A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

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At a Glance

  • Order vs. Chaos: In A Tale of Two Cities, the order of England contrasts with the chaos of Paris. Characters caught in the whirlwind of the French Revolution find calm once they retreat to London.

  • Resurrection: The theme of resurrection appears in Manette’s release from prison and revival after reuniting with his daughter as well as Darnay’s escape from the guillotine.

  • Memory: Memory motivates both love and hatred in this novel: Madame Defarge loathes aristocrats as a result of the murders of her siblings by Evremonde, while Dr. Manette’s association of his daughter’s face with the memory of his dead wife is what begins his revival.

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(Novels for Students)

Order and Disorder
The story of A Tale of Two Cities takes place during the turbulent years of the French Revolution. Dickens stresses the chaos of Revolutionary France by using images of the ocean. He calls the Paris mob a "living sea," and compares Ernest Defarge to a man caught in a whirlpool. Defarge and his wife are both at the center of revolutionary activity in Paris, just as their lives are at the center of the whirlpool. Order breaks down once again in the second chapter of the third book, "The Grindstone." "Dickens deliberately set Darnay's return to Paris and arrest at the time of the September Massacres," writes Ruth Glancy in A Tale of Two Cities: Dickens's Revolutionary Novel, "a four-day execution of 1,089 prisoners from four Paris prisons, condemned in minutes each by … 'sudden Courts of Wild Justice.'" Contrasted to the chaos of Paris is the order of England: Dr. Manette's peaceful home in Soho is a place of refuge for Darnay, Carton, and Mr. Lorry, while even Tellson's Bank serves as a center of calmness in the whirlpool of Revolutionary Paris.

Death and Resurrection
Death, burial, and resurrection are themes that Dickens returns to again and again in A Tale of Two Cities. The first book of the novel, "Recalled to Life," traces the resurrection of Dr. Manette, who has been held in prison for almost twenty years. Prisons, for Dickens, are symbolic of the grave—a comparison that he makes throughout his works, and which may be related to his father's imprisonment in the debtors' prison at Marshalsea. Mr. Lorry, who travels to Paris in 1775 to secure the doctor's release, views himself as literally digging up Dr. Manette's body. He fancies that the doctor has been buried for so long that he will fall to pieces upon being liberated: "Got out at last, with earth hanging around his face and hair, he would suddenly fall away to dust." Even the doctor's daughter Lucie, whom he has never seen, believes that the person who will emerge from the prison will be a ghost rather than a living man. Like a man brought back to life, Manette cannot quite shake the hold his burial and rebirth has on his mind. He reverts to his cobbling—a sign of his madness contracted in prison—during periods of stress, but he is finally redeemed by his daughter's love and his own forgiveness of Darnay for the crimes of the St. Evremondes.

Other characters are also absorbed in Dickens's death imagery . Jerry Cruncher, the Tellson's Bank messenger, is also a "resurrection man"—a person who steals fresh corpses from graveyards and sells them to medical schools for use as anatomy specimens. Charles Darnay is imprisoned and released twice in the course of the novel; the second time, it takes another death, Sydney Carton's, to secure Darnay's freedom. Madame Defarge, consumed by a desire for vengeance, finds her death in a tussle with Miss Pross. In addition, in his final moments Carton foresees the deaths of a large number of...

(The entire section is 830 words.)