Study Guide

A Tale of Two Cities Suffering

By Charles Dickens

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Volume I, Chapter Three – The Night Shadows

"Eighteen years!" said the passenger, looking at the sun.

"Gracious Creator of day! To be buried alive for eighteen years!" (1.3.34)

Mr. Lorry’s imagination circles around the idea of imprisonment for several chapters. As he aptly describes it, two decades in the Bastille render Doctor Manette a walking corpse.

Volume I, Chapter Four – The Preparation
Lucie Manette

"I am going to see his Ghost! It will be his Ghost—not him!" (1.4.85)

Although Lucie almost immediately gives her life over to the protection and care of her father, her initial horror indicates her own suffering in this situation, as well.

Volume I, Chapter Five – The Wine-Shop

Such a staircase, with its accessories, in the older and more crowded parts of Paris, would be bad enough now; but, at that time, it was vile indeed to unaccustomed and unhardened senses. Every little habitation within the great foul nest of one high building—that is to say, the room or rooms within every door that opened on the general staircase—left its own heap of refuse on its own landing, besides flinging other refuse from its own windows. The uncontrollable and hopeless mass of decomposition so engendered, would have polluted the air, even if poverty and deprivation had not loaded it with their intangible impurities; the two bad sources combined made it almost insupportable. (1.5.51)

The description of a single staircase broadens into a critique of an entire class of poverty-stricken people. Notice how one object becomes a focal point for Dickens, allowing him to launch an entire set of generalized observations.

And now that the cloud settled on Saint Antoine, which a momentary gleam had driven from his sacred countenance, the darkness of it was heavy—cold, dirt, sickness, ignorance, and want, were the lords in waiting on the saintly presence—nobles of great power all of them; but, most especially the last. (1.5.6)

The desperation of the people becomes personified as the desperation of Saint Antoine (the location where the Defarges live). Personification of a single location is a common technique in this novel.

Volume I, Chapter Six – The Shoemaker
Doctor Manette

The faintness of the voice was pitiable and dreadful. […] Its deplorable peculiarity was, that it was the faintness of solitude and disuse. It was like the last feeble echo of a sound made long and long ago. (1.6.6)

Doctor Manette’s time in prison has robbed him not just of time but of his ability to re-enter the world, as well. Even his voice seems to have been forgotten.

Volume II, Chapter Two – A Sight

The raggedest nightcap, awry on the wretchedest head, had this crooked significance in it: "I know how hard it has grown for me, the wearer of this, to support life in myself; but do you know how easy it has grown for me, the wearer of this, to destroy life in you?" (2.22.2)

The nightcap becomes a metonymic (a single thing representative of a group) voice for the entire populace of starving, underprivileged French citizens. When life becomes of almost no value to its wearer, it’s easy for him to imagine taking the lives of others.

Who gave them out, whence they last came, where they began, through what agency they crookedly quivered and jerked, scores at a time, over the heads of the crowd, like a kind of lightning, no eye in the throng could have told; but, muskets were being distributed—so were cartridges, powder, and ball, bars of iron and wood, knives, axes, pikes, every weapon that distracted ingenuity could discover or devise.

[…] Every pulse and heart in Saint Antoine was on high-fever strain and at high-fever heat. Every living creature there held life as of no account, and was demented with a passionate readiness to sacrifice it. (2.21.30)

The violent preparations for revolution that this passage describes seem strangely self-animated. No one knows who prepares for the upcoming battle—and this anonymity is mimicked in the narrator’s descriptions of the preparations.

Far and wide lay a ruined country, yielding nothing but desolation. Every green leaf, every blade of grass and blade of grain, was as shrivelled and poor as the miserable people. (2.23.2)

Dickens depicts an almost universal suffering: the world that people inhabit reflects their own misery (and vice versa). Dickens’s sweeping observations make the revolution of the poor an act of epic proportions.

Volume II, Chapter Six – Hundreds of People
Jarvis Lorry

"It's a dreadful remembrance. Besides that, his loss of himself grew out of it. Not knowing how he lost himself, or how he recovered himself, he may never feel certain of not losing himself again. That alone wouldn't make the subject pleasant, I should think." (2.6.67)

Mr. Lorry sees how terrifying the thought of prison still is for Doctor Manette. The lack of control that Doctor Manette once had over his own life becomes a present fear, dogging his days and nights.

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

"I am not afraid to die, Citizen Evrémonde, but I have done nothing. I am not unwilling to die, if the Republic which is to do so much good to us poor, will profit by my death; but I do not know how that can be, Citizen Evrémonde. Such a poor weak little creature!" (3.13.85)

The innocence and anguish of a young seamstress becomes the ultimate symbol of the failure of the revolution. If youth and innocence can be abolished by the revolutionary fervor that sweeps the country, what hope do the revolutionaries have for crafting a better society than the one that they overthrew?

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