Charles Dickens – Tale of Two Cities
Charles Dickens wrote so many beautiful, enduring works that it is difficult to choose one to represent him on this site. Initially I chose “David Copperfield,” because it is most auto-biographical of Dickens, but I find “Tale of Two Cities” such a masterful example of a historical novel and such a powerful example of patterned narrative techniques that I present it here because of its teaching merits.
Special Focus: Doubling and Duality – Comparison of Two
The novel famously opens at the time of the French Revolution with this example of antithesis:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on it being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
Antithesis is from the Greek word for “opposition” and uses parallel phrases or words with contrasting meanings.
The phrase “degree of comparison” hints at the theme of doubling which is threaded throughout the work. Doubling used as comparison both illustrates similarities and highlights differences. Dickens uses doubling of geography, doubling of situations, and doubling of characters to create a highly patterned, thought-provoking novel.
Doubling and the Two Cities
Dickens compares England and France, and sets the story in both countries. The comparison of the countries begins by comparing their monarchs:
There were a king with a large jaw and a queen with a plain face, on the throne of England; there were a king with a large jaw and a queen with a fair face, on the throne of France.
Notice that both similarities and differences are detailed, as Dickens does at many levels.
Doubling of Sidney Carton and Charles Darney
Sidney Carton and Charles Darnay resemble each other physically, but are opposites in character. Carton is dissolute and unpleasant. Darnay is principled and giving. Carton later redeems himself by impersonating Darnay at the guillotine and giving his own life so that Darnay can go back to his family. Carton grows throughout the narrative, motivated by his love for Lucy Manette, Darnay’s wife, and ultimately becomes the hero of the novel. On the guillotine, Carton thinks:
It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.
Dicken’s Social Commentary
Dickens portrays revolutionary France after the uprising as mob-ruled and without a fair justice system. Innocents are imprisoned for reasons that are often ludicrous, kept imprisoned for months and years, and daily led to the guillotine. However, Dickens comments with understanding that the social conditions of evil aristocratic repression of the poor in France could have no other outcome:
Along the Paris streets, the death-carts rumble, hollow and harsh. Six tumbrils carry the day’s wine to La Guillotine. All the devouring and insatiate monsters imagined since imagination could record itself, are fused in the one realisation, guillotine. And yet there is not in France, with its rich variety of soil and climate, a blade, a leaf, a root, a sprig, a peppercord, which will grow to maturity under conditions more certain than those that have produced this horror. Crush humanity out of shape once more, under similar hammers, and it will twist itself into the same tortured forms. Sow the same seed of rapacious license and oppression over again, and it will surely yield the same fruit according to its kind.
Study Questions/Teaching Prompts
1. The first book of the novel, “Recalled to Life,” brings family friend Jarvis Lorry to meet the recently freed Dr. Manette and reunite him with his daughter Lucy, who believed since her childhood that he was dead. Where else in the novel is the idea of reincarnation or life after death illustrated?
2. Dickens compares the legal systems in England and France with the trials of Charles Darnay in each country. What are some key features and characteristics of each legal system in the story?
3. Dickens compares and contrasts the imprisonments of Dr. Manette in the Bastille and later Charles Darnay in Paris. What are the triggers and conditions that led to each of the imprisonments? What else does imprisonment seem to represent in the story?