Study Guide

Ernest Defarge in A Tale of Two Cities

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Ernest Defarge

Power To The People

If we had to pick a "good" revolutionary, our money would be on Ernest Defarge. He’s disgusted at the excesses and cruelty of the aristocracy: when the Marquis runs over a small child, he throws Defarge a gold coin to get him to shut up. Defarge throws it right back in his face.

Coincidentally, this action mimics the actions of his former master, Doctor Manette. As a young boy, Ernest served Doctor Manette. He watched as Doctor Manette refused to accept bribe money from the Marquis; as a consequence, Doctor Manette was imprisoned. By the time our novel catches up with both characters, Ernest Defarge’s experiences as a youth have conditioned him to hate the aristocracy. The owner of a prominent wine shop in Saint Antoine (a poor area of Paris), Defarge heads up a group of patriots who go by the name of "Jacques." As tensions between the peasants and the aristocrats reach a breaking point, Defarge heads the charge during the Storming of the Bastille.

Toward the end of the novel, however, Madame Defarge suggests that her husband is too weak to engage in true revolutionary activities. Sure, he uses a letter he found from Doctor Manette to imprison the doctor’s son-in law. His love for the doctor, however, won’t allow him to kill the doctor’s daughter and granddaughter. In other words, he’s too caught up in the suffering of individuals to pay attention to the big picture. When we read through that section of the novel, it’s pretty hard to agree with Madame Defarge. After all, the woman is described as a "tigress." Compared to her, Defarge seems like the model of restraint.

Here’s the problem, though: we all know that effective wars generally result in some civilian casualties. That’s the dirty secret of mass violence, in general: in order for it to be effective, it has to be so horrific that people will do just about anything to make the violence stop. Madame Defarge may be unlikable. Her motives may be awful. But compared to her, her husband may not have what it takes to win a war.

Here’s the real question, then: in creating the character of Defarge, did Dickens create a sympathetic revolutionary, or just an ineffective one?

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