“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 its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only” (Book I, Chapter 1).
Main Characters and Plot
No one can better summarize what “A Tale of Two Cities” is about than Dickens himself with this prophetic introduction.
Heroes that are not heroes, and the most innocent who is condemned to save the life of all – this is the French Revolution.
Dickens wonderfully links the two cities separated by the sea, when Lucie takes a boat across the Channel. In Paris she finds her father Doctor Manette and helps him to regain his sense of self. Fate torn them apart but destiny now reunites them.
Doctor Manette is an honorable man who witnessed the horror led by the aristocrats decades before the Revolution happened. His heart and honor lead him to be imprisoned in the Bastille where he stays so long that he becomes a lunatic. The years he spends in the cell “One hundred and five, North Tower” make him a hero of the French Revolution.
The names of those who sent him to prison were the Evrémonde brothers. Their crime was to abuse their rights and to ruin a family –amongst many others- through sexual perversion and murders.
Destiny gives Doctor Manette the hope to live a new life with his daughter, of whom he almost knew nothing.
There are two keys characters that oppose themselves in all ways: Sydney Carton and Madame Defarge. Carton is in love with Lucie and gives his life for her happiness; he dies to save others. Lucie is married to another man who is found to be the last Evrémonde – but a nice one. Madame Defarge is the zealous citizen of the Republic that has decided to exterminate to the very end all that remains of the Evrémonde family. Her will for revenge exceeds what justice is all about and she embodies best the figure of what the Revolution actually is. She is full of hatred and nothing will stop her: “’Then tell Wind and Fire where to stop’, returned madame; ‘but don’t tell me’” (III,12). She embodies the bloody Republic and the loss of what is holy, so that she wants to destroy everything including beauty itself – there might be a bit of jealousy towards Miss Manette who is said to be beautiful like an angel many times in the book. Miss Pross tells her: “’You might, from your appearance, be the wife of Lucifer’”(III,14). Madame Defarge triggers the death of the innocent, hence death punishes her for this.
The Two Cities: Paris vs. London
France is now hell on earth – as if it were not sufficient that hell existed after death. Paris is the worst place of hell that brought 11,000 (says the book, actual numbers are higher) under the Guillotine – the most inhuman way of killing innocents (emphasizes the book) in the Name of the Republic.
One of Madame Defarge’s friends in the book is called The Vengeance. The meaning of revenge is in fact punishing the innocent for the fault committed by another one. Madame Defarge puts all her energy in to accomplishing this mission so that when it is the time for her to see the last Evrémonde die, she is not even there: “’Bad fortune!’ cries the Vengeance, stamping her foot in the chair, ‘and here are the tumbrils! And Evrémonde will be despatched in a wink, and she not here! See her knitting in my hand, and her empty chair ready for her. I cry with vexation and disappointment!’” (III,15). Sad irony that her absence is her death, and the man that is about to be under the Guillotine is not even an Evrémonde.
The soil of France is nourished by the blood of thousands of innocents. France has sealed its fate forever by choosing the date of 1789, the most patriotic song: “… The bloody banner is raised … So that an impure blood will water our furrows!” (from La Marseillaise), and the principle of “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity or Death!” The lexical field that describes the French People: hatred, little demons, devil, vengeance, patriotic: “’If the Republic should demand of you the sacrifice of your child herself, you would have no duty but to sacrifice her’” (III,9).
England on the other side of the sea, has separated itself for a long time now from the most political religion that ruled Europe for too long and recognized that no one should be the middleman between the man and God, except the King: “’Confound their politics, Frustrate their knavish tricks, On him our hopes we fix, God save the King!’”(III,7 – and actual verse of “God save the King”). The way English people are described in the book show their love, holiness, piety, faith, faithfulness and mercy. Lucie Manette is the main character that embodies it all; her husband says of her “’God bless her for her sweet compassion!’” (II,20).
Hope in the sacrifice
Two centuries later, Dickens’ words are still true: “the period was so far like the present period.” The bloody soil of a country still asks for revenge and will keep on doing so until the day someone decides to forgive and recognize the blood of The Unique who died to bring peace to the world.
Does Dickens see a breach of hope in his last chapter when Carton is condemned with an innocent woman that he tries to comfort?
“’But for you, dear stranger, I should not be composed, for I am naturally a poor little thing, faint of heart; nor should I have been able to raise my thoughts to Him who was put to death, that we might have hope and comfort here to-day, I think you were sent to me by Heaven. […] I have a cousin, an only relative and an orphan, like myself whom I love very dearly.[…] If the Republic really does good to the poor, and they come to be less hungry, and in all ways to suffer less, she may live a long time; she may even live to be old.’
‘What then my gentle sister?’
‘Do you think? […] that it will seem long to me, while I wait for her in the better land where I trust both you and I will be mercifully sheltered?
‘It cannot be, my child; there is no Time there, and no trouble there.’
‘You comfort me so much! […]
She kisses his lips; he kisses hers: they solemnly bless each other.
‘I am the Resurrection and the Life, saith the Lord: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: and whosoever liveth and believeth in me, shall never die.’” (III,15)
Carton’s last thoughts depict a prophetic future. Justice will happen as it should; The Vengeance will die by its own evil instrument and life will continue for those whose lives have been saved by the sacrifice of another.
If Dickens’ masterpiece did not have the central theme of Resurrection, we would certainly regard the ending as tragic, but somehow it brings hope and a future for all nations – kingdoms and republics. One died for all men to bring peace to a world ruled by the devil. It is a beautiful image of the ultimate sacrifice.