The major theme that runs through the story is that of resurrection.
It is suggested by the title of the first book "Recalled to Life"
and is present throughout the novel. Dr. Manette, who has been buried
alive in prison is resurrected, when he is rescued and brought to freedom;
then Lucie nurses him back to life, health, and happiness. Darnay is also
saved from death on three different occasions, once by Dr. Manette and
twice by Sydney Carton. Roger Cly, the police spy, fakes his own death
and is then resurrected to play a part in the novel. Even Madame Defarge
is, in a way, resurrected, when she ironically surfaces as the lost sister
that Darnay has been seeking to find for many years. Sydney Carton is
also resurrected through his death; he is brought back to wholeness from
his wasted existence through his noble sacrifice. As he prepares to die,
he says that he is doing the best thing ever in his life.
Vengeance (or retribution) is another theme that is woven into the entire
fabric of the novel. Madame Defarge, The Vengeance, and the mob are seeking
revenge for the innumerable wrongs they have suffered at the hands of
the French aristocracy. Ironically, vengeance brings them no peace or
happiness; instead, it pushes them into frenzied madness. Dr. Manette
also suffered from a great desire for vengeance against the Evremondes.
When his daughter marries a member of the Evremonde family, he buries
his vengeful emotions and his life returns to happiness and normalcy.
Dickens, by contrasting Dr. Manette with Madame Defarge, is clearly stating
that love and forgiveness bring much greater peace and happiness than
hatred and vengeance.
Another theme of the novel is the fruitless nature of revolution. Dickens
captures the essence of a revolution gone bad. Dickens' initially sympathizes
with the miserable lot of the oppressed lower classes and denounces the
cruelty and callousness of the aristocracy. The treatment of his theme,
however, undergoes a change after the revolution takes place. He cannot
sympathize the mob, "dancing wildly like demons" and killing
needlessly and senselessly. As a result, Dickens’ sympathies are turned
away from the mob towards the innocent aristocrats, such as Darnay. He
shows that the injustice of the Bastille is now being duplicated in La
Force, and the revolutionaries are just as power hungry and inhumane as
the aristocrats they abhor. He also points out that the revolutionaries
still live in misery and poverty in spite of all the bloodshed. It is
obvious by the end of the novel, that Dickens feels that revolutions seldom
accomplish their goals.
Dickens uses irony very effectively throughout the narrative. Almost all the
characters and situations of the plot are touched in some way by irony.
It is ironic that Dr. Manette, who seeks revenge against the Evremondes,
should find himself the father-in-law to a member of the Evremonde clan.
It is further ironic that his love for Lucie and Darnay destroys the vengeance
he feels and restores him to health and wholeness. It is ironic that the
evil and cruel Madame Defarge turns out to be the missing sister that
Darnay has been seeking ever since his mother’s death. Darnay's dislike
of Carton is also extremely ironic, since Carton is the man who becomes
his savior. Similarly, Dr. Manette's letter, written while imprisoned,
becomes the very instrument that condemns his son-in-law to death. There
is irony at the end of the novel when the drugged and sluggish Darnay,
the symbol of goodness and nobility, resembles the alcoholic Carton, the
symbol of a wasted life, in such a realistic manner that he gets away
safely. Madame Defarge’s end is also filled with irony. She goes to Lucie’s
lodging, seeking evidence to imprison Darnay’s wife and sentence her to
death; instead, she herself dies when her own gun discharges and kills
her instantly. In these instances and many more, Dickens heightens the
underlying meaning of his novel through his sophisticated use of irony.
1. Compare and/or contrast the two main female figures in the novel - Madame Defarge and Lucie Manette.
2. Compare and/or contrast two significant male figures - Darnay and Sydney Carton?
3. Why is the novel a tragic comedy?
4. What is Dickens' idea of the ideal of manliness? Who in the book best represents this concept?
5. If Dickens critiques both the obscene excesses of the aristocracy and the excesses of the people during the revolution, is he even-handed, or does he sway the reader to siding with one? Explain your answer.
6. What is the role of servants in this novel?
7. Explain Carton as a Christ-figure in the book.
8. What is Mr. Lorry’s role in the book?
9. Explain Dickens' attitude towards the revolution. How is it developed in the course of the novel?
10. Explain three significant ironies in the book and why they are important.
11. Explain Dickens' use of repetition in the novel, giving specific examples.
12. How is the theme of resurrection developed through the plot.
13. Contrast the cities of London and Paris as they are depicted in the novel.
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