Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities, his only historical-fiction novel, quickly gained international acclaim after its 1859 publication and has remained part of the Western literary canon for well over a century. However, approaching the text in the classroom poses many challenges: the length of the novel, the Victorian prose style, and the depictions of violence, to name a few.
Despite these challenges, there are many excellent teaching opportunities: from discussing themes of resurrection and revolution to character-foil studies, particularly those of Charles Darnay and Sydney Carton.
If you’re looking to incorporate this text into your curriculum, let’s look at four teaching approaches to help your students get the most out of Dickens’s classic tale.
1. Resurrection and Redemption
Many of the events in A Tale of Two Cities frequently suggest that there is a possibility of resurrection—figurative, not literal. Perhaps the most notable example in the text is Syndey Carton’s sacrificing himself for the future happiness of Lucie and Charles Darnay. However, multiple other examples abound: Lucie’s father, Dr. Manette, is “recalled to life” after spending over a decade in the Bastille; Jerry Cruncher “resurrects” dead bodies to sell them; Syndey Carton “resurrects” Charles Darnay twice in the novel. While not all resurrections are redemptive, they play into the novel’s larger idea that even the people of France will experience their own resurrection after the revolution ends and order is restored.
To get the most out of this theme, consider the following discussion questions with your class:
- The novel repeatedly asserts that humanity is inherently degraded, corrupt, and doomed. What evidence can you find to support this? What are the biggest issues society faces in the novel?
- Dickens chooses to make Sydney Carton the Christ-like figure instead of Charles Darney. What is it about Sydney’s character that suggests he’s the best choice? Do you agree with Carton’s belief that his self-sacrifice redeems him? Why?
- Events in the novel may suggest that despite the hypocrisy and problems of the French Revolution, its violence is justified in creating a better society. To what extent do you agree with this?
2. Revolutions Are Inherently Oppressive
Readers are meant to sympathize with the oppressed: the poor, working-class French. However, the blood and violence of the French Revolution is not romanticized nor endorsed by Dickens. The peasants in particular are in much the same state as they were prior to the revolution, with the Reign of Terror contributing to many innocent beheadings.
To further explore how the novel explores the notion that revolutions are inherently oppressive, consider the following discussion questions with your class:
- Which social classes object the most to an oppressive government? Who leads the French Revolution?
- What, if any, alternative strategies, does the novel suggest for dealing with societal change? Are any of them better than violent revolutions and social uprisings? Why or why not?
3. Charles Darnay and Sydney Carton as Character Foils
Despite being hardworking, brave, and kind, Charles Darnay barely escapes execution in England at the beginning of the novel only to be later sentenced to death for his family’s crimes in France. In both instances, the lazy, cowardly, and unfriendly Sydney Carton saves Darnay’s life. These two men are opposites in nearly every respect except for appearance, making a character-foil study of them a rewarding experience.
To further explore how these two men serve as character foils for one another, consider the following discussion questions:
- Compare and contrast the character traits of Charles Darnay and Sydney Carton at key points in the novel. How does each man respond to conflict?
- By the end of the novel, much has been suggested about fate and whether or not it’s possible to escape one’s past. How do Charles’s and Sydney’s actions give readers insight into these observations?
4. Lucie Manette and Madame Defarge as Character Foils
Madame Defarge features prominently in the events of the French Revolution: She helps mobilize the “Jacques” and appears to have orchestrated many of the revolutionary plots. In contrast, Lucie Manette represents a demure Victorian woman. She is a dutiful daughter and wife; she is meek, helpful, and self-sacrificing. It’s quite possible that readers are meant to prefer Lucie’s dutiful meekness and subservience to Madame Defarge’s scheming and ruthlessness—especially considered how the novel ends for each character.
To further explore how these two women serve as character foils for one another, consider the following discussion questions:
- Make a list of the predominant character traits of Lucie Manette and Madame Defarge. How would you characterize each woman?
- Compare and contrast their respective character traits. Though Lucie is portrayed as a heroine and Madame Defarge is portrayed as a villain, which woman is more empowered? Why do you think so?
- Based on the extent to which each woman is empowered, how is that empowerment portrayed in the novel?
If you’ve found any of these approaches appealing and want more, consider looking at our Teaching Guide for A Tale of Two Cities as well as the lesson plans we have for examining character foils in this classic text.