A Tale of Two Cities: Essay Q&A

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1. What role does Fate play in the story?
The machinations of Fate figure prominently in the novel. For instance, when Defarge remarks that he believes it a strange fate that the son-in-law of his old friend Doctor Manette should be marked for death in Madame Defarge's knitting. "Stranger things than that will happen when it [the revolution] does come" she replies. And stranger things do indeed occur. Doctor Manette himself is caught in Fate's web when his prison manuscript becomes the means of destroying his family and later Madame Defarge suffers the workings of destiny when her unquenchable desire for revenge leads her to the Manette's apartment and her accidental death by her own weapon. Charles Darnay's mother provides one of the more telling predictions of Fate in the novel when she suggests that her son will have to pay for his father's crimes. The exiled French aristocrats and the orthodox British bankers display a remarkable insensitivity to fate when they speak as though the revolution "were the one only harvest ever known under the skies that had not been sown" (234)

2. Discuss the manner in which identity-reversal plays a role in furthering the novel's plot.
The similarity in appearance between Sydney Carton and Charles Darnay not only make possible the exoneration of Darnay at his first trial and allows Carton to switch places with him in prison, but it causes Carton to question his own identity. Following their first meeting, when Carton tells Darnay that he is a disappointed drudge, he turns to the mirror and reflects that their similar appearance in no reason to like him. "He [Darnay] shows you [Carton] what you have fallen away from, and what you might have been!" He admits to himself that he is jealous of Lucie's obvious affection for Charles when he thinks: "Change places with him and would you have been looked at by those blue eyes [Lucie Manette] as he was?" By the end of the story, Carton has literally changed places with Darnay and his previous conception of himself as an irredeemable misanthrope is proven to be false when the seamstress does in fact seek comfort and finds love in Carton's face. Additionally, the secret of Charles Darnay's French lineage and its place in Doctor Manette's sorrowful past compels the Tribunal to condemn Darnay and drives the story to its conclusion.

3. Compare and contrast the means employed by Charles Darnay, Mr. Stryver and Sydney Carton in winning Lucie Manette's affection and describe what this reveals about each man's character.
Although it is obvious from their first encounter that Miss Manette has tender feelings for Charles Darnay, his proposal of marriage comes only after several years of friendship and one he has established himself professionally. When he does propose, it is with the knowledge that her affection for her father is the defining aspect of her life and he wisely speaks to Doctor Manette before broaching the subject with Lucie. In this way he can not only reassure the older man that his intentions are honorable but he assures that Doctor Manette's all important blessing will be given to the marriage. This reveals Charles not only to be a true gentleman but a shrewd lover with a realistic understanding of the family's inter-personal dynamic. Mr. Stryver, on the other hand, seems to conceive his intention to marry Miss Manette all of a sudden and considers the result a foregone conclusion. When his suit is checked by Mr. Lorry he just as quickly resolves to pretend it never existed. In this way the reader is given to understand that Mr. Stryver's pride comes before his manners and that he treats his love life with much the same attitude as that which with he treats his professional life. Of the three, Sydney Carton is the only one to speak directly to Miss Manette about his emotional investment in her happiness. He speaks to her in private, after her marriage, and desires nothing more than her pity and implies that this is more than he has proven himself to be worthy of. This reveals Carton to be capable of deeper sentiment than previously hinted and establishes the condition [i.e. his willingness to give his life for her happiness] necessary for Charles' salvation at the end of the story.

4. What reasons might Dickens have had for opening his story with a comparison between the time period of the novel's setting and that of his readers?
Not only would Dickens have been anxious that his readers accept a historical story (one of only two he wrote that was not set in his own time period) but by comparing the two times he is able to further the implied social criticism of his own time period. His readers are implicitly invited to draw conclusions about the state of their own social institutions especially their prisons and welfare programs. Dickens, whose youth was marked by periods of extreme poverty, was a lifelong advocate of prison reform and easements for the poverty-stricken. When he describes the horrible conditions in the Saint Antoine district of Paris, the brutal punishment of minor offenses in both England and France and characterizes the prevailing stolid attitude of Tellson's bank as being in keeping with that of the country as a whole (which he suggests would disinherit its sons if they advocated "improvements in laws and customs that had long been highly objectionable, but were only the more respectable") (49) his readers would have recognized immediate similarities to their own time.

5. How are women characterized in the novel?
There are three primary female characters in the novel, Lucie Manette, Madame Defarge and Miss Pross, each of which is paired with male counterparts in the story. Lucie Manette, though raised without the benefit of her parents, is quick to assume complete care for her father and, implicitly out of both guilt and affection, dedicates herself to his happiness. When she widens the sphere of her affection to include Charles Darnay and their daughter it is does not diminish her overall capacity to love but only increases her affection for each. In this way she is depicted as the ideal daughter, wife and mother and her wholesome, life-affirming sensibilities yield to her, if not strength (she faints several times throughout the story), then confidence and happiness in her role. Madame Defarge, raised as an orphan herself, is the opposite of Lucie and where Lucie's household conveys security and peace, Madame Defarge's wine shop is a gathering place for violent conspiracy. Madame Defarge's deadly knitting profanes the typically domestic activity by turning it into a method of destruction and death. While she usually defers to her husband in public, her private conversations and stony demeanor reveal that she is a strong, driven woman who does not hesitate to circumvent her husband when she perceives that his resolve is waning. Miss Pross is the English counterpart to Madame Defarge. Miss Pross' first concern is to care for others (i.e. Lucie, Solomon a.k.a. Barsad) and intrude as little as possible into the lives she loves. Her assertion to Mr. Lorry, who serves as her male foil, that he should "Never imagine anything. Have no imagination at all" (93) underscores her extreme practicality. Although like Madame Defarge she possess great strength she uses it only twice in the story and on both occasions (i.e. when she believes Mr. Lorry has done Lucie harm and when she wrestles with Madame Defarge) she uses that strength to protect the one she loves rather than destroy those she hates. In this, she is an entirely sympathetic character that, like Mr. Lorry, Dickens' readers are implicitly encouraged to identify as possessing the ideal British outlook.

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