#63 A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. . . .”
A Tale of Two Cities (1859) is a novel by Charles Dickens, set in London and Paris before and during the French Revolution. With well over 200 million copies sold, it ranks among the most famous works in the history of fictional literature. Even if you have not ventured to read it, more than likely the opening line is familiar to you.
A Tale of Two Cities is one of only two works of historical fiction by Charles Dickens (Barnaby Rudge is the other one). It has fewer characters and sub-plots than a typical Charles Dickens novel. The author’s primary historical source was The French Revolution: A History by Thomas Carlyle: Charles Dickens wrote in his Preface to Tale that “no one can hope to add anything to the philosophy of Mr. Carlyle’s wonderful book”. While Dickens is renowned for his humor, A Tale of Two Cities is one of his least comical books. Dickens also uses as humor in the book to show different points of view. The book is full of tragic situations, leaving little room for intended humor provided by Dickens.
The novel depicts the plight of the French peasantry demoralized by the French aristocracy in the years leading up to the revolution, the corresponding brutality demonstrated by the revolutionaries toward the former aristocrats in the early years of the revolution, and many unflattering social parallels with life in London during the same time period. It follows the lives of several protagonists through these events. The most notable are Charles Darnay and Sydney Carton. Darnay is a French once-aristocrat who falls victim to the indiscriminate wrath of the revolution despite his virtuous nature, and Carton is a dissipated British barrister who endeavors to redeem his ill-spent life out of his unrequited love for Darnay’s wife, Lucie Manette.
The 45-chapter novel was published in 31 weekly installments in Dickens’ new literary periodical titled All the Year Round. From April 1859 to November 1859, Dickens also republished the chapters as eight monthly sections in green covers. Dickens’ previous novels had appeared only as monthly installments. The first weekly installment of A Tale of Two Cities ran in the first issue of All the Year Round on 30 April 1859. The last ran thirty weeks later, on 26 November.
Dickens uses literal translations of French idioms for characters who can’t speak English, such as “What the devil do you do in that galley there?!!” and “Where is my husband? —Here you see me.” Again, Dickens animatedly adds the flavor of the various dialects to this text, but what was disturbing most to me was the multitude of typographical errors present in the text. Whether it be from the literal French translations, the dialects, or the typos, Penguin Classics edition of the novel notes that “Not all readers have regarded the experiment as a success.”
With A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens asserts his belief in the possibility of resurrection and transformation, both on a personal level and on a societal level. In Dickens’ England, resurrection always sat firmly in a Christian context. Most broadly, Sydney Carton is resurrected in spirit at the novel’s close (even as he, paradoxically, gives up his physical life to save Darnay’s—just as in Christian belief, Christ died for the sins of the world.) More concretely, “The First Book ” deals with the rebirth of Dr. Manette from the living death of his incarceration.
Resurrection appears for the first time when Mr. Lorry replies to the message carried by Jerry Cruncher with the words “Recalled to Life”. Resurrection also appears during Mr. Lorry’s coach ride to Dover, as he constantly ponders a hypothetical conversation with Dr. Manette: (“Buried how long?” “Almost eighteen years.” … “You know that you are recalled to life?” “They tell me so.”). He believes he is helping with Dr. Manette’s revival and imagines himself “digging” up Dr. Manette from his grave. As this statement implies, the doctor’s eighteen-year imprisonment has constituted a death of sorts. Lucie’s love enables Manette’s spiritual renewal, and her maternal cradling of him on her breast reinforces this notion of rebirth.
Resurrection is the main overriding theme in this novel, and manifests both literally and figuratively. In Jarvis Lorry’s thoughts of Dr. Manette, resurrection is first spotted as a theme. It is also the last theme: Carton’s sacrifice. Dickens originally wanted to call the entire novel Recalled to Life. (This instead became the title of the first of the novel’s three “books”.) Book I became titled “Recalled to Life” and embodies the rediscover of Doctor Manette, who has been jailed in the Bastille for eighteen years. Code for the secret mission to rescue him from Paris, is the simple phrase “recalled to life,” which starts Mr. Lorry thinking about the fact that the prisoner has been out of society long enough to have been considered dead.
Jerry is also part of the recurring theme: he himself is involved in death and resurrection in ways the reader does not yet know. The first piece of foreshadowing comes in his remark to himself: “You’d be in a blazing bad way, if recalling to life was to come into fashion, Jerry!” The black humor of this statement becomes obvious only much later on. Five years later, one cloudy and very dark night (in June 1780), Mr. Lorry reawakens the reader’s interest in the mystery by telling Jerry it is “Almost a night … to bring the dead out of their graves”. Jerry responds firmly that he has never seen the night do that. It turns out that Jerry Cruncher’s involvement with the theme of resurrection is that he is what the Victorians called a “Resurrection Man”, one who (illegally) digs up dead bodies to sell to medical men (there was no legal way to procure cadavers for study at that time). Although his trade of digging up dead bodies and selling their parts seems gruesome, it provides him with the crucial knowledge that a spy named Roger Cly has been literally resurrected—in that he was never buried at all.
Connected to the theme of the possibility of resurrection is the notion that sacrifice is necessary to achieve happiness. Dickens examines this second theme, again, on both a national and personal level. For example, the revolutionaries prove that a new, egalitarian French republic can come about only with a heavy and terrible cost—personal loves and loyalties must be sacrificed for the good of the nation. Also, when Darnay is arrested for the second time, in the Third Book, Chapter 7, the guard who seizes him reminds Manette of the primacy of state interests over personal loyalties. Moreover, Madame Defarge gives her husband a similar lesson when she chastises him for his devotion to Manette—an emotion that, in her opinion, only clouds his obligation to the revolutionary cause. Most important, Carton’s transformation into a man of moral worth depends upon his sacrificing of his former self. In choosing to die for his friends, Carton not only enables their happiness but also ensures his spiritual rebirth.
The opposite of resurrection is of course death. Death and resurrection appear often in the novel. Dickens is angered that in France and England, courts hand out death sentences for insignificant crimes. In France, peasants are even put to death without any trial, at the whim of a noble. The Marquis tells Darnay with pleasure that “[I]n the next room (my bedroom), one fellow … was poniarded on the spot for professing some insolent delicacy respecting his daughter—his daughter!” Interestingly, the demolition of Dr. Manette’s shoe-making workbench by Miss Pross and Mr. Lorry is described as “the burning of the body”. It seems clear that this is a rare case where death or destruction (the opposite of resurrection) has a positive connotation, since the “burning” helps liberate the doctor from the memory of his long imprisonment. But Dickens’ description of this kind and healing act is strikingly odd:
“So wicked do destruction and secrecy appear to honest minds, that Mr. Lorry and Miss Pross, while engaged in the commission of their deed and in the removal of its traces, almost felt, and almost looked, like accomplices in a horrible crime.”
Sydney Carton’s martyrdom atones for all his past wrongdoings. He even finds God during the last few days of his life, repeating Christ’s soothing words, “I am the resurrection and the life”. The most important “resurrections” in this novel are those of Charles Darnay. Carton’s resemblance to him saves him from being convicted and executed in England, and then, the same resemblance allows the latter to switch places with him in the Conciergerie. Darnay is rescued at the last moment and recalled to life; Carton chooses death and resurrection to a life better than that which he has ever known: “it was the peacefullest man’s face ever beheld there … he looked sublime and prophetic“. These resurrections are surrounded with heavily religious language that compares Carton’s sacrifice of his own life for others’ sins to Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. The narrative suggests that Sydney Carton’s death secures a new, peaceful life for Lucie Manette, Charles Darnay, and even Carton himself. By delivering himself to the guillotine, Carton ascends to the plane of heroism, becoming a Christ-like figure whose death serves to save the lives of others. His own life thus gains meaning and value. Moreover, the final pages of the novel suggest that, like Christ, Carton will be resurrected—Carton is reborn in the hearts of those he has died to save. Similarly, the text implies that the death of the old regime in France prepares the way for the beautiful and renewed Paris that Carton supposedly envisions from the guillotine. Although Carton spends most of the novel in a life of indolence and apathy, the supreme selflessness of his final act speaks to a human capacity for change. Although the novel dedicates much time to describing the atrocities committed both by the aristocracy and by the outraged peasants, it ultimately expresses the belief that this violence will give way to a new and better society. In the broadest sense, at the end of the novel Dickens ultimately foresees a resurrected social order in France, rising from the ashes of the old one.
Hans Biedermann writes that water “is the fundamental symbol of all the energy of the unconscious—an energy that can be dangerous when it overflows its proper limits (a frequent dream sequence).” This symbolism suits Dickens’ novel; in A Tale of Two Cities, the frequent images of water stand for the building anger of the peasant mob, an anger that Dickens sympathizes with to a point, but ultimately finds irrational and even animalistic. Early in the book, Dickens suggests this when he writes, “[T]he sea did what it liked, and what it liked was destruction.” The sea here represents the coming mob of revolutionaries. After Gaspard murders the Marquis, he is “hanged there forty feet high—and is left hanging, poisoning the water.” The poisoning of the well represents the bitter impact of Gaspard’s execution on the collective feeling of the peasants.
After Gaspard’s death, the storming of the Bastille is led (from the St. Antoine neighborhood, at least) by the Defarges; “As a whirlpool of boiling waters has a centre point, so, all this raging circled around Defarge’s wine shop, and every human drop in the cauldron had a tendency to be sucked towards the vortex…” The crowd is envisioned as a sea. “With a roar that sounded as if all the breath in France had been shaped into a detested word [the word Bastille], the living sea rose, wave upon wave, depth upon depth, and overflowed the city…”
Darnay’s jailer is described as “unwholesomely bloated in both face and person, as to look like a man who had been drowned and filled with water.” Later, during the Reign of Terror, the revolution had grown “so much more wicked and distracted … that the rivers of the South were encumbered with bodies of the violently drowned by night…” Later a crowd is “swelling and overflowing out into the adjacent streets … the Carmagnole absorbed them every one and whirled them away.”
During the fight with Miss Pross, Madame Defarge clings to her with “more than the hold of a drowning woman”. Commentators on the novel have noted the irony that Madame Defarge is killed by her own gun, and perhaps Dickens means by the above quote to suggest that such vicious vengefulness as Madame Defarge’s will eventually destroy even its perpetrators.
So many read the novel in a Freudian light, as exalting the (British) superego over the (French) id. Yet in Carton’s last walk, he watches an eddy that “turned and turned purposeless, until the stream absorbed it, and carried it onto the sea“—his fulfillment, while masochistic and superego-driven, is nonetheless an ecstatic union with the subconscious.
As is common in English literature, good and evil are symbolized with light and darkness. Lucie Manette is the light and Madame Defarge is darkness. Darkness represents uncertainty, fear and peril. It is dark when Mr. Lorry rides to Dover; it is dark in the prisons; dark shadows follow Madame Defarge; dark, gloomy doldrums disturb Dr. Manette; his capture and captivity are shrouded in darkness; the Marquis’s estate is burned in the dark of night; Jerry Cruncher raids graves in the darkness; Charles’s second arrest also occurs at night. Both Lucie and Mr. Lorry feel the dark threat that is Madame Defarge. “That dreadful woman seems to throw a shadow on me,” remarks Lucie. Although Mr. Lorry tries to comfort her, “the shadow of the manner of these Defarges was dark upon himself“. Madame Defarge is “like a shadow over the white road“, the snow symbolizing purity and Madame Defarge’s darkness corruption. Dickens also compares the dark color of blood to the pure white snow: ”The blood takes on the shade of the crimes of its shedders”.
Throughout the novel, Dickens approaches his historical subject with some ambivalence. While he supports the revolutionary cause, he often points to the evil of the revolutionaries themselves. Charles Dickens was a champion of the maltreated poor because of his terrible experience when he was forced to work in a factory as a child. His sympathies, however, lie only up to a point with the revolutionaries; he condemns the mob madness which soon sets in. When madmen and -women massacre eleven hundred detainees in one night and hustle back to sharpen their weapons on the grindstone, they display “eyes which any unbrutalized beholder would have given twenty years of life, to petrify with a well-directed gun“. Dickens deeply sympathizes with the plight of the French peasantry and emphasizes their need for liberation. The several chapters that deal with the Marquis Evrémonde successfully paint a picture of a vicious aristocracy that shamelessly exploits and oppresses the nation’s poor. Although Dickens condemns this oppression, however, he also condemns the peasants’ strategies in overcoming it. For in fighting cruelty with cruelty, the peasants effect no true revolution; rather, they only perpetuate the violence that they themselves have suffered. Dickens makes his stance clear in his suspicious and cautionary depictions of the mobs. The scenes in which the people sharpen their weapons at the grindstone and dance the grisly Carmagnole come across as deeply macabre. Dickens’s most concise and relevant view of revolution comes in the final chapter, in which he notes the slippery slope down from the oppressed to the oppressor: “Sow the same seed of rapacious license and oppression over again, and it will surely yield the same fruit according to its kind.” Though Dickens sees the French Revolution as a great symbol of transformation and resurrection, he emphasizes that its violent means were ultimately antithetical to its end.
The reader is shown the poor are brutalized in France and England alike. As crime proliferates, the executioner in England is “stringing up long rows of miscellaneous criminals; now hanging housebreaker … now burning people in the hand” or hanging a broke man for stealing sixpence. In France, a boy is sentenced to have his hands removed and be burned alive, only because he did not kneel down in the rain before a parade of monks passing some fifty yards away. At the lavish residence of Monseigneur, we find “brazen ecclesiastics of the worst world worldly, with sensual eyes, loose tongues, and looser lives … Military officers destitute of military knowledge … [and] Doctors who made great fortunes … for imaginary disorders“. (This incident is fictional, but is based on a true story related by Voltaire in a famous pamphlet, An Account of the Death of the Chevalier de la Barre.)
The Marquis recalls with pleasure the days when his family had the right of life and death over their slaves, “when many such dogs were taken out to be hanged“. He won’t even allow a widow to put up a board bearing her dead husband’s name, to discern his resting place from all the others. He orders Madame Defarge’s sick brother-in-law to heave a cart all day and allay frogs at night to exacerbate the young man’s illness and hasten his death.
In England, even banks endorse unbalanced sentences: a man may be condemned to death for nicking a horse or opening a letter. Conditions in the prisons are dreadful. “Most kinds of debauchery and villainy were practiced, and … dire diseases were bred“, and sometimes killing the judge before the accused. So riled is Dickens at the brutality of English law that he depicts some of its punishments with sarcasm: “the whipping-post, another dear old institution, very humanizing and softening to behold in action“. He faults the law for not seeking reform: “Whatever is, is right” is the dictum of the Old Bailey. The gruesome portrayal of quartering highlights its atrocity.
Without entirely forgiving him, Dickens understands that Jerry Cruncher robs graves only to feed his son, and reminds the reader that Mr. Lorry is more likely to rebuke Jerry for his humble social status than anything else. Jerry reminds Mr. Lorry that doctors, men of the cloth, undertakers and watchmen are also conspirators in the selling of bodies.
Dickens wants his readers to be careful that the same revolution that so damaged France will not happen in Britain, which (at least at the beginning of the book) is shown to be nearly as unjust as France. But his warning is addressed not to the British lower classes, but to the aristocracy. He repeatedly uses the metaphor of sowing and reaping; if the aristocracy continues to plant the seeds of a revolution through behaving unjustly, they can be certain of harvesting that revolution in time. The lower classes do not have any agency in this metaphor: they simply react to the behavior of the aristocracy. In this sense it can be said that while Dickens sympathizes with the poor, he identifies with the rich: they are the book’s audience, its “us” and not its “them”. “Crush humanity out of shape once more, under similar hammers, and it will twist itself into the same tortured forms. Sow the same seed of rapacious license and oppression over again, and it will surely yield the same fruit according to its kind“.
With the people starving and begging the Marquis for food; his uncharitable response is to let the people eat grass; the people are left with nothing but onions to eat and are forced to starve while the nobles are living lavishly upon the people’s backs. Every time the nobles refer to the life of the peasants it is only to destroy or humiliate the poor.
Class struggle is a theme inevitable in a novel concerning the French Revolution. Dickens chooses a side, ultimately showing opposition to the Revolution due to the ruthless and uncontrolled force of its aroused mobs. Even so, the story of the Marquis’s rape of the peasant along, with other details of aristocratic mistreatment of the lower classes, provide some justification for the goals of the French mob. In the end, he portrays the mob as having moved beyond the pale to a degree beyond what happened in England; the French mob acts with such force that it resembles a natural element like fire or water.
This historical novel carefully marks the passage of time, and the introductory sentences of chapters often contain specific references to years or months. Keeping track of time is important because time carries out fate, which is an extremely important presence. From the first chapter, which describes trees waiting to be formed into guillotines in France, Dickens describes the revolution as something inevitable. Individual characters also feel the pull of fate. For example, Darnay feels himself drawn back to France as if under the influence of a magnet. Lucie’s presentiment that the noise of feet echoing in her home portends some future intrusion correctly predicts what is bound to happen–Darnay’s past does catch up with him, and he must pay for the wrongs of his ancestors. Fate operates ominously rather than optimistically among the characters in the novel, especially given Madame Defarge’s representation as one of the mythical Fates connecting the future to darkness.
From the very title of A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens signals that this is a novel about duality. The novel’s opening words (“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. . . .”) immediately establish the centrality of doubles to the narrative. Everything from the settings (London, Paris), to the people, come in pairs. The pairs are occasionally related together. Dickens positions various characters as doubles as well, thus heightening the various themes within the novel. A crucial incidence of related doubling involves the resemblance between Charles Darnay and Sydney Carton, a similarity that drives the plot. Dickens’s doubling technique functions not only to draw oppositions, but to reveal hidden parallels. Carton, for example, initially seems a foil to Darnay; Darnay as a figure reminds him of what he could have been but has failed to become. By the end of the novel, however, Carton transforms himself from a good-for-nothing to a hero whose goodness equals or even surpasses that of the honorable Darnay. While the two men’s physical resemblance initially serves only to underscore Carton’s moral inferiority to Darnay, it ultimately enables Carton’s supremely self-elevating deed, allowing him to disguise himself as the condemned Darnay and die in his place. As Carton goes to the guillotine in his double’s stead, he raises himself up to, or above, Darnay’s virtuous status. The pairs are more often oppositional, just as in the dichotomous opening: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” For example, the loving and nurturing Lucie’s physical and moral brightness is played off against the bloodthirsty Madame Defarge’s darkness and hate. Dickens then uses this opposition to make judgments and thematic assertions. Thus, for example, while Lucie’s love initiates her father’s spiritual transformation and renewal, proving the possibility of resurrection, Madame Defarge’s vengefulness only propagates an infinite cycle of oppression, showing violence to be self-perpetuating.
The theme of reversals is played out in Dickens’ novel. The two main ways we can see this is through the role reversals of society and of good and evil. One of the primary effects of the upheaval caused by the French Revolution was due to its literally revolutionary influence; it turned society upside down and banged it on its head. When Darnay returns to France, he observes that the noblemen are in prison, while criminals are their jailors. The replacement of Darnay with Carton at the end of the novel is another reversal, illustrating that a bad man can replace a good man in such a revolutionary society.
The novel focuses attention on the preservation of family groups. The first manifestation of this theme occurs in Lucie’s trip to meet her father in Paris. Although she worries that he will seem like a ghost rather than her father, the possibility of a reunion is enough to make her undertake the long trip. After Lucie marries Charles Darnay, the novel tends to be concerned with their struggle to keep their family together. When Darnay laments his own death sentence, it is for the sake of his family, not for his own sake. The final triumph is the sacrifice of Carton, a man who is unattached to any sort of family, who thus preserves the group consisting of the Doctor, Lucie, her husband, and her children.
The theme of social injustice is intertwined with the theme of class struggle, because those who feel the negative effects of injustice begin to struggle against it. Dickens maintains a complex perspective on the French Revolution because although he did not particularly sympathize with the gruesome and often irrational results, he certainly sympathized with the unrest of the lower orders of society. Dickens vividly paints the aristocratic maltreatment of the lower classes, such as when Monseigneur only briefly stops to toss a coin toward the father of a child whom he has just run over. Because the situation in France was so dire, Dickens portrays the plight of the working class in England as rather difficult, though slightly less difficult than in other works such as Hard Times or Oliver Twist, which also emphasize social injustice.
Shadows dominate the novel, creating a mood of thick obscurity and grave foreboding. An aura of gloom and apprehension surrounds the first images of the actual story—the mail coach’s journey in the dark and Jerry Cruncher’s emergence from the mist. The introduction of Lucie Manette to Jarvis Lorry furthers this motif, as Lucie stands in a room so darkened and awash with shadows that the candlelight seems buried in the dark panels of the walls. This atmosphere contributes to the mystery surrounding Lorry’s mission to Paris and Manette’s imprisonment. It also manifests Dickens’s observations about the shadowy depths of the human heart. As illustrated in the chapter with the appropriate subheading “The Night Shadows,” every living person carries profound secrets and mysteries that will never see the light of day. Shadows continue to fall across the entire novel. The vengeful Madame Defarge casts a shadow on Lucie and all of her hopes, as emphasized in Book III, Chapter 5. As Lucie stands in the pure, fresh snow, Madame Defarge passes by “like a shadow over the white road.” In addition, the letter that Defarge uses to condemn Darnay to death throws a crippling shadow over the entire family; fittingly, the chapter that reveals the letter’s contents bears the subheading “The Substance of the Shadow.”
Imprisonment wasn’t always physical. Some of it was mental, emotional, in the metaphorical sense. Almost all of the characters in A Tale of Two Cities fight against some form of imprisonment. For Darnay and Manette, this struggle is quite literal. Both serve significant sentences in French jails. Still, as the novel demonstrates, the memories of what one has experienced prove no less confining than the walls of prison. Manette, for example, finds himself trapped, at times, by the recollection of life in the Bastille and can do nothing but revert, trembling, to his pathetic shoemaking compulsion. Similarly, Carton spends much of the novel struggling against the confines of his own personality, dissatisfied with a life that he regards as worthless.
Dickens was a master at symbolism. With his depiction of a broken wine cask outside Defarge’s wine shop, and with his portrayal of the passing peasants’ scrambles to lap up the spilling wine, Dickens creates a symbol for the desperate quality of the people’s hunger. This hunger is both the literal hunger for food—the French peasants were starving in their poverty—and the metaphorical hunger for political freedoms. On the surface, the scene shows the peasants in their desperation to satiate the first of these hungers. But it also evokes the violent measures that the peasants take in striving to satisfy their more metaphorical cravings. For instance, the narrative directly associates the wine with blood, noting that some of the peasants have acquired “a tigerish smear about the mouth” and portraying a drunken figure scrawling the word “blood” on the wall with a wine-dipped finger. Indeed, the blood of aristocrats later spills at the hands of a mob in these same streets.
Throughout the novel, Dickens sharply criticizes this mob mentality, which he condemns for perpetrating the very cruelty and oppression from which the revolutionaries hope to free themselves. The scene surrounding the wine cask is the novel’s first tableau of the mob in action. The mindless frenzy with which these peasants scoop up the fallen liquid prefigures the scene at the grindstone, where the revolutionaries sharpen their weapons (Book III, Chapter 2), as well as the dancing of the macabre Carmagnole (Book III, Chapter 5).
The consistent mentioning of Madame Defarge’s knitting always got me. Madame Defarge’s knitting constitutes a whole network of symbols. Into her needlework she stitches a registry, or list of names, of all those condemned to die in the name of a new republic. But on a metaphoric level, the knitting constitutes a symbol in itself, representing the stealthy, cold-blooded vengefulness of the revolutionaries. As Madame Defarge sits quietly knitting, she appears harmless and quaint. In fact, however, she sentences her victims to death. Similarly, the French peasants may appear simple and humble figures, but they eventually rise up to massacre their oppressors.
Dickens’s knitting imagery also emphasizes an association between vengefulness and fate, which, in Greek mythology, is traditionally linked to knitting or weaving. The Fates, three sisters who control human life, busy themselves with the tasks of weavers or seamstresses: one sister spins the web of life, another measures it, and the last cuts it. Madame Defarge’s knitting thus becomes a symbol of her victims’ fate—death at the hands of a wrathful peasantry.
The Marquis Evrémonde is less a believable character than an archetype of an evil and corrupt social order. He is completely indifferent to the lives of the peasants whom he exploits, as evidenced by his lack of sympathy for the father of the child whom his carriage tramples to death. As such, the Marquis stands as a symbol of the ruthless aristocratic cruelty that the French Revolution seeks to overcome.
Some have argued that in A Tale of Two Cities Dickens reflects on his recently begun affair with eighteen-year-old actress Ellen Ternan, which was possibly asexual but certainly romantic. Lucie Manette resembles Ternan physically, and some have seen “a sort of implied emotional incest” in the relationship between Dr. Manette and his daughter.
After starring in a play by Wilkie Collins entitled The Frozen Deep, Dickens was first inspired to write A Tale of Two Cities. In the play, Dickens played the part of a man who sacrifices his own life so that his rival may have the woman they both love; the love triangle in the play became the basis for the relationships between Charles Darnay, Lucie Manette, and Sydney Carton in Tale.
Sydney Carton and Charles Darnay may also bear importantly on Dickens’ personal life. The plot hinges on the near-perfect resemblance between Sydney Carton and Charles Darnay; the two look so alike that Carton twice saves Darnay through the inability of others to tell them apart. It is implied that Carton and Darnay not only look alike, but they have the same “genetic” endowments (to use a term that Dickens would not have known): Carton is Darnay made bad. Carton suggests as much:
‘Do you particularly like the man [Darnay]?’ he muttered, at his own image [which he is regarding in a mirror]; ‘why should you particularly like a man who resembles you? There is nothing in you to like; you know that. Ah, confound you! What a change you have made in yourself! A good reason for talking to a man, that he shows you what you have fallen away from and what you might have been! Change places with him, and would you have been looked at by those blue eyes [belonging to Lucie Manette] as he was, and commiserated by that agitated face as he was? Come on, and have it out in plain words! You hate the fellow.’
Many have felt that Carton and Darnay are doppelgängers, which Eric Rabkin defines as a pair “of characters that together, represent one psychological persona in the narrative”. If so, they would prefigure such works as Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Darnay is worthy and respectable but dull (at least to most modern readers), Carton disreputable but magnetic.
One can only suspect whose psychological persona it is that Carton and Darnay together embody (if they do), but it is often thought to be the psyche of Dickens himself. Dickens was quite aware that between them, Carton and Darnay shared his own initials.