Just before writing A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens acted the leading role in a play called The Frozen Deep written by his friend Wilkie Collins. Dickens played a man in love with a woman who rejects him in favor of a rival. The character Dickens played sacrifices his own life to save the rival he despises-all because of his love for the woman who rejected him. A Tale of Two Cities works out a similar theme of self-sacrifice. Sydney Carton, a brilliant young lawyer, wastes his talents in drink and cynicism. Carton helps another lawyer, the self-centered and unintelligent Stryver, to win cases and “shoulder” his way up in the world, but he will not work for himself. “I am incapable of all the higher and better flights of men,” Carton says. He describes himself as “a dissolute dog who has never done any good and never will.” Yet, rejected by Lucie Manette in favor of the handsome Frenchman Charles Darnay, Carton tells her, “For you, and for any dear to you, I would do anything…. There is a man who would give his life, to keep a life you love beside you!” At the novel’s end, Carton does exactly that, exchanging places with Darnay, who looks remarkably like Carton, just before his execution by guillotine. In willingly giving his life for Lucie-even to save the rival he dislikes-Carton performs a sort of Christlike sacrifice; he saves Darnay through his own death, and at the same time he redeems himself from his own sins. Carton dies with the famous last words: “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.”
Part of this self-sacrifice theme depends on a recurring pattern of resurrection imagery. The novel opens with Dr. Manette, Lucie’s supposedly dead father, being released from a French prison in which he was unjustly held in solitary confinement for eighteen years. Dickens’s characters repeatedly describe Dr. Manette as being “recalled to life.” Similarly, Carton twice rescues Darnay from prison and death. In London, where Darnay is tried as a French spy, Carton’s legal brilliance discredits the prosecution’s false witnesses and brings about an acquittal. Darnay is thus “recalled to life” after facing a death sentence if found guilty. In Paris, Carton drugs Darnay and again recalls him to life by taking his place at the guillotine. Before he dies, Carton repeatedly hears in his mind the words of Jesus, “I am the Resurrection and the Life.” Dickens also includes several humorous or false resurrections. The comic Jerry Cruncher moonlights as a “resurrection-man,” illegally digging up bodies to sell to medical researchers. The Old Bailey spy Roger Cly apparently dies and is buried, but as it turns out he has faked his own funeral to escape vengeful prisoners. Similarly, the French nobleman Foulon stages a funeral for himself to escape the French mob during the revolution, but he is eventually discovered, “recalled to life,” and then cruelly executed.
Dickens portrays the French mob’s violence in order to illustrate aspects of the relationship between rich and poor. The first half of A Tale of Two Cities shows examples of the French aristocracy’s cruelty and insensitivity to the overtaxed, impoverished, starving lower classes. Following Carlyle’s ideas, Dickens tries to show that when the rich and powerful of any country act as these French aristocrats did, the people will inevitably revolt. The French Revolution was the natural result of prolonged cruelty. Although he sympathizes with the sufferings of the French poor, Dickens disapproves of their violence and cruelty. But he primarily blames the corrupt aristocrats whose cruelty caused the poor to become inhuman. “Crush humanity out of shape once more, under similar hammers,” Dickens writes, “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.”
For Dickens, here as elsewhere in his writings, problems of human suffering will not be solved by changes in political or economic systems. Like Carlyle, Dickens believed that enough different systems had been tried over many centuries to prove that none would eradicate the suffering of the poor. Rather, he sought the kind of unselfish benevolence and self-sacrifice he illustrates in Lucie Manette, Charles Darnay, and Sydney Carton. Only when individuals-especially leaders-adopt these virtues and really care about the poor will suffering and injustice end. Dickens contends that the important changes occur in individuals, not systems. So Carton goes to heaven, while the French revolutionary system only finds new ways to commit the same atrocities that spawned it.
Ironically, despite its emphasis on individuals, A Tale of Two Cities may include fewer individualized, believable characters than any other Dickens novel. Indeed, many of its characters seem to exist primarily to illustrate points or exemplify aspects of human nature. In a departure from his normal characterization techniques, Dickens writes that he intends in A Tale of Two Cities to create characters “whom the story shall express, more than they should express themselves by dialogue.”
As often happens in Dickens’s novels, the hero and heroine are among the book’s least believable characters. Lucie Manette has almost no real depth of character: meek, pure, loving, inspiring to men, she represents Dickens’s ideal Victorian woman. Her husband, Charles Darnay, fares little better. Noble, honest, brave, and cultured, Darnay personifies the Victorian male virtues. He renounces his French aristocratic inheritance because of his relatives’ cruelty and works in England teaching French. His ideas and actions command admiration and respect, yet he lacks real individuality and psychological depth. Sydney Carton is Darnay’s double, both literally and figuratively. Carton sees in Darnay what he could have been, and this recognition contributes to his dislike of the Frenchman. Most readers find Carton believable and interesting through most of the book. Critics disagree, however, on whether his final sacrifice is convincing. Certainly Carton’s character throughout the novel is essential to Dickens’s purpose, and several incidents foreshadow Carton’s final noble act.
Lucie’s father, Dr. Alexandre Manette, seems at least somewhat more real than his daughter. As a prisoner in the Bastille, he fought despair by making shoes. For some time after his release, Dr. Manette cannot rediscover his old identity and finds it difficult to live without shoemaking materials and a locked door. His occasional relapses into his prison mode seem psychologically accurate and insightful.
The novel’s most memorable characters are probably the French revolutionaries. Madame Defarge knits a coded history of aristocratic atrocities, storing up the wrongs committed against her class. As leader of the revolutionary women, Madame Defarge loses her best instincts and becomes thoroughly vengeful, unmerciful, and violent. The other women, too, show fascinating contrasts. They help storm the Bastille, destroying everything and killing everyone there, then return to home to nurse babies, prepare scanty meals, or play with their children. Despite her contradictions-or because of them-Madame Defarge stands out as a realistic, psychologically deep character. Her husband and the male revolutionaries have some depth as well. Lacking his wife’s secret motives for hatred, Monsieur Defarge vacillates in his vengefulness. Yet he remains loyal to his revolutionary cause, refusing to help Darnay despite his sympathy.
Dickens does include a number of English characters who are more traditionally “Dickensian.” These characters, usually comic and distinguishable by a repeated peculiarity of speech or humorous quirk, add a lighter touch to an otherwise dark and serious novel. Mr. Jarvis Lorry is an aging bachelor who represents Tellson’s bank first and himself only afterward, if at all. Lorry pretends to consider everything from a purely business perspective, but he does this partly to modestly deny credit for his many acts of kindness. Jerry Cruncher, a low-level employee at Tellson’s, steals bodies from new graves at night to sell to surgeons doing medical research. Jerry’s pious wife prays that he will stop doing such awful things, which Jerry interprets as praying against him and his financial success. In a darkly funny tone, Dickens shows Jerry berating his wife for her prayers (“flopping” he calls it). He calls her, in his uneducated English, “Aggerawayter” (Aggravator). Stryver is a disgustingly egoistic and ambitious lawyer whose success depends entirely on Carton’s behind-the-scenes instructions. Stryver’s whole life has been an attempt to “shoulder” his way in front of others on his path to success. Finally, Miss Pross, the Manettes’ loyal English servant, has her strange quirks. But she stands up to Madame Defarge in a climactic scene in which the two converse at high volume, each in a language the other cannot understand.