Resurrection is the overriding theme of this novel, manifest both literally and figuratively. Book I, named "Recalled to Life," concerns the rediscovery of Doctor Manette, who has been jailed in the Bastille for eighteen years. Code for the secret mission to rescue him from Paris is the simple phrase "recalled to life," which starts Mr. Lorry thinking about the fact that the prisoner has been out of society long enough to have been considered dead. This theme is treated more humorously through Jerry Cruncher's profession as a "Resurrection-Man." Although his trade of digging up dead bodies and selling their parts seems gruesome, it provides him with the crucial knowledge that a spy named Roger Cly has been literally resurrected--in that he was never buried at all.
The most important "resurrections" in the novel are those of Charles Darnay. First, Sydney Carton's resemblance to him saves him from being convicted and executed in England, and then, the same resemblance allows the latter to switch places with him in the Conciergerie. These resurrections are surrounded with heavily religious language that compare Carton's sacrifice of his own life for others' sins to Christ's sacrifice on the cross.
This theme is inevitable in a novel concerning the French Revolution. Dickens chooses a side, ultimately showing opposition to the Revolution due to the ruthless and uncontrolled force of its aroused mobs. Even so, the story of the Marquis's rape of the peasant along with other details of aristocratic mistreatment of the lower classes provide some justification for the goals of the French mob. In the end, he portrays the mob as having moved beyond the pale to a degree beyond what happened in England; the French mob acts with such force that it resembles a natural element like fire or water.
This historical novel carefully marks the passage of time, and the introductory sentences of chapters often contain specific references to years or months. Keeping track of time is important because time carries out fate, which is an extremely important presence. From the first chapter, which describes trees waiting to be formed into guillotines in France, Dickens describes the revolution as something inevitable. Individual characters also feel the pull of fate. For example, Darnay feels himself drawn back to France as if under the influence of a magnet. Lucie's presentiment that the noise of feet echoing in her home portends some future intrusion correctly predicts what is bound to happen--Darnay's past does catch up with him, and he must pay for the wrongs of his ancestors. Fate operates ominously rather than optimistically among the characters in the novel, especially given Madame Defarge's representation as one of the mythical Fates connecting the future to darkness.
From the very title of A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens signals that this is a novel about duality. Everything from the settings (London, Paris) to the people come in pairs. The pairs are occasionally related together. A crucial incidence of related doubling involves the resemblance between Charles Darnay and Sydney Carton, a similarity that drives the plot. The pairs are more often oppositional, just as in the dichotomous opening: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." For example, Lucie's physical and moral brightness is played off against the dark Madame Defarge.
Reversals and Inversions
One of the primary effects of the upheaval caused by the French Revolution was due to its literally revolutionary influence; it turned society upside down and banged it on its head. When Darnay returns to France, he observes that the noblemen are in prison, while criminals are their jailors. The replacement of Darnay with Carton at the end of the novel is another reversal, illustrating that a bad man can replace a good man in such a revolutionary society.
The novel focuses attention on the preservation of family groups. The first manifestation of this theme occurs in Lucie's trip to meet her father in Paris. Although she worries that he will seem like a ghost rather than her father, the possibility of a reunion is enough to make her undertake the long trip. After Lucie marries Charles Darnay, the novel tends to be concerned with their struggle to keep their family together. When Darnay laments his own death sentence, it is for the sake of his family, not for his own sake. The final triumph is the sacrifice of Carton, a man who is unattached to any sort of family, who thus preserves the group consisting of the Doctor, Lucie, her husband, and her children.
This theme is related to the theme of class struggle, because those who feel the negative effects of injustice begin to struggle against it. Dickens maintains a complex perspective on the French Revolution because although he did not particularly sympathize with the gruesome and often irrational results, he certainly sympathized with the unrest of the lower orders of society. Dickens vividly paints the aristocratic maltreatment of the lower classes, such as when Monseigneur only briefly stops to toss a coin toward the father of a child whom he has just run over. Because the situation in France was so dire, Dickens portrays the plight of the working class in England as rather difficult, though slightly less difficult than in other works such as Hard Times or Oliver Twist, which also emphasize social injustice.
A Tale of Two Cities Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for A Tale of Two Cities is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.