A Tale of Two Cities
by Charles Dickens
Tools of Characterization
Dickens is a big fan of mental images. Perhaps that’s why he spends so much time describing just how every one of his characters looks. We know that Mr. Lorry is old, stodgy, and dressed in tweed, because Dickens tells us so. Dr. Manette bears the marks of long imprisonment on his body: his hair’s now white and his shoulders stoop. Wild-haired Miss Pross becomes the perfect bulldog to fend off a vicious attack directed at her "Ladybird." Lucie’s angelic appearance (complete with golden curls), however, seems to indicate that she’ll float far above any conflicts on the ground.
Okay, so Dickens likes us to be able to imagine how his characters look. Did we mention that his texts were usually illustrated? They were.
Of course, we’re glossing over the big reason why physical appearance plays a huge role in this novel: Charles looks like Sydney. Sydney looks like Charles. The very fact that they share a physical resemblance invites all sorts of comparative questions, ones which Dickens sure makes the most of.
Why does Charles get the girl? Why does Sydney seem so miserable? How can two men who are so alike end up in such different places? And, of course, their physical similarity provides the grounds for the major plot twist in the novel: the swap that Sydney orchestrates in the prison.
Physical appearance, then, is more than just a nifty way for us to get to know the characters in A Tale of Two Cities. It’s also a reminder of the fluke, freak accidents that allow us to change the course of history.
We know respectable people when we see them. For one thing, they hold respectable jobs. Mr. Lorry, for instance, becomes the paragon of respectability—if only because he’s a banker at a very, very respectable bank. Doctor Manette is respectable, even when he’s at his most pitiable, merely because he’s got the appellation "doctor" before his name.
In London, people are known by what they do (or, as the case may be, what they don’t do). Charles Darnay may be an aristocrat overseas, but in England he’s just a well-respected tutor. Stryver’s a bit of a jerk because he never does his own work. Sydney Carton may be brilliant, but he can’t quite be respectable. After all, what self-respecting man would allow another person to exploit him so openly?
In France, however, no one could ever ask that question. Exploitation is the name of the game. Peasants are exploited by the wealthy. That’s just how it goes. In fact, the Defarges seem to be just about the only ones who run a decent business… and, as we soon learn, that business is largely a front.
Once things get rolling, however, we see some shifts in people’s lives. Madame Defarge still knits. The Vengeance shrieks. The Jury of the Tribunal drinks and orders heads to be lopped off. Occupations, we might say, have changed a little bit with the start of the revolution.
Perhaps the revolution seems a bit surreal because people are no longer judged on the basis of their accomplishments. Charles isn’t a respected tutor anymore. He’s the son of a rapist. Once we go down that road, it’s pretty hard for just about everyone to live up to the sins of their forefathers.
The start of the French Revolution might be a key giveaway here. Dickens makes it pretty clear that the poor are really, really miserable in France. They live in hovels (like the rat’s warren in the back of the Defarge’s wine shop), and they try to tend land which seems as dried-up and worn-out as they are.
The rich, on the other hand, live in chateaus on the hill. They run over the babies of the poor in their spare time. There’s absolutely no communication between the aristocrats and the peasants until the poor start to rise up in the streets. Most interestingly, however, both classes are presented to us as classes, not as individual people.
Back in England, things seem a little more fluid. Maybe that’s why folks aren’t grabbing their shovels and heading off to bash some heads in. Charles Darnay may be an aristocrat, but he can also make a decent (and respectable) living as a tutor. Mr. Lorry remains a staunch, upstanding member of the middle class. Similarly, the Manettes might not have tons of money, but they manage to live a happy, peaceful live in the heart of London. Even Mr. Cruncher, who we might be tempted to think of as a lower-class man, sees himself as a potential member of the middle class. He’s not quite there yet, but he sure hasn’t given up hope.
The contrast between the two countries can’t be accidental. Flexibility in the social structure allows people to feel hopeful about their futures. That’s what makes people interested in their own individual fates, and perhaps what makes them worth reading about as characters, at all.