Roles of Important Characters in a Tale of Two Cities The novel by Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities, features some of the most well-known and symbolic characters in literary history. One major antagonist, Madame Defarge, embodies the cruelty and hatred that was rampant during the French Revolution. Sydney Carton, undoubtedly the most important character in the novel, developing throughout the novel originating as an unmotivated, drunk attorney but commits the ultimate act of kindness when he gives his life to preserve the life of his friends.
In the final scene of the novel, “the Seamstress” is introduced. “The Seamstress” provides a further example of the injustice of the revolutionaries as well as aides Carton in achieving his Christ-like sacrifice. These three characters play an important role in the novel by portraying the three main themes of novel: violence and cruelty, death and resurrection, and sacrifice. The first of the three themes, violence and cruelty, is portrayed by the merciless Madame Defarge.
In the beginning of the novel, Madame Defarge resides above her husband’s wine shop knitting the names of those registered to be executed once the revolution has commenced. The innocent act of knitting is twisted by Madame Defarge to symbolize her lust for vengeance as see knits “in her own stitches and her own symbols” that will later allow her to recall the people registered to die (132). Furthermore, the bloodlust of Madame Defarge and the other revolutionaries stems from the ruthless oppression of peasants by the French aristocrats.
Similarly, Madame Defarge expresses aggression towards Charles Darnay, one of the main characters in the novel. Darnay is a French aristocrat who moved to England and renounced his name of Evremonde due to the horrible injustices performed by his uncle and father. These injustices became the source of Madame Defarge’s aggression when one of the Evremonde brothers raped Defarge’s sister and then stabbed her brother when he attempted to save her sister. Doctor Manette records this event after he is summoned by the Evremonde brothers to save them but Madame Defarge’s siblings unfortunately die.
Having observed the death of her two siblings, Defarge obtains an everlasting hatred towards the aristocracy. As a result of this hatred, Defarge has Darnay arrested on two different accounts, and on the second account is when his is finally sentenced to death simply because he is “by descent an Aristocrat” that it makes him “an enemy of the Republic, [and] a notorious oppressor of the People” (258). This death sentence is not in the least just due to the fact that Darnay has admittedly renounced the Evremonde name; rather this sentence is Madame Defarge’s call for blood, further proving her viciousness.
Madame Defarge is found on both sides of the cruelty of the French Revolution. Firstly, when she witness the death of both her siblings at the hands of the Evremondes, how the servants at the country estate are treated like common dogs, leading to the rape of her sister. Additionally, the younger Evremonde brother feels shame for killing Defarge’s brother, not because it is morally wrong to kill another man, but because it is shameful for an aristocrat to “[cross] swords with a peasant, and that a peasant boy” (255).
This shows that attitude of the aristocrats, favoring pride over the life of a peasant. Madame Defarge, though, also displays her cruel characteristic that rivals that of the Evremondes. This is displayed in the killing Foulon, a wealthy aristocrat who claimed “the famished people might eat grass” and had faked his death to escape execution but was found hiding in the countryside (171). Upon entering the room where Foulon is being held, Madame Defarge mocks him by having tied “a bunch of grass upon his back” and claiming “‘Let him eat now! ’” (172).
This shows how Madame Defarge is entertained by the suffering of an aristocrat who is only despised based off of his statement about the poor. Her cruelty goes further though when she drags Foulon “down, and up, and head foremost on the steps of the building; now on his knees; now, on his feet; […] dragged, and struck at, and stifled by the bunches of grass and straw that where thrust into his face by hundreds of hands” (173). Once Defarge reaches a lamppost and attempts to hang Foulon, but “twice, he went aloft, and the rope broke, and they caught him shrieking; then, the rope was merciful, and held him” (173).
The description of the poorly executed execution demonstrates Madame Defarge’s cruelty as they have to re-hang Foulon twice because the rope keeps breaking as he is still alive. To contrast the insane bloodlust of Madame Defarge, the character of Sydney Carton is presented. Though in the beginning of the novel Carton is unmotivated and even describes his being a waste of life, at the end Carton takes the place of Darnay at the guillotine claiming that this sacrifice finally gives his life meaning. In the beginning of the novel, Carton meets Darnay and envies him because he believes that Darnay is a portrayal of what Carton’s life could be.
Carton develops throughout the novel to where he no longer envies Darnay; instead Carton is willing to sacrifice himself so that Darnay can live a happy life with Lucie and their child. As a result of his sacrifice, Carton achieves a Christ-like image at the end of the novel. This can be seen through the dialogue with the seamstress in the final chapter of the novel when Carton addresses the seamstress as “dear child” and “gentle sister” as well as Carton’s quote from the Bible: “I am the Resurrection and the Life […] and whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die” (291-2).
Additionally the narrator claims that many “added that he looked sublime and prophetic” (292). This passage clearly shows Dickens’ intent to give a parallel between the death of Christ and the execution of Carton. Though it can be argued that since Carton lives a rather pathetic life that his death is not that great of a sacrifice, but his death provides the rest of the protagonists with peace. The introduction of the seamstress occurs in the last three pages of the novel. Through her character Dickens gives his last comment on the injustice of the revolutionaries.
The seamstress is a young, poor, innocent woman who has been sentenced to death by Madame Defarge, showing that her bloodlust did not only stop at the aristocracy, but fell upon the peasants that followed her in hopes of freedom. It is through the seamstress that Carton receives his Christ-like image, claiming that Carton has been “sent to [her] by the heavens” as if Carton is the savior (291). Through these three characters Dickens is able to portray his three main themes.
Madame Defarge embodies the extreme violence and cruelty during the French Revolution through her inhumane killing of Foulon and her persistence in the retribution of the death of her siblings through her attempt to convict Darnay to death. Sydney symbolizes resurrection and sacrifice through his Chris-like execution and his dialogue with the seamstress and he eases her worry and prepares her for a peaceful death. Works Cited Dickens, Charles. A Tale of Two Cities. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 1999. Print.
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