A Tale of Two Cities | Study Guide

Charles Dickens

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A Tale of Two Cities | Book 2, Chapter 16 : Still Knitting | Summary



In this chapter, when the Defarges come into Paris, headed for Saint Antoine, their quarter, Monsieur Defarge stops to talk with soldiers and police at the barrier gate. As they are walking from their vehicle to their house, Madame Defarge asks Monsieur Defarge what "Jacques of the police" told him. Monsieur Defarge replies that there has been a spy assigned to their quarter: John Barsad, an Englishman. Monsieur Defarge gives his wife a description of Barsad, and she says she will register him.

The next day, Barsad shows up at the shop to dig for information. Madame Defarge picks up a rose and pins it to her headdress. Barsad tries to flatter Madame Defarge by making small talk and complimenting her. As he is talking, two men come to the door, see the rose on Madame Defarge's headdress, and leave. Madame Defarge tells Barsad that business is bad because the people are so poor. Barsad says, "So oppressed, too—as you say." Madame Defarge corrects him: "As you say!" She knits an extra punishment into his registration. Barsad then begins to talk about Gaspard's execution, trying to get Madame Defarge to admit that the neighborhood sympathizes with him, but she feigns innocence. Just then, Monsieur Defarge walks into the shop, and Barsad calls him "Jacques," but Monsieur Defarge corrects him and says his name is Ernest. Now Barsad is confused. Monsieur Defarge also pretends he knows nothing about Gaspard. But when Barsad says Lucie Manette is about to marry Charles Darnay, the new Marquis who is in England now, Monsieur Defarge is visibly affected. Barsad leaves, having gleaned at least a little bit of information.

After Barsad leaves, the Defarges stay put in case he comes back. Monsieur Defarge is disconcerted that Darnay should be on the register, his name beside Barsad's. His wife is unconcerned: "I have them both here, of a certainty; and they are both here for their merits; that is enough." She takes the rose out of her headdress. Soon after, people begin to come into the shop, as usual. Madame Defarge goes out to speak with groups of knitting women.


Readers have met Barsad before; he and Roger Cly testified against Charles Darnay in court. Because of how people in London reacted to Cly's funeral—by ridiculing the procession and using it as an excuse to go on a mob rampage—it is clear that spies for the police are liked as little in London as in Paris. This chapter shows how Parisians respond to being spied on, and provides readers with the information they need to assess the threat to Barsad when he reappears later in the novel.

Madame Defarge knits throughout her conversation with Barsad, the knitted piece in her hands growing continually as the spy speaks. The knitting changes in direct relation to how aggravated she becomes at Barsad. Although he is trying to get information from the Defarges, Barsad gives them information and, in so doing, signs Darnay's death warrant. Readers might be tempted to think Barsad is getting back at Darnay for escaping conviction in London after he and Cly had tried to frame Darnay.

Barsad's use of the name "Jacques" and his expectation that Monsieur Defarge will reply in kind shows that the revolutionaries' code name is known. But Monsieur Defarge corrects him by saying, "You mistake me for another. That is not my name. I am Ernest Defarge." Barsad has failed again to get the Defarges to reveal their complicity in the revolution. Moments later, he manages to get a faint rise out of Monsieur Defarge, so he can leave the shop feeling he has succeeded after all.

The end of the chapter brings the symbol of knitting together with the theme of violence, as Madame Defarge wanders among groups of knitting women. The narrator says they are preparing for the days when they will sit "knitting, knitting, counting dropping heads." This is a direct reference to the guillotine, which would be the main method of execution used during the popular revolt and the reign of terror: Thousands of people would lose their heads and their lives, and the street would run red with their blood.

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