A Tale of Two Cities



In Dickens's England, resurrection always sat firmly in a Christian context. Most broadly, Sydney Carton is resurrected in spirit at the novel's close (even as he, paradoxically, gives up his physical life to save Darnay's—just as Christ died for the sins of the world.) More concretely, "Book the First" deals with the rebirth of Dr. Manette from the living death of his incarceration.

Resurrection appears for the first time when Mr. Lorry replies to the message carried by Jerry Cruncher with the words "Recalled to Life". Resurrection also appears during Mr. Lorry's coach ride to Dover, as he constantly ponders a hypothetical conversation with Dr. Manette: ("Buried how long?" "Almost eighteen years." ... "You know that you are recalled to life?" "They tell me so.") He believes he is helping with Dr. Manette's revival and imagines himself "digging" up Dr. Manette from his grave.

Resurrection is a major theme in the novel. In Jarvis Lorry's thoughts of Dr. Manette, resurrection is first spotted as a theme. It is also the last theme: Carton's sacrifice. Dickens originally wanted to call the entire novel Recalled to Life. (This instead became the title of the first of the novel's three "books".)

Jerry is also part of the recurring theme: he himself is involved in death and resurrection in ways the reader does not yet know. The first piece of foreshadowing comes in his remark to himself: "You'd be in a blazing bad way, if recalling to life was to come into fashion, Jerry!" The black humour of this statement becomes obvious only much later on. Five years later, one cloudy and very dark night (in June 1780[15]), Mr. Lorry reawakens the reader's interest in the mystery by telling Jerry it is "Almost a night ... to bring the dead out of their graves". Jerry responds firmly that he has never seen the night do that.[16]

It turns out that Jerry Cruncher's involvement with the theme of resurrection is that he is what the Victorians called a "Resurrection Man", one who (illegally) digs up dead bodies to sell to medical men (there was no legal way to procure cadavers for study at that time).

The opposite of resurrection is of course death. Death and resurrection appear often in the novel. Dickens is angered that in France and England, courts hand out death sentences for insignificant crimes. In France, peasants are even put to death without any trial, at the whim of a noble. The Marquis tells Darnay with pleasure that "[I]n the next room (my bedroom), one fellow ... was poniarded on the spot for professing some insolent delicacy respecting his daughter—his daughter!"[17]

Interestingly, the demolition of Dr. Manette's shoe-making workbench by Miss Pross and Mr. Lorry is described as "the burning of the body".[18] It seems clear that this is a rare case where death or destruction (the opposite of resurrection) has a positive connotation, since the "burning" helps liberate the doctor from the memory of his long imprisonment. But Dickens's description of this kind and healing act is strikingly odd:

So wicked do destruction and secrecy appear to honest minds, that Mr. Lorry and Miss Pross, while engaged in the commission of their deed and in the removal of its traces, almost felt, and almost looked, like accomplices in a horrible crime.[19]

Sydney Carton's martyrdom atones for all his past wrongdoings. He even finds God during the last few days of his life, repeating Christ's soothing words, "I am the resurrection and the life".[20] Resurrection is the dominant theme of the last part of the novel. Darnay is rescued at the last moment and recalled to life; Carton chooses death and resurrection to a life better than that which he has ever known: "it was the peacefullest man's face ever beheld there ... he looked sublime and prophetic".

In the broadest sense, at the end of the novel Dickens foresees a resurrected social order in France, rising from the ashes of the old one.


Hans Biedermann writes that water "is the fundamental symbol of all the energy of the unconscious—an energy that can be dangerous when it overflows its proper limits (a frequent dream sequence)."[21] This symbolism suits Dickens's novel; in A Tale of Two Cities, the frequent images of water stand for the building anger of the peasant mob, an anger that Dickens sympathises with to a point, but ultimately finds irrational and even animalistic.

Early in the book, Dickens suggests this when he writes, "[T]he sea did what it liked, and what it liked was destruction."[22] The sea here represents the coming mob of revolutionaries. After Gaspard murders the Marquis, he is "hanged there forty feet high—and is left hanging, poisoning the water."[23] The poisoning of the well represents the bitter impact of Gaspard's execution on the collective feeling of the peasants.

After Gaspard's death, the storming of the Bastille is led (from the St. Antoine neighbourhood, at least) by the Defarges; "As a whirlpool of boiling waters has a centre point, so, all this raging circled around Defarge's wine shop, and every human drop in the cauldron had a tendency to be sucked towards the vortex..."[24] The crowd is envisioned as a sea. "With a roar that sounded as if all the breath in France had been shaped into a detested word [the word Bastille], the living sea rose, wave upon wave, depth upon depth, and overflowed the city..."[24]

Darnay's jailer is described as "unwholesomely bloated in both face and person, as to look like a man who had been drowned and filled with water." Later, during the Reign of Terror, the revolution had grown "so much more wicked and distracted ... that the rivers of the South were encumbered with bodies of the violently drowned by night..." Later a crowd is "swelling and overflowing out into the adjacent streets ... the Carmagnole absorbed them every one and whirled them away."

During the fight with Miss Pross, Madame Defarge clings to her with "more than the hold of a drowning woman". Commentators on the novel have noted the irony that Madame Defarge is killed by her own gun, and perhaps Dickens means by the above quote to suggest that such vicious vengefulness as Madame Defarge's will eventually destroy even its perpetrators.

So many read the novel in a Freudian light, as exalting the (British) superego over the (French) id. Yet in Carton's last walk, he watches an eddy that "turned and turned purposeless, until the stream absorbed it, and carried it onto the sea"—his fulfilment, while masochistic and superego-driven, is nonetheless an ecstatic union with the subconscious.

Darkness and light

As is common in English literature, good and evil are symbolised by light and darkness. Lucie Manette is the light, as represented literally by her name Lucy; and Madame Defarge is darkness. Darkness represents uncertainty, fear and peril. It is dark when Mr. Lorry rides to Dover; it is dark in the prisons; dark shadows follow Madame Defarge; dark, gloomy doldrums disturb Dr. Manette; his capture and captivity are shrouded in darkness; the Marquis's estate is burned in the dark of night; Jerry Cruncher raids graves in the darkness; Charles's second arrest also occurs at night. Both Lucie and Mr. Lorry feel the dark threat that is Madame Defarge. "That dreadful woman seems to throw a shadow on me," remarks Lucie. Although Mr. Lorry tries to comfort her, "the shadow of the manner of these Defarges was dark upon himself". Madame Defarge is "like a shadow over the white road", the snow symbolising purity and Madame Defarge's darkness corruption. Dickens also compares the dark colour of blood to the pure white snow: the blood takes on the shade of the crimes of its shedders.

Social justice

Charles Dickens was a champion of the maltreated poor because of his terrible experience when he was forced to work in a factory as a child. (His father, John Dickens, continually lived beyond his means and eventually went to debtors' prison. Charles was forced to leave school and began working ten-hour days at Warren's Blacking Warehouse, earning six shillings a week.) His sympathies, however, lie with the revolutionaries only up to a point; he condemns the mob madness which soon sets in. When madmen and -women massacre eleven hundred detainees in one night and hustle back to sharpen their weapons on the grindstone, they display "eyes which any unbrutalised beholder would have given twenty years of life, to petrify with a well-directed gun".

The reader is shown that the poor are brutalised in France and England alike. As crime proliferates, the executioner in England is "stringing up long rows of miscellaneous criminals; now hanging housebreaker ... now burning people in the hand" or hanging a broke man for stealing sixpence. In France, a boy is sentenced to have his hands removed and be burned alive, only because he did not kneel down in the rain before a parade of monks passing some fifty yards away. At the lavish residence of Monseigneur, we find "brazen ecclesiastics of the worst world worldly, with sensual eyes, loose tongues, and looser lives ... Military officers destitute of military knowledge ... [and] Doctors who made great fortunes ... for imaginary disorders".[25] (This incident is fictional, but is based on a true story related by Voltaire in a famous pamphlet, An Account of the Death of the Chevalier de la Barre.)[26]

So riled is Dickens at the brutality of English law that he depicts some of its punishments with sarcasm: "the whipping-post, another dear old institution, very humanising and softening to behold in action". He faults the law for not seeking reform: "Whatever is, is right" is the dictum of the Old Bailey.[27] The gruesome portrayal of quartering highlights its atrocity.

Dickens wants his readers to be careful that the same revolution that so damaged France will not happen in Britain, which (at least at the beginning of the book)[28] is shown to be nearly as unjust as France. But his warning is addressed not to the British lower classes, but to the aristocracy. He repeatedly uses the metaphor of sowing and reaping; if the aristocracy continues to plant the seeds of a revolution through behaving unjustly, they can be certain of harvesting that revolution in time. The lower classes do not have any agency in this metaphor: they simply react to the behaviour of the aristocracy. In this sense it can be said that while Dickens sympathises with the poor, he identifies with the rich: they are the book's audience, its "us" and not its "them". "Crush humanity out of shape once more, under similar hammers, and it will twist itself into the same tortured forms. Sow the same seed of rapacious licence and oppression over again, and it will surely yield the same fruit according to its kind".[29]

With the people starving and begging the Marquis for food, his uncharitable response is to let the people eat grass; the people are left with nothing but onions to eat and are forced to starve while the nobles are living lavishly upon the people's backs. Every time the nobles refer to the life of the peasants it is only to destroy or humiliate the poor.

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