illustration of a guillotine

A Tale of Two Cities

by Charles Dickens

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A Tale of Two Cities Themes

The main themes in A Tale of Two Cities are resurrection, self-sacrifice and selfishness, and revolution and retribution.

  • Resurrection: Dr. Manette is “recalled to life” by his release from prison and reunion with Lucie, Charles Darnay escapes the guillotine, and Sydney Carton undergoes a form of spiritual resurrection just before his death.
  • Self-sacrifice and selfishness: While the novel’s villains are distinguished by their selfish cruelty, its heroes are distinguished by their willingness to sacrifice themselves on behalf of others.
  • Revolution and retribution: Dickens provides a vivid description of the Reign of Terror, which he portrays as the inevitable outcome of years of tyranny by the French aristocracy.

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Themes

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Resurrection

The first book of A Tale of Two Cities bears the title “Recalled to Life.” The words are those of the “Blazing strange message” that Jarvis Lorry asks Jerry Cruncher to deliver, and they apply first of all to Dr. Manette, who seems more dead than alive after eighteen years in the Bastille. There are repeated references to Dr. Manette being “buried alive,” and Lorry thinks of himself as one who is “on his way to dig someone out of a grave,” one of many such references to disinterment scattered through the text.

While Dr. Manette is rescued from a living death, the coffin in which Roger Cly was supposed to have been buried turns out to contain nothing but stones. The man himself is presumably alive and engaged in his old professions of espionage and laying information, and Sydney Carton foresees that he will eventually fall victim to the guillotine, along with his associate, John Barsad. The emptiness of the coffin is discovered by Jerry Cruncher, who is a body-snatcher, known by the euphemistic name of “Resurrection-Man.” Young Jerry, his son, quizzes Cruncher on the trade and the goods in which he deals, finally expressing a desire to join the family business:

“His goods,” said Mr. Cruncher, after turning it over in his mind, “is a branch of Scientific goods.”
“Persons' bodies, ain't it, father?” asked the lively boy.
“I believe it is something of that sort,” said Mr. Cruncher.
“Oh, father, I should so like to be a Resurrection-Man when I'm quite growed up!”

The biblical text of John 11.25–26 is repeated several times, and it is the last thing Sydney Carton thinks of before the series of prophesies with which he goes to his death:

I am the Resurrection and the Life, saith the Lord: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: and whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die.

Carton, like Dr. Manette, has endured a form of living death. His bitterness and cynicism have increased over the years, until he had nothing left for which to live. The sacrifice he makes at the end of the book gives him peace and purpose, a form of resurrection even before the afterlife promised by the Christian faith. Carton even foresees the resurrection of Paris itself, “a beautiful city and a brilliant people” rising out of the abyss, as the evils of the Terror are expiated over time.

Self-Sacrifice and Selfishness

Sydney Carton’s heroic sacrifice is the single central action of the book, giving meaning to a life he has come to loathe and allowing him to die with such dignity and purpose that he finally achieves the status of prophet and martyr, foreseeing the fates of the other characters as he goes peacefully to his death. Although Carton’s self-sacrifice is the most striking in the novel, the chief moral difference between the good and evil characters is the willingness of the former to sacrifice their own interests for others or for a greater good, contrasted with the extreme selfishness of the latter. Lucie Manette spends her life caring for others, principally her father, though she also shows deep concern for Carton. Charles Darnay risks his life to help Gabelle. Miss Pross is willing to do anything to help those she loves, including both Lucie, who deserves her devotion, and her brother Solomon, who certainly does not. Solomon Pross, also known as John Barsad, uses and preys on his sister in an entirely cynical manner, conduct that marks him out as one of the toxically selfish characters in the book. The worst of these are the Sainte Evrémonde brothers, who abuse everyone around them for their own pleasure and convenience. The Marquis de Sainte Evrémonde is so entirely self-absorbed that he shows not the slightest concern at killing a child when driving his carriage too fast.

Sydney Carton initially appears to have a thoroughly selfish, cynical outlook on life. He sullenly tells Charles Darnay: “I care for no man on earth, and no man on earth cares for me.” It is his sacrifice and heroism at the end of the novel that redeems him and aligns him with the selfless characters, as the most heroic of them all.

Revolution and Retribution

Dickens was writing at a time when the French Revolution was just beginning to pass out of popular memory. In particular, the Reign of Terror, of which Dickens provides the most vivid and influential descriptions in the English language, ended in 1794, sixty-five years (or a reasonable lifespan) before the publication of A Tale of Two Cities. One might argue that the intensity of Dickens’s writing leaves a false impression of the book and, in particular, its theme of revolution and retribution. The Reign of Terror is so powerfully described that many readers, particularly if it is some time since they have read the book, are left with the impression of the villainous Defarges and their associates participating in a senseless slaughter of innocent aristocrats. In fact, Dickens makes it very clear, particularly in his portrayal of the Marquis de Sainte Evrémonde, that the revolution results inevitably from centuries of tyranny and oppression. The passages describing the Terror are relatively brief compared with those which examine the decadence and cruelty of the aristocrats, and Dickens repeatedly insists that their conduct made the Terror inevitable and that any thoughtful person could easily have predicted what would happen:

It was too much the way of Monseigneur under his reverses as a refugee . . . to talk of this terrible Revolution as if it were the only harvest ever known under the skies that had not been sown—as if nothing had ever been done, or omitted to be done, that had led to it—as if observers of the wretched millions in France, and of the misused and perverted resources that should have made them prosperous, had not seen it inevitably coming, years before, and had not in plain terms recorded what they saw.

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