illustration of a guillotine

A Tale of Two Cities

by Charles Dickens

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Last Updated on August 7, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1625

Charles Darnay and Sydney Carton as Foils: Compare and contrast the character traits of Charles Darnay and Sydney Carton. Charles Darnay is hard-working, courageous, and kind, but is ultimately sentenced to death for his family’s crimes. Sydney Carton is lazy, cowardly, and unfriendly, but manages to redeem himself by sacrificing his life for Lucie’s happiness. 

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  • For discussion: Follow Charles’s and Sydney’s predominant character traits throughout the novel, especially in relation to the context of the plot. How does each character respond to conflicts? 
  • For discussion: At the end of the novel, what do Charles’s and Sydney’s actions suggest about destiny, fate, and the (in)escapability of our pasts? 

Theme of Resurrection: A Tale of Two Cities frequently alludes to the possibility of resurrection, often from a figurative standpoint. For example, Dr. Manette is resurrected when he is “recalled to life” after more than a decade of imprisonment, Jerry Cruncher “resurrects” dead bodies in order to sell them for scientific research, and Charles Darnay is “resurrected” twice through rescues by Sydney Carton. Sydney Carton’s resurrection, which involves sacrificing himself to save Charles Darnay and his family in the hopes that his name will be reborn in their son, strongly alludes to Jesus Christ’s resurrection—one of the novel’s most prominent biblical allusions. 

On a larger scale, the novel seems to suggest that even the people of France will experience their own resurrection after the revolution ends; the revolutionaries will eventually kill each other, and order will be restored. 

  • For discussion: What evidence can you find to support the novel’s repeated notion that humankind is degraded, corrupt, and headed for inevitable doom? What seem to be society’s main offenses? 
  • For discussion: Why did Dickens choose Sydney Carton to be a Christ-like figure and not Charles Darnay? What are some of Sydney’s character traits that suggest he is a fitting choice? 
  • For discussion: According to the novel, how could the violence of the French Revolution justify the creation of a better society? Why might Dickens suggest this, especially after showing the hypocrisy and problems of the revolution? 

Theme of the Inherent Oppressiveness of Revolution: Though the novel sympathizes with the impoverished, oppressed French peasants, it does not seem to endorse the French Revolution. The peasants are no less starved after they revolt, and mass paranoia during the Reign of Terror lead to the beheadings of many innocent peasants suspected of treason. 

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  • For discussion: What alternative strategies does the novel suggest for bringing about social change? Why might these strategies be better than a revolution or violent social uprising?

Lucie Manette and Madame Defarge as Foils: Compare and contrast the character traits of Lucie Manette and Madame Defarge. Madame Defarge is one of the major figures of the French Revolution. She is integral to the mobilizing of the “Jacques” and often appears to be the mastermind behind revolutionary plots. Lucie Manette, on the other hand, is a stereotypically pure Victorian woman: dutiful as a daughter and wife, submissive, meek, helpful, and self-sacrificing. 

  • For discussion: Make a list of the predominant character traits of Lucie Manette and Madame Defarge. Though Lucie is portrayed as good and Madame Defarge is portrayed as a villain, which woman is more empowered? Why do you think so? To what extent is empowerment considered positive or negative in the novel? 

Madame Defarge’s Knitting: Prior to the eruption of the French Revolution, Madame Defarge is often found knitting in the background. She knits in the wine shop, pretending not to overhear the plans and schemes of the “Jacques.” She is also knitting when the Marquis Evrémonde cruelly runs over and kills a peasant child with his carriage. We learn that she is using a secret code to “register” the names of condemned aristocrats in her scarves. Discuss the symbolic significance of her knitting, both in the context of her family’s oppression by the Evrémondes and in the broader cultural context of class divisions. 

  • For discussion: Why is it important that Madame Defarge, as opposed to her husband or any other character, is the keeper of the registry of condemned aristocrats? 
  • For discussion: What does Madame Defarge’s “registering” suggest about the novel’s positions on Original Sin and the fate of humankind in post-Enlightenment Europe? 

Wine, Intoxication, and Revolutionary Sentiment: Dickens repeatedly foreshadows the French Revolution by using the symbols of red wine and public intoxication. Examine the scene in book 2, chapter 5 wherein a large cask of wine breaks in the streets of Saint Antoine. 

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Latest answer posted March 28, 2012, 8:10 am (UTC)

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  • For discussion: What does the mass frenzy suggest about the human impact of war and revolution? Why is it important that the peasants, who were going about their daily tasks when the cask broke, are suddenly obsessed with drinking up the spilled wine? 


Tricky Issues to Address While Teaching

Victorian Prose Style: Though Dickens’s language is relatively easy to understand, many students might find Victorian literature to be more verbose than they are used to. A Tale of Two Cities includes some short chapters, but the novel itself is long, many of the paragraphs dense, and the plot at times difficult to follow. 

  • What to do: Given that the novel is broken up into “books,”consider having students keep a rough outline of major events and new characters that emerge. Before delving into each lesson, have students share and discuss the plot points they identified. 
  • What to do: As the class progresses through the novel, have students keep a journal of vocabulary words that they are unfamiliar with. Instruct them to look up and write out definitions for these words, and then make a class-generated vocabulary list for future quizzes and SAT prep. 

Depictions of Violence: The final section (“Book the Third: The Track of a Storm”) of the novel contains depictions of violence, often carried out by angry mobs of people. The final chapter describes Sydney Carton’s conveyal to the guillotine that later ends his life. These violent scenes might be upsetting to students. 

  • What to do: Give students an advance warning that there will be violent scenes later in the novel (or before you begin teaching “Book the Third: The Track of a Storm”). Teach a unit about the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution to give some context about why these violent acts are taking place. Then, discuss explanations as to why Dickens included them in the novel. 

Jerry Cruncher Digs up Dead Bodies: In addition to performing odd jobs for Tellson’s Bank, Jerry Cruncher steals recently buried bodies in order to sell them. This bizarre, gruesome twist may be upsetting or confusing to students. 

  • What to do: Point out that Jerry Cruncher and his family are impoverished and that he needs the extra income. Then, trace his unsavory side job back to the novel’s overarching themes. To what extent does Jerry Cruncher’s body-stealing count as “resurrection”? 


Alternative Approaches to Teaching A Tale of Two Cities

While the main ideas, character development, and discussion questions above are typically the focal points of units involving this text, the following suggestions represent alternative readings that may enrich your students’ experience and understanding of the novel. 

Madame Defarge as an Empowered Woman: Lucie’s dutiful meekness and subservience is clearly preferred by Dickens to Madame Defarge’s scheming and ruthlessness. However, Madame Defarge’s anger is justified, as we discover that her sister was the victim of the Marquis Evrémonde. Although Dickens represents her as a sinister villain who embodies the corruption and hypocrisy of the French Revolution, she is the only dominant, independent, and intelligent major female character in A Tale of Two Cities. Discuss with students the possibility that Madame Defarge is not villainous but in fact an empowered woman nobly avenging her sister and taking on the violence that often comes with social change rooted in deeply oppressive class divisions. 

  • For discussion: Other than to allude to the storming of the Palace of Versailles in 1789, which was largely carried out by women, what does Dickens’s vilification of Madame Defarge suggest about the role of empowered women in post- Enlightenment society? 

The Murder of Dr. Manette’s Shoe Bench: When Mr. Lorry and Miss Pross destroy Dr. Manette’s shoe bench, they feel strangely guilty. Dickens uses surprisingly grim language to describe this destruction—Mr. Lorry hacks away at the bench in “a mysterious and guilty manner” while Miss Pross “held the candle as if she were assisting at a murder” (book 2, chapter 18). The bench is even referred to as a “body.” Dr. Manette’s shoemaking, however, has caused everyone great distress. He began making shoes during his long prison sentence in the Bastille, and he always returns to his shoe bench (and forgets who he is) whenever he is forced to relive the trauma of his past. The revelation that Charles Darnay is an Evrémonde sends Dr. Manette into severe mental deterioration, and Mr. Lorry convinces him to give up his shoe bench for Lucie’s sake. 

  • For discussion: Why does Dickens use such gruesome language in describing the destruction of something as seemingly benign as a shoe bench? 
  • For discussion: What is the impact of referring to the shoe bench as a “body” being murdered? Why might Mr. Lorry and Miss Pross feel guilty? 
  • For discussion: Why is it important that the shoe bench be destroyed? Why does Mr. Lorry think that a material object is the root cause of Dr. Manette’s mental deterioration? What does this suggest about Mr. Lorry’s character? 

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