Keep in mind that Dickens was experimenting in A Tale of Two Cities. He hoped to reveal character through events in the story, rather than by dialogue. He attempted to comment on French history by creating not only individuals but characters who seem to stand for entire social classes. The little mender of roads, a common man thrust into Revolutionary excesses, is one example; Monseigneur, whose chocolate-drinking requires the services of four strong men, is another. One of the great caricaturists of his age, Dickens often found his talent hard to suppress. Remember Dickens' penchant for exaggeration when you meet Miss Pross (with her phenomenal bonnet like a Stilton cheese) and spiky-haired Jerry Cruncher. These characters may not strike you as conventionally realistic, but think again. Are they meant to be just like you and me? Some readers feel that the simpler characters, set in the framework of a dense plot, express Dickens' sense of the complexity of life. |
LUCIE MANETTE (DARNAY) One way you may approach Lucie Manette is as the central figure of the novel. Think about the many ways she affects her fellow characters. Although she is not responsible for liberating her father, Dr. Manette, from the Bastille, Lucie is the agent who restores his damaged psyche through unselfish love and devotion. She maintains a calm, restful atmosphere in their Soho lodgings, attracting suitors (Charles Darnay, Stryver, Sydney Carton) and brightening the life of family friend Jarvis Lorry. Home is Lucie's chosen territory, where she displays her fireside virtues of tranquility, fidelity, and motherhood. It's as a symbol of home that her centrality and influence are greatest. Even her physical attributes promote domestic happiness: her blonde hair is a "golden thread" binding her father to health and sanity, weaving a fulfilling life for her eventual husband, Charles Darnay, and their daughter. Lucie is central, too, in the sense that she's caught in several triangles- the most obvious one involving Carton and Darnay. Lucie marries Darnay (he's upcoming and handsome, the romantic lead) and exerts great influence on Carton. A second, subtler triangle involves Lucie, her father, and Charles Darnay. The two men share an ambiguous relationship. Because Lucie loves Darnay, Dr. Manette must love him, too. Yet Darnay belongs to the St. Evremonde family, cause of the doctor's long imprisonment, and is thus subject to his undying curse. Apart from his ancestry, Darnay poses the threat, by marrying Lucie, of replacing Dr. Manette in her affections. At the very end of the novel you'll find Lucie caught in a third triangle- the struggle between Miss Pross and Madame Defarge. Miss Pross, fighting for Lucie, is fighting above all for love. Her triumph over Madame Defarge is a triumph over chaos and vengeance. Let's move now from Lucie's influence on other characters to Lucie herself. Sydney Carton, who loves Lucie devotedly, labels her a "little golden doll." Carton means this ironically- he's hiding his true feelings from Stryver- but some readers have taken his words at face value. They see Lucie as a cardboard creation, and her prettiness and family devotion as general traits, fitting Dickens' notions of the ideal woman. Readers fascinated with Dickens' life have traced Lucie's origins to Ellen Ternan, the 18-year-old actress Dickens was infatuated with while writing A Tale. Ellen was blonde, and she shared Lucie's habit of worriedly knitting her brows. Of course, the artist who draws on real life nearly always transforms it into something else, something original. Finally, consider viewing Lucie allegorically- as a character acting on a level beyond the actual events of the story. Dickens frequently mentions Lucie's golden hair. The theme of light versus dark is one that runs all through A Tale, and Lucie's fair hair seems to ally her with the forces of light. The force of dark seems to come from Lucie's opposite in most respects, the brunette Madame Defarge.
SYDNEY CARTON Sydney Carton dies on the guillotine to spare Charles Darnay. How you interpret Carton's sacrifice- positively or negatively- will affect your judgment of his character, and of Dickens' entire work. Some readers take the positive view that Carton's act is a triumph of individual love over the mob hatred of the Revolution. Carton and the seamstress he comforts meet their deaths with great dignity. In fulfilling his old promise to Lucie, Carton attains peace; those watching see "the peacefullest man's face ever beheld" at the guillotine. In a prophetic vision, the former "jackal" glimpses a better world rising out of the ashes of revolution, and long life for Lucie and her family- made possible by his sacrifice. This argument also links Carton's death with Christian sacrifice and love. When Carton makes his decision to die, the New Testament verse beginning "I am the Resurrection and the Life" nearly becomes his theme song. The words are repeated a last time at the moment Carton dies. In what sense may we see Carton's dying in Darnay's place as Christ-like? It wipes away his sin, just as Christ's death washed clean man's accumulated sins. For readers who choose the negative view, Carton's death seems an act of giving up. These readers point out that Stryver's jackal has little to lose. Never useful or happy, Carton has already succumbed to the depression eating away at him. In the midst of a promising youth, Carton had "followed his father to the grave"- that is, he's already dead in spirit. For such a man, physical death would seem no sacrifice, but a welcome relief. Some readers even go so far as to claim that Carton's happy vision of the future at the novel's close is out of place with his overall gloominess. According to this interpretation, the bright prophecies of better times ahead are basically Dickens' way of copping out, of pleasing his audience with a hopeful ending. If Sydney Carton's motives seem complicated to you, try stepping back and viewing him as a man, rather than an influence on the story. He's a complex, realistic character. We see him so clearly, working early morning hours on Stryver's business, padding between table and punch bowl in his headdress of sopping towels, that we're able to feel for him. Have you ever known someone who's thrown away his talent or potential, yet retains a spark of achievement, as well as people's sympathy? That's one way of looking at Sydney Carton. Dickens adds an extra dimension to Carton's portrait by giving him a "double," Charles Darnay. For some readers, Carton is the more memorable half of the Carton/Darnay pair. They argue that Dickens found it easier to create a sympathetic bad character than an interesting good one. Carton's own feelings toward his look-alike waver between admiration and hostility. But see this for yourself, by noticing Carton's rudeness to Darnay after the Old Bailey trial. When Darnay has gone, Carton studies his image in a mirror, realizing that the young Frenchman is everything he might have been- and therefore a worthy object of hatred. It's interesting that both Carton and Darnay can function in two cultures, English and French. Darnay, miserable in France, becomes a happy French teacher in England. In a kind of reversal, Carton, a lowly jackal in London, immortalizes himself in Paris. Carton and Darnay have one further similarity- the doubles may represent separate aspects of Dickens. If we see Darnay as Dickens' light side, then Carton corresponds to an inner darkness. The unhappy lawyer is a man of prodigious intelligence gone to waste, a man who fears he'll never find happiness. These concerns mirror Dickens' own worries about the direction his career was taking in the late 1850s, and about his disintegrating marriage. It's been suggested that Dickens, though a spectacularly successful writer, had no set place in the rigid English class system. Regarded from this perspective, Dickens, like Carton, was a social outsider.
CHARLES DARNAY Charles Darnay has many functions: he holds a place in the story, in Dickens' scheme of history, and in Dickens' life. We can view him on the surface as A Tale of Two Cities' romantic lead. We can also look for depth, starting at Darnay's name. St. Evremonde is Darnay's real name. He is French by birth, and English by preference, and emerges as a bicultural Everyman. He's a common, decent person, caught in circumstances beyond his control. Darnay isn't merely caught in the Revolution, he's pulled by it, as if by a magnet. He's at the mercy of fate. Besides fate, a leading theme, Darnay illustrates a second concern of the novel: renunciation or sacrifice. He gives up his estate in France, substituting for his old privileges the very unaristocratic ideal of work. Darnay's political liberalism and decision to earn his own living (tutoring young Englishmen in French language and literature) put him in conflict with his uncle, the Marquis St. Evremonde. If you've ever disagreed with a member of your own family, multiply your differences by ten and you'll understand the relationship between Charles Darnay and his uncle. The two men live in different philosophical worlds. Young Darnay signals the new, progressive order (though you'll see that he's never tagged a revolutionary); the older Marquis sticks to the old, wicked ways. The resemblance between Darnay and Sydney Carton is so marked that it saves Darnay's life at two critical junctures. As we've seen, the two men are doubles. For many readers, they form halves of a whole personality. Darnay is sunny and hopeful, representing the chance for happiness in life; Carton is depressed and despairing. Both characters compete for Lucie Manette, and both enact the novel's all- important theme of resurrection. If we think of Darnay, saved twice by Carton's intervention, as the resurrectee, then Carton becomes the resurrector. (As you'll recall, Carton in fact dies imagining himself "the Resurrection and the Life.") Many readers have noted that "Charles Dickens" and "Charles Darnay" are similar names, and they view Darnay as the bright, forward-looking side of Dickens, the hero. Though he undergoes trial and imprisonment, Darnay ultimately gets the girl and leads a long, blissful life. He has a pronounced capacity for domestic happiness, something Dickens yearned for. There's also been debate over whether Darnay is a fully realized character or just a handsome puppet. You'll have to reach your own conclusions about Darnay, of course. In doing so, take into account that Dickens intended his plot to define character, and was working in a limited space- A Tale of Two Cities is one of his shortest novels.
DR. ALEXANDRE MANETTEDr. Manette's release from the Bastille after 18 years of solitary confinement sounds the first note in the theme of resurrection, and sets Dickens' plot in motion. The secret papers left in Manette's cell lead directly to A Tale's climax, Charles Darnay's sentence to die. Does the doctor seem believable, a man of psychological depth? To support a yes answer, look at Dickens' rendering of a white-haired man, just released from his living tomb, whose face reflects "scared, blank wonder." As the story continues, Dr. Manette's spells of amnesia feel authentic. Doesn't it seem natural that Dr. Manette returns to shoemaking- the task that preserved his sanity in the Bastille- whenever he's reminded of that dark period of his life? Less believable for some readers is the journal Dr. Manette composes in blood and haste, and hides in his cell. These readers find the doctor's journal long and melodramatic, and point to the dying peasant boy, gasping a vengeful monologue, as an instance of realism being sacrificed to drama. From the point of view of the French Revolutionaries, Dr. Manette is a living reminder of their oppression. They revere him for his sufferings as a Bastille prisoner. During Darnay's imprisonment in Paris, Dr. Manette uses the Revolutionaries' esteem to keep his son-in-law alive. As a result, you watch him grow stronger, regaining the sense of purpose he'd lost in the Bastille.
JARVIS LORRYAll through the story Jarvis Lorry protests that he's nothing more or less than a man of business. "Feelings!" he exclaims, "I have no time for them." Mr. Lorry's time belongs to Tellson's bank, "the House," his employer for over 40 years. Yet behind his allegiance to business, Lorry hides a kind heart. When Dr. Manette responds to Lucie's marriage by falling into an amnesiac spell, Lorry deserts Tellson's for nine full days to look after his friend. How closely does Lorry conform to modern ideas about bankers and businessmen? He admittedly values the bank above himself, an attitude you might consider old fashioned. Readers have described him as the sort of clerk Dickens saw passing in his own day, and mourned. Lorry compares favorably with the two other men of business in the story: Stryver, the pushing lawyer, and Jerry Cruncher, the "honest tradesman" who digs up bodies and sells them to medical science. During the Revolution Tellson's in London becomes a haven for emigrant French aristocrats, the same aristocrats found guilty, a few chapters earlier, of squeezing their peasants dry. How should you view Tellson's for sheltering an oppressing class? (Dickens has already revealed that the cramped, dark bank resists change of any sort.) More to the point, how should you judge Jarvis Lorry for dedicating his life to such an establishment? Readers have suggested that Dickens, despite his liberal politics, found the solidity of institutions like Tellson's appealing; the old bank and its banker, Jarvis Lorry, represent a kind of bastion against the new, aggressive ways of men like Stryver- and against the frenzied violence of the French mob.
MADAME DEFARGE Dickens is famous for tagging his characters with a habit, trait, or turn of phrase. Just as Jarvis Lorry's constant catchword is "business," so Madame Defarge's defining activity is knitting. Madame knits a register of those she's marked for death, come the revolution. This hobby links her closely with the novel's theme of fate. By referring to myth, we may interpret her as one of the Fates- the Greek goddesses who first spin the thread of human life, and then cut it off. But it's not necessary to go beyond the story for other equivalents to Madame Defarge's fast-moving fingers. Dickens implicitly contrasts her ominous craft with Lucie Manette's "golden thread," or blonde hair. Lucie weaves a pattern of love and light, holding her family together, while Madame Defarge never knits a sweater, only death. Occupying relatively little space in the novel, Madame Defarge has nonetheless been called its most memorable character. She and her husband have a curiously modern air. Perhaps you can imagine the Defarges by picturing today's guerrilla fighters in embattled underdeveloped countries. Madame Defarge is a professional who knows how to use political indoctrination. On a fieldtrip to Versailles with the little mender of roads she identifies the dressed-up nobility as "dolls and birds." She's teaching the mender of roads to recognize his future prey. As you read, try seeing Madame Defarge as neither political force nor mythic figure, but as a human being. Her malignant sense of being wronged by the St. Evremondes turns her almost- but not quite- into a machine of vengeance. Dickens inserts details to humanize her: she is sensitive to cold; when the spy John Barsad enters her shop, she nods with "a stern kind of coquetry"; at the very end of the book, making tracks for Lucie's apartment, she strides with "the supple freedom" of a woman who has grown up on the beach. Do you think such "personal" touches make Therese Defarge less terrifying, since she's so clearly human? Or does she seem more nightmarish, because, violent and vengeful, she's one of us?
MONSIEUR DEFARGE Keeper of the wine shop in Saint Antoine, leader of the attack on the Bastille, Defarge is a man of divided loyalties. He owes allegiance to 1. Dr. Manette, his old master; 2. the ideals of the Revolution; 3. his wife, Therese. A strong, forceful character with natural authority, Defarge can for a time serve three masters. There's no conflict of interest between taking in Dr. Manette after his release from the Bastille and furthering the Revolution. Defarge actually displays his confused charge to members of the Jacquerie- a group of radical peasants- as an object lesson in government evil. Only when Revolutionary fervor surges out of bounds are Defarge's triple loyalties tested. He refuses to aid Charles Darnay- Dr. Manette's son-in-law- when Darnay is seized as an aristocrat; by now the orders are coming from Defarge's bloodthirsty wife. Goaded by Madame, Defarge ends by denouncing Darnay and providing the evidence (ironically, in Dr. Manette's name) needed to condemn him. Defarge stops just short of denouncing Dr. Manette and Lucie, too, but there are hints from Madame and friends that he'd better start toeing the line. Dickens leaves us with the thought that, finally, Defarge is controlled by a force more powerful than politics, or even his wife. In Sydney Carton's last vision, Defarge and Madame Defarge perish by the guillotine. Is it fate, irony, or historic inevitability that kills them? You decide.
MISS PROSS Eccentric, mannish-looking Miss Pross is a type of character familiar to readers of Dickens' novels. Beneath her wild red hair and outrageous bonnet, she's as good as gold, a fiercely loyal servant. Dickens places Miss Pross in the plot by means of her long-lost brother. Solomon Pross is revealed to be John Barsad, Old Bailey spy and "sheep of the prisons." Miss Pross' two defining characteristics are her devotion to Lucie and Solomon, and her stalwart Britishness. When Madame Defarge marches in, armed, to execute Lucie and her family, Miss Pross understands the Frenchwoman's intent- but not a word she says. Miss Pross has refused to learn French. Miss Pross' blind patriotism and devotion work to her advantage. She's empowered by love. Mistaking Miss Pross' tears of resolve for weakness, Madame Defarge moves toward a closed door, and in a heated struggle is shot by her own pistol. A Tale of Two Cities isn't markedly anti-France or pro- England, but Miss Pross' victory may strike you as a victory for her country, too.
C.J. STRYVER Dickens dislikes Stryver. You may be hard put to find a single lovable feature in this "shouldering" lawyer, who has been "driving and living" ever since his school days with Sydney Carton. Yet the ambitious Stryver- his name a neat summing up of the man- is making his way in the world. With little talent for law, he pays the doomed but brilliant Carton to do his work for him. For the Stryvers of society, ambition and unscrupulousness count far more than skill. Dickens' Stryver is one of the new men of industrialized Victorian England. Abhorring his progress in real life, Dickens renders him the butt of jokes and scorn in the novel: Stryver's three adopted sons, though not of his flesh and blood, seem tainted by the mere connection. Dickens' portrayal of Stryver as the man we love to hate seems rather one-sided. Does this make him a more memorable creation, or of limited interest? Notice how sharply Stryver is drawn in individual scenes- during his midnight work sessions with Carton, and in his conferences with Lorry about marrying Lucie. But once Lucie is married, and Darnay returns to France, Stryver drops out of the story. His role as the object of Dickens' satire is at an end.
JERRY CRUNCHER For some readers, spiky-haired Jerry Cruncher supplies an element of humor in an otherwise serious novel. Other readers claim that the Cockney odd-job man who beats his wife for "flopping" (praying) isn't a particularly funny fellow. Cruncher's after hours work is digging up newly buried bodies and selling them to surgeons, which may not seem a subject for comedy. But it does contribute, in two important ways, to A Tale's development. Cruncher's grave robbing graphically illustrates the theme of resurrection: he literally raises people from the dead. (Victorian grave robbers were in fact nicknamed "resurrection men.") One of the plot's biggest surprises hinges on Cruncher's failed attempt to unearth the body of Roger Cly, the spy who testified with John Barsad against Charles Darnay. In France, years after his graveyard expedition, Cruncher discloses that Cly's coffin contained only stones and dirt. This information enables Sydney Carton to force Barsad, Cly's partner, into a plot to save Charles Darnay's life. As for Cruncher's moral character, a brush with Revolutionary terror reforms him. He promises to make amends for his former "honest trade" by turning undertaker, burying the dead instead of raising them. In the last, tense pages of the novel, Cruncher's vow, "never no more will I interfere with Mrs. Cruncher's flopping," finally strikes a humorous chord. It's darkly comic relief.