A Tale of Two Cities

A Tale of Two Cities

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Tyranny and Revolution Theme Analysis

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Secrecy and Surveillance Theme Icon
Fate and History Theme Icon
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LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in A Tale of Two Cities, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Tyranny and Revolution Theme Icon

Much of the action of A Tale of Two Cities takes place in Paris during the French Revolution, which began in 1789. In A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens shows how the tyranny of the French aristocracy—high taxes, unjust laws, and a complete disregard for the well-being of the poor—fed a rage among the commoners that eventually erupted in revolution. Dickens depicts this process most clearly through his portrayal of the decadent Marquis St. Evrémonde and the Marquis' cruel treatment of the commoners who live in the region under his control.

However, while the French commoners' reasons for revolting were entirely understandable, and the French Revolution was widely praised for its stated ideals of "Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity," Dickens takes a more pessimistic view. By showing how the revolutionaries use oppression and violence to further their own selfish and bloodthirsty ends, in A Tale of Two Cities Dickens suggests that whoever is in power, nobles or commoners, will fall prey to the temptation to exercise their full power. In other words, Dickens shows that while tyranny will inevitably lead to revolution, revolution will lead just as inevitably to tyranny. The only way to break this cycle is through the application of justice and mercy.

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Tyranny and Revolution Quotes in A Tale of Two Cities

Below you will find the important quotes in A Tale of Two Cities related to the theme of Tyranny and Revolution.
Book 1, Chapter 5 Quotes
The children had ancient faces and grave voices; and upon them, and upon the grown faces, and ploughed into every furrow of age and coming up afresh, was the sign, Hunger. It was prevalent everywhere. Hunger was pushed out of the tall houses, in the wretched clothing that hung upon poles and lines; Hunger was patched into them with straw and rag and wood and paper; Hunger was repeated in every fragment of the small modicum of firewood that the man sawed off; Hunger stared down from the smokeless chimneys, and started up from the filthy street that had no offal, among its refuse, of anything to eat. Hunger was the inscription on the baker's shelves, written in every small loaf of his scanty stock of bad bread; at the sausage-shop, in every dead-dog preparation that was offered for sale.
Page Number: 32-33
Explanation and Analysis:

The narrative moves to Paris, where Lucie Manette will meet her long-lost father, and as it does so, the narrator lingers on the setting crossed by the group from England. This evocative scene is powerful in itself, but it is also significant in terms of what it foreshadows for the rest of the book's plot.

Hunger here is personified, described as "pushed out" and staring down. As a character itself, hunger can, we realize, have just as enormous effects in history as a human figure. The narrator describes the state of hunger as a state of desperation, so critical that it doesn't seem sustainable. Indeed, the desperation described in this passage will help to explain much of what takes place later, as those suffering reach a breaking point – while suggesting that such a breaking point may always have been inevitable in such a situation.


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Book 2, Chapter 8 Quotes
Expressive signs of what made them poor, were not wanting; the tax for the state, the tax for the church, the tax for the lord, tax local and tax general, were to be paid here and to be paid there, according to solemn inscription in the little village, until the wonder was, that there was any village left unswallowed.
Page Number: 119
Explanation and Analysis:

The Marquis d'Evrémonde is driving from city to town in his regal carriage, passing scenes of poverty and desperation and yet failing to feel any sympathy for the people inhabiting them. Here, the narrator describes the village over which the Marquis rules, locating the source of its poverty in the Marquis's own actions, having taxed the villagers to death. Nonetheless, this passage also makes clear that the Marquis is only one among several layers of rulers and institutions that have driven the village into the ground through crippling taxes. Here as elsewhere, the narrator characterizes such a scene as unsustainable, laying the groundwork for the rumblings of dissatisfaction and eventually revolution that will follow. 

Book 2, Chapter 9 Quotes
"Repression is the only lasting philosophy. The dark deference of fear and slavery, my friend," observed the Marquis, "will keep the dogs obedient to the whip, as long as this roof," looking up to it, "shuts out the sky."
Related Characters: Marquis St. Evrémonde (speaker), Charles Darnay (a.k.a. Charles Evrémonde)
Page Number: 128
Explanation and Analysis:

Charles has confided to his uncle, the Marquis d'Evrémonde, about his love for a "sacred object," Lucie, but the Marquis quickly dismisses his idealistic goals. While Charles has embraced the new Enlightenment philosophy of equality and freedom – so much so that he is struggling to reconcile his own heritage with his beliefs – his uncle is steadfastly committed to the aristocratic tyranny that is all he knows (and which benefits him so immensely). 

Here, the Marquis suggests that his own beliefs are part of a greater truth about history. Only by repressing people who are weaker can those in power hope to stay that way. By blocking out the sky, as it were, aristocrats can even make people lose their hope for a better life, implying that what they experience is all there is. But the Marquis's words also implicitly suggest that aristocrats may well be in danger if they do fail to "shut out the sky," and if people begin to hope for the possibility of a better life.

Book 2, Chapter 16 Quotes
Another darkness was closing in as surely, when the church bells, then ringing pleasantly in many an airy steeple over France, should be melted into thundering cannon; when the military drums should be beating to drown a wretched voice, that night all potent as the voice of Power and Plenty, Freedom and Life. So much was closing in about the women who sat knitting, knitting, that they their very selves were closing in around a structure yet unbuilt, where they were to sit knitting, knitting, counting dropping heads.
Related Symbols: Knitting and the Golden Thread
Page Number: 193-194
Explanation and Analysis:

The would-be revolutionaries have failed to save the life of the Marquis d'Evrémonde's murderer, Jacques, and now they are beginning to plot in revenge – in what will turn out to be a tragic and violent cycle in which many of the revolutionaries become no better than the tyrants they hope to depose. Here, the narrator steps back from the immediate plot at hand to suggest larger historical processes at work across all of France. Describing the darkness "closing in," the narrator suggests that these processes are or have become inevitable – there is no turning back from the process of revolution now. 

Another way to describe this inevitability is through the workings of fate, which is here, as elsewhere, linked to the image of women knitting – in particular, Madame Defarge stitching the names of those to be killed, but also the classical Fates threading out the plot of mortal lives. The way these knitters "close around" a structure being built creates a mental image of a kind of prison, which emerges as a metaphor for the coming revolution, the impossibility of stopping it, and the cycle of violence it unleashes that no one can escape.

Book 2, Chapter 21 Quotes
The sea of black and threatening waters, and of destructive upheaving of wave against wave, whose depths were yet unfathomed and whose forces were yet unknown. The remorseless sea of turbulently swaying shapes, voices of vengeance, and faces hardened in the furnaces of suffering until the touch of pity could make no mark on them.
Page Number: 229
Explanation and Analysis:

The narrator shifts from London to Paris, where the stirrings of revolutionary activity are growing stronger. In this poetic passage, the narrator describes revolution as made up less of individual voices and desires than of an indistinguishable mass, which gains power from the physical visceral force of many bodies.

This image of revolutionaries is not exactly inspiring or idealistic. Instead, it's rather ominous. The destructive power of this wave of revolutionaries is described as not all that different from the overpowering, tyrannical force of the aristocrats against whom the revolutionaries are supposedly fighting. Although their reasons for rebelling may be justified, the book suggests, the group-think of the mass – of the mob – can easily lead to its own kind of tyranny.

Book 2, Chapter 23 Quotes
With the rising and falling of the blaze, the stone faces showed as if they were in torment. When great masses of stone and timber fell, the face with the two dints in the nose became obscured: anon struggled out of the smoke again, as if it were the face of the cruel Marquis, burning at the stake and contending with the fire.
Related Characters: Marquis St. Evrémonde
Page Number: 241
Explanation and Analysis:

Four radicals have set fire to the castle overlooking the village, and now an enormous blaze is raging, threatening to engulf the entire castle. While a man has run out of the castle and begged for the villagers to help, here they are described as staring "stonily" back at him. For so long, the aristocrats have rebuffed the villagers' desperate need for help and assistance in the face of poverty. Now, they see a chance to deny those in power what they never could receive themselves. (Note here the stark contrast to Lucie's way of interacting with the world, in which she offers forgiveness to all despite their history, and how that contrasts to how the aristocrats and revolutionaries treat each other).

Here, too, the death of the Marquis d'Evrémonde is metaphorically reenacted. Burning at the stake was a punishment long associated with heretics: now it is a powerful aristocrat, a kind of "heretic" to the ideals of the revolutionaries, who is punished by being imagined as burning at the stake.

Book 2, Chapter 24 Quotes
Like the mariner in the old story, the winds and streams had driven him within the influence of the Loadstone Rock, and it was drawing him to itself, and he must go. Everything that arose before his mind drifted him on, faster and faster, more and more steadily, to the terrible attraction. His latent uneasiness had been … that he who could not fail to know that he was better than they, was not there, trying to do something to stay bloodshed, and assert the claims of mercy and humanity.
Related Characters: Charles Darnay (a.k.a. Charles Evrémonde)
Page Number: 252
Explanation and Analysis:

Charles has received a letter from the Evrémonde family servant, Gabelle, who has been jailed merely because of his association with aristocracy, though he has been attempting to help Charles to work for good. Now Charles realizes that he must return to Paris, and that he has a chance not to escape his aristocratic heritage but to redeem it by doing everything he can to mitigate the violence of the revolution. Here the narrator refers to the famous poem, "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" by Samuel Coleridge: the Loadstone Rock, in this poem and in elsewhere, exerts an almost mystical, but also scientifically magnetic, influence, drawing objects to itself. 

For Charles, his return to Paris is part of his individual trajectory, an active choice made in order to reduce the violence of revolution and to make his own mark against the tyranny of both sides. At the same time, however, the comparison to the Loadstone Rock – that "terrible attraction" – suggests that Charles is ultimately subject to the same forces of fate and history as everyone else. He cannot but help playing his role in this process just like the others, and further suggests that regardless of the role he intends to play, he will end up playing whatever role history has in store for him.

Book 3, Chapter 1 Quotes
Not a mean village closed upon him, not a common barrier dropped across the road behind him, but he knew it to be another iron door in the series that was barred between him and England. The universal watchfulness so encompassed him, that if he had been taken in a net, or were being forwarded to his destination in a cage, he could not have felt his freedom more completely gone.
Related Characters: Charles Darnay (a.k.a. Charles Evrémonde)
Page Number: 255
Explanation and Analysis:

As Charles makes his way from London to Paris, he is increasingly aghast by how the values of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity that were supposed to have motivated the revolution have been distorted out of all recognition. He is suspicious of everything and everyone around him, not knowing whom he can trust, and unsure of the course history will take next.

At the same time, his journey to France, though undertaken of his own will, begins to seem more and more like a prison sentence, as with each step Charles's path seems to become more irrevocable. The further he goes into revolutionary France, the less able he is to turn back, to change course. Instead it seems that he is walking into his own fate – not in a positive, optimistic way, as if he were choosing his own destiny, but rather as though he is willingly walking into a trap of inevitability and will be able to find no way out.

Book 3, Chapter 2 Quotes
As these ruffians turned and turned, their matted locks now flung forward over their eyes, now flung backward over their necks, some women held wine to their mouths that they might drink; and what with dropping blood, and what with dropping wine, and what with the stream of sparks struck out of the stone, all their wicked atmosphere seemed gore and fire. The eye could not detect one creature in the group free from the smear of blood.
Related Symbols: Wine
Page Number: 31
Explanation and Analysis:

Lucie, Dr. Manette, and Mr. Lorry are gathered together, anxious about the fate of Charles in the prison of La Force. As they peer out the window of the place where they are staying, the frightening, wild nature of the revolutionaries becomes immediately clear. There is an obvious connection established here between wine and blood. Not only are the liquids physically similar, but one can lead to another: drunk on wine, the revolutionaries lose their inhibitions and are even more likely to become frenzied and violent.

The images of this passage almost suggests a vision of hell rather than of an earthly city, and indeed the book wants to stress just how "wicked" – on a spiritual, even metaphysical level – the formerly oppressed peoples have become now that they have seized power. The tragedy is that they indeed were, so recently, oppressed, and yet now in their rebellion they have become shockingly brutal tyrants themselves.

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.

Book 3, Chapter 6 Quotes
Looking at the Jury and the turbulent audience, he might have thought that the usual order of things was reversed, and that the felons were trying the honest men.
Related Characters: Charles Darnay (a.k.a. Charles Evrémonde)
Page Number: 292
Explanation and Analysis:

As Charles faces the crowd and the jury at his trial, he is struck by the sense that the supposed institutions of justice have been hollowed out of their significance: in their place is a bloodthirsty crowd whose sense of justice is twisted – so much so that it might formerly have been thought of as injustice.

Once again, the novel stresses that those suffering under tyranny have become tyrants themselves, in a tragic revolutionary cycle that is portrayed as more inevitable that actively chosen. Violence leads, always, to more violence; tyranny leads to new tyranny. In such a world, everything seems inside out, including the status of the felons and the honest, the judged and the judges.

Book 3, Chapter 9 Quotes
Before that unjust Tribunal, there was little or no order of procedure, ensuring to any accused person any reasonable hearing. There could have been no such Revolution, if all laws, forms, and ceremonies, had not first been so monstrously abused, that the suicidal vengeance of the Revolution was to scatter them all to the winds.
Page Number: 327
Explanation and Analysis:

As yet another trial of Charles begins, the narrator describes the procedure, or rather lack thereof, of the tribunal condemning him. Once again the revolutionaries are shown to have little regard for justice, only a twisted sense of revenge and anger characterizing how they enact judgments. However, here the narrator also wants to make clear that the revolutionaries' disregard for justice and goodness hasn't come out of nowhere. Instead, it ultimately stems from the fact that the aristocrats who oppressed them for so long had an equally low regard for "laws" and "forms" that were supposed to guide and direct their actions.

As a result, the actions of the revolutionaries are not excused, but rather explained, shown as taking part in a longer history of tragic injustice that has denied liberty to so many. 

Book 3, Chapter 10 Quotes
The boy's eyes, which had been fixed on mine, slowly turned to the looker-on, and I saw in the two faces that all he said was true. The two opposing kinds of pride confronting one another, I can see, even in this Bastille; the gentleman's, all negligent indifference; the peasants, all trodden-down sentiment, and passionate revenge.
Related Characters: Dr. Alexandre Manette (speaker), Marquis St. Evrémonde
Page Number: 337
Explanation and Analysis:
This passage is part of a somewhat complex framed narrative – that is, a story within a story (within a story!). Monsieur Defarge is reading aloud a letter written by Dr. Manette, in which he related the story of a young boy horrifically mistreated by the Evrémonde family, and who soon died at their hands. Writing the letter from the Bastille, where he was imprisoned, Dr. Manette drew a broader lesson from the conflict between the peasant boy and the aristocratic Evrémondes. In a tone of remarkable prescience, given the way that revolution would develop afterwards, the letter suggests that the "negligent indifference" of the aristocrats would clash with the "passionate revenge" of the peasants until the conflict would reach a breaking point, and violence would inevitably result. 
Book 3, Chapter 14 Quotes
There were many women at that time, upon whom the time laid a dreadfully disfiguring hand; but, there was not one among them more to be dreaded than this ruthless woman, now taking her way along the streets … imbued from her childhood with a brooding sense of wrong, and an inveterate hatred of a class, opportunity had developed her into a tigress. She was absolutely without pity.
Related Characters: The Vengeance
Page Number: 375
Explanation and Analysis:

La Vengeance strides through the streets, heading towards Lucie's apartment in the hopes of gaining evidence against her that will be of use in condemning Lucie to death. While we have now learned that Madame Defarge was the sister of the peasant family ruthlessly tortured by the Evrémondes, the book portrays her and her sidekick as still more ruthless, the tyranny of aristocracy only begetting the even more pitiless tyranny of revolutionaries. Just as the narrator has personified objects like the guillotine before, this passage portrays the woman as a powerful but inhuman concept, that of Vengeance.

In addition, by depicting the woman as one extreme example of a nonetheless widespread type, the book underlines once again just how widespread the terror of the revolution has become. In a way, Madame Defarge's terrible childhood and many like it have set this inevitable process in motion, though the book does not as a result excuse the actions of people like her and her sidekick.

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.