Sample Questions1. 'A Tale of Two Cities is a novel about love'. Discuss.
Love is perhaps the abiding quality recommended in A Tale of Two Cities and yet it is a book that catalogues human hatred and violence much more vividly. Love, the most individual and personal of emotions, is constantly threatened by anonymous crowds whose only identity is collective and whose ambitions are negative. However, this serves only to reinforce a sense of the central importance of individuals being motivated by love. Several passages in the novel illustrate this belief of Dickens's. Darnay's return to Paris in the face of the raging masses in order to rescue his servant, Manette's entry of the bloody fray in attempting to save Darnay, Carton's self-sacrifice, Miss Pross's being deafened in the attempt to delay Mme. Defarge's raising the alarm as to Lucie's flight and so on.
Other sorts of love are demonstrated in the book, such as that between parents and children. For example, Gaspard is described as 'howling like a wild animal' (II, 7) when the Marquis runs over his child. Darnay has first to assure Dr. Manette that he will never seek to diminish Lucie's closeness to him when asking for her hand in marriage, and her 'constancy and fervour' towards her father is widely acknowledged. The love between men and women in the novel centres on Lucie and Darnay, but Carton's love for her is as potent and ultimately more moving. Stryver's smug intention to marry Lucie at the start of the novel is a parody of the purposes of love, and his subsequent marriage to a 'florid widow' who presents him 'with property and three boys' encapsulates his unromantic, superficial character.
Miss Pross's adoration of Lucie, and her 'faithful service of the heart' (II, 6), allow her to overcome the savage and armed Mme. Defarge at the end of the book. This is one of several 'good versus evil' moments in the novel, and Pross's triumph symbolises the simple victory of love over hatred, and even over fate (Mme. Defarge knits 'with the steadfastness of fate'). In Book III, chapter 14 Dickens writes of 'the vigorous tenacity of love, always so much stronger than hate', and A Tale of Two Cities can be seen as exemplifying this simple theory- for all the novel's bloodshed, at the end vengeance is unsatisfied, the guillotine is cheated and the intended victims are safely in England.2. '"A Tale of Two Cities" is humourless'. Discuss.
A Tale of Two Cities can fairly be called Dickens's least humorous work, but to call it 'humourless' seems excessive. For many people Dickens is primarily a comic writer, and it is perhaps fair to say that his most consistently stupendous gift is for recognising the minutiae of human behaviour and exaggerating them to comic effect. In A Tale of Two Cities, however, this element is downplayed. The exuberance that so characterises his early picaresque novels (The Pickwick Papers and Nicholas Nickleby, for example) and the trenchant satire that makes institutions seem so absurd in later novels (Bleak House and Little Dorrit) are absent from A Tale of Two Cities, whose small amount of comedy is largely derived from heavy irony, rather than the joyous celebration of human eccentricity and individuality that comprises much of the humour of his earlier works. Interestingly, amongst his other books only Barnaby Rudge can be accused of a similar dearth of comedy - and it is another historical novel. It is as if the effort to marry the events of the past to the themes of the present is too great to allow humour to obtrude and upset the fine thematic balance sought by Dickens.
This is not, however, to say that there is no comedy in the book. There are flashes of Dickens's characteristically irrepressible humour, such as when he writes that 'when they took a young man into Tellson's London house, they hid him somewhere till he was old'. Irony is used frequently to underscore effects. For instance some cohorts of Mme. Defarge are described as being 'highly appreciative of her fine figure, and her superb moral endowment' and the whipping-post in London is described as a 'dear old institution, very humanising and softening to behold in action'.
The only compulsively comic character is Jerry Cruncher, and yet even he is inferior in scope and detail to his predecessors in Dickens's comic gallery. He is a Cockney, a type often favoured by Dickens for comedy, and is often absurd (as in his insistence on his nocturnal activities being 'fishing'). The grim business of his acting as a 'resurrection man' is contrasted with Dickens's flippant irony in persisting to describe his grisly exploits according to Cruncher's preferred euphemism. Thus he 'brought forth a sack, a crowbar of convenient size, a rope and chain, and other fishing tackle of that nature', and is
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