A Tale of Two Cities stands out in the list of Charles Dickens’ compositions because the book is so different from anything he ever wrote. Novels that Dickens wrote before and after A Tale of Two Cities have been centralized around the Victorian culture, while A Tale of Two Cities takes place in Revolutionary France and England. Others venture so far as to say that a reader that has enjoyed A Tale of Two Cities will not like Dickens’ other works and vice versa.
The stark differences found between A Tale of Two Cities and other classics, such as David Copperfield and Great Expectations, have not stopped A Tale of Two Cities from becoming an instant classic and one of Dickens’ most powerful works of literature (“A Tale of Two Cities” 354). The book opens, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. It was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity. It was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope.
We had everything before us, we had nothing before us. We were all going direct to heaven, we were all going the direct other way” (Dickens 17). From the very beginning of the book, the parallels that are commonplace in Dickens begin to occur throughout A Tale of Two Cities (O’Mealy 245). Throughout A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens uses characterization, setting, opposing themes, and human nature to reinforce this central theme of duality. The setting in a Tale of Two Cities never stays the same, although it does fairly predictably stay between the countries of England and France.
The first element of duality found in A Tale of Two Cities is outlined in these two cities’ relationships to each other. Although the wording of the title says a lot for itself, the two cities do play an enormous part in the book and the way Dickens compares them. The duality of these two cities helps highlight certain aspects that might not have otherwise noticed.
Both the similarities and the dissimilarities described make the cities of London and Paris mirror each other on some level. In the very beginning of A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens describes both cities as very grim and hopeless places because of the time period in which the book is set. Both countries are described as having headstrong kings who ignore the interest of the common man and believe very strongly in their right to have total, almost divine, control over all of their subjects. Religion in England had spiraled downward from communicating with Spirits to superstitious practices. France also was less reliant on religious revelations and concentrated more on cultural traditions and practices. In England, a person who committed even the most minor offense was subject to be hanged. France was a bit more lenient in the severity of punishment for such small crimes, but still was extreme. At the end of A Tale of Two Cities, the two countries where compared through the personalities of a French woman, Madame Defarge, and an Englishwoman, Miss Pross. The differences between the two cities are established very well through these comparisons (“Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities” 202). Even the cities of Paris and London had many parallels in their different descriptions. Joseph Carton describes both the cities as being “earthly cities” and that the “city of God” only existed in his visions. Right before Carton is exiled to the guillotine, he has a vision that there will be a third city that will replace both London and Paris and all of their earthly imperfections (Davis 230).
Duality is not only revealed in setting in the place A Tale of Two Cities occurs in, but also the time period in which the book was set. The French Revolution was a time in history in which extreme poverty and extreme wealth clashed and resulted in an internal rejection of all social systems that had been the norm up until this point. Dickens himself reveals he is also divided in his opinion of the French Revolution. Throughout the book, Charles Dickens has an ambivalent attitude towards the French Revolution and seems not to be able to side with either the central government or the peasants. He does not display acceptance at all, and instead seems to view the entire Revolution in a very unsettling light. Charles Dickens does not offer his blunt opinion, as do so many other books written in this time period, but instead offers perspective by developing characters on both sides of the Revolution. Dickens displays his viewpoints based on the discreet musings of Manette. For example, The sister of Manette Defarge is raped by her very own brother and is murdered by Marequis St. Evermondes, who is a from a rich French family and represents the aristocratic aspect of the French Revolution. Manette sees the crime in action. Not only is Manette not able to stop it, but he is also imprisoned for being a witness to the dreadful scene. These musings revealing Dickens’ viewpoints are based on the understanding that change will not come in a day and that years of very complicated give and take will have to occur in order for the Revolution to come full circle (Stout 30).
Another very valuable attribute to the duality of Charles Dickens’ writing is the constant contrasting between thesis and antithesis occurring in the central themes of the book. For example, the theme of death is contrasted with the theme of resurrection. The themes of death and life are very closely intertwined in A Tale of Two Cities (Griffith 362). The two build off of one another in order that the other can exist. In the first book of the novel (which is divided into three separate books), the title is “Recalled to Cities”. Dr. Manette had been in prison for almost 25 years with very minimal human interaction. He is considered dead to humanity and to the productive world. In many of Dickens’ works, prison is a symbol for the grave. Critics say this may be because Dickens’ own father was absent during his own childhood due to his imprisonment at Marshasea. After Manette is released from prison, he is finding himself free for the first time in all these years to do what he pleases. The sense of both release and relief that he feels in this moment can only be compared to resurrection. When Mr. Lotty travels from Paris to get Manette from prison, he views himself as actually picking up a body and taking it home. Lotty thinks to himself that it is as though Dr. Manette has been buried for so long that his body is beginning to fall apart when he finally is able to be free. The quote “Get out at last, with Earth hanging around his face and hands, he would suddenly fall away to dust,” from Lotty displays these beliefs. Lacre, the doctor’s daughter, also shares these beliefs that person who is emerging from prison after long years of imprisonment will have to be brought back to life. Dr. Manette cannot quite let go of the hold the thought of death and rebirth has had on him. He struggled with a post-imprisonment mental disorder, sometimes known as cobbing, for some time, but finally is released by his daughter to begin the process of forgiving Darnay for the crimes he committed against the St. Evermondes. This final release to do something as innately human as to forgive serves as another metaphor for resurrection (A Tale of Two Cities 359)
The themes of order and disorder also play a large part in the development of A Tale of Two Cities. The antithesis of these two opposing themes also supports the overarching theme of duality. The book is set during the incredibly jarring years of the French Revolution. During these days, there is absolutely no way to predict whether or not the day will bring total calamity or some sense of peace, much like the ocean and its uncertain weather. Dickens tends to use a lot of imagery involving the sea when describing the order and disorder of a particular situation. The mobs of people standing in the town square during the heat of the Revolution were described as “the living sea”. Charles Dickens also uses the metaphor that Ernest Defarge was a man who was “stuck in a whirlwind”. Both Ernest Defarge and his wife were very active members of the Revolutionary and were constantly risking their lives for the greater good of the Revolution. Disorder breaks loose again as Darnay returns to Paris. He arrives in direct concordance to the September massacres that take place during that time. This was done deliberately by Dickens to demonstrate how the disorder of the French Revolution finds its way seeping into the lives of really anyone who lived during that time. The uncertainty between whether order or disorder will protrude the next chapter is something that is signature in Dickens’ writing in A Tale of Two Cities (“A Tale of Two Cities” 354). The contrast of characters is also a testament to the overarching theme of duality. Many of the characters play off of each other and are made stronger by the next. A couple even demonstrates the literary device of doppelganger. A doppelganger is a opposite to a character that helps bring out certain aspects of both the characters For instance, Ernest Defarge and Mr. Lotty are considered doubles of each other. They start out in near the same position, but then react in opposite ways. Both Defarge and Lotty would identify themselves as businessmen. They also both cared for Dr. Manette during his time in prison. While Defarge becomes more and more resentful and filled with hatred, Mr. Lorry becomes more and more redeemed by his total change of heart and composure that his love for Darney induces (Lindsey 368).
Another example of doppelganger in character is Charles Darnay and Sydney Carron and how these two opposites play off of one another. A doppelganger is a opposite to a character that helps bring out certain aspects of both the characters. The two are not merely spiritual and mental doppelgangers, but they also are basically physical replicas of each other. Sydney Carron and Charles Darnay were so physically indistinguishable that Sydney Carron was executed because the executors thought he was Charles Darnay. Critics suggest that Carron and Darnay represent the two opposite sides of the same psyche. Charles Darnay was on trial for allegedly spying, his brilliant lawyer found a way to release him from jail by showing the witness Carron. The witness disclosed that he no longer felt like his account was legitimate because of the similarity in the two men’s physical features and he felt it very well could have been a mistake. This case of mistaken identity occurs again when Carton takes Darnay’s place on the gallows and no one catches the mistake (A Tale of Two Cities 354). In some ways other than in a physical context, however, the two men are opposed. Darnay, for example, is obsessed with the idea of making right the evils that his uncle, Marquis St. Evermonde, is responsible for. His uncle is the one who viciously raped Manette’s sister and also serves as an example for the leading French social class. Darnay travels to Paris in the heat of the September massacres and is almost killed in the heat of one. His entire reason for traveling to France, however, was to try to save Gabelle, who was a servant for the family some time back. However, Darnay is unsuccessful in his attempts.
On the other hand, Carney discloses to Lucie those years ago he was a very lazy and unproductive member of society. Carton, however, is regarded as a brilliant lawyer, who just has been held back because of his substance abuse problems. He has just recently finally become successful in developing a bid for Darnay’s release from the prison, and therefore secures even more his status as a legitimate lawyer. The result of his successes, however, is ultimately his life when he sacrifices his own for Darnay. Darnay, conversely, has led a very moral and upstanding life but is not as successful of a character as Carton in most perspectives. He works long and hard but is usually not rewarded for his efforts. Darnay really is only successful as a passive figure in his marriage. Darnay and Carton seems to start at the same place, but then start to switch places as the story progresses. For instance, at the beginning of the book, Carton is presented almost as an antagonist. He seems to not be able to get his life together. He struggles with alcoholism and cannot seem to nail out his priorities. Conversely, Darnay seems to be the exact opposite. He seems to have everything together and then by some poor twist of luck lands himself a convicted prisoner. Towards the end of the book though, Carton on the other hand, turns around his ways and becomes a much more productive and moral member of society, especially when he sacrifices his own life for Darnay and takes his place on the gallows (Lindsey 362).
The similarities between Carton and Darnay do not stop with appearance and having personalities that over time turn into each other’s. The characters are also both in love with the same girl. Both Carton and Darnay seem to be very generous in their motives but express these motives in completely different ways. While Carton seems to be a bit of a misfit in society and does not really have anyone to that needs him, he can be more self-sacrificing than Darnay. Darnay has a family at home who needs him and so he cannot be as liberal in how he chooses to display his generosity. Darnay is very well organized and seems to be much more logical when it comes to his emotions and how he controls them. Carton is a very emotion oriented character who just is led mostly by impulse and does not seem to weigh out pros and cons as Darnay sensibly does. Both characters want the same thing ultimately, but choose different ways of expressing these interests. Carton’s gesture of complete selflessness highlights the fact that there is good in spite of all the inhumanity of the French revolution. Carton takes an action that should display cruel justice and turns it into something that shows purity and redemption also showing the duality of his character. This scene also supports the theme of death and resurrection. (Tale of Two Cities 359). Charles Dickens also uses characterization to display some of his own views on the French revolution. Davis Woman notes that Dickens’ weak development of his characters in A Tale of Two Cities is not just a common flaw in his writing or due to some laziness on his part. Instead, this ambiguity of whom the characters really are actually paints a portrait into his deeper feelings about what is going on socially in this time. The characters are not individuals who Dickens has created to stand alone.
They are vessels that seem to transport certain behavioral patterns that Dickens wants to display in A Tale of Two Cities. The characters’ reactions to events and dialogues are not to envelop who they are as a character and the part they play in the book. Instead, they show different sides of the revolution that the author wanted the reader to see through first hand experience. He also uses doppelganger and doubles in order to get that point across to the reader. The characters in A Tale of Two Cities are very repetitive in their thought and behaviors and are not usually given to change except in the sense of Carton. As the characters are formed throughout the book, we become aware of social implications we normally would not have been aware of. As the reader becomes critical of Carton for his abuses of alcohol and being very lazy over all, we start to question our own judgment as the character of Carton starts to improve as a person. When he emerges as a hero at the end of the book, the reader realizes how many other individuals were judged prematurely during this time for not acting like a part of the social norm. To the contrary, the reader starts to form generalizations about Darnay’s character and again turn out to be wrong. At the end of the book, the reader is confused about the author’s meaning in Darnay and Carton’s morality (Stout 30-31).
In A Tale of Two Cities, the author uses the character’s flaws to point out many things about the duality of human nature. Carton’s alcohol problems highlight many issues not only in his own personal life but also draws parallels throughout the book about the universal truth that humans are not just what meets the eye, but also have many deep-rooted streaks that they are purposefully hiding from the world. Carton seems to be the novel’s character whose morality is called into question, but in reality, it should be Darnay. He may not seem like he is the type of person to struggle inwardly with substance abuse issues such as alcohol, but inwardly, he is the one who hosts the most ethical and moral issues. Carton is lost in a daily routine that includes hurting his body with alcohol with his daily patterns that can hardly be managed. The internal motivation for man is something that is not known to the outside observer (Sims 219). “It is a wonderful fact to reflect upon, that every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other. A solemn consideration when I enter a great city by night.
That everyone of these darkly clustered houses encloses its own secrets, every room is teeming with its own secrets” (Dickens 15). Carton reveals his love to Lucie in a way that can only be described as ambivalent. Dickens’ use of paradox and doubles is only exemplified further through Carton’s very complicated and tangled love affair with Lucie, although it is very one sided. Dickens’ usage of the symmetry in constructing paradox does not stop short of the plot, however, and uses it in his grammar as well. Dickens’ uses the one sided tricolons to demonstrate this symmetry. Dickens is known for this type of anaphora. For example, when Carton is going to visit Lucie to tell her that he is in love with her, he tells her that he is in love with her “fondly, dearly, disinterestedly, devoted.” This quadruplet set of words embodies both paradox and two sets of doubles and is a prime example for Dickens style. In a speech to Lucie’s father, later in the passage, he uses another set of these descriptive quadruplets. Carton’s words are supposed to be seen as persuasive and not judgmental, although they seem to come off as both (Patterson 30).
Charles Dickens integrates many different pairs of characters, places, and themes that make it near impossible for the reader to read A Tale of Two Cities without gathering some feeling and understanding more about the book than just the plot. Although A Tale of Two Cities is different from Dickens’ other works, it remains a powerful piece of literature that provokes thought and shows purposefulness in a dark time in the history of France. The duality in A Tale of Two Cities displays the idea that there is a silver lining against every cloud and events are not always as stark and hopeless as they seem. There is a different side to every story (“A Tale of Two Cities” 558-360).
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