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Free Barron's Booknotes-A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens-Summary
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Fearing her husband may try to warn Dr. Manette, Madame Defarge plans to denounce Lucie and her father that very night.

Armed with concealed pistol and dagger, Madame Defarge sets off for Lucie's house. She hopes to catch her prey "in a state of mind to impeach the justice of the Republic." In effect, any mourning Lucie displayed for her husband would "impeach" the Republic's justice, and dig her own grave.

Dickens portrays Madame Defarge as a strong, fearless, attractive woman who's also a tigress. While deploring her heartlessness, Dickens seems fascinated by it. His reluctant admiration is evident when he says Madame's dark hair "looked rich under her coarse red cap." Her walk has "the supple freedom of a woman who has habitually walked... on the brown sea-sand." When you finish the novel think about Madame Defarge and Lucie Manette. Which character do you remember more vividly? For some readers, Madame Defarge stands out. Evil determination lends her enduring interest.

As Madame Defarge draws nearer, Miss Pross and Jerry Cruncher make their own preparations for escaping France. Cruncher repents of his sins-body snatching and wife beating-but Miss Pross is too preoccupied to understand him. She and Cruncher are to follow Lucie's party in a light carriage. For the sake of good strategy, Miss Pross arranges to meet Cruncher and their carriage at 3 o'clock at the cathedral door. He leaves-and Miss Pross faces Madame Defarge alone.

How might you characterize the struggle between these two strong women?


Miss Pross fights for her fiercely beloved "Ladybird"; Madame Defarge fights from her consuming hatred of the St. Evremondes and their class.


Madame Defarge's unannounced entrance causes Miss Pross to drop a basin of water. The spilled water, a life-force, flows to meet Madame Defarge's feet, which have marched through "much staining blood." The meeting of water with blood signals the confrontation between life and death that follows.


The two women are very determined, but direct opposites. Each believes the other's nationality to be a weakness. "You shall not get the better of me," announces Miss Pross. "I am an Englishwoman." Earlier in the story Miss Pross' self-proclaimed Britishness has comic overtones. Here it is deadly serious.

The struggle results in Madame Defarge's death by her own pistol. Miss Pross meets Jerry on schedule, and they make their escape. What is the price of Miss Pross' victory? She's rendered deaf forever. We're left to speculate on what her deafness means. For some readers, it's a sober statement of the realities of life: neither love nor patriotism can ever triumph completely.


How do you respond to the death of Sydney Carton? Many readers find an undeniable sadness and impact. Carton's final journey in the rumbling death-cart is a kind of twist on the novel's opening journey where Jarvis Lorry recalled a man to life. Carton, too, has recalled someone to life-Charles Darnay-but at the cost of riding to his own death.

For the first time, Madame Defarge's chair at the guillotine is empty, and her knitting lies untouched. Madame Defarge's death has ensured the safe escape of the Darnay family and friends, but it cannot help Carton now. Just before he dies, making the ultimate sacrifice for Lucie, the words of the burial service pass once more through his mind: "I am the Resurrection and the Life...." Sacrifice and resurrection: Carton's death interweaves these
two great themes of the novel.

Let the power of Carton's act-and Dickens' skill in depicting it-sink in. Then, consider whether the novel's ending is truly hopeful, or if it has pessimistic overtones. The last few pages can be read from both points of view.

Chances are you've heard the novel's famous closing words, "It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done...." These words end Sydney
Carton's final prophetic vision in which all wrongs are set right. The vision is proof of a hopeful ending, proof that Carton doesn't die in vain. In it the current oppressors die on their own guillotine; a beautiful France rises out of the ashes; Dr. Manette recovers his sanity; and Lucie Darnay's son, named for Carton, becomes an honored man who brings his own child to see the place of Carton's sacrifice. Through the act of fulfilling his old promise to Lucie, Carton demonstrates that individual love can triumph over a chaotic society-and the march of history.

But note how Dickens qualifies Carton's vision with the word "if." If Carton's thoughts had been prophetic, they would have been the hopeful ones recorded.

Jump briefly to the beginning of the chapter. Compare Carton's "sublime prophetic face" as he steps up to the executioner with the tumbrils bringing the "day's wine" to the guillotine. Tumbrils and guillotine, Dickens tells us, are the inevitable result of humanity crushed "out of shape" by cruel rulers. The carts carrying the doomed are identical in underlying wickedness to "the carriages of absolute monarchs." Dickens labels the death-carts "changeless and hopeless," which seems to contradict Carton's glowing forecast of a beautiful France rising from the abyss.

How might you explain the apparent contradiction between the chapter's gloomy opening and Carton's glorious vision at the end? One school of readers holds that Dickens made his last pages hopeful in order to please his readers. Deep down he believed Carton's death more inevitable than glorious, just as he believed that history was determined or made inevitable by a society's actions.

A second group of readers charges Dickens with failing to achieve one of his aims-tying the destiny of individuals with the progress of history. A happy life for the Darnays, these readers argue, wouldn't guarantee a smooth road ahead for the French people.

As an independent reader, forming your own opinion on the novel's ending, you may find yourself accepting parts of all of the above views.

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