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A Tale of Two Cities takes place in England and France, largely London and Paris. The narrative starts in November 1775, but the actual events of the story begin in December 1757 with Dr. Manette's imprisonment in the Bastille. The action closes in December 1793 when Lucie Darnay and her party successfully flee France.
The historical background is the French Revolution. From page one, it approaches unstoppably. Once revolution breaks out, the action shifts to France and remains there for the duration of the novel. Which of the two cities-London or Paris-makes the stronger impression? You don't have to be familiar with Paris or its history to get a concrete sense of the city's revolutionary atmosphere. London, by contrast, may seem to fade out of the novel. With the exception of the crowd following Roger Cly's tomb, you might have trouble singling out an incident of London street life. Perhaps it's Dickens' handling of time that puts the emphasis on Paris. Book the Third covers only 15 months in a time scheme of 26 years. Yet that entire part of the novel takes place in France, mainly in strife-torn Paris. The emotion-charged events serve to make the setting memorable.
THEMES - THEME ANALYSIS
Some of the main themes of A Tale of Two Cities are listed below. Notice that some themes form contrasting pairs, forces in conflict. Dickens never declares outright which force triumphs. You must decide, weighing the accumulated evidence of the story.
The idea of being "recalled to life" penetrates every aspect of the novel. Characters "recalled" from either a symbolic or impending death include Dr. Manette, Charles Darnay, and, in an ironic way, Roger Cly. Jerry Cruncher, "resurrection man," brings the dead back into this world in a grisly way; Lucie Manette, gently restoring her father's memory, brings the doctor back in a loving way.
In your own reading you may find Sydney Carton the most striking example of this theme. Dying in order to save Charles Darnay, Carton becomes the "Resurrection and the Life."
2. SACRIFICE (RENUNCIATION)
If we accept Carton's death as the greatest sacrifice in the novel, we can't overlook its connection with the theme of resurrection. Actually, Carton makes a double sacrifice. Long before he gave up his life, he renounced all claims to Lucie Manette. Would you consider it a great sacrifice to give up the person who might be your one chance for worldly happiness?
Other important sacrifices are made by Charles Darnay, Dr. Manette, and Miss Pross, who loses her hearing for Lucie's sake.
In A Tale of Two Cities the sweep of history and the flow of everyday life seem beyond individual control. Society's collective excesses, the greed and selfishness of the French aristocracy, bring about a revolution. As you read, be alert for correspondences between individual evil, and cruelty on a large scale. The unjust imprisonment of Dr. Manette by the St. Evremondes leads directly to the unjust imprisonment of Charles Darnay by the people. You'll notice that aristocratic oppression both causes and resembles the Revolutionary Terror.
The world of the novel seems naturally to divide into the forces of light and dark, or good and evil. Look for golden-haired Lucie Manette to lead the forces of light. She's a radiant angel, a golden thread weaving happiness into the lives of her loved ones. Darkness and shadows have unpleasant associations with threats and death. Note the gloom surrounding prisons, hangings (Gaspard's dangling corpse casts a shadow), and Madame Defarge and company.
Throughout the story characters question whether they're awake or dreaming. Sometimes it's hard to decide which state is preferable. Both reality and unreality have drawbacks. The Farmer-General, a cruel oppressor, is certainly real, and the grim Paris slums are the genuine article.
For its part, unreality is the haunt of ghosts and spirits. Dickens tells us plainly that unreality pervades Monseigneur's court, symbol of the old, wicked regime. Dreams, fog, and sleep-closely related to unreality-are the conditions most like death. The doomed aristocrats Darnay meets in La Force are described as "Ghosts all!"
The doubles you're most likely to spot at once are Charles Darnay and Sydney Carton. Yet the novel is filled with pairs: the St. Evremonde twins; the little mender of roads/the wood sawyer; Jerry Cruncher and young Jerry.
If you contrast Darnay's generally hopeful outlook with Carton's pessimism, the two men appear to represent the light and dark aspects of life. Not all of the pairs, however, are opposites. Young Jerry seems a perfect miniature of his father, spiky hair and all.
Dickens uses repeated images of mirrors to support the theme of doubles. When you look in a mirror, you are in a sense seeing your double. For instance, watch Sydney Carton studying his own face in a mirror. The image he sees is Darnay's.
Several of A Tale's characters are endowed with the force of love. Observe Lucie Manette, whose "golden thread" of love symbolically encircles her family. And notice Miss Pross, aided by love in her struggle with Madame Defarge. Finally, think about the motivation for Sydney Carton's great sacrifice. In order to give up his life, he first had to love someone-Lucie-more than himself.
Love may be said to triumph in the end: Lucie and her party escape, and Sydney Carton has a vision of a better world to come. But consider the costs-Miss Pross loses her hearing, and Carton gives up his life.
Hate and its byproduct, vengeance, control the actions of Madame Defarge, The Vengeance, Jacques Three, and the faceless, slaughtering mob. To a lesser extent, Ernest Defarge also seems ruled by hate. On one hand, Carton's dying vision indicates that hate and vengeance have lost a round. On the other hand, Dickens uses his last chapter to point to the lessons of history. Crush humanity out of its natural shape, he says, and hate, evil, and violence result.
Death seems to go hand in hand with resurrection. Carton has to die in order for Darnay to live. Some readers believe that Dickens displays an obsession with death. As evidence, these readers cite Dickens' vivid description of capital punishment and scenes of Revolutionary violence. These readers also single out Sydney Carton to support their argument. They suggest that Carton has a secret yearning for death and oblivion, reflecting similar feelings held by Dickens.
A looming presence in the book, prisons in England and France are linked with darkness, death, and unreality. Think about the fact that every major character either spends time in or grows familiar with a prison.