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A Tale of Two Cities

by Charles Dickens

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What are the major themes in "A Tale of Two Cities"?

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One of the major themes in this novel is sacrifice/selflessness. This is exemplified in the heroic figure of Sydney Carton who at the end of the story allows himself to be executed in the place of Charles Darnay, the husband of the girl he loves.

Another major theme is that of resurrection, or redemption. Carton gives up his physical life but might be said to be spiritually reborn in doing this; in fact he appears almost as a Christ-like figure in this supreme act of self-sacrifice in order to save others. The theme of resurrection is also related to the character of Dr Manette, who is released from a long and unjust imprisonment in the first book of the novel, which is actually entitled 'Recalled to Life'. More fundamentally, this theme could be said to relate to the French Revolution as a whole. The revolution were often grim and bloody, as depicted in this book, but in Carton's closing vision he sees these terrible events as hopefully paving the way for a better, more just society. In this way the Revolution is seen to mark the death of one world and the birth of another.


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What are the themes in A Tale of Two Cities?

One of the major and most important themes in A Tale of Two Cities is the dichotomy of London and Paris; where London is calm and peaceful, Paris is chaotic and deadly.

The French Revolution was a horrible time for people in the novel. There was danger on the streets, upheaval in the government, and only the wealthy were able to leave easily. Thousands of people in France were killed. The book doesn't imply that everyone who dies is a good person—many of the aristocrats in France did terrible things to the lower classes. But it's clear that even good people could be swept up in the chaos. Darnay himself never hurt anyone but is still on trial for treason and sentenced to death.

In comparison, England was peaceful. Despite the problems Darnay faced there, he believed it to be a better option than his home in Paris. Darnay wouldn't have left if he hadn't felt compelled to save his servant who was captured by the revolutionaries. This is what led to his imprisonment and trial. Because Carton was willing to sacrifice himself in place of Darnay, it was possible for Darnay and his family to return to England and find the peace that wasn't possible in France. England is always the dream of people who are caught up in the bloodshed and turmoil of the French Revolution in the novel. However, it isn't perfect—it's just a counterpoint to France.

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What is a major theme in A Tale of Two Cities?

Sacrifice is another very important theme in the book. Dr. Manette sacrifices eighteen years of his life inside the hellhole of the Bastille in order to maintain his integrity and to do the right thing. Charles Darnay sacrifices a life of ease and comfort in turning his back on his aristocratic background. The French people as a whole, in carrying out a revolution, show themselves willing to sacrifice their lives to bring down a hated, unjust system of government. Last, but not least, we have the ultimate sacrifice—Sydney Carton sacrificing his own life for the sake of a friend and his family.

In all these cases, sacrifice causes immediate pain and suffering; in the case of Sydney Carton, it leads to death. But in the long run, all the various sacrifices made ultimately conduce to the greater good. Dickens is suggesting that individuals are not simply the playthings of history—not just puppets controlled by strange, cosmic forces that they do not understand. They are human beings and, as such, endowed with free will. Making sacrifice is the ultimate expression of that free will, one that allows us to step outside the swirling, ceaseless flux of history and achieve a perspective from the standpoint of eternity.

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What is a major theme in A Tale of Two Cities?

An important theme is resurrection.  There are several “ressurectionists” in the story.  These are people who bring others back to life, figuratively speaking.

The theme is introduced early on in Book 1: “Recalled to Life.”  The title refers to Dr. Manette being released from prison and figuratively brought back from life.  A humorous and satirical reference to resurrection is found in the character of Jerry Cruncher, who jokes that recalling to life would be bad for business, because he is a grave robber!

Much of that wouldn’t do for you, Jerry! I say, Jerry! You’d be in a Blazing bad way, if recalling to life was to come into fashion, Jerry!” (1:3, p. 9)

The strongest examples of resurrection are Lucie Manette drawing Sydney Carton out, because he falls in love with her and desires to be a better man, and Carton returning the favor by bringing her husband back to life when he trades places with him at the end.

“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.” (3: 15, p. 241)

The novel is really about second chances.  Dr. Manette gets a second chance at knowing his daughter.  Sydney Carton gets a second chance at happiness.  Lucie and Charles get a second chance at being a family when Carton trades places with Darnay so he can live.

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What is the overall theme of Book One of A Tale of Two Cities?

The prevailing theme of Book One of A Tale of Two Cities is death and resurrection.

Each of the chapters of Book One center on Jarvis Lorry’s attempt to bring Dr. Manette back from the dead.  Each chapter reinforces the theme of resurrection.  In chapter 1, we are introduced to the troubling state of England and France at this time.  France was dying, and about to be reborn through revolution.

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 epoch of incredulity (1:1, p. 4)

As the book continues, we finally get introduced to characters.  We meet two resurrectionists: Jarvis Lorry and Jerry Cruncher.  Cruncher is a grave robber, so the term ressurectionist is applied to him ironically.  Jarvis Lorry, on the other hand, is about to rescue Dr. Manette from prison.  It is not an easy task, and he is worried that Manette may not want to go, or that reuniting him with his daughter will be difficult.  Dr. Manette is being reborn, his relationship with his daughter is being reborn, and Jarvis Lorry is being reborn too.  He is just a lonely bachelor, but he will become so close to the Manettes that it is almost like having a family.

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