Imagery and Symbolism
The tone of A Tale of Two Cities is solemn and weary, and it is filled with intimations of horror, darkness, blood and death. Indeed, the profusion of references to oppressive symbols- shadows, echoes, graves, dirt and so on- occasionally seems at risk of swamping us. For example, Tellson's Bank is an institution whose effect on the events in the novel is largely positive. However, in keeping with the book's bleak tone, when it is described in Book II, chapter 1 it is 'very dark, very ugly', 'miserable', has 'the dingiest of windows', is always under 'a heavy shadow' and in 'dismal twilight', has a 'musty odour' and is pregnant with 'Death'. Book II, chapter 21 is called 'Echoing Footsteps' and begins and ends with that ominous effect. There are numerous references to footsteps and echoes in Book II - the Manettes' house has 'echoes in the corner before it' and is 'a wonderful place for echoes'.
Blood is perhaps the book's most effective recurrent image, mirroring externally the perpetuation of the aristocratic bloodlines that the revolution sought to sever. In Book 1, chapter 5 Dickens describes in detail the sight of spilt wine in the streets of Paris - 'the wine was red wine... those who had been greedy with the staves of the cask, had acquired a tigerish smear about the mouth... the time was to come... when the stain of it would be red upon many here'. In Book II, chapter 15 we are told that 'drinkers drew figures on the tables with spilt drops of wine, Madame Defarge herself picked out the pattern on her sleeve with her toothpick', and at the end of the book, when Madame Defarge visits Miss Pross, a 'basin fell to the ground broken, and the water flowed to the feet of Madame Defarge. By strange stern ways, and through much staining blood, those feet had come to meet that water'. Blood is evoked in other ways as well- for example, as the Marquis lies murdered in bed and the sun sets 'in the glow, the water of the chateau fountain seemed to turn to blood, and the stone faces crimsoned'.
The sea, whose implacable power always moved Dickens, is another recurrent image in A Tale of Two Cities. At Dover in Book I, chapter 4, the sea itself 'did what it liked, and what it liked was destruction', preparing us for the violence to come. The Parisian mob is frequently evoked in terms of it, time is described in terms of the sea- 'the waves of four months had rolled over the trial for treason, and carried it' far out to sea', we are told in Book II, chapter 6. The symbol reaches its zenith when the Bastille is stormed in Book II, chapter 21. The mob is described as a 'sea of black and threatening waters' whose depths were yet unfathomed and whose forces were yet unknown', emphasising its fearful unpredictability. Sea- imagery is subtly used at first, with references to 'billowy heads' and 'a whirlpool of boiling waters' before Dickens plunges into the image fully. We are told that 'the living sea rose, wave on wave, depth on depth, and overflowed the city raging and thundering on its new beach, the attack began'. The mob is described elsewhere as 'the ocean of faces where every fierce and furious expression was in vivid life'. The following chapter is called ' The Sea Still Rises', and is full of further references. The crowd in the Old Bailey is described as 'a cloud of great blue-flies', another sinister image. (see Watts p. 116: the weather-garden scene etc.).
In A Tale of Two Cities far fewer characters than usual in a Dickens novel are identified by external characteristics. Mrs. Cruncher's incessant praying is an exception, but it is not as purely irrelevant as such traits customarily are in Dickens's characters. Instead her fervent supplications are a mildly sinister counterpoint to both her husband's ghoulish body-snatching and to the oppressive atmosphere of impending doom that hangs over the novel. Another exception is Mme. Defarge's knitting, and as the book progresses we realise how her incessant practice of it is related to the inexorable motion of the revolution. In II, 7 Mme. Defarge the link is made explicit - she 'knitted on with the steadfastness of Fate'. Lucie, so hated by Defarge, is described as the person who 'bound [her family circle] together, weaving the service of her happy influence through the tissue of all their lives'. Thus Dickens links the two women who represent the poles of morality that the novel is concerned with.
The idea of resurrection and rebirth recurs throughout the book, perhaps reflecting its author's desire to recast himself in the role of young romantic lead following his separation from his wife. Indeed, the idea for the novel struck Dickens as he lay on stage playing a man sacrificing his life so that he might save another's in his play The Frozen Deep. The first section of A Tale of Two Cities is called 'Recalled to Life' and, whilst focussing on Dr. Manette, the title can also be applied to the mock funeral given to John Barsad, Charles Darnay's acquittal on espionage charges, and the first stirrings of Sidney Carton's
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