A Tale of Two Cities | Study Guide

Charles Dickens

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Course Hero Literature Instructor Russell Jaffe explains the themes in Charles Dickens's novel A Tale of Two Cities.

A Tale of Two Cities | Themes



The fact that people who did so little to deserve it were punished so severely is just one example of the injustice portrayed in A Tale of Two Cities. Dr. Manette's imprisonment, which tore him down emotionally, was unjust, as he was imprisoned for trying to protect a family from harm and trying to report a crime. Being imprisoned for trying to do something honorable is an excellent example of injustice; in France, it was a common occurrence.

Another example of this type of injustice is the imprisonment and denunciation of Charles Darnay, as well as that of his wife and child. Darnay renounces his heritage because of the cruelty his family inflicted on people. He is determined to embody his mother's love of compassion and humanitarian actions, and still, the revolutionaries want to guillotine him for being part of an aristocratic family that had previously done wrong. It is unjust to blame an entire family for one person's crime. It is especially unjust to blame Darnay's wife and his six-year-old child for the actions of the Marquis and his brother.


Dickens explores many powerful love relationships in the book: romantic love, love between parent and child, love from afar, love between friends, and love for mankind. He also examines differences between people in how they love as well as how love can be twisted and even overridden by circumstance or an individual's foibles.

The love between parent and child is represented throughout A Tale of Two Cities by the love between Lucie and her father and, in the second half of the book, between Lucie and her daughter. The love between husband and wife is examined as the narrator depicts the relationships between Lucie and Charles and between the Defarges. Finally, love between friends is investigated in many relationships, most notably the ones between the Manettes on the one hand, and Mr. Lorry and Sydney Carton on the other.


In A Tale of Two Cities, resurrection plays a large part in the way the plot unfolds. For starters, Dr. Manette has been imprisoned for 18 years in the Bastille, where those who go in seldom come out again. People are forgotten there, and it is a miracle that Dr. Manette is released alive. But he is not resurrected from death just once: in his garret making shoes, he is completely separated from the real world, and it is Lucie who resurrects him once again, to return him to real life and familial love in London. Other characters also experience resurrections: Charles Darnay, who survives several death sentences; Roger Cly, whose funeral is held in Book 1 but who turns up alive in Book 3; John Barsad and Madame Defarge even experience a sort of resurrection when their true identities become known.

There are small reminders of this theme throughout, such as the note from Mr. Lorry to his bank—"Recalled to Life"—and Jerry Cruncher's moonlighting as a resurrection man, or body snatcher.


Lucie embodies the idea of self-sacrifice, taking on her father, regardless of how unstable he is; she is as good-hearted with everyone else as she is with him. She opens her home to people who need a calm place to go, she tries to help Sydney Carton even though he feels like there is no help for him, she comes to Paris to try to save her husband regardless of the threat to her own safety, and she gives money to the woodcutter who teases her and her daughter, instead of being frightened of him or denigrating him.

Dr. Manette's effort to report the crimes of rape and murder by denouncing the Marquis and his brother is another example of self-sacrifice, as he knows he is risking his own safety by doing so. Still, he can't help but try to do the right thing, hoping to protect the last member of the family from harm. He also runs all over Paris, trying to convince any authority he can find that Charles Darnay should be released from prison. By standing up for an aristocrat, he is risking his own life, but he does it anyway.

Sydney Carton, however, makes the ultimate self-sacrifice: He takes Darnay's place at the guillotine in order to make sure that Lucie and her family will be together and happy. He also puts aside his own fear to comfort a young seamstress who is going to the guillotine for "plotting," though she has plotted nothing.


Before the revolution, the aristocracy often treated the common people with disdain, taking what they could from them and ignoring their needs. Any sign of disrespect against the aristocracy was cruelly punished. When the tables turned and the revolution got underway, the common people, fueled by generations of starvation and mistreatment, went even further.

Dickens examines the topic of vengeance from the perspectives of not only classes, but also of individuals. For some, like Madame Defarge and many other revolutionaries, vengeance is the primary driver of their actions. For others, such as Charles Darnay, the Manettes, and Sydney Carton, vengeance is another form of violence and should be relinquished.


In a novel that takes place during the French Revolution, there is bound to be rampant bloodshed, and Dickens portrays it graphically—including state-sanctioned torture and killing, mob violence, and the brutal Reign of Terror. Even in relatively stable England, though, capital punishment was frequent and public. Apart from the violence inflicted by court rulings, crime was rampant and often violent. Travelers lived in fear of highwaymen, and people were afraid to walk the streets at night. In A Tale of Two Cities, these fears are made clear in the actions and reactions of people in England.

As the novel progresses, the revolution takes hold, and violence becomes increasingly brutal and pervasive. Dickens leaves readers wondering whether the ends can possibly justify such means.

Questions for Themes

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How would you explain how a good, loving and all-powerful God allows suffering and evil in his creation?
Tell us what the best piece of writing your ever read was. Why did you think so? What did it reach you so well? Was there something special about the description or detail? Did you like the writer's v
Briefly explain the opinions of two of Ravana’s brothers (Kumbakarna and Vibishana) during their council meeting.
to whom i should speak today meaning every stanza . please help me i badly needed this.
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