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A Tale of Two Cities

by Charles Dickens

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Exploring the theme of duality in A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens


The theme of duality in A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens is explored through contrasts such as London and Paris, the characters of Charles Darnay and Sydney Carton, and the concepts of resurrection and sacrifice. These dualities highlight the complexities of human nature and the social upheavals of the French Revolution.

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What are specific examples of dualities in A Tale of Two Cities?

Dickens begins the novel with antithesis, comparing London and England.  In this case, he is drawing the reader to the concept of dualities from the start.  He continues by describing many dualities.  Here are some examples.  The novel explores opposite concepts and opposite characters

Character Foils

A foil is a character who exists to present contrast.  Consider  the “honest tradesman” Jerry Cruncher, who is a resurrectionist because he is a grave robber.  His despicable nature serves in direct contrast to the humble and responsible Jarvis Lorry, who is also a resurrectionist because he brings Dr. Manette back to life.  Then of course there are the “twins” Sydney Carton and Charles Darnay, who are opposites in many ways.  Carton is irresponsible, while Darnay is responsible.  Carton is brilliant, while Darnay does some pretty dumb things.

Love and Hate

Thematically, love and hate are constantly contrasted in the novel.  The novel is really a novel about love.  Lucie and Charles Darnay, Lucie and her father, and Sydney Carton and Lucie are all relationships based on love.  All are reciprocated except the last, of course.  Yet we also have strong hate.  Consider the Defarges, especially Madame Defarge.  Dr. Manette even battles between love and hate within himself.

Sanity and Insanity

Dr. Manette is constantly teetering on the edge of insanity.  His years in prison have left him broken, and he tries desperately to maintain his mind out of love for his daughter, but he often relapses when his emotions get the most of him.  Similarly, Madame Defarge is not well, and Vengeance is even less stable.

Responsibility and Desire

There are many characters that want one thing, yet need another.  Carton can barely avoid drinking himself to death, but he pulls himself out of it when he needs to.  He has to do his job, because Stryver cannot do it.  He also loves Lucie, but does not act on it because he knows she loves Charles.  Charles, likewise, wants to remain in England and separate himself from his family, but in reality this is impossible.  He is the Marquis St. Evremonde when his uncle dies, whether he likes it or not.

Life and Death

Throughout the novel, the concepts of life and death are juxtaposed—and not always literally.  We have the revolution, which is the rebirth of a country, accomplished with bloody death.  Darnay brings life to his family by marrying Lucie and having a daughter, but brings them to their doom because he cannot escape his past.  Then there is the resurrection theme, as mentioned above.

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How is the theme of duality evident in A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens?

The theme of duality in A Tale of Two Cities is best seen in Dickens's respective portrayals of England and Revolutionary France. England is presented as a place of stability and peace, where good order and the rule of law prevail. Revolutionary France, on the other hand, is mired in chaos, bloodshed, and constant upheaval.

That's not to say that Dickens is a thoroughgoing jingoist; the trumped-up charge of treason leveled against Charles Darnay hardly redounds to the credit of the English criminal justice system. But even here it's notable that Darnay still ends up being acquitted, something that doesn't happen—and indeed could never happen—when he's hauled up before a Revolutionary tribunal later on in the story. It's notable too that an Englishman, Sydney Carton, ends up saving the life of a Frenchman, Charles Darnay. In the dualistic world-view presented here, one could see this as symbolic of Dickens's belief that English values offer the French a way out of their general malaise.

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How is the theme of duality evident in A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens?

In A Tale of Two Cities, the theme of duality is most present in both the contrast and comparison between Paris and London, and Charles Darnay and Sydney Carton.

Paris is presented as a hotbed of chaos and violence. Savagery reigns and blood runs through the streets beneath the guillotine. This is contrasted with the ordered, more peaceful London, where the social order is presented as in balance.

Charles and Sydney are two men who physically resemble one another, but are polar opposites in manner. Charles is kind and a gentleman, while Sydney is a self-loathing alcoholic. Charles is loved by many people, while Sydney inspires pity at best. In a strange way, these two men are halves of the same individual. Sydney cannot be whole until he becomes more like Darnay by becoming a hero, dying to save Charles and the happiness of Lucie Manette.

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How is the theme of duality evident in A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens?

A duality in literature refers to two opposing parts of the same whole. For example, good and evil are the two opposing parts of human beings. There are several dualities in Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities

The book starts by presenting a series of dualities:

"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 epoch of belief, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair" (page 3).

These dualities are meant to represent the duality of the French Revolution, which is both hopeful in its intent to curb the excesses of the French monarchy, yet it also brings despair with its turn to excessive bloodshed. 

At the beginning of the book, there is an explicit contrast between the duality of England and France. Dickens writes, "Spiritual revelations were conceded to England at that favored period" (page 3). Later, Dickens writes that "France [was] less favored on the whole as to matters spiritual than her sister of the shield and trident" (page 3). As France becomes embroiled in the chaos and bloodshed of the French Revolution, England remains the land of peace and a refuge from France. Charles Darnay must leave France and live in England to escape from his family's evil reputation as French aristocrats. 

Similarly, Sydney Carton and Charles Darnay are also presented as dualities. They are "so like each other in feature, so unlike each other in manner" (page 54). They look so similar as to be mistaken for each other, but they are different  in that Carton is disliked and disreputable, while Darnay is respected and adored (particularly by Lucie Manette). In the end, when Carton saves Darnay, Carton becomes good, and the two sides of this duality are reconciled. 

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How is the theme of duality evident in A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens?

In A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, Dickens outlines the duality and contrasts between England and France at the time. More specifically, he outlines the duality between Paris and London. The title, in fact, hints that Dickens will present the story of two cities. He establishes the parallelism and duality between the two cities at the very beginning of the novel:

It was the best of times,
it was the worst of times,
it was the age of wisdom,
it was the age of foolishness...

If it was the best of times, how could it simultaneously be the worst of times? We know that Dickens is writing about these two cities at the time of the French Revolution. It was the best of times in London perhaps, but it was the worst of times in Paris, where chaos reigned. Dickens writes, “Along the Paris streets, the death-carts rumble, hollow and harsh.”

Describing the respective monarchies, Dickens sets up the two cities as near mirror images of one another:

There were a king with a large jaw and a queen with a plain face, on the throne of England; there were a king with a large jaw and a queen with a fair face, on the throne of France. In both countries it was clearer than crystal to the lords of the State preserves of loaves and fishes, that things in general were settled for ever.

Dickens also writes, “we had everything before us, we had nothing before us.” If you lived in London and came from a certain economic background, you had everything before you. However, if you lived in Paris and came from that same economic background, you had nothing before you but the prospect of prison or death.

While London is contrasted with the chaos of Paris, the prisons in both cities seem equally difficult to endure. Darnay and Doctor Manette discuss the Tower (of London). Darnay was imprisoned there, he recalls “with a smile, though reddening a little angrily.” Similarly, Doctor Manette was imprisoned in the Bastille, and it drove him mad for a while.

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How is the theme of duality evident in A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens?

There seem to be dualities and similarities between England and France. Both countries have monarchs and landed aristocracy, yet a number of differences set them apart. London stands for calm and order. Even though the poor in London suffer disproportionately to the rich, there is still due process of law, and even cruel sentences are not capricious. France, by contrast, stands for chaos. The same inequality between rich and poor exists, but the French aristocracy is not restrained from doing whatever comes into their minds. When the marquis runs over and kills the peasant child, the people of the village have no recourse.

Two revolutions are mentioned in this story, and they both illustrate the difference between England and France. The American Revolution does not affect life in London. Aside from his comment that "messages...had lately come to the English Crown and people from a congress of British subjects in America which have proved...important to the human race," Dickens does not speak of the American Revolution directly again. That struggle was initially carried out after orderly petitions to the Crown by people accustomed to an orderly way of life. The French Revolution was a result of centuries of oppression. There was little planning for what would come after a successful overthrow. The revolution convulsed Paris with mob violence and gruesome public executions. It took the reign of Napoleon to finally bring a stable government to France.

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How is the theme of duality evident in A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens?

The title of the novel signals the importance of two cities—London and Paris—during the French Revolution in the late eighteenth century. London represents calm and order in contrast to the overflow of violence and mayhem in revolutionary Paris. 

The Manettes's home in London most fully represents safety and happiness. There Dickens illustrates a major theme across his writing: that good, kind people treating others well are the surest basis of a humane society.

In Paris, on the other hand, tensions have long been simmering due to wealth inequality and the brutal exploitation of the poor by the rich. Dickens does not shy away from condemning the cruelty of the wealthy aristocrats. The marquis becomes a caricature of cruelty in his determination to keep peasants down and in his indifference at running over and killing a peasant child. Additionally, Dickens deplores the mob violence and bloodshed that erupts into revolution, including the barbarity of murdering the wealthy in their beds, and the seemingly endless working of guillotine.

The novel is also a cautionary tale for the English: unless the privileged in London change their hearts and actions, there is no guarantee similar violence will not erupt there.

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How is the theme of duality evident in A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens?

The duality of Paris (the capital city of France) and London (the capital city of England), comparing and contrasting the nature of the two cities, presents a foundational theme of the novel—order versus chaos. London is portrayed as a place of safety and peace. Its society is well-ordered and purposeful, personified in the character of Jarvis Lorry, the banker. There are rules to be followed, regardless of personal choice. Although the novel is set during the American Revolution, the war does not affect the life of the average person in London. All life goes on as usual, with the surface of society seeming to be unruffled.

In Paris, chaos is erupting on all levels. The nobility is desperately sheltering itself from the troubles of the poor, while the poor are beginning to simmer, ready to boil over. There is no peace, even though the beginning of the story depicts the people as living in their misery with no outward confrontation. This is especially personified in the characters of Monsieur and Madame Defarge as they talk of the change that is sure to come when the time is right. The breaking point is finally reached and the revolution breaks out, destroying poor and rich alike. The chaos leaks into London, but only in the sense of the nobility seeking shelter and protection. Charles Darnay and the others must willingly enter the chaos of the French Revolution, breaking through the symbolic barrier of peace separating the two cities.

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How is the theme of duality evident in A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens?

Dualities in A Tale of Two Cities serve to point to the similarities of internal problems in England and France as well as developing themes and characterization.

From the opening of this classic novel on, there are presentations of dualities. With thesis and antithesis, Charles Dickens points to the similarities between England and France in the opening chapter, as he compares the king of England with the king of France while the Woodman, symbolic of the guillotine, and the Farmer, symbolic of the peasants who stormed the Bastille, work unheeded.

Some characters act as dualities, as well, as Dickens often places an English character in contrast to a French one:

  • Sydney Carton -- Charles Darnay (Evremonde)

The brilliant, but dissipated, Carton sees in noble Darnay what he could have been, and he is inspired by his idealized love for Lucie Manette to redeem himself through self-sacrifice. "For you and for any dear to you, I would do anything," he declares to Lucie in Chapter 13 of Book the Second. In the end, Carton finds redemption after he replaces Darnay in the prison and goes to the guillotine in place of Charles Evremonde (Darnay), who escapes with his family to England.

  • Mr. Lorry -- Dr. Manette

The "man of business," as he describes himself, is often in sharp contrast to the delusional and irrational Dr. Manette. Often, too, he lends a sympathetic ear and moral support to Lucie and the weakened physician.

Mr. Lorry is a loyal and sensible friend to Dr. Manette as, for instance, after Manette learns the real identity of Charles Darnay on his and Lucie's wedding day, the physician has a relapse and pulls out his shoe-making kit.

After this relapse, Mr. Lorry consults with Dr. Manette about a "friend" who has resorted to working on his occupation, an activity from a time in his life that should be put behind him. Dr. Manette suggests destroying that which he occupies himself, and he agrees to its destruction if the object can be taken from him when he is not around.

  • Dr. Manette -- Manette

In a sense, Manette is a duality himself. He is the imprisoned man, who has spent many years in the Bastille. On the other hand, he is a man who has been rescued from a living death, who sometimes loses his hold upon life and regresses to his old occupation when he was in prison.  

  • Lucie Manette -- Madame Defarge

The stereotypical Victorian heroine, Lucie is kind and loving while, in contrast, Therese Defarge is a malevolent force. Lucie stands outside her husband's prison window so that he may see her. She also brings out the best in Sydney Carton, motivating him to sacrifice himself on the guillotine for Charles so that he may leave France with his family:

"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."

On the other hand, Madame Defarge is a force of evil, knitting the names of her victims into the material that she fashions. Consumed by the desire for revenge against the French aristocracy, particularly the Evremonde family, who are responsible for the deaths of her sister and brother, Madame Defarge pursues Charles Darnay in her effort to annihilate the aristocrats. When her husband suggests that she be merciful to Dr. Manette because of the anguish of his daughter, Madame Defarge insists that the Evremondes are summoned to answer for the things they have done to her family. Guilt lies on Dr. Manette because he aided the Evremonde brothers. She tells Monsieur Defarge,

Then tell the Wind and Fire where to stop,...but don't tell me."

Madame Defarge is certainly a classic villain in her singleness of intent for vengeance, just as Sydney Carton is the redemptive hero. The contrasts of such characters and others in the motif of dualities certainly provide a strong effect for A Tale of Two Cities.

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