Study Guide

A Tale of Two Cities Life, Consciousness, and Existence

By Charles Dickens

Life, Consciousness, and Existence

Volume I, Chapter Three – The Night Shadows

A wonderful fact to reflect upon, that every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other. (1.3.1)

In case we thought that Carton just happens to be a weird loner, Dickens takes care to remind us that his cynicism might just be a stark form of realism. None of us really knows much about anyone else.

In any of the burial-places of this city through which I pass, is there a sleeper more inscrutable than its busy inhabitants are, in their innermost personality, to me, or than I am to them? (1.3.1)

Dickens emphasizes a sort of existential loneliness on two levels: we don’t understand the folks we know and love, and we’re also surrounded by communities and cities of strangers. How’s that for a warm and fuzzy feeling?

Volume I, Chapter Six – The Shoemaker

"I hope you care to be recalled to life?"

And the old answer:

"I can't say." (1.6.94-6)

Are there experiences that make life no longer worth living? Does unfair imprisonment eventually rob people of their humanity? These are serious questions, and Dickens doesn’t offer any easy answers.

Volume II, Chapter Four – Congratulatory
Doctor Manette

While one external cause, and that a reference to his long lingering agony, would always—as on the trial—evoke this condition from the depths of his soul, it was also in its nature to arise of itself, and to draw a gloom over him, as incomprehensible to those unacquainted with his story as if they had seen the shadow of the actual Bastille thrown upon him by a summer sun, when the substance was three hundred miles away. (2.4.2)

Doctor Manette’s imprisonment actually refines some of his most noble qualities. His experiences may be incommunicable, but they’ve also made him into a man of incredible strength.

The water of the fountain ran, the swift river ran, the day ran into evening, so much life in the city ran into death according to rule, time and tide waited for no man, the rats were sleeping close together in their dark holes again, the Fancy Ball was lighted up at supper, all things ran their course. (2.7.44)

A small boy gets run over by the Marquis. Drawing back to focus on the bigger picture becomes a way for Dickens to point out the insensitivity of the world at large. A small boy dies, and the world moves on as usual.

Sydney Carton

I am a disappointed drudge, sir. I care for no man on earth, and no man on earth cares for me. (2.4.70)

Get used to Carton’s motto—you’ll read it often. We’re not sure why the man has absolutely no hope for his own future. Perhaps it helps explain, however, his willingness to sacrifice himself for someone else’s future.

Book the Third: The Track of a Storm
Volume III, Chapter One – In Secret

"It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known." (3.15.50)

The repetition and cadence of this line makes it a memorable one. In fact, it’s one of the most frequently-quoted lines in all of Dickens’s works.

Eye to eye, voice to voice, hand to hand, heart to heart, these two children of the Universal Mother, else so wide apart and differing, have come together on the dark highway, to repair home together, and to rest in her bosom. (3.15.30)

Dickens attempts to find a moment of peace and unity in the middle of chaos. Given the emphasis on how none of us can really know our fellow humans, it’s fitting that this unity is only found when two strangers "come together."

Volume III, Chapter Nine – The Game Made
Sydney Carton

His mother had died, years before. These solemn words, which had been read at his father's grave, arose in his mind as he went down the dark streets, among the heavy shadows, with the moon and the clouds sailing on high above him. "I am the resurrection and the life, saith the Lord: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: and whosoever liveth and believeth in me, shall never die." (3.9.89)

Repeating the words of the gospel may seem like a strange choice for Sydney Carton. In the final moments of his life, however, he demonstrates a true (if unlooked-for) sense of faith in the people around him, the nation he dies in, and the higher power he invokes.

"I am not old, but my young way was never the way to age. Enough of me." (3.9.57)

As Carton observes, living in a specific time can be as important to the type of life you lead as anything else. "The way of the age" determines who succeeds and who fails, who lives and even—during the French Revolution—who dies.