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Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities is his first of two historical novels. Published in 1859, the book discusses the themes of resurrection, destiny, and concealment. Dickens’ novel both demonstrates his view of society, and contains historical facts surrounding the French Revolution. Throughout the novel, two viewpoints of the theme of death are evident: a negative as well as a positive perspective of death. In A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens utilizes three widely different perspectives on death: the bloodthirsty craving for slaughter expressed by the revolutionary Madame Defarge, the physiological death resulting from Doctor Manette’s imprisonment, and the noble sacrifice of Sydney Carton, in order to demonstrate his view of death as a form of not only physical and emotional punishment, but also of liberation.
Dickens negatively portrays death as a horrendous act through Madame Defarge. She declares that, “For other crimes as tyrants and oppressors, I have this race a long time on my register, doomed to destruction and extermination” (Dickens 264). Madame Defarge obsesses over the destruction of the aristocrats, believing that their cruelty demands death. Furthermore, Dickens describes her sadistic tendencies: “She derived a horrible enjoyment from the deadly nature of her wrath,” further proving her vicious nature (Dickens 265). Madame Defarge not only takes pleasure in watching the condemned die, but she also knits a secret registry of the individuals whom revolutionaries wish to execute. Stout writes, “Madame Defarge’s knitted registry of the condemned points out just how thin an operative characterization might be” (Stout 37). This registry further implies the certainty of their death; since Madame Defarge writes it down, it seems inevitable, demonstrating the authority of the revolutionaries, and the inexorable justice which they demand. Through Madame Defarge, Dickens portrays death pessimistically as an obligatory physical punishment.
Dickens not only portrays death as a physical punishment through the character of Doctor Manette, but he also expresses his view of death as an emotional imprisonment. Doctor Manette’s eighteen year confinement constitutes a negative parallel to physical death. Dickens states, “The faintness of the voice was pitiable and dreadful. It was not the faintness of physical weakness, though confinement and hard fare no doubt has their part in it” (Dickens 29). Doctor Manette’s incarceration leaves him physically weak, as well as emotionally damaged. Though Dickens does not describe precisely how he suffered, his many relapses into the trembling sessions of his old self remain evidence of the depth of his misery. As Doctor Manette progresses from an emotionally troubled man to a free man in society, he underwent multiple relapses. During one of his reversions, Doctor Manette returns to his bench where he undergoes life as a shoemaker during his imprisonment. Dickens describes Doctor Manette’s compulsions: “He worked, and worked, and worked, in silence, and words fell on him as they would have fallen on an echoless wall…he sometimes furtively looked up…in that, there seemed as though he were trying to reconcile some doubts in his mind” (Dickens 150). Because he spent so many years isolated making shoes, when an event triggers Doctor Manette’s old self and he goes back to his old ways and shuts everyone else out. He says, “my old pain has given me a power that has brought us through the barrier, and gained us news of Charles there, and brought us here (Dickens 202). Doctor Manette’s life transforms from that of an incarcerated lunatic feverishly making shoes, to a man of strength and merit with freedom in society. His imprisonment no doubt affects him emotionally; however, he overcomes those damages and becomes a strong support to his daughter Lucie, during her husband Charles Darnay’s imprisonment. In A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens disapprovingly portrays emotional death through the character of Doctor Manette because of his imprisonment.
Dickens positively depicts Sydney Carton’s sacrificial death as a form of liberation. Carton initially appears as an alcoholic attorney who does not have a care in his own life, and who is apathetic toward every aspect of life. He comments on his own “misdirected life” saying that it is an absolute waste of existence, for he cares for nothing and no one, because “[he is] not worth such feeling” (Dickens 116, 117). However, in order to find a purpose, he sacrifices himself for another man, Charles Darnay. Carton’s transformation into a man of worth occurs not only because he sacrifices his body for Darnay’s, but also because he sacrifices his old flawed self. He no longer remains an alcoholic, but rather he becomes a man of worth. After this transformation, Carton wants to sacrifice himself for Darnay. Carton states that, “No life can possibly be saved, and many lives must inevitably be sacrificed” (Dickens 268). He understands that someone must die, either Darnay or himself. Carton uses this opportunity not only to ensure Lucie and Darnay’s happiness, but also to transform his identity, and to become a man of moral importance. In this decision, Carton uses death in a positive manner in order to liberate himself from his past ways, and become a man who possesses the desires to keep Darnay alive by sacrificing himself.
Dickens portrays death negatively not only as a form of physical and emotional imprisonment, but also positively as a form of liberation. To Madame Defarge and the ferocious revolutionaries, they feel death through physical sentences. Doctor Manette and countless other prisoners feel death through emotional imprisonment. And lastly, for Sydney Carton, death provides liberation. Through these examples of death in A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens’ opinion regarding death becomes evident in that he views death in a negative manner with physical and emotional death, as well as in a positive light as a form of liberation. He believes that the slaughter that captivated the revolutionaries was atrocious and unnecessary, but he conversely portrays death as a means of freedom and hope.
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