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A Tale of Two Cities | Discussion Questions 51 - 60


Was the concern for Victorian England expressed by Charles Dickens in the opening chapter of A Tale of Two Cities justified?

Dickens was concerned that the conditions of the poor in the mid-19th century might lead to social unrest. In 1855, Dickens wrote in a letter that he considered "the discontent [in England] to be so much the worse for smouldering, instead of blazing openly, that it is extremely like the general mind of France before the breaking out of the first Revolution." He feared this "discontent" might erupt into violence in England just as it had in revolutionary France and pointed out in the first chapter of A Tale of Two Cities that 1775 "was ... like the present period." However, the reception of the novel revealed that, for readers, the comparison actually reinforced the opposite idea: that England was handling its various crises much better than France had. The unrest that had characterized the early 19th century had in fact declined by the 1850s. Parliament began regulating industry to protect workers. For instance, laws now prohibited the child labor that Dickens had witnessed firsthand in his own youth. Also, with the growth of the middle class, the country began to enjoy a general mood of optimism, and the spreading empire promoted national pride. For Dickens, who was a master of dramatic irony—letting readers know the full effects of a character's actions when the character doesn't yet know—this unexpected interpretation of the novel was in itself ironic.

How does Dickens use character names in A Tale of Two Cities?

Dickens is famous for his inventive use of character names to indicate character's personalities or professions, such as Morris Bolter, a runaway thief in Oliver Twist; Mr. Guppy, taken from the Hindu word gup ("gossip"), who uncovers Lady Dedlock's secret in Bleak House; and the surgeon Mr. Slasher in The Pickwick Papers. Dickens does this to only a limited extent in A Tale of Two Cities. Mr. Stryver, for instance, is an ambitious lawyer, the Marquis's servant and tax collector Gabelle is named after an unpopular French tax on salt, and Jerry Cruncher beats his wife. The name Roger Cly may be meant to suggest "clever spy." Of course, this practice did not originate with Dickens. Puns on character names, for instance, were common among Elizabethan writers and continued to be used liberally for several centuries. Perhaps the ultimate example is the highly influential 17th-century allegory by John Bunyan, The Pilgrim's Progress, which contained such names as Christian (the titular pilgrim, whose given name was Graceless), Mr. Worldly Wiseman, Prudence, and Lord Hate-Good. The practice fell out of favor in the 20th century. For the French characters in A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens often uses titles rather than names. This pertains not only to nobility, such as the Marquis, but also to commoners, such as the mender of roads and The Vengeance. Even the name Jacques, which is used for a number of characters, may be seen as a title because it explicitly denotes a revolutionary. Similarly, Dickens uses the appellation Monseigneur to refer not only to the court member who holds a reception in Book 1 but to any member of the nobility and, in Book 2, even to the nobility as a group. Other characters are given names that seem appropriate to their nationality (the French-sounding name Manette as compared to the English-sounding name Lorry, for instance) and station (for example, Miss Pross, whose single status—typical of a governess—is conveyed by "Miss").

In Book 2, Chapter 8 of A Tale of Two Cities, what do readers learn about the Marquis from his stop at the burial ground?

The reader's first sight of the burial ground is the cross with the newly carved figure of Christ on it. It would be natural to expect the Marquis to have commissioned the figure, but because the narrator calls it "a poor figure," it must have been created by a peasant without the Marquis's instigation. Apparently, the Marquis does not support his tenants' faith. The figure itself, which the artist "had studied ... from the life—his own life, maybe—for it was dreadfully spare and thin," gives the impression the Marquis's tenants are undernourished. It is not surprising that the Marquis is unsympathetic to the peasant woman's petition. From his conversation with her, though, readers discover several new traits. First, although he comes across the woman kneeling in a graveyard, when she mentions her husband, his first thought is of his income; he asks, "What of your husband ... He cannot pay something?" When she says her husband is dead, he finds comfort in that because the man can cause him no trouble: "Well! He is quiet." He then wonders why she is telling him; after all, there's nothing he can do for her: "Can I restore him to you?" She explains her husband, like so many others, died "of want." The Marquis asks, "Again, well? Can I feed them?" In the context, this is a shocking question. He's their liege lord and therefore has an obligation to the peasants on his land. They pay taxes to him; in that sense, they feed him. They work his properties, and he lives off that work. But the Marquis is completely unaware that he has a responsibility to them; he sees only their responsibility to him. This shows economic ignorance. When, in the end, all the woman wants is a grave marker that she cannot afford herself, he unsurprisingly drives off. He never hears her final words about the village's dead: "They are so many, they increase so fast, there is so much want." But for readers, these words echo Dickens's constant refrain about the miserable condition of France's working poor.

How does Dickens use metaphor in Book 2, Chapter 16 of A Tale of Two Cities?

In the conversation between the Defarges, it becomes clear that Monsieur Defarge is becoming dispirited and impatient with the pace of revolution. They use several metaphors in their conversation. When she reminds him that "Vengeance and retribution require a long time," he says, "It does not take a long time to strike a man with Lightning." He is likening their revolution to lightning, which strikes suddenly and can be deadly. It also brings with it echoes of divine retribution, that is, of a god striking down his enemies with lightning. Madame Defarge extends the metaphor by asking, "How long ... does it take to make and store the lightning?" This makes her argument that such things take preparation. Then she brings up another metaphor to illustrate the same juxtaposition: "It does not take a long time ... for an earthquake to swallow a town. ... Tell me how long it takes to prepare the earthquake?" She delves further into this second metaphor, pointing out that no one sees or hears the earthquake developing, but that "when it is ready, it takes place, and grinds to pieces everything before it." This is a comforting image for Monsieur Defarge.

How does Dickens portray the relationship between Lucie Manette and Charles Darnay in Book 2, Chapter 20 of A Tale of Two Cities?

This is the first time readers experience a conversation between Lucie Manette and Charles Darnay after their marriage. The couple is alone, and throughout the conversation they stand close together, each wrapped in the other's arms. Lucie is requesting that her husband do as she asks without questioning her reasons. But even though she is making a demand on him, her body language—"her hands on his breast, and the inquiring and attentive expression fixed upon him," and later "clinging nearer to him, laying her head upon his breast, and raising her eyes to his"—is yielding and trusting. She trusts him to listen to her calmly and without jealousy and to take her concerns seriously. Not for an instant does Darnay question what may have passed between his wife and Sydney Carton; not for an instant does he doubt her assessment of the man. He accepts her gentle rebuke that he does not show Carton enough "consideration and respect" and agrees to do so in future and to "remember how strong we are in our happiness, and how weak he is in his misery ... as long as [he] live[s]." (He cannot know it now, but Carton will repay his faith many times over, and it will be due to Carton that Darnay's life of happiness with Lucie will be a long one.) This is a picture of romantic love characterized by complete trust and a shared commitment to generosity of spirit toward others. This spiritual closeness is echoed in a physical closeness as indicated by Lucie and Darnay's close contact with one another, which culminates in a series of tender kisses at the end of the scene.

How does Dickens introduce and develop the sea as a metaphor in Book 2, Chapter 21 of A Tale of Two Cities?

Dickens uses the sea as a metaphor for the mob of revolutionaries as they storm the Bastille, showing the sound, vastness, anger, and power of the mob. The narrator describes how, at Defarge's call, "with a roar ... the living sea rose, wave on wave, depth on depth, and overflowed the city" and how, when it reaches the prison, it "rag[es] and thunder[s] on its new beach." Like the ocean, the mob of revolutionaries is inexorable, inescapable, and destructive. Just as the rocks of a beach are ground to sand, the stones of the Bastille will topple before it and many will die beneath its surge. Even Monsieur Defarge cannot control the mob. He sets off as its leader, but quickly becomes just another soldier: "the sea cast him up against a cannon, and on the instant he became a cannonier." When the fortress surrenders, the mob again behaves like the ocean rushing in, sweeping Defarge "over the lowered drawbridge, past the massive stone outer walls," and into the Bastille. Until he is in the courtyard, "so resistless was the force of the ocean ... that [he couldn't] draw his breath or turn his head." He sets off to find Dr. Manette's cell, but still the sound of the "sea" is audible, "inundati[ng] ... the courts and passages and staircases" and sometimes drowning out his conversation with the prison guard and Jacques. Eventually, they climb the North Tower, rising above the ocean, but when they return, they find themselves back "in the raging flood." The narrator summarizes the metaphor of a dark and dangerous sea near the end of the chapter, when he describes "the sea of black and threatening waters, and of destructive upheaving of wave against wave, whose depths were yet unfathomed and whose forces were yet unknown." This is only the beginning of the destruction; the mob's true extent and power are yet to be revealed. In fact, the metaphor continues in the next chapter, which is called "The Sea Still Rises."

How do Lucie Manette and Madame Defarge function as "threads" in A Tale of Two Cities?

Both Lucie Manette and Madame Defarge bind people to them and connect the people around them. Lucie does this through her loving nature. When she establishes a bond with someone, it is one of mutual love and respect. Her web reaches beyond her immediate family to tie in even business associates like Mr. Jarvis Lorry and bind them as close friends. Lucie brings out the best in people, such as the otherwise dissolute Sydney Carton; his selfless love for her extends to everyone who is dear to her. She also ensures that the people around her value one another. In this way, she weaves a life-sustaining web of people who love and support one another. Madame Defarge functions as a dark thread, weaving a life-threatening web that binds people in a web of shared passion for vengeance. Only her husband seems to truly love her. Most others, such as the Jacques, respect but also fear her. The Saint Antoine women seem closer to her, but at the end of Book 2, Chapter 16, she stays with none of the groups of women she speaks to; instead, she seems to stay just long enough with each group to bind them into her dark web: "As Madame Defarge moved on from group to group, [the fingers, eyes, and thoughts] went quicker and fiercer among every little knot of women that she had spoken with, and left behind." She holds the revolutionaries together at the Bastille, refusing to let them take the governor away before her husband, their leader, returns. When the governor is killed, she is at the center of the violence. Madame Defarge also knits more literal thread into a register of the condemned. This particular thread loops in Charles Darnay and his family, including Lucie, due to the emotional damage Madame Defarge suffered as a young girl. She is committed to taking personal vengeance on the St. Evrémonde family. In the end, though, Lucie's golden web of love is the stronger one and survives almost intact, but Madame Defarge herself becomes the victim of her vengeful nature.

In The Tale of Two Cities, how do characters other than Dr. Manette embody the theme of resurrection?

Charles Darnay is resurrected several times from a death sentence: once in London, when Sydney Carton gets him acquitted of treason, and twice in Paris, where Dr. Manette gains his release at first, and Sydney Carton takes his place the second time he is imprisoned. His third and final resurrection is, oddly, mirrored in Sydney Carton's words at the end of the novel just before he is about to be executed in Darnay's place: "I am the Resurrection and the Life, saith the Lord." Sydney Carton believes that by acting to save Darnay in this way, he is resurrecting his own life from its meaninglessness. Jerry Cruncher is a body snatcher—otherwise known as a resurrection man. The only body he tries to dig up who might really be said to have been resurrected is Roger Cly, the English spy who paired up with John Barsad to frame Charles Darnay for treason. Jerry found Cly's coffin filled with paving stones; later, Roger Cly is found to be alive and living in Paris. With him is another case of resurrection: John Barsad proves to be Solomon, the long-lost brother of Miss Pross. However, it is not only people who are brought back from certain death, taken out of the grave, or fake their deaths who might be considered to have been resurrected. Stories of crimes and the lies hatched to cover them are also resurrected, uncovered by the revolutionaries and by sharp observers like Jerry Cruncher and Sydney Carton. The story of the Evrémonde brothers' rape and murder of a peasant family is supposed to have been kept quiet by putting Dr. Manette in prison, but a letter the doctor wrote is found and resurrects the story. In fact, the youngest member of that peasant family is none other than Madame Defarge. Once discovered, she is not to be resurrected for long, however, and meets a similar fate to those whom she condemns to die at the guillotine.

In A Tale of Two Cities, how does Dickens link sunrise to the concepts of life and resurrection?

Dickens first connects sunrise to the ideas of life and resurrection quite early in the novel. In Book 1, Chapter 3, as Mr. Jarvis Lorry is traveling to meet Lucie Manette in Dover, he dozes in the carriage until sunrise. He wakes from fitful dreams of Dr. Manette, looks at the rising sun, and says to himself, "Gracious Creator of day! To be buried alive for eighteen years!" After Lucie and Charles Darnay's wedding, the doctor descends into madness again and returns to his shoemaking for nine days. On the tenth day, Lorry, who has been sitting in the doctor's room, is awakened as the sun shines into the room to find the doctor reading by the window, returned to life once more (Book 2, Chapter 19). In Book 2, Chapter 5, Dickens establishes a connection between Sydney Carton and the sun when, in the last sentence, he writes, "Sadly, sadly, the sun rose ... upon no sadder sight than the man of good abilities and good emotions, incapable of their directed exercise, incapable of his own help and his own happiness." Although the sun is "sad" on this particular morning, it offers Carton hope at the end of the novel, as he sees the sunrise while standing beside the Seine: "the glorious sun, rising, seemed to strike ... straight and warm to his heart in its long bright rays. And looking along them ... a bridge of light appeared to span the air between him and the sun, while the river sparkled under it" (Book 3, Chapter 9). This experience is so redemptive that Carton is able to sleep for a while and is calm from that time forward. The sun has assured him of a resurrection, if not of the body, then certainly of the soul.

In A Tale of Two Cities, how does Dickens link sunset to the concepts of death, violence, and vengeance?

Dickens clearly depicts the connection between sunset and the concepts of death, violence, and vengeance at the beginning of Book 2, Chapter 8, as the Marquis travels home after running over Gaspard's child: "The sunset struck so brilliantly into the travelling carriage ... that its occupant was steeped in crimson. ... The sun and the Marquis going down together, there was no glow left when the drag was taken off." This is the moment when the man clinging to the undercarriage drops off; before morning he will kill the Marquis, who, when last touched by the sun, was drenched in the color of blood. Later, it is also sunset when the mender of roads sees soldiers bringing the Marquis's killer back to the village to hang him over the fountain as he recounts to Monsieur Defarge and the Jacques in Book 2, Chapter 15: "they are almost black to my sight—except on the side of the sun going to bed, where they have a red edge." Again, the sunset tinges the perpetrators of death with blood. In Book 2, Chapter 23, the mender of roads wakes Jacques at sunset so that the revolutionary can go to the Marquis's chateau and set it on fire; the narrator tells readers "the sun was low in the west, and the sky was glowing"—just as it will glow in the night as the chateau burns.

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