Duality in A Tale of Two Cities

The theme of duality in A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way-in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only. (Page 5)

In the first paragraph of his novel A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens introduces the concept of similarity and contrast between characters, themes, and events. By comparing and contrasting elements of his novel, Dickens reveals them as a metaphor for the rich and the poor, demonstrating the similarity between France at the time of the French Revolution and the England of 1859.

A foil: a character who serves the purpose of highlighting attributes in another character through dissimilarity. In order for a character to be a foil, though, they must also have a crucial common attribute. The most important example of a foil in A Tale of Two Cities is that of Sydney Carton, an alcoholic barrister who works as the assistant to a less intelligent, but more ambitious lawyer. Sydney Carton is the “idlest and most uncompromising of men” (page 102), and his behavior is described as “half-insolent” (page 97). He knows where he stands and is not afraid to admit that he is not a good person, yet he is unwilling and unable to change. He is a foil Charles Darnay, “a young man of about twenty-five, well-grown and well-looking… a young gentleman” (page 73).

Charles is former a French aristocrat who renounced his title and is working as a French tutor in England. He is ambitious, courageous, and certainly not an alcoholic. In most ways the two are opposites, but in appearance they are almost identical. Charles and Sydney “[are] sufficiently like each other to surprise, not only the witness, but everybody present, when they were thus brought into comparison” (page 87). Their similarity in appearance becomes a plot device when Sydney Carton trades his life with Charles’ by switching places with him before he is to be executed. Sydney sacrifices his life for his love, Lucie Manette, the wife of Charles Darnay. Through this action Dickens shows that even though two things may be different in many ways, an important similarity may be all that matters, and in this case that similarity is love.

Love and hate are arguably the most important contrasting themes in A Tale of Two Cities, because they tie all the characters to Lucie Manette, the central character in the book. The love that Charles, Sydney, Doctor Manette, Lucie’s father, have for Lucie is understandable, but the love Miss Pross, Lucie’s nanny and “the family’s devoted friend” (Page 432), has for Lucie is exceptional. Miss Pross’ love starkly contrasts with the hate that the book’s antagonist, Madame Defarge, “the family’s malevolent enemy” (Page 432), has for her. Miss Pross and Madame Defarge are, like Sydney and Charles, foils, but their significance is mostly as symbolic characters, each representing their feelings toward Lucie: Miss Pross is love; love which cannot be broken by anything, and Madame Defarge is hate; hate which can only be stopped by the most powerful love.

Madame Defarge is attempting to wipe out Charles Darnay and anyone related to him to avenge the deaths of her brother, sister, and father at the hands of Darnay’s uncle, but she doesn’t expect to find Miss Pross, ready to fight to the death, as she hunts Lucie. Miss Pross risks her life battling Madame Defarge, “[her] match” (Page 433), because she “know[s] that the longer [she] keep[s] [Madame Defarge] here, the greater the hope is for [Lucie]” (Page 433), and by stalling her she almost dies. The battle between the two characters, and between love and hate, ends with love prevailing and Madame Defarge’s “body lay[ing] lifeless on the ground” (Page 435). But Madame Defarge isn’t the only person harmed in the struggle; Miss Pross is left deaf from the gunshot that killed Madame Defarge, trading her hearing to save her “ladybird” (Page 433), Lucie.

Contrasting events are also featured in A Tale of Two Cities, specifically the contrast between the comfort of the Manette household in London and the violence and desperation in the slums of France. Lucie and her father live in his “quiet lodgings” (Page 108) in Soho-square, far away from the “the suburb of Saint Antoine, in Paris” (Page 35). The starving residents of Paris, where “Hunger… [is] prevalent everywhere” (Page 36), reach and grope for the remnants of a single “cask of wine” (Page 34), while Lucie and her father reside quietly in his “tranquil” (Page 109) home, a “harbour from the raging streets” (Page 109). They are as-of-yet unaware of how their lives will become entwined with the French Revolution, with the French lower class as they rise up against the aristocracy, and, in one case, against the former aristocracy.

When Madame Defarge, a leader in the revolution, has Charles Darnay incarcerated in Paris, awaiting his execution, Lucie and her father finally meet the madness and inhumanity of the Reign of Terror face to face. Lucie and Doctor Manette are standing outside the prison where Charles is kept when a group of French commoners dancing “the Carmagnole” (Page 331), a dance and song critical of Marie Antoinette and supporters of the aristocracy, sweeps by. Lucie and the Doctor are completely taking back as “five hundred people… dancing like five thousand demons” (Page 330) come “pouring round the corner by the prison wall” (Page 330). They are shocked and frightened at the violence and brutality of the dance, which is so different from the calm comfort that they are used to.

Dickens utilizes contrast in events, themes, and characters symbolically to represent the disparity between the wealthy and the underprivileged. He demonstrates the resemblance between revolutionary France and Dickens’ modern England by showing the wide gap between rich and poor in both countries, and by doing so he suggests the possibility of an English Revolution, and cautions his readers to examine the consequences of living in a society so divided that while the poor are on the streets, scrambling and groping for a single drop of wine, the rich are sitting in their chambers being served hot chocolate by a multitude of servants.

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  1. paula
    Posted June 2, 2009 at 1:54 am

    so what exactly is the theme of duality? my teach said it was using two opposites in a line. is it?

  2. Evan
    Posted November 22, 2011 at 4:41 pm

    Paula- no. Duality is not necessarily always expressed literally- that is, in writing structure- and can be conceptual and complex. For instance, Dickens set up a main duality in TOTC, between France and England, but it was the rest of the book that fleshed out that duality, not the literal contradictions in the first paragraph.

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