Though best known as an accomplished, English best-selling author of the Victorian era, Charles Dickens actually emerged from humble beginnings. He was born in Portsmouth, England, on February 7th, 1812, in a time his family faced economic strife and corruption. Dickens developed a taste of literary works at a young age. However, he was taken out of school in 1824 to work in a factory when his father was sent to debtor's prison. Dickens finally returned to school when his father was released. After his education, Dickens became a solicitor's clerk, mastered shorthand, and worked as a Parliamentary reporter. He started to publish stories in his early twenties, like The Pickwick Papers, which like much his earlier works, made him famous in England. In his late thirties, he became a bitter social critic, writing darkly humorous works like A Tale of Two Cities. Dickens's later life was filled spousal conflicts, which drained him. He eventually died on June 9th, 1870, leaving The Mystery of Edwin Drood incomplete. Title:
A Tale of Two Cities
Date of Publication:
Historical fiction/novel, social criticism
Historical background of period of publication:
In 1855, a few years before the publication of A Tale of Two Cities, the slow political reform and military failure in Crimea threatened the peace and stability of England during that time. Since he viewed himself as a leader a new and hopeful middle class in England, Dickens feared a social revolution, along with the mobs that accompany a revolution, would destroy society. Although A Tale of Two Cities does reveal societal flaws, Dickens wanted reform that was not destructive, thus he degraded the radical peasantry regime within the novel. In addition, in the year 1852, the Second Empire was founded in France by the grandson of Bonaparte Napoleon. Despite England's relatively good relations with France, it still viewed the Empire as a possible threat.
Characteristics of the genre:
Historical novels are set in the past and simulate the environment of that time period using accurate historical events and facts. Social criticism aims to find flaws within society and analyzes them to find a practical solution.
In the year 1775, Jarvis Lorry was aboard the Dover mail when he was stopped by Jerry Cruncher, the messenger of Tellson's Bank. Lorry receives the message and replies with "RECALLEDTO LIFE.'" Jerry takes his leave, and Lorry meets Lucie Manette at Dover. The two, along with Miss Pross, sail to Paris and meet Defarge, who escorts them to Dr. Alexander Manette, Lucie's father who was kept in the Bastille for eighteen years. The shoe-making Dr. Manette discovers that Lucie is his daughter, and Lucie strives to restore life into him. In the year 1780, Charles Darnay is accused of treason against England in a trial which Dr. Manette and Lucie serve as witnesses. Darnay's attorney is Stryver, who wins Darnay's acquittal when his assistant, Sydney Carton, aids him. Meanwhile in France, the Marquis Evremonde runs over and kills Gaspard's child. The Marquis is met by his nephew, Darnay, and the latter renounces his title as the next Marquis. Gaspard kills the Marquis during the night, and signs as Jacques. A year later, Darnay asks Dr. Manette for permission to marry Lucie and promises to reveal his identity on the day of the wedding. Carton confesses his love to Lucie, pledging that he would do anything for her including give up his own life; ultimately Lucie marries Darnay. The French Revolution begins in 1789 when the peasants storm the Bastille. Darnay goes to France upon receiving a letter from Gabelle pleading for help. He is captured by the peasant regime and placed into prison for a year and three months before his trial. Dr. Manette uses his influence to acquit Darnay, but he is arrested again. During the second trial, the crimes of the Evremonde family written in Dr. Manette's letter are placed against Darnay, and he is sent to his death. Carton switches places with Darnay secretly, and dies for him while Lucie, Dr. Manette, and Darnay flee for England.
Example of style:
“Deep ditches, double drawbridge, massive stone walls, eight great towers, cannon, muskets, fire and smoke. Through the fire and through the smoke- in the fire and in the smoke, for the sea cast him up against a cannon, and on the instant he became a cannonier- Defarge of the wineshop worked like a manful soldier, Two fierce hours” (Dickens 222).
Charles Dickens is able to manipulate language in such a way that one can vividly picture the scenes that he writes. He not only uses beautiful, selective words that accurately describe the scene, but he also uses the structures of the sentences to express the emotions behind the scene. In the example used, the sentences are short and choppy indicating the urgency of the scene. It is through the use of fragmented sentences vs. long, wordy ones that distinguish between the chaotic scenes and the monotonous ones.
This quotation reveals the hunger that the peasants feel for the metaphorical wine depicted in this scene. The wine represents their bloodthirsty desire for revenge and foreshadows the lengths to which they will go in order to obtain it. In addition, Dickens’ emphasis on the stains that seemed to be all over the people and streets suggests a sense of wicked permanence and unwanted omnipresence that was hard to erase once it touched a limb or surface.
This quotation describes the uncertainty surrounding Dr. Manette’s desire to return to society. He had been imprisoned for most of his life, and the horrors he had experienced will continue to haunt him for the rest of his life. The question and his response accurately provide a sense of hopelessness and dread for Dr. Manette’s current situation and make the readers wonder whether or not Dr. Manette will ever be hisoriginal self again.
This quotation describes the importance of Lucie Manette to her father, Dr. Manette. Lucie has become a “golden thread” that allows Dr. Manette to live more peacefully through Lucie’s love as daughter, wife, and friend as well as hope that form his shield from his dark past.
This quotation accurately depicts Madam Defarge as a maliciously stubborn character in the book. She has no pity for individuals because to her, the crimes of progenitorsforever mark the descendants, regardless of their sense of morality, should they have one. For Madam Defarge, she only sees the sins of one’s forefathers rather than the innocence of the person in front of her.
These are the last words of Sydney Carton before he sacrifices himself not only for Lucie Manette, but for Charles Darnay, Dr. Manette, and Lucie’s daughter. It is through this action that we can clearly see the full-circle transformation in which Carton has undergone since the beginning of the book. His love for Lucie Manette has allowed him to change into the selfless person he is at the end of the novel.
“The wine was red wine, and had stained the ground of the narrow street in the suburb of Saint Antoine, in Paris, where it was spilled. It had stained many hands, too, and many faces, and many naked feet, and many wooden shoes…” (Dickens 33)
“‘I hope you care to be recalled to life?’ And the old answer: ‘I can’t say’” (54)
“She was the golden thread that united him to a Past beyond his misery, and to a Present beyond his misery: and the sound of her voice, the light of her face, the touch of her hand, had a strong beneficial influence with him almost always” (85)
“It was nothing to her, that an innocent man was to die for the sins of his forefathers; she saw, not him, but them” (372-373)
“It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known” (386)
The nephew of the current Marquis Evremonde, husband to Lucie
Though an aristocrat himself, Darnay refuses to accept the atrocities of the French aristocracy andstarts his life anew from scratch like a commoner. He is the epitome of morality and righteousness.
Assistant to Stryver later pledges his life to Lucie and becomes hero at the end of the novel
He is the complete opposite of Darnay though similar in countenance. He is a drunken vagabond, yet out of his love for Lucie, ultimately sacrifices his life at the end of the novel, giving his life meaning
Apathetic, Brilliant, Crude, Noble
Dr. Alexander Manette
Renowned doctor of Beauvais, Lucie's father, respected figure among French peasantry
He was imprisoned in the Bastille for 18 years by the previous Marquis Evremonde (Darnay's father), but yielded significant power during the radical French Republic; has sudden relapses of Bastille
Displaced, Abused, Respectable, Loving, Kind
Darnay's wife, love of Carton, daughter of Dr. Manette, maternal figure of the Manette family
She helped Dr. Manette come back to a normal life, and is the reason for Carton to sacrifice his life. She is also the symbol of innocent goodness, which was rare in France during the French revolution.
Beautiful, Loving, Understanding, Innocent
The leader of the revolution, along with his wife, Madam Defarge
Although he does lead the revolution against the bourgeoisie, he is more merciful than Madam Defarge as seen by his desire for the war to end quickly and not wanting to kill Charles Darnay.
Bloodthirsty revolutionist; knits the register of noblemen who must be killed
Overwhelmed by her need for revenge, she represents the bloodthirstiness of the peasants. She contrasts against Lucie with her lack of pity and unrelenting rage.
Older gentleman that works for Tellson’s bank; friend of the Manettes
Although he sometimes hides his emotions due to his need to be “business-like”, he cares for the Manettesand is the one who enabled Lucie to reunite with her father.
Works for Jarvis Lowry during the day, but is a “resurrection man” at night
Due to his job as a “resurrection man” at night, he discovers Roger Cly’s empty grave. This discovery allows Sydney Carton to blackmail John Barsad in helping with his plan to save Darnay.
Helped raise Lucie Manette and cares deeply for her
Miss Pross loves and cares for Lucie Manette, herwellbeing and her future. It is due to her loyalty that Miss Prossis willing to sacrifice her life for Lucie when she confronts Madame Defarge.
A French aristocrat who oppresses the lower class and endangers the fate of his nephew, Charles Darnay, in the French Revolution.
Like his corrupt and elitist French ancestors, the Marquis Evremonde’s vulgar demeanor towards the peasants is not only a catalyst for the French peasant revolt but also a curse on the family name that Charles Darnay inherits and is forced to pay for the centuries of dishonor of his ancestors.
He is first seen as Darnay’s defendant in his trial but later as Carton’s friend and still yet, as an advocate for the rich and neglecter of the poor
Although one of the minor characters, Mr. Stryver is a member of the bourgeoisie who commonly displays pomposity in manner and intentions. In fact, Dickens frequently describes him as “shouldering [his way] (morally and physically) through the law and up his life” (Dickens 85).
Along with Roger Cly, John Barsad, really Miss Pross’s lost long brother, is a French-British spy and “sheep of the prisons”
Cly is best known for trying to fake his death to escape from the hatred of the English mob. Barsad, as “sheep of the prisons”, epitomizes the extremes of government surveillance of the people. He also reluctantly aids Carton’s plan to save Darnay.
Cly: infamous, sly
Barsad: backstabbing, materialistic
He is the quintessential aristocrat and major victim of the French Revolution
Best known for his attachment for chocolate and neglect for the affairs of the state and people, Monseigneur represents the indulgent upper class.
Cowardly, gluttonous, ignorant
Postmaster of Marquis Evremonde, Gabelle later petitions for Darnay’s help in clearing his name and releasing him from the French prisons
Initially an obscure servant of the Marquis, Gabelle later emerges as the catalyst for the novel’s climax and turning point in Darnay’s English life. Gabelle, falsely accused as a tax and rent collector as well as French traitor, compels Darnay, the heir of his master the Marquis, to come save him in France.
Displaced, victimized, obsequious, imploring
Significance of opening scene: The novel’s opening scene, beginning with the classic commentary on the “times”, is a thorough exposition and acrid criticism of the conditions in both France and England during the year 1775 onward. Dickens filters the realities of the “times” in both countries through his sarcastic dark humor that compels readers to be in agreement with his opinions on society. Thus, the scene allows Dickens to channel his following tale through this dark mood, sweeping readers right into the novel’s ominous tale.
Significance of denouement: Kudos tothe fearless Sydney Carton who plays the role of Jesus as his plan to save Charles Darnay unfolds and wraps up in an ending fit for a hero. Yet, as much as readers would like to glorify Sydney for his sacrifice for Charles Darnay and his family, Dickens urges readers to look beyond this surface for the deeper meanings within Carton as an individual and within society as a whole. As commendable as Carton’s sacrifice is his resolution as an individual. Through his sacrifice, Carton is achieving two things: Charles Darnay’s life and his own life, which he can now judge as worthwhile. The greatest struggle Carton faced in his life was self-depreciation and a lack of true empathy from others, until, of course, he met Lucie Manette. But even after he met Lucie, Carton wanted to apply himself and earn recognition, regardless of the cost and circumstance. Thus, no ending is a better fit than this for Carton who finally feels at peace, teaching readers how important the self can be and the merit in seeking a worthwhile life. And still Dickens shows that the ending to his tale is not merely a sappy love story but an emphatic accusation of the horrible mentality of society ruled by a guillotine. From the commencement of the novel, Dickens is not afraid to express his passionate views that denounce the French peasants who thought that the only rememdy and just retaliation against their oppressors was death. He asks readers to assess and contemplate before taking action, before letting emotions take control, and before forming irrational and dehumanizing plans.
Symbols:Appropriately opening the novel are two symbols: the woodman (Fate) and the Farmer (Death). The woodman prepared the wood necessary to construct Dickens’ other major symbol, “the sharp female” La Guillotine. The Farmer, in conjunction with the woodman, is the tumbril that delivers victims to La Guillotine and discharges cadavers. The guillotine, an instrument of death, is also, for the French rebels, both the satiation of their vengeance and a celestial idol that Dickens claims replaced and even superseded the cross. Another deadly symbol is Madame Defarge’s infamous knitting. Appearing to be simply a feminine pastime, her knitting is actually a black list of all the victims soon to be murdered in the revolution; it is a systematic and clever cover for her death count and means to vent her vengeance. A most obvious symbol Dickens expounds upon is the broken wine cask whose wine stains all who drink, portending the blood that stains all who kill. On a lighter note, another symbol is Lucie as thegolden thread, a conceptual manifestation of maternity and domesticity that binds the Manette family together with love and also serves to dispel the miserable past from her father. Still another symbol is Dr. Manette’sshoemaking bench and hammer. Both items are the physical remnants of his captivity that become his therapeutic defense mechanism against remembrance of his past.
Setting: Dickens sets the novel in the heat of the revolutionary movement in France, the turbulent peasant revolt of 1789 that eventually becomes an oppressive and crude anarchist regime. But to emphasize and trace the causes leading up to the political explosion, the novel begins in the year 1775 when the monarchy was still in establishment and the paupers still seemingly subservient. Although the French Revolution clearly took place in Paris, Dickens places both England and France into the same setting to not only suggest perhaps a parallel between the two countries, as shown in the appearance of mob violence in both countries in the novel, but also his fear of a similar uprising in England. Throughout the novel, Dickens shifts the characters from England to France and vice versa, gradually assigning England a more optimistic and benign atmosphere while France assumes a decaying one that exhales death. Dickens interplays the setting with the characters so heavily that in the end, it is the setting that controls their fates.
Themes/Discussion topics: One of the most prominent themes in this novel is the juxtaposition of the individual vs. the group, in other words, self vs. mob. In almost every major character, there is this confrontation as shown in Lucie’s experience in France, Dr. Manette’s appeal to the French mob, Charles’ decision to risk all that he was for a new life in England and again to save Gabelle, Monsieur Defarge’s momentary conflict between saving the Manette family and appealing to his wife’s murderous conviction also held by the mob, and Carton’s sacrifice of himself to the mob. Through the allegorical character The Vengeance, who at the end is disappointed when Madame Defarge fails to show up at Carton’s hanging, readers can see how vengeance is never satiated so long as it stays vengeful in spirit. Another classic theme is how love, stronger than hate, can overpower hate, as shown in the Miss Pross vs. Madame Defarge scuffle. But above all, readers should be brought to realize a certain circular logic within the novel, beginning with a materialistic and ignorant upper class that gets overthrown by the lower class that similarly exhibits a thirst for a materialistic gain in power, money, and bread through widespread vengeance and ignorance of the hypocrisies and malevolence of its own actions.
Bibliography "Charles Dickens (1812 - 1870)." BBC News. BBC, n.d. Web. 21 Apr. 2014. .
"Charles Dickens." BBC News. BBC, n.d. Web. 21 Apr. 2014. .
Dickens, Charles. A Tale of Two Cities. 1859. New York: Barnes & Noble Classics, 2003. Print
“Discovering Dickens Historical Context”.Stanford’s Victorian Reading Project. Stanford University, 2002.Web. 21 Apr. 2014.