Major Themes in “A Tale of Two Cities”

“A Tale of Two Cities” by Charles Dickens explores several major themes, each interwoven into the narrative to provide a rich and complex examination of human nature, society, and history. Here are the major themes of the novel, explained in detail:


1. Resurrection

Resurrection is a central theme in “A Tale of Two Cities,” manifested through various characters and plot developments. This theme is evident in the literal and metaphorical rebirths that occur throughout the novel.

  • Dr. Manette’s Resurrection:

Dr. Manette is “recalled to life” after being unjustly imprisoned for eighteen years in the Bastille. His release and gradual recovery, aided by his daughter Lucie’s love and care, symbolize the power of compassion and familial bonds to heal and restore.

  • Charles Darnay’s Resurrection:

Darnay experiences multiple figurative resurrections. He escapes execution twice, first in England with the help of Sydney Carton and again in France when Carton sacrifices his life to save him.

  • Sydney Carton’s Resurrection:

Carton, initially depicted as a dissolute and cynical lawyer, finds redemption through his love for Lucie Manette. His ultimate act of sacrifice, taking Darnay’s place at the guillotine, allows him to achieve a form of spiritual resurrection. In his final moments, Carton envisions a better future, signifying his transformation and inner peace.

2. Sacrifice

Sacrifice is another prominent theme, closely tied to the theme of resurrection. Characters in the novel make significant sacrifices, often for the sake of others.

  • Sydney Carton’s Sacrifice:

Carton’s decision to die in Darnay’s place is the most profound act of sacrifice. It not only saves Darnay but also provides Carton with a sense of purpose and fulfillment, transforming his previously wasted life into one of profound meaning.

  • Dr. Manette’s Sacrifice:

Dr. Manette sacrifices his own well-being and sanity during his imprisonment and later when he relapses into his shoemaking habit. His sacrifices underscore the personal toll of enduring and overcoming great suffering for the sake of his loved ones.

  • Miss Pross’s Sacrifice:

Miss Pross, Lucie’s loyal servant, sacrifices her safety to protect Lucie and her family from Madame Defarge. Her confrontation with Madame Defarge results in her losing her hearing, highlighting the theme of personal sacrifice for the greater good.

3. The Power of Love and Family

The theme of love and family is central to the novel, demonstrating how these bonds can provide strength, redemption, and hope.

  • Lucie Manette’s Love:

Lucie’s compassion and love are pivotal in the restoration of her father, Dr. Manette. Her nurturing presence is a source of stability and healing for those around her, including Sydney Carton.

  • The Manette Family:

The bond between Lucie and her father symbolizes the resilience and restorative power of family. Their relationship contrasts sharply with the fractured and destructive relationships among the aristocracy and revolutionaries.

  • Sacrificial Love:

Love often motivates the sacrifices made by characters in the novel. Carton’s love for Lucie drives his ultimate sacrifice, while Dr. Manette endures immense suffering out of love for his family.

4. Social Injustice and Revolution

Social injustice and revolution are critical themes that explore the causes and consequences of societal inequalities and upheaval.

  • Oppression of the Peasantry:

The novel vividly portrays the harsh realities faced by the French peasantry under the oppressive rule of the aristocracy. The unjust and cruel treatment of the lower classes fuels the revolutionary fervor and eventual uprising.

  • Revolution and Retribution:

The French Revolution is depicted both as a response to systemic injustices and as a force that unleashes chaos and violence. Dickens illustrates how the revolutionaries, once victims, become perpetrators of new forms of injustice and brutality, exemplified by the actions of Madame Defarge and the mob.

  • Critique of the Aristocracy:

Through characters like the Marquis St. Evrémonde, Dickens critiques the callousness and irresponsibility of the aristocracy. The novel underscores the need for social change while also warning of the dangers of retributive justice.

5. Fate and Free Will

The themes of fate and free will explore the extent to which characters control their destinies versus being subject to larger, uncontrollable forces.

  • Inescapable Past:

Characters like Dr. Manette and Charles Darnay are haunted by their pasts. Dr. Manette’s imprisonment and Darnay’s family history shape their present lives, suggesting a deterministic view of their fates.

  • Choices and Consequences:

While fate plays a significant role, characters also exercise free will, influencing their outcomes. Carton’s choice to sacrifice himself is a pivotal moment of agency that changes the course of several lives.

  • Revolution as an Inevitable Force:

The revolution is depicted as an unstoppable force, driven by historical and social pressures. Characters are often swept up in its tide, illustrating the tension between individual actions and larger societal movements.

6. Violence and Revenge

Violence and revenge are recurring themes that highlight the destructive consequences of unchecked anger and the cycle of retribution.

  • Madame Defarge’s Vengeance:

Madame Defarge embodies the theme of revenge. Her relentless pursuit of retribution against the Evrémonde family symbolizes the corrosive nature of vengeance. Her knitting of the names of the condemned is a chilling representation of her cold and calculating desire for revenge.

  • Mob Mentality:

The violence of the revolutionaries, driven by years of oppression and suffering, often becomes indiscriminate and brutal. The mob’s actions during events like the storming of the Bastille and the subsequent executions depict the chaotic and destructive nature of collective anger.

  • Cycle of Violence:

The novel suggests that violence begets violence, creating a cycle that is difficult to break. The retribution against the aristocracy leads to further atrocities, illustrating the tragic and self-perpetuating nature of vengeance.

7. Identity and Transformation

The theme of identity and transformation examines how characters change over time and how their identities are shaped by their experiences.

  • Sydney Carton’s Transformation:

Carton’s journey from a disillusioned, aimless lawyer to a heroic figure who sacrifices himself for others is a central example of transformation. His redemption arc highlights the potential for personal growth and change.

  • Dr. Manette’s Recovery:

Dr. Manette’s gradual return to sanity and normalcy after his imprisonment represents a transformation from a broken man to a loving father and respected physician.

  • Charles Darnay’s Renunciation:

Darnay’s rejection of his aristocratic heritage and his efforts to forge a new identity in England demonstrate his desire to distance himself from his family’s oppressive legacy.

These themes intertwine to create a rich tapestry of narrative and character development in “A Tale of Two Cities.” Dickens uses them to explore complex issues of morality, justice, and human nature, making the novel a profound and enduring work of literature.