this final scene that afforded Dickens the chance to make the most important and sublime statement of the book, perhaps one of the greatest of all his books; for he was well aware that most readers would, like himself, identify with, or at least stand in awe of, Carton and his sacrifice. Dickens realized that everyone would see this act, regardless of whether they believed it foolhardy or thought they would or could do it themselves, as the ultimately good and right thing to do.

Recall the stirring lines provided by the narrator after Carton has met his end; Dickens brilliantly presents these as a kind of “stream of consciousness,” as if they might have been the doomed man's last thoughts as he climbs the scaffold steps and places his head beneath the blade. These last thoughts are exalted ones, as Carton looks beyond his own death and the horrors of the Revolution to a brighter, better future: “I see a beautiful city and a brilliant people rising from this abyss.” He goes on to propose that the evils that spawned the Revolution, as well as the terrors perpetrated in the rebellion itself, will eventually fade in importance and give way to kinder, saner conditions.

Then he turns his mind's eye to Lucie and her family. “I see the lives for which I lay down my life, peaceful, useful, prosperous and happy, in that England which I shall see no more. I see her with a child upon her bosom, who bears my name.” Carton's thoughts suddenly leap ahead and he sees Lucie as an old woman, weeping on the anniversary of this, his final day; still she honors his brave sacrifice, which allowed her to live a happy and fulfilled life with those she loved. He also sees the child Lucie named after him, now grown and becoming the success in life that he himself was not:

I see him, foremost of just judges and honoured men, bringing a boy of my name, with a forehead that I know and golden hair, to this place—then fair to look upon, with not a trace of this day's disfigurement—and I hear him tell the child my story, with a tender and a faltering voice.

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.

With these magnificent concluding lines, Dickens leads the reader out of the depths of misery, rebellion, social chaos, bloodshed, and hopelessness and onto a higher plane of love, hope, and human triumph. And Carton's noble act stands as a shining example for everyone who has ever loved. Indeed, in this scene Dickens seems to say that the qualities of goodness and selflessness that Carton displays in his last moments exist in all of us, latent, beneath the surface, waiting for their best and most appropriate moment of expression. In this way, Charles Dickens expresses his optimistic belief that, despite the ravages of ignorance, neglect, cruelty, injustice, and all the other ills he raged against throughout his career, humanity harbors the potential to fulfill the promise of a better future.

John Gross (essay date 1998)

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SOURCE: “A Tale of Two Cities: An Appealing but Flawed Novel,” in Readings on Charles Dickens, edited by Clarice Swisher, Greenhaven Press, 1998, pp. 141-45.

[In the following excerpt, Gross gives A Tale of Two Cities a mixed assessment, criticizing Dickens's lack of a sense of humor and his thin portrayal of society.]

A Tale of Two Cities ends fairly cheerfully with its hero getting killed. …

A Tale of Two Cities is a tale of two heroes. The theme of the double has such obvious attractions for a writer preoccupied with disguises, rival impulses, and hidden affinities that it is surprising that Dickens didn’t make more use of it elsewhere. But no one could claim that his handling of the device is very successful here, or that he has managed to range the significant forces of the novel behind Carton and Darnay. Darnay is, so to speak, the accredited representative of Dickens in the novel, the ‘normal’ hero for whom a happy ending is still possible. It has been noted, interestingly enough, that he shares his creator's initials—and that is pretty well the only interesting thing about him. Otherwise he is a pasteboard character, completely undeveloped. His position as an exile, his struggles as a language-teacher, his admiration for George Washington are so many openings thrown away.

Carton, of course, is a far more striking figure. He belongs to the line of cultivated wastrels who play an increasingly large part in Dickens's novels during the second half of his career, culminating in Eugene Wrayburn; his clearest predecessor, as his name indicates, is the luckless Richard Carstone of Bleak House. He has squandered his gifts and drunk away his early promise; his will is broken, but his intellect is unimpaired. In a sense, his opposite is not Darnay at all, but the aggressive Stryver, who makes a fortune by picking his brains. Yet there is something hollow about his complete resignation to failure; his self-abasement in front of Lucie, for instance. (‘I am like one who died young. … I know very well that you can have no tenderness for me … ’) For, stagy a figure though he is, Carton does suggest what Thomas Hardy calls ‘fearful unfulfilments'; he still has vitality, and it is hard to believe that he has gone down without a struggle. The total effect is one of energy held unnaturally in check: the bottled-up frustration which Carton represents must spill over somewhere.


Carton's and Darnay's fates are entwined from their first meeting, at the Old Bailey trial. Over the dock there hangs a mirror: ‘crowds of the wicked and the wretched had been reflected in it, and had passed from its surface and this earth's together. Haunted in a most ghastly manner that abominable place would have been, if the glass could ever have rendered back its reflections, as the ocean is one day to give up its dead’ (bk. II, ch. 2). After Darnay's acquittal we leave him with Carton, ‘so like each other in feature, so unlike in manner, both reflected in the glass above them’. Reflections, like ghosts, suggest unreality and self-division, and at the end of the same day Carton stares at his own image in the glass and upbraids it: ‘Why should you particularly like a man who resembles you? There is nothing in you to like: you know that. Ah, confound you! … Come on, and have it out in plain words! You hate the fellow’ (bk. II, ch. 4). In front of the mirror, Carton thinks of changing places with Darnay; at the end of the book, he is to take the other's death upon him. Dickens prepares the ground: when Darnay is in jail, it is Carton who strikes Mr Lorry as having ‘the wasted air of a prisoner’, and when he is visited by Carton on the rescue attempt, he thinks at first that he is ‘an apparition of his own imagining’. But Dickens is determined to stick by Darnay: a happy ending must be possible. As Lorry and his party gallop to safety with the drugged Darnay, there is an abrupt switch to the first person: ‘The wind is rushing after us, and the clouds are flying after us, and the moon is plunging after us, and the whole wild night is in pursuit of us; but so far, we are pursued by nothing else’ (bk. III, ch. 13). We can make our escape, however narrowly; Carton, expelled from our system, must be abandoned to his fate. …

Drained of the will to live, he is shown in the closing chapters of the book as a man courting death, and embracing it when it comes. ‘In seasons of pestilence, some of us will have a secret attraction to the disease—a terrible passing inclination to die of it. And all of us have like wonders hidden in our breasts, only needing circumstances to evoke them’ (bk. III, ch. 6). It is Carton rather than Darnay who is ‘drawn to the loadstone rock’. On his last walk around Paris, a passage which Shaw1 cites in the preface to Man and Superman as proof of Dickens's essentially irreligious nature, his thoughts run on religion: ‘I am the Resurrection and the Life.’ But his impressions are all of death: the day comes coldly, ‘looking like a dead face out of the sky’, while on the river ‘a trading boat, with a sail of the softened colour of a dead leaf, then glided into his view, floated by him, and died away’ (bk. III, ch. 9). His walk recalls an earlier night, when he wandered round London with ‘wreaths of dust spinning round and round before the morning blast, as if the desert sand had risen far away and the first spray of it in its advance had begun to overwhelm the city’ (bk. II, ch. 5). Then with the wilderness bringing home to him a sense of the wasted powers within him, he saw a momentary mirage of what he might have achieved and was reduced to tears; but now that the city has been overwhelmed in earnest, he is past thinking of what might have been. ‘It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done’—but the ‘better thing’ might just as well be committing suicide as laying down his life for Darnay. At any rate, he thinks of himself as going towards rest, not towards resurrection. …

Still, A Tale of Two Cities is not a private nightmare, but a work which continues to give pleasure. Dickens's drives and conflicts are his raw material, not the source of his artistic power, and in itself the fact that the novel twists the French Revolution into a highly personal fantasy proves nothing: so, after all, does The Scarlet Pimpernel. Everything depends on the quality of the writing—which is usually one's cue, in talking about Dickens, to pay tribute to his exuberance and fertility. Dickens's genius inheres in minute particulars; later we may discern patterns of symbolism and imagery, a design which lies deeper than the plot, but first we are struck by the lavish heaping-up of acute observations, startling similes, descriptive flourishes, circumstantial embroidery. Or such is the case with every Dickens novel except for the Tale, which is written in a style so grey and unadorned that many readers are reluctant to grant it a place in the Canon at all. Dickens wouldn’t be Dickens if there weren’t occasional touches like the ‘hospital procession of negro cupids, several headless and all cripples', which Mr Lorry notices framing the mirror in his hotel (or the whitewashed cupid ‘in the coolest linen’ on the ceiling of his Paris office, which makes its appearance three hundred pages later). But for the most part one goes to the book for qualities which are easier to praise than to illustrate or examine: a rapid tempo which never lets up from the opening sentence, and a sombre eloquence which saves Carton from mere melodrama. …


But it must be admitted that the Tale is in many ways a thin and uncharacteristic work, bringing the mounting despair of the 1850s to a dead end rather than ushering in the triumphs of the sixties. In no other novel, not even Hard Times, has Dickens's natural profusion been so drastically pruned. Above all, the book is notoriously deficient in humour. …

Contrary to what might be expected, this absence of burlesque is accompanied by a failure to present society in any depth: A Tale of Two Cities may deal with great political events, but nowhere else in the later work of Dickens is there less sense of society as a living organism. Evrémondes and Defarges alike seem animated by sheer hatred; we hear very little of the stock social themes, money, hypocrisy, and snobbery. …

The lack of social density shows up Dickens's melodrama to disadvantage. This is partly a question of length, since in a short novel everything has to be worked in as best it can: Barsad will inevitably turn out to be Miss Pross's long-lost brother, Defarge has to double as Doctor Manette's old servant, and so forth. But there is a deeper reason for feeling more dissatisfaction with the artificial plot here than one does with equally far-fetched situations elsewhere in Dickens. Where society is felt as an all-enveloping force, Dickens is able to turn the melodramatic conventions which he inherited to good use; however preposterous the individual coincidences, they serve an important symbolic function. The world is more of a piece than we suppose, Dickens is saying, and our fates are bound up, however cut off from one another we may appear: the pestilence from Tom-All-Alone's really will spread to the Dedlock mansion, and sooner or later the river in which Gaffer Hexam fishes for corpses will flow through the veneering drawing-room. In a word, we can’t have Miss Havisham without Magwitch. But without a thick social atmosphere swirling round them, the characters of A Tale of Two Cities stand out in stark melodramatic isolation; the spotlight is trained too sharply on the implausibilities of the plot. …

Yet despite the dark mood in which it was conceived, the Tale isn’t a wholly gloomy work; nor is the final impression which it leaves with us one of a wallow of self-pity on the scaffold. We are told of Darnay in the condemned cell (or is it Carton?) that

his hold on life was strong, and it was very, very hard to loosen; by gradual efforts and degrees unclosed a little here, it clenched the tighter there; and when he brought his strength to bear on that hand and it yielded, this was closed again. There was a hurry, too, in all his thoughts, a turbulent and heated working of his heart, that contended against resignation. (bk. III, ch. 13)

And near the end, as Miss Pross grapples with Madame Defarge, Dickens speaks of ‘the vigorous tenacity of love, always so much stronger than hate’. The gruesome events of the book scarcely bear out such a judgment, yet as an article of faith, if not as a statement of the literal truth, it is curiously impressive. For all the sense of horror which he must have felt stirring within him when he wrote A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens remained a moralist and a preacher, and it was his saving strength. But if the author doesn’t succumb with Carton, neither does he escape with Darnay. … Nothing is concluded, and by turning his malaise into a work of art Dickens obtains parole, not release: the prison will soon be summoning him once more.


  1. playwright George Bernard

David Rosen (essay date 1998)

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SOURCE: “A Tale of Two Cities: Theology of Revolution,” in Dickens Studies Annual, Vol. 27, edited by Stanley Friedman, et al, AMS Press, 1998, pp. 171-85.

[In the following essay, Rosen explores the religious imagery surrounding the acts of the revolultionaries in A Tale of Two Cities.]

At the Royal George Hotel in Dover, Mr. Lorry encounters, for the second time in his life, the heroine of the novel.

As his eyes rested on [her], a sudden vivid likeness passed before him, of a child whom he had held in his arms on the passage across that very Channel, one cold time, when the hail drifted heavily and the sea ran high. The likeness passed away, say, like a breath along the surface of the gaunt pier glass behind her, on the frame of which, a hospital procession of negro cupids, several headless and all cripples, were offering baskets of Dead Sea fruit to black divinities of the feminine gender—and he made his formal bow to Miss Manette.1

The moment is epiphanic. Mr. Lorry is not alone in feeling the past's mysterious, even ghostly, influence on the present. The pier glass, which, taken by itself, might suggest simply an innkeeper's fondness for exotic decor, circumscribes Lucie in a particularly sinister manner. The “short, slight, pretty” Frenchwoman, with her “quantity of golden hair, [and] pair of blue eyes” (52), contrasts sharply with the deformed—threatening, perhaps—pagan figures behind her. For an instant, Dickens has raised his action to the level of myth; he has also expressed many of his novel's main concerns in microcosm. His analysis of the French revolution in A Tale of Two Cities operates primarily on two grounds—myth and metaphysics—and his critique of the insurgents is ultimately a religious one. The germs implicit in this passage proliferate in the succeeding narrative.

In The Golden Bough, first published some thirty years after A Tale of Two Cities, Sir James Frazer traces the genesis and morphology of ancient Mediterranean vegetation rites. As Frazer explains, Adonis, Attis, and Osiris were divine or semi-divine figures, whose violent deaths and miraculous rebirths insured the harvest's seasonal decay and growth. Since the fertility of the land was contingent on the well-being of these gods, a complex system of rituals was introduced to insure their strength:

Men now attributed the annual cycle of change primarily to corresponding changes in their deities, … and thought that by performing certain magical rites they could aid the god who was the principle of life, in his struggle with the opposing principle of death. They imagined that they could recruit his failing energies and even raise him from the dead. (324)

Not surprisingly, these rituals typically involved the shedding of human blood, as persons were sacrificed in stead of the god. The Greek cult of Dionysus (the Roman Bacchus) was particularly colorful: like the Egyptian Osiris, Dionysus was cut to pieces by his enemies, only to rise reborn from the earth. His worshippers, often in a state of wild intoxication, would devour their victim (in later years, a bull), after treating him to a similar demise. Frazer discusses the myth of Pentheus, familiar from Euripides' Bacchae:

The [legend of Pentheus' death] may be … [a distorted reminiscence] of a custom of sacrificing divine kings in the character of Dionysus and of dispersing the fragments of their broken bodies over the fields for the purpose of fertilizing them. It is probably no mere coincidence that Dionysus himself is said to have been torn to pieces at Thebes, the very place where according to the legend the same fate befell king Pentheus at the hands of the frenzied votaries of the vinegod. (392)

Dickens, writing long before Frazer, seems to understand both the significance and the enduring power of such rituals; in his hands, the French revolution follows the pattern of pagan fertility rites.

The centuries of aristocratic rule have left France a wasteland. In the most palpable, physical sense, the rapacity of the nobility has emptied the national coffers, and left the countryside barren. The Parisian elite has the “truly noble idea, that the world was made for them. The text of [Monseigneur's order runs] ‘The earth and the fulness thereof are mine, saith Monseigneur’” (135). As a result, the provinces—and the Evrémonde estate in particular—are desolate:

Patches of poor rye where corn should have been, patches of poor peas and beans, patches of most coarse vegetable substitutes for wheat. On inanimate nature, as on the men and women who cultivated it, a prevalent tendency towards an appearance of vegetating unwillingly—a dejected disposition to give up, and wither away. (143-44)

The blight is also spiritual and psychological. By attempting a sort of timeless permanence, and thus denying biology, the aristocratic ethos runs counter to normal, fertile human instinct. Monseigneur's drawing room is a menagerie wherein “charming grandmammas of sixty [dress and sup] as at twenty,” and “it [is] hard to find … one solitary wife, who, in her manners and appearance, [would own] to being a mother” (137). The life of peasants is also unfruitful. In perhaps the novel's cruellest scene, soldiers play upon a common taboo and allow an executed man's blood to run into a village well, knowing that the community will be obliterated: “He is hanged there forty feet high—and is left hanging, poisoning the water. … It is frightful, messieurs. How can the women and children draw water!” (201).2 Within a few years, the Evrémonde estate, formerly in decline, is empty:

Far and wide lay a ruined country, yielding nothing but desolation. Every green leaf, every blade of grass and blade of grain, was as shrivelled and poor as the miserable people. Everything was bowed down, dejected, oppressed and broken. Habitations, fences, domesticated animals, men, women, children, and the soil that bore them—all worn out. … Monseigneur had squeezed and wrung it, … had made edifying spaces of barbarous and barren wilderness. (256-57)

Dickens comments, in an ironic aside, that the aristocracy is “a great means of regeneration” (153); in the most ghoulish and literal sense possible, he is right. Even in their less bloodthirsty moments, the revolutionaries resemble dionysian maenads. The unearthly dance Darnay observes as he enters the country—

After long and lonely spurring over dreary roads, they would come to a cluster of poor cottages, not steeped in darkness, but all glittering with lights, and would find the people, in a ghostly manner in the dead of night, circling hand in hand round a shrivelled tree of Liberty, or all drawn up together singing a Liberty song (278)

—expands later into the Carmagnole, a “dance of five thousand demons” (307). When the mob turns homicidal, its impulse is plainly cannibalistic, with its victims often torn limb from limb. Jacques Three, the most savage of Defarge's cohorts, is at Darnay's second trial a “life-thirsting, cannibal-looking, bloody-minded juror” (345). Later, he relishes the thought of Lucie's beheading: “Ogre that he was, he spoke like an epicure” (388).3 After his first trial, Darnay is astonished by the affection of people who,

carried by another current, would have rushed at him with the same intensity, to rend him to pieces and strew him over the streets (314)

During the La Force massacres, the murderers' “hideous countenances [are] all bloody and sweaty, awry with howling, and all staring with beastly excitement and want of sleep. … Some women [hold] wine to their mouths that they might drink” (291). The “vortex” of the insurgence, naturally enough, is a wine-shop.

The long sequence surrounding the death of Foulon brings the action closest to its primordial roots. As in Euripides' play, the most brutal Bacchantes are women. Dickens's paganism (starting with the Royal George pier-glass) is largely a matriarchal affair; here the reaction of the women to Foulon's discovery bears no trace of civilization (Gilbert 256):

The drum was beating in the streets … and The Vengeance, uttering terrific shrieks, and flinging her arms about her head like all the forty Furies at once, was tearing from house to house, rousing the women. The men were terrible … but the women were a sight to chill the boldest. … They ran out with streaming hair, urging one another, and themselves, to madness with the wildest cries and actions. … With these cries, numbers of the women, lashed into blind frenzy, whirled about, striking and tearing at their own friends until they dropped into a passionate swoon, and were saved only by the men belonging to them from being trampled under foot. (252)

At the height of the delirium, the women's deepest motive comes out:

Give us the blood of Foulon, Give us the head of Foulon, Give us the heart of Foulon, Give us the body and soul of Foulon, Rend Foulon to pieces, and dig him into the ground, so that the grass may grow from him. (252, italics mine)

And so, he is dismembered, and his mouth stuffed with grass. As Dickens puts it, the Terror “has set a great mark of blood upon the blessed garnering time of harvest” (283).

Although pagan in origin, the revolutionaries' acts are disconcertingly close, formally, to Christian sacrament. As Frazer recognizes, both Christianity and vegetation cults commemorate, through the symbolic or literal consuming of flesh and drinking of blood, the sacrifice of a man-god whose death and resurrection have delivered the community (360, 481). Indeed, as the revolution progresses, its practices seem both to parallel and reverse those of Christianity. The first Parisian scene hints already at the confusion to come; the breaking of a wine-cask, at first a cause for celebration, gradually develops ominous, eucharistic overtones:

Those who had been greedy with the staves of the cask, had acquired a tigerish smear about the mouth; and 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.

The insurrection takes hold, and the two fluids become almost interchangeable. At the grindstone, “what with dropping blood, and what with dropping wine, … [all the murderers'] wicked atmosphere seemed gore and fire” (291; Glancy 108-10). By the culmination of the novel, during the terror, the sacrament has been perversely realized. At the scaffold, human “wine” is miraculously transformed into blood; tumbrils “carry the day's wine to La Guillotine” (399). In a brilliant extended metaphor, Dickens compares the Conciergerie's basement to a wine cellar:

The Condemned … gentle born and peasant born; all red wine for La Guillotine, all daily brought into the light from the dark cellars of the loathsome prisons, and carried to her through the street to slake her devouring thirst. (304)

The guillotine, as the official center of revolutionary ritual, is itself of course sanctified. First a “sharp female, newly born” (383), then “canonized” as the “Little Sainte Guillotine” (307), and finally a goddess, the “retributive instrument” (404) replaces the Cross as the symbol of, and means towards, national fruition.

It was the sign of the regeneration of the human race. It superseded the Cross. Models of it were worn on breasts from which the Cross was discarded, and it was bowed down to and believed in where the Cross was denied.

Vegetation myths reach from the rebellion's faith, to annex the forms of Catholic worship (Glancy 117).

While the presence of these myths in the deep structure of Dickens's narrative is beyond dispute, the matter of how they got there is not. Dickens's education was not wide, and as seen, Frazer's revelations were, in 1859, three decades away.4 All attempts to explain this phenomenon—a creative response to the depiction of blasphemy? a strong connection to peasant (or pagan) culture? pure coincidence?—must, with one exception, remain unsubstantiated. The only extant paper-trail, evident as early as the novel's preface, leads to “Mr. Carlyle's wonderful book” (29), The French Revolution. Dickens's reliance on Carlyle for facts and imagery has long been documented; an overwhelming amount of telling detail is transferred intact from one work to the other. Madame Defarge is a near relation to “brown-locked Demoiselle Théroigne” of the “haughty eye and serene fair countenance” (I. 204). Her husband probably corresponds to “Cholat the wine-merchant,” who at the Bastille becomes “an impromptu canoneer” (I. 154-55).5 The broad outlines of Dickens's mythic conception are clearly perceptible, furthermore, in the earlier book. Carlyle, too, recognizes in the revolution's most violent moments the replacement of Christianity by heathen matriarchy. While “sullen is the male heart, … vehement is the female, irrepressible” (I. 200); the women are “dancing Bacchantes” (I. 232), a “menadic host,” possessed by “inarticulate frenzy” (I. 205). During the massacres at La Force, “the doomed man is … [conducted into] a howling sea; forth under an arch of wild sabres, axes and pikes; and sinks, hewn asunder” (II. 152). A basis of the insurgence, Carlyle writes, “seems to be the primitive one of Cannibalism: that I can devour Thee” (I. 44). Civilization, he speculates, may simply be a “wrappage, through which the savage nature … can still burst, infernal as ever” (II. 328). He clearly perceives, finally, in the abolition of Christianity, the possible return to primitive devotion (Baumgarten 168-69). “Man is a born idol-worshipper, sight-worshipper, so sensuous-imaginative is he; and also partakes much of the nature of an ape” (II. 312). And yet, the depth and consistency of Dickens's portrait are hardly explained by Carlyle's history. While Carlyle hits upon ample and natural metaphors to describe savagery—Maenads, Bacchantes, Cannibalism—those metaphors are not unified into a single vision. That much of the Tale's symbolic vocabulary has been drawn from The French Revolution is obvious; its synthesis, however, has not. The intuition that the French are following a particular, ritual, sacrificial pattern, a pattern that both departs from and parallels Christian custom, belongs, it would seem, to Dickens alone.6 Whereas Dickens departs from fact, and portrays pre-revolutionary France as an infertile wasteland, Carlyle assures us that the harvest in 1789 was bountiful (Oddie 80). The connection, so explicit in the novel, between bloodshed and regeneration, is similarly absent from the History. The earlier work fails, finally, to include a strong thematic counter-example to balance the general destruction.

In A Tale of Two Cities, that counter-weight is provided by Sydney Carton. If the revolutionary cult has adopted blasphemously the forms of Catholic sacrament, Carton's life and death follow true Christian typology. Although Carton is obviously a double for Charles Darnay, he has even deeper, if less transparent, affinities to his moral opposite, Madame Defarge. Dickens plants minor details that bind the “catechist” (208) of revolution and its main sacrificial victim together. Besides similar biographies—the traumatic and formative death of a family member, their own violent, parallel deaths—they have similar talents. Both are distinguished by their retentive memories: Stryver's nickname for Carton is “Memory” (118). Carton explains to Darnay the full effect of his dissipation: “The curse of these occasions is heavy on me, for I always remember them” (236). In Paris, he recalls Barsad, whom he has not seen in seventeen years: “You have a face to be remembered, and I remember faces well” (327). Mr. Defarge, similarly, boasts of his wife's mnemonic capabilities: “Jacques, … if madame my wife undertook to keep the register in her memory alone, she would not lose a word of it—not a syllable of it” (202). Both also have the knack of seeming oblivious to their surroundings, while perceiving them minutely (Glancy 80). Just as Carton spends most of Darnay's first trial staring at the Old Bailey's ceiling, yet discerning his own facial similarity to the accused, and moving the narrator to comment, “this Carton took in more of the details of the scene than he appeared to take in” (107), so the hyper-observant Madame Defarge “knitted with nimble fingers and steady eyebrows, and saw nothing” (66). Dickens's technique of portraying ethical opposites as formally analogous bears fruit by novel's end.

The sequence of events immediately preceding (and following) Carton's death tells of spiritual conversion, and emulation of Christ (Hutter 20). Where he spends the first three quarters of the book in dissipation, as, interestingly, a young man of “Bacchanalian propensities” (116), his “fervent and inspiring” (374) behavior at the end, unlike that of the rabble, is not fueled by alcohol:

For the first time in many years, he had no strong drink. Since last night he had taken nothing but a little light thin wine, and last night he had dropped the brandy slowly down on Mr. Lorry's hearth like a man who had done with it. (368)

As he wanders the streets, he contemplates his own demise in Jesus' words from John 11:

I am the resurrection and the life, saith the Lord: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall live: and whosoever liveth and believeth in me, shall never die. (342)

—words that return to him on the scaffold. Shortly before execution, the seamstress comments, “[I should not] have been able to raise my thoughts to Him who was put to death, that we might have hope and comfort here today. I think you were sent to me by Heaven” (402). And indeed, though the guillotine is the profanest of crosses, Carton's death is a sort of crucifixion, occurring, like Jesus', at 3:00 in the afternoon. His final vision even promises a vague second coming: another Sydney Carton will return to this spot, as the “foremost of just judges” (404). Dickens sets the seal on Carton's conversion, at the very moment of death:

The murmuring of many voices, the upturning of many faces, the pressing on of many footsteps in the outskirts of the crowd, so that it swells forward in a mass, like one great heave of water, all flashes away. Twenty-Three.

If the number seems random, one need only recall any Christian funeral:

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff comfort me. (Psalm 23:4)

Sydney Carton manifests the sacramental, sacrificial norm, from which revolutionary paganism has departed (Fielding 200).

This pattern of sacrifice and redemption is repeated, less dramatically, by several other characters. During the La Force massacres, Manette finds that his eighteen years of suffering have allowed him an odd power over the murderers. Miss Pross, who is as willing to give her life for Lucie as Carton is, suffers a similar destiny: her deafness is a variation on his death, and her description of the disaster prefigures his beheading. “There was first a great crash, and then a great stillness, and that stillness seems to be fixed and unchangeable, never to be broken … ” (399). And of course, the novel is saturated with the theme of resurrection. As countless commentators have recognized, Manette, Darnay (twice), Cly and Foulon (ironically) and Jerry Cruncher (satirically) all resemble Carton in this fashion.

The difference between Carton's and Miss Pross's Christ-like sacrifices, and the bloodletting exacted by the revolution is a simple one: the former work, and the latter fails. Carton's death is an effective fertility-rite in the simplest way: he not only saves the lives of Darnay and Lucie, but allows them to have more children (Gilbert 263). The Terror, however, leaves France even more barren than before. Madame Defarge, dedicated to the “extermination” (369) of the entire Evrémonde family, is conspicuously childless. In a moment of high irony, Lucie begs her “as a wife and a mother, … [to] have pity on me and [not] exercise any power that you possess against my innocent husband. … Oh sister-woman, think of me. As a wife and mother!” At that moment, of course, Madame Defarge is contemplating the slaughter of Lucie's daughter. The post-revolutionary landscape is as blasted as ever—“impoverished fields that yielded no fruits of the earth, … diversified by the blackened remains of burnt houses”—and the concluding image of tumbrils cutting through the Paris mob, in a travesty of tillage, is profoundly pessimistic:

As the sombre wheels of the six carts go round, they seem to plough up a long crooked furrow among the populace in the streets. Ridges of faces are thrown up to this side and to that, and the ploughs go steadily onward. (400)

As a means, in the deep pagan sense, of regeneration, the revolution has failed. As foreshadowed at the Royal George Hotel, the revolutionaries have cultivated

Dead Sea fruits, that tempt the eye,
But turn to ashes on the lips.(7)

The failure of the revolution is, of course, ethical; the climactic comic-epic struggle between Madame Defarge and Miss Pross contrasts, in the plainest terms, Christian love and self-sacrifice with pagan blood-lust. As a means towards revitalization, mass murder is inevitably self-defeating: “It was in vain for Madame Defarge to struggle and strike; Miss Pross, with the vigorous tenacity of love, always so much stronger than hate, clasped her tight … ” (397). Dickens's analysis of the revolution's inadequacy is not confined to ethics, however, but pursues the repercussions of myth to the level of metaphysics—specifically, to the questions of time, space, and causation.

Briefly, the book's metaphysic is Augustinian. That is, it maintains an orthodox, Christian distinction between heaven and earth, the latter mutable, flawed and historical, the former eternally perfect (Welsh 118, 147-48). No Dickens novel keeps track of the passage of time quite so obsessively as A Tale of Two Cities. Almost inconsequently, Madame Defarge's mad sister rattles off the numbers on a clock (351), and Carton's party at the scaffold numbers fifty-two, matching the cycle of weeks (Alter 21). The passing seasons are noted minutely, and provide a sort of cantus firmus to the action; just as Darnay's departure for France, the beginning of his long decline, takes place on the longest of days, June 21, 1792 (270), so Madame Defarge's sister dies—spurring the great mechanism of revenge—on the darkest, December 21, 1757 (348). Even a whirling grindstone becomes the perfect metaphor for transience, “the great grindstone, Earth” (293). At the same time, heaven is “an arch of unmoved and eternal lights” (81). No one is as aware as Sydney Carton of the distinction between the two; at the guillotine, he contemplates, with the seamstress, the hereafter:

“Do you think … that it will seem long to me, while I wait for [my sister] in the better land where I trust both you and I will be mercifully sheltered?”

“It cannot be, my child; there is no Time there, and no trouble there.” (403)

By imposing an artificial mythic understanding of history onto national affairs, the revolution effectively ruptures, in two ways, the dichotomy between secular and divine time. First, in the sheer, abrupt violence of their revolt, the revolutionaries attempt to stop and restart history. On the one hand, their course is apocalyptic: the mass sacrifice of an entire class, and the destruction of its property, will definitively end an era. The burning of the Evrémonde estate—and especially the four, pale burners—evokes the Book of Revelation (Alter 18):

Hail-clouds, rolling away, revealed bright bars and streaks of sky. … East, West, North, and South, through the woods, four heavy-treading, unkempt figures crushed the high grass and cracked the branches. … Four lights broke out. … Soon, from a score of the great windows, flames burst forth. … In the roaring and raging of the conflagration, a red-hot wind, driving straight from the infernal regions, seemed to be blowing the edifice away. (259-61)

On the other hand, the sansculottes endeavor to begin time afresh, as at the creation or the flood. Their efforts lead not to renewal, however, but to an odd, static timelessness, an unreal suspension of time:

What private solicitude could rear itself against the deluge of the Year One of Liberty—the deluge rising from below, not falling from above, and with the windows Heaven shut, not opened! There was no pause, no pity, no peace, no interval of relenting rest, no measurement of time. Though days and nights circled as regularly as when time was young, and the evening and morning were the first day, other count of time there was none. (301-02)

Metaphorically, they have turned France into a prison. In much of Dickens's fiction, the state of imprisonment—of lost autonomy—is depicted as one in which the forward motion of time has unnaturally been halted. Both Dorrit and Clennam, in Little Dorrit, lose their sense of duration while incarcerated (hallucinating a return to the Marshalsea, Dorrit's first act is to pawn his watch), and Manette is no different: he “loses” nine days after his daughter's wedding. In retrospect, his life seems “to have been stopped, like a clock, for so many years, and then set going again, with an energy that had lain dormant during the cessation of usefulness” (300). As he enters the country, Darnay perceives exactly what France has become.

Not a mean village closed upon him, not a common barrier dropped across the road behind him, but he knew it to be another iron door in the series that was barred between him and England. 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. … (275)

While ingress into [Paris] … was easy enough, egress, even for the homeliest people, was very difficult. (279)

In a self-defeating way, the stasis of France mimics heaven's permanence.

Second, since the revolutionary myth is an intensely narrative one, the uprising proceeds with a strong sense of providence, of fate: human endeavor falls into channels that have, in effect, been pre-determined. Deeds are realized rather than performed; both individual freedom and personal responsibility are strictly curtailed. If any figure in the novel believes herself an instrument in the hand of destiny, it is Madame Defarge. She is absolutely confident in the eventual fall of the nobility: “Vengeance and retribution require a long time; it is the rule” (207). She does not fear, even, being unable to take part in that fall: “‘Well,’ said Defarge … ‘We shall not see the triumph.’ ‘We shall have helped it,’ returned Madame, ‘Nothing that we do, is done in vain’” (208). Even after the bloodshed has begun, she looks forward to a further fulfillment, in the slaughter of the Evrémondes: [Defarge] “‘At last it is come, my dear!’ ‘Eh well!’ returned madame. ‘Almost’” (256). Her most common gesture is grimly portentous: “[she pointed] her knitting-needle at little Lucie as if it were the finger of Fate” (296), and her very knitting evokes perhaps the Parcae and the Norns, the Greek and Norse spinners of doom: “[Madame Defarge] knitted on with the steadfastness of Fate” (143).8 In the first chapter, Dickens evokes the road as a metaphor for life. Later, he populates it with figures representing destiny. By the penultimate chapter, Madame Defarge has become such an embodiment. Jerry Cruncher and Miss Pross prepare to leave Paris:

Madame Defarge, taking her way through the streets, now drew nearer and nearer to the … lodging.

And still Madame Defarge, pursuing her way through the streets, came nearer and nearer.

Madame Defarge was drawing very near indeed. (391-94)

In a situation so soaked with pre-destination, both free-will and accountability are somewhat trivialized. The irony of Madame Defarge's life is that she is committing at least as great a crime as the Evrémondes' by having Charles Darnay, whose deeds bear no relation to his punishment, who in fact has risked his life for her sake, executed.

The opposite view of individual enterprise is assumed, quite naturally, by Sydney Carton. If Madame Defarge sees everywhere the operations of fate, Carton is well aware of chance, and treats personal behavior as a series of educated wagers. This is especially the case as he nears his end, and his life, formerly aimless, acquires a sense of purpose. The novel is saturated with gambling, symbolic and otherwise: the French wine shops are populated by domino and dice players; Jerry Cruncher's term for the Common Era is “Anna Dominoes: apparently under the impression that the Christian era dated from the invention of a popular game, by a lady who bestowed her name on it” (85). Darnay, sentenced to death, has “drawn a prize in the lottery of Sainte Guillotine” (383). Most importantly, existence seems a card game, and people cards to be hazarded and lost. We might read the book's second paragraph—

There was a king with a large jaw and a queen with a plain face, on the throne of England; there was a king with a large jaw and a queen with a fair face, on the throne of France (35)

—or indeed encounter the “Joker” Gaspard, without batting an eyelash, but by book III, chapter 8, appropriately entitled “A Hand at Cards,” the metaphor has become deadly earnest. Here Carton blackmails Barsad (and Cly), in order to save Darnay and his family. His opponent is untrustworthy, having both “[cheated] at dice, [living] by play” (98), and squandered his sister's possessions on speculation (126-27). As the title of the next chapter indicates, “the game is made.” Unlike Madame Defarge, Carton is a figure of free agency, who makes his own destiny, and knows himself answerable (to put it mildly!) for his decisions. The number of prisoners executed at the end of the novel, 52, evokes not only the weeks of the year, but also a deck of cards—a brilliant metaphor for shared fortune, and a reminder of common mortality.

The novel justifies Carton's outlook, without quite slighting the question of destiny. In a letter written shortly after composing the Tale, Dickens suggests that fiction should aspire to imitate the workings of providence. Indeed, intimations of the divine will seem to permeate the text. (Letters [W. Collins] 3:124-25) Foulon's capture:

At length the sun rose so high that it struck a kindly ray as of hope or protection, directly down upon the old prisoner's head. The favour was too much to bear; in an instant … St. Antoine had got him! (253)

Individuals are entirely free in, and responsible for, their own actions—actions that yield necessary, providential consequences (Oddie 65-66). Beginning the final chapter, Dickens returns, for the last time, to the image of growth, to express this point:

All the devouring and insatiate Monsters imagined since imagination could record itself, are fused in the one realisation, Guillotine. And yet, there is not in France a blade, a leaf, … which will grow to maturity under conditions more certain than those that have produced this horror. Crush humanity out of shape once more, under similar hammers, and it will twist itself into the same tortured forms. Sow the same seed of rapacious license and oppression over again, and it will surely yield the same fruit according to its kind. (339)

And so, Carton, in his limited way, defeats the purpose of the revolution (to slaughter the Evrémondes), and is able to change the world for the better. In a book so concerned with injustice and judicial reform, it is important that the Darnay's unborn son shall engage successfully in that pursuit. Conversely, the revolution, in its hubris, has managed only to repeat the crimes of aristocracy, barbarism for barbarism (Kukich 67). Dickens's seemingly casual observation in book II chapter 8, that “the watching towers of Notre Dame, almost equidistant from the two extremes, could see … both [Monseigneur's rooms and St. Antoine]” (136, italics mine), proves prophetic; by the end, the insurgents and nobles have sinned equally. Perhaps no single incident better illustrates the novel's attitudes towards fatalism and autonomy than the culminating deaths of Madame Defarge and Sydney Carton. While the former, so confident of her destiny, dies, as it were, by mischance, the latter's end has an air of fulfillment. Dickens explains this ironic reversal in his correspondence with John Forster:

I am not clear … respecting the canon of fiction which forbids the interposition of accident in such a case of Madame Defarge's death. Where accident is inseparable from the passion and action of the character, … it seems to me to become, as it were, an act of divine justice. [I oppose] her mean death, instead of a desperate one in the streets, which she wouldn’t have minded, to the dignity of Carton's. Wrong or right, this was all design, and seemed to me to be in the fitness of things (Letters 3:117)

Early into the book's composition, Dickens boasted to Forster, “I have got exactly the name for the story that is wanted; exactly what will fit the opening to a T. A Tale of Two Cities” (Letters 3:95) And yet, the title is only partly applicable to Paris and London. England, despite escaping revolution, is depicted as uncomfortably similar to France; indeed, if the novel's first paragraph signifies anything, it is that not much has changed in the succeeding seventy years. The English are as potentially “orgeish” as their counterparts across the channel:

The form that was to be doomed [i.e., Darnay] to be so shamefully mangled, was the sight; the immortal creature that was to be so butchered and torn asunder, yielded the sensation. Whatever gloss the various spectators put upon the interest, … the interest was, at the root of it, Ogreish. (93)

In action, similarly, the British mob yields little in mindless destructiveness to the Parisians:

The crowd being under the necessity of providing … entertainment for itself … conceived the humor of impeaching casual passers-by … and wreaking vengeance on them. … Some score of inoffensive souls … were roughly hustled and maltreated. The transition to the sport of window-breaking, and thence to the plundering of public-houses, was easy and natural. At last … sundry summer-houses [were] pulled down, and some area railings pulled up, to arm the more belligerent spirits. … This was the usual progress of a mob. (187-88)

If justice is suspended during the terror, the English over-extension of capital punishment is hardly preferable: the gallows “[took] today the life of an atrocious murderer, and to-morrow of a wretched pilferer who had robbed a farmer's boy of sixpence” (37). After Darnay is condemned in Paris, the narrator calls it an immolation “on the people's altar”—exactly the phrase he’d used at the Old Bailey: “[Barsad] had resolved to immolate the traitor … on the sacred altar of his country” (96). As a sign of differentiation, the title hardly applies to the French and English capitals.

Rather it draws on a familiar trope introduced by Augustine—a trope so familiar that the title can hardly not evoke it—the two cities of man and God (Welsh 57). The earthly sphere is an ethical one, and in this book, a Christian one, in which Biblical typology is fully operative; free agency is a gift and a responsibility. By introducing a counter-myth into their revolution, the French are guilty of all sorts of blasphemy, from the immorality of their bloodlust, through the open sacrilege of their co-opting Christian forms to express this immorality, to their arrogant, and ultimately stultifying attempt to collapse the dialectic between an historical world, and the eternal, providential heaven beyond.


  1. All page references to Charles Dickens. A Tale of Two Cities, ed. George Woodcock, London: Penguin, 1970.

  2. Ewald Mengel discusses the blood Taboo in “The Poisoned Fountain: Dickens's use of a Traditional Symbol in A Tale of Two Cities,Dickensian 80, part 1 (Spring, 1984): 29. See also Frazer 227–30.

  3. John Gross, “A Tale of Two Cities,” Dickens and the Twentieth Century, ed. John Gross and Gabriel Pearson (Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1962) 193.

  4. The details of Dickens' education are recounted in John Forster, The Life of Charles Dickens, ed. J. W. T. Ley (London: Cecil Palmer, 1928) Book I.

  5. Michael Goldberg, Carlyle and Dickens (Athens: of Georgia P, 1972) 118-19. This book best enumerates the many details transferred from The French Revolution to A Tale of Two Cities.

  6. Michael Timko, “Splendid Impressions and Picturesque Means: Dickens, Carlyle and The French Revolution,” Dickens Studies Annual 12 (1983): 181.

  7. Thomas Moore, Lalla Rookh, pt. V.

  8. See n-2, Mengel 28.

Works Cited

Alter, Robert. “The Demons of History in Dickens's Tale,” in Charles Dickens's “A Tale of Two Cities”: Modern Critical Interpretations, ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House, 1987.

Baumgarten, Murray. “Writing the Revolution.” Dickens Studies Annual 12 (1983): 168-69.

Carlyle, Thomas. The French Revolution. London: Dent, 1980.

Dickens, Charles. The Letters of Charles Dickens. Ed. Walter Dexter. Bloomsbury: Nonesuch, 1938.

Fielding, Kenneth J. Charles Dickens: A Critical Interpretation. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1958.

Frazer, James. The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion. 1890; abr. ed., New York: Macmillan, 1934.

Gilbert, Elliot L. “‘To Awake from History’: Carlyle, Thackeray, and A Tale of Two Cities.” Dickens Studies Annual 12 (1983).

Glancy, Ruth. “A Tale of Two Cities”: Dickens's Revolutionary Novel. Boston: Twayne, 1991.

Hutter, Albert D. “The Novelist as Resurrectionist: Dickens and the Dilemma of Death.” Dickens Studies Annual 12 (1983).

Kukich, John. “The Purity of Violence.” In Bloom: see Alter.

Oddie, William. Dickens and Carlyle: The Question of Influence. London: Centenary P, 1972.

Welsh, Alexander. The City of Dickens. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1968.


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