A Tale of Two Cities

A Tale of Two Cities

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Guillotine Symbol Icon
The guillotine, a machine designed to behead its victims, is one of the enduring symbols of the French Revolution. In Tale of Two Cities, the guillotine symbolizes how revolutionary chaos gets institutionalized. With the guillotine, killing becomes emotionless and automatic, and human life becomes cheap. The guillotine as a symbol expresses exactly what Dickens meant by adding the two final words ("or Death") to the end of the French national motto: "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, or Death."

Guillotine Quotes in A Tale of Two Cities

The A Tale of Two Cities quotes below all refer to the symbol of Guillotine. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Tyranny and Revolution Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Penguin Classics edition of A Tale of Two Cities published in 2003.
Book 3, Chapter 4 Quotes
Above all, one hideous figure grew … the figure of the sharp female called La Guillotine. It was the popular theme for jests; it was the best cure for headache, it infallibly prevented the hair from turning grey, it imparted a peculiar delicacy to the complexion, it was the National Razor which shaved close: who kissed La Guillotine, looked through the little window and sneezed into the sack. It was the sign of the regeneration of the human race. It superseded the Cross. Models of it were worn on breasts from which the Cross was discarded, and it was bowed down to and believed in where the Cross was denied.
Related Symbols: Guillotine
Page Number: 283-284
Explanation and Analysis:

Here, the book introduces the symbol of the guillotine – not only one of the most significant symbols of the French Revolution, but also a crucial symbol in the novel, so much so that it almost takes on the characteristics of a character. Here the narrator personifies La Guillotine as a "sharp female," both a human being and a kind of apparent cure for all the ills of the country. As the revolutionaries transition from dissatisfied subjects to a frenzied mass to a powerful group themselves, so too do they begin to institutionalize and formalize their tools of destruction. Rather than the blood- and wine-spattered outfits they've worn previously, now they have access to a cold tool of torture whose sleekness and simplicity belies its destructiveness.

By contrasting the guillotine to the cross, the book suggests that a new sense of morality, or rather immorality, has gripped the country, and while the Christian lessons of love and mercy are dismissed, the power of destruction as embodied in the guillotine is lauded and embraced.

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Book 3, Chapter 15 Quotes
Along the Paris streets, the death-carts rumble, hollow and harsh. Six tumbrils carry the day's wine to La Guillotine. All the devouring and insatiate Monsters imagined since imagination could record itself, are fused in the one realisation, Guillotine. … Crush humanity out of shape once more, under similar hammers, and it will twist itself into the same tortured forms. Sow the same seed of rapacious license and oppression over again, and it will surely yield the same fruit according to its kind.
Related Symbols: Wine, Guillotine
Page Number: 384
Explanation and Analysis:

As Sydney Carton's execution approaches, the carts are described with an allusion to the carrying of Jesus on the cross to his own crucifixion, similarly paraded through the town and subject to ridicule and condemnation. Once again, the guillotine is personified, becoming the image of pure evil itself with "insatiable" hunger for blood. And once again, wine is described in relation to blood, though here the metaphor is slightly different: "wine" for the guillotine is the bodies of people that will be killed under the guillotine's power, with which the guillotine nourishes itself.

This dark, haunting scene concludes with the suggestion that these events are not limited to one time and place alone. Any time there is boundless oppression and injustice, the passage suggests, people will rise up against it, and they will be just as susceptible to replacing injustice with injustice, oppression with oppression, in turn. While the book never excuses the revolutionaries' violence, it does place the root of the inevitable process of tyranny and revolution in the original oppression of those in power.

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Guillotine Symbol Timeline in A Tale of Two Cities

The timeline below shows where the symbol Guillotine appears in A Tale of Two Cities. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Book 3, Chapter 1
Tyranny and Revolution Theme Icon
Fate and History Theme Icon
Imprisonment Theme Icon
...quietly asks him why he ever returned to France in this, the age of "La Guillotine." Charles asks Defarge to help him. Defarge refuses. (full context)
Book 3, Chapter 4
Tyranny and Revolution Theme Icon
The guillotine becomes an institution, and guillotines can now be found in the streets all over Paris.... (full context)
Book 3, Chapter 14
Tyranny and Revolution Theme Icon
Secrecy and Surveillance Theme Icon
...and fantasizes about the blond hair and blue eyes of Lucie's beheaded child at the guillotine. The wood-sawyer and Madame Defarge promise to testify against Lucie. (full context)
Book 3, Chapter 15
Tyranny and Revolution Theme Icon
Fate and History Theme Icon
Sacrifice Theme Icon
Resurrection Theme Icon
The young woman is scheduled to be beheaded by the guillotine just before Carton. She thanks Carton for helping her stay composed, and says he must... (full context)
Tyranny and Revolution Theme Icon
Fate and History Theme Icon
Sacrifice Theme Icon
Resurrection Theme Icon
...He recognizes that Barsad, The Vengeance, and all the "new oppressors" will die by the guillotine they now celebrate. Yet he is also sure that Paris will rise up from its... (full context)