A Tale of Two Cities


Charles Dickens

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A Tale of Two Cities: Allusions 8 key examples

Definition of Allusion
In literature, an allusion is an unexplained reference to someone or something outside of the text. Writers commonly allude to other literary works, famous individuals, historical events, or philosophical ideas... read full definition
In literature, an allusion is an unexplained reference to someone or something outside of the text. Writers commonly allude to other literary works, famous individuals... read full definition
In literature, an allusion is an unexplained reference to someone or something outside of the text. Writers commonly allude to... read full definition
Book 1, Chapter 5
Explanation and Analysis—The Writing on the Wall:

In the scene where a wine cask spills onto the streets of Saint Antoine, Dickens alludes to the Hebrew Bible:

Those who had been greedy with the staves of the cask, had acquired a tigerish smear about the mouth; and one tall joker so besmirched, his head more out of a long squalid bag of a nightcap than in it, scrawled upon a wall with his finger dripped in muddy wine lees—BLOOD.

This scenario is similar to the tale of Belshazzar’s feast from the Book of Daniel. In the story, Belshazzar, the crown prince of the Neo-Babylonian Empire, holds a grand feast to celebrate the destruction of Solomon’s temple. During the feast, an angelic hand appears and writes on the castle wall, but Belshazzar and his attendants are unable to read the writing. The prophet Daniel is asked to interpret the message—he says it is a sign that Belshazzar’s days are numbered and that the kingdom will be taken from him as punishment for his arrogance and blasphemy. This story is the origin of the phrase “the writing is on the wall,” which means that something bad is likely to happen soon. Though the “tall joker” in the soiled nightcap from A Tale of Two Cities is no angelic being, the message he writes is still a warning to the ruling class, whose blood is destined to be spilled in the streets.

Book 2, Chapter 9
Explanation and Analysis—A New Philosophy:

Speaking to his nephew, Darnay, the Marquis St. Evrémonde alludes to a “new philosophy” that is changing the social order in France:

We have lost many privileges; a new philosophy has become the mode; and the assertion of our station, in these days, might (I do not go so far as to say would, but might) cause us real inconvenience.

The “new philosophy” that the Marquis is alluding to is the philosophy of the Enlightenment. The Age of Enlightenment was a political and intellectual movement that gripped Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries. Enlightenment thinkers believed in mankind’s ability to reason its way out of the problems of existence. They elevated human reason above religious superstition and sought to apply logical, scientific processes to all areas of life, from the social order to the political economy. They questioned the divine rights of kings and wanted to turn subjects into citizens by endowing some commoners (i.e. male property owners, since there was a limit to how enlightened the movement really was) with rights. This new philosophy was threatening to aristocrats like the Marquis, whose noble privileges it reduced.

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Book 2, Chapter 16
Explanation and Analysis—Counting Dropping Heads:

The sinister knitting of the Saint Antoine peasant women is an allusion to the Fates of Greek mythology. In this passage, the peasant women seem to be ushering in the revolution with every turn of their needles:

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 […] 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. 

In Greek mythology, the three Fates were goddesses tasked with ensuring that every being lived according to their destiny. The Fates’ weaving determined the birth and actions of each individual, and when they cut the thread of a person’s life, that person would die.

On its own, the image of women in a knitting circle is not a sinister one. However, Dickens surrounds these women with fatalistic imagery—dropping heads, thundering cannons, and “a structure yet unbuilt” (the guillotine)—that prophesies the coming unrest in France. This framing imbues the women, and the act of knitting, with unexpected power and draws a parallel between their work and the future of the nation. Like the Fates, whose weaving held power over life and death, these French knitting women are not only counting stitches, but future victims of the guillotine.

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Book 2, Chapter 24
Explanation and Analysis—The Loadstone Rock:

Dickens alludes to “The Third Calender’s Tale” from The Arabian Nights as he describes Darnay’s dangerous resolution to return to Paris to help Monsieur Gabelle:

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.

Loadstones, or lodestones, are magnetic rocks that were once used as navigation devices on sea voyages. In “The Third Calender’s Tale,” a voyaging prince encounters an enormous loadstone, or “magnetic mountain,” in the middle of the ocean. Its powerful force pulls all the nails from the prince’s ship, sinking it and marooning him on the rock. The loadstone rock is a dangerous force that draws those under its influence towards inevitable destruction. Similarly, Darnay feels drawn towards Paris, where he knows he could be imprisoned or killed for his aristocratic background. Other characters in the novel experience this strange desire for dangerous, possibly deadly, sacrifice. Madame Defarge and the Jacquerie are more than happy to die for their revolutionary cause. Carton sacrifices himself at the guillotine for the sake of Lucie’s family. Dickens identifies a tension between human survival instincts and the human desire to be subsumed in a cause larger and nobler than the self.

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Explanation and Analysis—Monseigneur and the Devil:

Dickens alludes to popular fables and superstitions to highlight the central role that Monseigneur plays in bringing about his own downfall:

Like the fabled rustic who raised the Devil with infinite pains, and was so terrified at the sight of him that he could ask the Enemy no question, but immediately fled; so, Monseigneur, after boldly reading the Lord’s Prayer backwards for a great number of years […] no sooner beheld him in his terrors than he took to his noble heels.

The “fabled rustic” may refer to a story called “The Old Man and Death” from Aesop’s Fables. In the story, a tired woodcutter carrying a heavy bundle of sticks asks Death to help relieve his burden. Death helps the woodcutter in exactly the way you’d expect—by killing him. The moral of the story is, essentially, that people reap what they sow. If you ask death, of all people, for assistance, you shouldn’t be surprised when you end up dead. If Monseigneur strips the land and destroys the livelihoods of his tenants, he shouldn’t be surprised when they rise up against him. In Victorian England, reciting the Lord’s Prayer backwards was believed to be a means of conjuring demonic forces. By alluding to this popular superstition, Dickens suggests that the revolution was, in many ways, the responsibility of Monseigneur. It may be the peasants inciting destruction, but it is Monseigneur who conjured them.

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Book 3, Chapter 4
Explanation and Analysis—The Blind Strongman:

Dickens alludes to the story of Samson in the Hebrew Bible when he describes the executioner of Paris, whose name was Charles-Henri Sanson:

The name of the strong man of Old Scripture had descended to the chief functionary who worked [the guillotine]; but, so armed, he was stronger than his namesake, and blinder, and tore away the gates of God’s own Temple every day.

According to the Bible story, Samson was a powerful Israelite warrior who derived his strength from his hair, which had never been cut. When he falls in love with a Philistine temptress named Delilah, she cuts his hair and drains his power. The Philistines blind Samson and tie him to the pillars of their temple. However, Samson prays to God, who grants him a final act of strength, and Samson is able to topple the Philistine temple before he dies.

Dickens claims that, using the guillotine, Sanson the executioner is capable of even more destruction than the biblical Samson. Considering Samson’s ability to decimate large buildings singlehandedly, this is really saying something. Both Samson and Sanson are blind, though Sanson’s blindness is the metaphorical kind. He either chooses to ignore or is unaware of the fact that what he is doing is evil. Also, unlike Samson, Sanson rends the gates of “God’s own Temple,” not the Philistine temple. The phrase “God’s own Temple” could be referring to 1 Corinthians 6: 19-20, which states that the human body is a temple of the Holy Ghost. By executing thousands of prisoners, then, Sanson is violating the temple of the body.

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Explanation and Analysis—The Windows of Heaven:

Dickens uses the image of a flood and of the heavens opening to contrast revolutionary energy with Christian faith:

What private solicitude could rear itself against the deluge of the Year One of Liberty—the deluge rising from below, not falling from above, and with the windows of Heaven shut, not opened!

This image is an allusion to Genesis 7:11, which contains the story of Noah’s Ark. Because the people are wicked, “the windows of heaven are opened” and God floods the entire Earth. By claiming that the coming wave of revolution is rising from below, not falling from above, Dickens suggests that the violent fervor of the French peasantry is not of heaven, but of hell. Since the windows of heaven are closed, the revolution is not God’s work. According to Dickens, then, positive social change must be heaven-sent, driven by Christlike sacrifice and Christian goodwill.

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Book 3, Chapter 15
Explanation and Analysis—Carton's Sacrifice:

The language surrounding Sydney Carton’s death at the guillotine is filled with allusions to the crucifixion of Christ. Carton is executed at three o’clock in the afternoon, which is the same time that Jesus died on the cross, according to the New Testament. As he steps towards the guillotine, Carton recites John 11:25, a scriptural verse in which Christ prophesies about the resurrection. When Carton is executed, Dickens describes the reaction of the crowd:

The murmuring of many voices, the upturning of many faces, the pressing on of many footsteps in the outskirts of the crowd, so that it swells forward in a mass, like one great heave of water, all flashes away. Twenty-Three.

Dickens chooses not to depict the moment of Carton’s execution and instead focuses on the effect the moment has on the gathered observers. These observers experience intense emotion that encourages them to look upward, toward the heavens. This approach highlights the fact that Carton's death is not about himself, but about saving Lucie and her family. Like Christ, he dies so that others can live.

 The number “twenty-three” is the number of people who die at the guillotine that day, but it could also refer to Psalm Twenty-Three. Psalm Twenty-Three is the most famous in the Book of Psalms, and it encourages readers to trust in the Lord even in the face of death.

After Carton dies, observers note that he looked “sublime and prophetic” while approaching the guillotine. Like Christ, Carton chooses to die for the good of others and gives himself up willingly to his captors. His calm demeanor and prophetic final thoughts imitate Christ’s atonement.

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