2. The book takes Death and Resurrection as its main themes
The England in which Dickens lived and worked was a devoutly Christian country and a Christian morality and preoccupation with death and resurrection pervades the novel.
At the start of the story we meet Dr Manette who has been ‘recalled to life’ after 18 years ‘buried’ in the Bastille. Jerry Cruncher (the ‘Resurrection Man’ who robs graves) is the one entrusted with the message of Dr Manette’s revival. The end of the novel also heralds resurrection as Sidney Carton sacrifices himself to the guillotine in place of his doppelganger Charles Darnay who he resurrects from certain death. Sidney Carton may be giving up his mortal life but he is certain that he will be going to a ‘far far better rest’. As he goes to his death and resurrection Sidney Carton has a vision of a new France rising out of the ‘abyss’ of the Revolution with the evil of the times ‘making expiation for itself’.
Resurrection is an important theme but it is mirrored by the importance of references to death in the novel. Some of the key events of the book surround death and destruction, prior to the Revolution we learn that life is cheap and death easy for the poor while the tables are subsequently turned in the Terror.
The Marquis St. Evremonde kills a peasant child with his carriage, an event the Marquis considers so unimportant that he carelessly compensates the grieving father by throwing a gold coin out of the carriage and on to the street. Casks of wine, broken in the accident, cause the streets to run red, presaging the latter reign of terror of the French Revolution. The Marquis is subsequently killed in his bed by the father of the little child who is himself later caught and killed.
Charles Darnay is condemned to death for the crimes of his father and uncle (Marquis St. Evremonde) who raped a young girl to death and subsequently destroyed her whole family bar one to hide their guilt. It was his refusal to be complicit in the cover up of this death that resulted in Dr Manette being sent to the Bastile by St. Evremonde.
Even Dr Manette’s cobbler’s bench (to which he has an unhealthy obsessive compulsive attachment as a result of his 18 years in prison) is ‘killed’. Seeing that the bench allows Dr Manette to retreat into himself when he is worried or stressed his close friend Mr. Lorry and Lucie Manette’s companion Miss Pross destroy it in a process called rather grimly ‘burning the body’. This death of the symbol of his imprisonment allows Dr Manette to experience a second resurrection and enjoy life as a parent to a happily married woman and, in time, as a grandparent.
1. Sidney Carton’s sacrifice, at the end of the book is reminiscent of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross.
Sidney Carton feels himself to be a dissolute nobody, worth little even to those people that he loves. So worthless does he believe himself to be that he does not even take the credit for the cases that he wins in court, preferring to allow his colleague Stryver to be seen to take the credit while Carton does the work behind the scenes.
So deep, however, is his love for Lucie Manette and his regard for her family that he willingly sacrifices himself to save Charles Darnay and allow him to enjoy a long and happy life with Lucie and his children. Not only does he sacrifice himself for others he faces his death with such courage that he provides solace and comfort to another in the same situation, a poor seamstress unjustly accused of plotting against the Republic. His courage gives her the strength to face her death.
It is this willing and loving sacrifice and courage in the face of horror that makes Sidney Carton a true Christ like figure.
A Tale of Two Cities is a book that has it all. An instant classic that had readers waiting on the edge of their seats for the next installment (Dickens’ works were published in installments) it is a book about love and hate, war and peace, romance and revenge. It shows us all that is good in the human spirit and all that is profane. It is a book that gives more of itself every time you read it. We hope that this list has inspired you to pick it up and read it once again.