A Tale of Two Cities Teaching Approaches
by Charles Dickens

A Tale of Two Cities book cover
Start Your Free Trial

Download A Tale of Two Cities Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Teaching Approaches

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. 

  • 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. 

  • 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...

(The entire section is 1,625 words.)