Study Guide

A Tale of Two Cities Themes

  • Family

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    This is a novel about war. But it’s also a novel about devotion. How much will you sacrifice to ensure that your family survives? Can you shoulder the blame for the actions of the past? Even if you can, should you?

    These questions and others like them become central to the workings of A Tale of Two Cities. Various types of family ties weave through this novel, offering multiple opportunities to compare the ways that families deal with difficult situations. Because the aristocracy in France passed on power through inherited titles and lands, entire families became the targets of the revolutionary uprisings that sparked the new regime.

    Of course, this quickly becomes a novel about how families fall apart, as well. But that’s another story.

    Questions About Family

    1. A Tale of Two Cities is largely a story about families. The Manettes, the Evrémondes, and the Defarges all play central roles in the novel. More specifically, however, the novel seems to focus on parent-child relationships (Lucie and Doctor Manette, Charles and the Marquis, etc.). In this light, why might it be important that the Defarges have no children?
    2. Is it reasonable or realistic to expect that Lucie should give up her life to care for her father?
    3. The Manettes seem to have constructed an extended family that includes Miss Pross and Mr. Lorry. How does this change our understanding of the ways that families function in this novel?
    4. How does Dickens’s depiction of the Crunchers contribute to the novel as a whole?

    Chew on This

    Because Lucie is the "golden thread" that links her family together, she never becomes a character in her own right.

    Lucie’s central role in the lives of all of the other characters in the novel makes her one of the most complex characters in A Tale of Two Cities.

  • Warfare

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    The French Revolution. The storming of the Bastille. The formation of the new Republic. Sound like the multiple-choice answers to your next history test?

    Well, yes. But they’re also all important topics that work their way to the center of A Tale of Two Cities. As the poor and downtrodden of France take to the streets, they spark a bloody and violent revolution. Blood runs through the streets of Paris, entire families hang in the balance of new (and often unjust) laws, and no one can be sure of their future in the first years of the Republic. Dickens’s novel explores the complicated relationship that emerges between the political and the social consequences of revolution.

    Questions About Warfare

    1. What justifies the French citizens’ revolt? At what point does it become unjustifiable?
    2. Are there forms of violence in the novel that Dickens critiques? Do you agree with his critique?
    3. Are there moments when the novel seems to think violence is an appropriate course of action? Do you agree? Why or why not?
    4. Are the executions at the end of the novel a continuance of warfare?

    Chew on This

    Although the violence depicted in A Tale of Two Cities is horrible, it’s also the only way that a new form of government can emerge.

    The senseless violence of the revolutionaries quickly undercuts any moral authority they had to create a new social order.

  • Loyalty

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    War seems to test the limits of all sorts of ties. Your loyalties to family, friends, and even the institutions you believe in suddenly come into question. Just how much are you willing to sacrifice for the good of the nation? Does the nation come before your family? Before your own life?

    In A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens forces his characters into situations that demand answers to exactly these questions. As we see, there aren’t ever any simple answers—and during a massive social uproar there’s rarely a time when anyone emerges unharmed. Characters learn how to honor the promises and the relationships that matter to them, even when those promises seem impossible to uphold.

    Questions About Loyalty

    1. Is Miss Pross’s die-hard loyalty believable?
    2. Why does Mr. Lorry devote himself to Tellson’s?
    3. Is Mrs. Cruncher actually disloyal to her husband? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    Mr. Lorry’s refusal to be completely devoted to business becomes an allegory for the good-heartedness of the British people as a whole.

    In A Tale of Two Cities, religion becomes nothing more than a punch line for Dickens’s jokes: economics, not morality, will prevent a revolution in England.

  • Suffering

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    If you’re looking for suffering, A Tale of Two Cities is the novel for you. The poor of England have it pretty bad. The poor of France have it really, really bad. There’s no food; the noblemen press rural peasants to give up every cent they earn to fund exorbitant parties for the rich; and folks get locked up for decades without ever getting to go to trial.

    Though this is France in the 1780s, Dickens doesn't expect this sort of suffering to remain in the past: the causes of suffering, he claims, aren’t historical. In fact, the prime cause of human suffering might just be human nature itself.

    Questions About Suffering

    1. Why does Sydney Carton seem determined to believe that his life will never improve?
    2. Doctor Manette’s status as a former prisoner eventually gives him political power in France. Does this suggest that his suffering might be worth it in the long run?
    3. Lucie seems to be the one character whose suffering the novel often overlooks. Why do you think this is the case?

    Chew on This

    Because Sydney Carton believes from the beginning of the novel that his life will be full of suffering, his death is not really a change to the status quo.

    In dying, Sydney Carton transcends all the expectations he had for himself and becomes a sublime figure of mercy.

  • Society and Class

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    In A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens loves to demonstrate how rich the rich actually are. One guy even needs four servants (count them: FOUR) to make his hot chocolate every morning. It’s exactly this sort of excess that breeds discontent… especially when the poor are on their hands and knees in the street licking up drops of spilled wine. The French Revolution began as a critique of the aristocracy; as Dickens demonstrates, however, the "classless" formation of the new French Republic becomes yet another form of class violence. Someone’s always in power. And the powerless always suffer.

    Questions About Society and Class

    1. How different are class relations in England from those in France? Why do the citizens of France revolt?
    2. Why does the novel shuttle between France and England? How does that contribute to our understanding of the revolution?
    3. Is Madame Defarge’s accusation of Charles Darnay retaliation for the role of the aristocracy in France? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    A Tale of Two Cities may be set in France, but it’s actually a moral warning for the people of England.

    Because the poor in France are never realistically depicted in A Tale of Two Cities, our understanding of the revolution is limited at best.

  • Justice and Judgment

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    Dickens exploits the hypocrisies and idiosyncrasies of the justice system in A Tale of Two Cities. As French citizens take to the streets, demanding justice for themselves and their families, they also construct a justice system that becomes anything but fair and impartial.

    To keep us from blaming the French too much, however, Dickens also gives us a good look at the justice system in England. Complete with magic mirrors and smoke-and-dagger tricks, the English can't brag about their courts, either. So how does justice get rendered? That is one of the questions this novel explores.

    Questions About Justice and Judgment

    1. Which is more corrupt: the justice system in France or the justice system in England?
    2. The English court establishes that Sydney and Charles' physical similarity is reason enough to assume that it wouldn’t be just to hang Charles for treason. Does this make sense to you?
    3. Doctor Manette only gets his day in court when the Defarges include his letter in Charles’ trial in France. In some ways, isn’t this actually a just thing for the Defarges to do? Why or why not?
    4. How does Sydney Carton develop his sense of justice (and why does he insist on working in the legal system)?

    Chew on This

    Dickens inserts two court cases (one French and one English) into A Tale of Two Cities in order to demonstrate the unsettling similarities between the two countries.

    The English court, for all its failings, is still able to hand down good verdicts; by incorporating Charles’ English court case into the novel, Dickens proves that the English justice system can never be corrupted in the ways that the French one will be.

  • Politics

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    When an entire country decides to revolt against the ruling class, a couple of conversations about politics are certainly going to happen along the way. Unfortunately, too much of what passes for "politics" in France during the decades before the revolution seems to be "whatever the rich can get away with."

    When the poor of the nation decide that they can become political players as well, violence erupts. As the central characters in A Tale of Two Cities find out, no one can really escape playing a political role when a nation’s in turmoil.

    Questions About Politics

    1. Is Sydney’s vision for France one that’s based on the events that have occurred in the novel?
    2. The political records of the revolutionaries are kept in Madame Defarge’s knitting. How does the novel depict women’s role in politics?
    3. Are national politics separable from family politics in this novel?

    Chew on This

    A woman’s place is in the home: women involved in the political action in A Tale of Two Cities transform into inhuman, savage creatures.

    The complicated relationship between family life and political life in A Tale of Two Cities makes the women who engage in revolutionary activities the most interesting characters in the novel.

  • Morals and Ethics

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    Things aren’t always what they seem. Disreputable, lazy, good-for-nothing people turn out to be saviors. Righteous, justice-seeking people turn out to be bloodthirsty thugs. In other words, war tends to confound most people’s expectations. Once blood starts spilling in the streets, telling the difference between right and wrong becomes extremely difficult.

    When the world turns upside-down, how do you decide what to believe? More important, whom can you trust? A Tale of Two Cities explores the agonizing consequences of revolution, such as how "freedom" can too easily become another word for fanaticism. Sure, revolution can bring freedom—but at what cost?

    Questions About Morals and Ethics

    1. Dickens tends to discuss entire populations as if they were single characters: "Monseigneur" stands for the aristocracy, "Saint Antoine" for the poor. How does this affect the way that we read about the different sides of the revolution?
    2. Is it fair that Darnay should go back to France? Why or why not?
    3. How effective are Tellson’s ethics? Why does Mr. Lorry deviate from them so often?
    4. What do you think of Mr. Cruncher’s rationalization of his "profession" as a grave-digger?

    Chew on This

    Because Charles Darnay’s sense of morality is fully formed (and never troubled) at the beginning of A Tale of Two Cities, he never becomes a truly interesting character.

    In the turmoil of political upheaval, characters whose morals remain constant become the only ones we can rely on. That’s why we like Charles Darnay so much.

  • Life, Consciousness, and Existence

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    Dickens the storyteller is closely linked to Dickens the philosopher. Sure, A Tale of Two Cities is a rollicking good story. More than that, though, it’s also a meditation on some of the most pressing existential questions that trouble humankind.

    Do we really know anything at all about the people around us—even the people we love? Can a single life make a difference in a world filled with hatred, rage, and violence? Times of strife make these questions all the more pressing to answer, but, as Dickens reminds us, that doesn’t mean that the answers are easy to find.

    Questions About Life, Consciousness, and Existence

    1. Is Sydney Carton a hero, or is his death just a continuance of his fatalistic logic?
    2. Is Carton a Christ-like figure? Why or why not?
    3. How does the young woman who dies with Carton change our understanding of his character?

    Chew on This

    Sydney Carton’s death is the ultimate example of his masochism.

    Sydney Carton’s death might appear to be the ultimate example of his masochism, but it actually occurs because of a complete shift in his self-understanding.