5. Darkness and light are used to symbolize good and evil
Light, and its opposite, darkness, are a vital theme within the novel. A Tale of Two Cities is never anything but a truly dark story but moments of dark and light do shine through.
The book opens to the story of a coach journey in the dark as Mr Lorry travels to Paris to rescue Dr Manette from the long dark years of his imprisonment; even Mr Lorry’s first meeting with Lucie Manette (the true light of the novel) takes place in darkness.
Lucie with her golden hair and good, kind, nurturing character represents light. She nurtures Dr Manette out of the depths of despair and darkness and shows him that there is still hope in the world and something to live for. She welcomes Sidney Carton into her home and family and, when her husband is imprisoned, brings him a welcome ray of hope by standing on the street outside the prison every day so that he can see her and know that he is loved.
While Lucie represents light the darkness of the novel and the time in which it is set is typified by the terrifying character of Madame Defarge. Brutalized as a young girl by seeing her sister and the rest of her family killed by the Evremondes she becomes a bloodthirsty leader of the revolution and typifies all that is wrong with the excesses of revolutionary fervor. Lucie even feels that Madame Defarge is ‘a shadow on me’
4. The book is a searing commentary on social justice
Dickens experienced true hardship in his life as a child when he had to work as a boot black to support his family while his father was in debtor’s prison. As such his books can often be read as, and indeed are designed to be, commentaries on the faults in society. A Tale of Two Cities is no different.
The book is brutally honest about the problems in France. The chapters that deal with the Marquis St. Evremonde, in particular with the death of the child and the rape and murder of the young woman (Madame Defarge’s sister) and her family paint a very thorough picture of a society in which the poor are no more than animals to the rich, oppressed and exploited for the gain of a small elite in society. As the reader starts to understand the nature of the life endured by the poor they sympathize with the revolutionary aims of the new order. It becomes clear through the commentary that Dickens feels that the situation in Britain is only marginally better than that in France with the executioner being kept busy punishing people for misdemeanors. The book is a warning to the aristocracy of the UK that they beware not to sow the same seeds of discontent as their French cousins did or they will surely reap the same rewards.
Dickens’ sympathy is, however, limited and erodes quickly once the excesses of the revolution come to light. This is typified by his descriptions of the actions of the mob, likening them to the relentless action of water (see 6 above) or the grisly scene in the third book where the mob dance the carmagnole to the grisly lyrics of the revolution and sharpen their weapons on the grindstones. Towards the end of the book Dickens notes that if you ‘sow the same seed of rapacious license and oppression over again and it will surely yield the same fruit according to its kind’. Noting that it is inevitable that power will corrupt and that no real change is truly possible. However, there is hope for redemption as seen in Sidney Carton’s vision for a new France reborn out of the ashes of the revolution, one where the guillotine exacts retribution on those ‘new oppressors who have risen on the destruction of the old’ before it is put out of use forever.
3. Sidney Carton and Charles Darnay are both aspects of Charles Dickens’ persona
Shortly before writing A Tale of Two Cities Dickens starred in The Frozen Deep a play by Wilkie Collins where Dickens’ character ends up as one of two men in love with the same woman. He sacrifices himself for his rival – a direct inspiration for the love triangle between Lucie Manette, Sidney Carton and Charles Darnay.
Carton and Darnay are so similar as to be doppelgangers, two halves of the same coin. Sidney Carton is a man of great promise who has become dissolute and lazy through drink. He sees in Charles Darnay all that he could have been in a different life; Carton is bad but fascinating, Darnay is good but dull. It is only together that Carton and Darnay make a complete and rounded character not dissimilar to that of Charles Dickens himself. It is interesting that, when the two names are put together they form Dickens’ initials.