illustration of a guillotine

A Tale of Two Cities

by Charles Dickens

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Significant Allusions

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Last Updated on July 9, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 696

Dickens employs a number of biblical, historical, and literary allusions in A Tale of Two Cities. These allusions enable him to express apprehension about the post-Enlightenment emphasis on logic over religious values, the depraved state of the upper class, and the danger of mass rage. 

Biblical Allusions: Like many Victorian authors, Charles Dickens regularly used biblical allusions. In A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens’s use of biblical allusions suggests a deep ambivalence about the fate of humanity in the absence of religion. However, the biblical allusions Dickens employs ultimately suggest that humankind is not necessarily destined for a dismal fate in the wake of the Enlightenment. Here are two of the novel’s most prominent biblical allusions: 

  • At the beginning of the novel, Jesus Christ’s resurrection is established as a key overarching allusion. According to the New Testament, God raised Jesus from the dead three days after he was put to death by the Romans. Before ascending into heaven, Jesus appeared before his closest followers to reveal the prophecy of his death, resurrection, and the subsequent pardon of humanity’s sins. Until Christ’s death and resurrection, God condemned every human soul to Hell as punishment for the disobedience of Adam and Eve. However, following Christ’s sacrifice, humans can reach heaven if they attain the grace of God. Each primary male character in A Tale of Two Cities seems to experience some degree of resurrection, from Dr. Manette’s liberation after years of imprisonment to Jerry Cruncher’s odd side profession as a “Resurrection Man.” It is Sydney Carton’s conveyal to the guillotine, however, that most directly pulls from the story of Christ’s crucifixion in the New Testament. 
  • The novel’s apprehension about the fate of post-Enlightenment humanity is in part expressed by allusions to the act of original sin, from the Book of Genesis, and to the Book of Ecclesiastes 3. In the Book of Genesis, Adam and Eve were the first humans ever to be created. Though initially innocent and obedient, they disobeyed God’s express orders to not eat fruit from the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden. God banished them from Eden and all human nature was subsequently corrupted by sin. Though never stated directly, the inevitable degradation of society following the Enlightenment may be interpreted as a parallel to the Fall—the understanding of good and evil that marked the end of innocence— after Adam and Eve eats the forbidden fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. Dickens suggests that humanity’s subsequent suffering serves a “purpose under heaven.” 

Historical Allusions: Given that A Tale of Two Cities is set in London and Paris both before and during the French Revolution, there are many historical allusions as the plot unfolds. Here are two of the most important ones: 

  • Tellson’s Bank, where Jarvis Lorry and Jerry Cruncher work, was probably Child & Co., a bank that used to be on Fleet Street in London. It was one of the oldest banks in the United Kingdom. Tellson’s Bank, which has a London and Paris branch, is a key symbol in A Tale of Two Cities because it links the two cities together and strongly suggests that England may suffer the same fate as France if oppressive class divisions are not addressed. Tellson’s Bank also seems to represent the outdated, stuffy, and corrupt class divisions that were so oppressive to the lower classes in both countries. 
  • The social circumstances leading to the French Revolution are a major part of the plot, especially the abject poverty of the French peasantry and the entitlement and corruption of the French aristocracy. The growing social unrest culminates in the Storming of the Bastille, which Dickens describes in graphic detail. He also alludes to a number of historical events, including the 1792 September Massacres in Paris, the Indian Rebellion of 1857, and the storming of the Palace of Versailles in 1789. 
  • There are references to historical figures, such as the Italian poet Dante Alighieri, the British Kings George III and Charles II from the House of Stuart, the French King Louis- Auguste and Queen Marie-Antoinette. 

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