Tale Of Two Cities Themes Essay
Resurrection is the overriding theme of this novel, manifest both literally and figuratively. Book I, named "Recalled to Life," concerns the rediscovery of Doctor Manette, who has been jailed in the Bastille for eighteen years. Code for the secret mission to rescue him from Paris is the simple phrase "recalled to life," which starts Mr. Lorry thinking about the fact that the prisoner has been out of society long enough to have been considered dead. This theme is treated more humorously through Jerry Cruncher's profession as a "Resurrection-Man." Although his trade of digging up dead bodies and selling their parts seems gruesome, it provides him with the crucial knowledge that a spy named Roger Cly has been literally resurrected--in that he was never buried at all.
The most important "resurrections" in the novel are those of Charles Darnay. First, Sydney Carton's resemblance to him saves him from being convicted and executed in England, and then, the same resemblance allows the latter to switch places with him in the Conciergerie. These resurrections are surrounded with heavily religious language that compare Carton's sacrifice of his own life for others' sins to Christ's sacrifice on the cross.
This theme is inevitable in a novel concerning the French Revolution. Dickens chooses a side, ultimately showing opposition to the Revolution due to the ruthless and uncontrolled force of its aroused mobs. Even so, the story of the Marquis's rape of the peasant along with other details of aristocratic mistreatment of the lower classes provide some justification for the goals of the French mob. In the end, he portrays the mob as having moved beyond the pale to a degree beyond what happened in England; the French mob acts with such force that it resembles a natural element like fire or water.
This historical novel carefully marks the passage of time, and the introductory sentences of chapters often contain specific references to years or months. Keeping track of time is important because time carries out fate, which is an extremely important presence. From the first chapter, which describes trees waiting to be formed into guillotines in France, Dickens describes the revolution as something inevitable. Individual characters also feel the pull of fate. For example, Darnay feels himself drawn back to France as if under the influence of a magnet. Lucie's presentiment that the noise of feet echoing in her home portends some future intrusion correctly predicts what is bound to happen--Darnay's past does catch up with him, and he must pay for the wrongs of his ancestors. Fate operates ominously rather than optimistically among the characters in the novel, especially given Madame Defarge's representation as one of the mythical Fates connecting the future to darkness.
From the very title of A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens signals that this is a novel about duality. Everything from the settings (London, Paris) to the people come in pairs. The pairs are occasionally related together. A crucial incidence of related doubling involves the resemblance between Charles Darnay and Sydney Carton, a similarity that drives the plot. The pairs are more often oppositional, just as in the dichotomous opening: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." For example, Lucie's physical and moral brightness is played off against the dark Madame Defarge.
One of the primary effects of the upheaval caused by the French Revolution was due to its literally revolutionary influence; it turned society upside down and banged it on its head. When Darnay returns to France, he observes that the noblemen are in prison, while criminals are their jailors. The replacement of Darnay with Carton at the end of the novel is another reversal, illustrating that a bad man can replace a good man in such a revolutionary society.
The novel focuses attention on the preservation of family groups. The first manifestation of this theme occurs in Lucie's trip to meet her father in Paris. Although she worries that he will seem like a ghost rather than her father, the possibility of a reunion is enough to make her undertake the long trip. After Lucie marries Charles Darnay, the novel tends to be concerned with their struggle to keep their family together. When Darnay laments his own death sentence, it is for the sake of his family, not for his own sake. The final triumph is the sacrifice of Carton, a man who is unattached to any sort of family, who thus preserves the group consisting of the Doctor, Lucie, her husband, and her children.
This theme is related to the theme of class struggle, because those who feel the negative effects of injustice begin to struggle against it. Dickens maintains a complex perspective on the French Revolution because although he did not particularly sympathize with the gruesome and often irrational results, he certainly sympathized with the unrest of the lower orders of society. Dickens vividly paints the aristocratic maltreatment of the lower classes, such as when Monseigneur only briefly stops to toss a coin toward the father of a child whom he has just run over. Because the situation in France was so dire, Dickens portrays the plight of the working class in England as rather difficult, though slightly less difficult than in other works such as Hard Times or Oliver Twist, which also emphasize social injustice.
Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The Ever-Present Possibility of Resurrection
With A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens asserts his belief in the possibility of resurrection and transformation, both on a personal level and on a societal level. The narrative suggests that Sydney Carton’s death secures a new, peaceful life for Lucie Manette, Charles Darnay, and even Carton himself. By delivering himself to the guillotine, Carton ascends to the plane of heroism, becoming a Christ-like figure whose death serves to save the lives of others. His own life thus gains meaning and value. Moreover, the final pages of the novel suggest that, like Christ, Carton will be resurrected—Carton is reborn in the hearts of those he has died to save. Similarly, the text implies that the death of the old regime in France prepares the way for the beautiful and renewed Paris that Carton supposedly envisions from the guillotine. Although Carton spends most of the novel in a life of indolence and apathy, the supreme selflessness of his final act speaks to a human capacity for change. Although the novel dedicates much time to describing the atrocities committed both by the aristocracy and by the outraged peasants, it ultimately expresses the belief that this violence will give way to a new and better society.
Dickens elaborates his theme with the character of Doctor Manette. Early on in the novel, Lorry holds an imaginary conversation with him in which he says that Manette has been “recalled to life.” As this statement implies, the doctor’s eighteen-year imprisonment has constituted a death of sorts. Lucie’s love enables Manette’s spiritual renewal, and her maternal cradling of him on her breast reinforces this notion of rebirth.
The Necessity of Sacrifice
Connected to the theme of the possibility of resurrection is the notion that sacrifice is necessary to achieve happiness. Dickens examines this second theme, again, on both a national and personal level. For example, the revolutionaries prove that a new, egalitarian French republic can come about only with a heavy and terrible cost—personal loves and loyalties must be sacrificed for the good of the nation. Also, when Darnay is arrested for the second time, in Book the Third, Chapter 7, the guard who seizes him reminds Manette of the primacy of state interests over personal loyalties. Moreover, Madame Defarge gives her husband a similar lesson when she chastises him for his devotion to Manette—an emotion that, in her opinion, only clouds his obligation to the revolutionary cause. Most important, Carton’s transformation into a man of moral worth depends upon his sacrificing of his former self. In choosing to die for his friends, Carton not only enables their happiness but also ensures his spiritual rebirth.
The Tendency Toward Violence and Oppression in Revolutionaries
Throughout the novel, Dickens approaches his historical subject with some ambivalence. While he supports the revolutionary cause, he often points to the evil of the revolutionaries themselves. Dickens deeply sympathizes with the plight of the French peasantry and emphasizes their need for liberation. The several chapters that deal with the Marquis Evrémonde successfully paint a picture of a vicious aristocracy that shamelessly exploits and oppresses the nation’s poor. Although Dickens condemns this oppression, however, he also condemns the peasants’ strategies in overcoming it. For in fighting cruelty with cruelty, the peasants effect no true revolution; rather, they only perpetuate the violence that they themselves have suffered. Dickens makes his stance clear in his suspicious and cautionary depictions of the mobs. The scenes in which the people sharpen their weapons at the grindstone and dance the grisly Carmagnole come across as deeply macabre. Dickens’s most concise and relevant view of revolution comes in the final chapter, in which he notes the slippery slope down from the oppressed to the oppressor: “Sow the same seed of rapacious license and oppression over again, and it will surely yield the same fruit according to its kind.” Though Dickens sees the French Revolution as a great symbol of transformation and resurrection, he emphasizes that its violent means were ultimately antithetical to its end.
More main ideas from A Tale of Two Cities