Foil

A Tale of Two Cities

by

Charles Dickens

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A Tale of Two Cities: Foil 3 key examples

Foil
Explanation and Analysis—Who's the Hero?:

The dissipated Sydney Carton and the upstanding Charles Darnay are foils. Though the men look nearly identical, Carton is a moody heavy drinker with no ambition whereas Darnay is a chivalrous family man. Carton and Darnay are both in love with Lucie, though it is Darnay who ultimately marries her. At first glance, Darnay is Carton’s superior in every way—he relinquishes his noble birthright, he has the support of Lucie’s father, and unlike Carton, he is generally regarded as an honorable man. However, Dickens frequently casts Darnay in a passive role and Carton in an active one, minimizing Darnay’s ability to be a convincing romantic lead. For example, it is Carton’s legal assistance that frees Darnay from the British government’s accusations of treason.

Carton’s interactions with Lucie are also more passionate than Darnay’s. When Darnay expresses his feelings for Lucie, he expresses them to her father in a conversation that feels more like a business transaction than an ardent declaration. Carton, on the other hand, pledges his undying loyalty to Lucie and her family, while asking no affection in return. Ultimately, it is Carton who performs the most important heroic action of the novel when he saves Darnay from the guillotine, making it hard to pinpoint which of the two men is truly superior and which is a more central figure in the novel’s plot.

Book 2, Chapter 4
Explanation and Analysis—Stryver the Striver:

Mr. Stryver’s dedication to upward mobility makes him a foil for Sydney Carton, whose self-sacrificing tendencies preclude him from climbing the societal ladder. Describing Mr. Stryver in Book 2, Chapter 4, Dickens writes:

Mr. Stryver, a man of little more than thirty, but looking twenty years older than he was, stout, loud, red, bluff, and free from any drawback of delicacy, had a pushing way of shouldering himself (morally and physically) into companies and conversations, that augured well for his shouldering his way up in life.

As his name unsubtly suggests, Mr. Stryver is a social striver. Carton, on the other hand, has no desire to get ahead. He spends his life in a drunken state of living death, allowing Stryver, his less competent business partner, to take all the credit for his work. Only in Book 3, Chapter 9 does Dickens reveal the reason for Carton’s self-effacing disposition:

Long ago, when he had been famous among his earliest competitors as a youth of great promise, he had followed his father to the grave.

Grief at the loss of his parents caused Carton to spend his adulthood living as if he were already dead. His sacrificial approach to life (combined with his convenient resemblance to Darnay) puts him in the perfect position to save Lucie and her family at the end of the novel.

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Book 2, Chapter 10
Explanation and Analysis—Golden Thread, Red Yarn:

Seductive revolutionary Madame Defarge is a foil to angelic housewife Lucie Manette. While male characters like Darnay, Manette, and Carton frequently attempt to shield Lucie from even the sight of violence, Madame Defarge leads the revolutionary charge, often encouraging her husband to adopt severer tactics. While both women are described as beautiful, Lucie’s beauty is domestic whereas Madame Defarge’s is sensual. In Book 2, Chapter 10, when Darnay asks Manette for Lucie’s hand, he describes her as simultaneously childlike and motherly:

[…] mingled with the affection and duty of a daughter who has become a woman, there is, in her heart towards you, all the love and reliance of infancy itself […] I know that when she is clinging to you, the hands of baby, girl, and woman, all in one, are round your neck.

Though Lucie’s commitment to caring for Manette is admirable, the codependency of their relationship casts Lucie in an eternally childlike role and creates an underlying rivalry for her love between her husband and her father. Madame Defarge’s character, on the other hand, reveals no traces of infantile behavior. She is a full-fledged adult woman with a “fine figure," not dependent on masculine authority. Though she is ruthless, she is not an entirely unsympathetic character. Dickens describes her as she arms herself for a visit to the Darnay apartment in Book 3, Chapter 15:

To appeal to her, was made hopeless by her having no sense of pity, even for herself. If she had been laid low in the streets […] she would not have pitied herself. Such a heart Madame Defarge carried under her rough robe. Carelessly worn, it was a becoming robe enough, in a certain weird way, and her dark hair looked rich under her coarse red cap […] with the supple freedom of a woman who had habitually walked in her girlhood, bare-foot and bare-legged, on the brown sea-sand, Madame Defarge took her way along the streets.

Though Madame Defarge is the primary villain of A Tale of Two Cities, her beauty, self-reliance, and total lack of hypocrisy make it difficult to hate her. Dickens also provides readers with an unexpected window into her girlhood in the pages before her death. The image of Madame Defarge in her youth, serene and at one with nature as she enjoys a stroll on the beach, is at odds with the cunning and vengeful woman readers have come to know. This short passage suggests that Madame Defarge is not inherently evil—the cruel circumstances of pre-revolutionary France made her what she is. The image also sets Madame Defarge at odds with the chaste Lucie, who Dickens would never represent “bare-foot and bare-legged” on the beach for fear of sullying her pure, domestic femininity. In A Tale of Two Cities, female sexuality is reserved for threatening, vengeful revolutionary women and is not available to virtuous, golden-haired mothers like Lucie.

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Book 3, Chapter 9
Explanation and Analysis—Stryver the Striver:

Mr. Stryver’s dedication to upward mobility makes him a foil for Sydney Carton, whose self-sacrificing tendencies preclude him from climbing the societal ladder. Describing Mr. Stryver in Book 2, Chapter 4, Dickens writes:

Mr. Stryver, a man of little more than thirty, but looking twenty years older than he was, stout, loud, red, bluff, and free from any drawback of delicacy, had a pushing way of shouldering himself (morally and physically) into companies and conversations, that augured well for his shouldering his way up in life.

As his name unsubtly suggests, Mr. Stryver is a social striver. Carton, on the other hand, has no desire to get ahead. He spends his life in a drunken state of living death, allowing Stryver, his less competent business partner, to take all the credit for his work. Only in Book 3, Chapter 9 does Dickens reveal the reason for Carton’s self-effacing disposition:

Long ago, when he had been famous among his earliest competitors as a youth of great promise, he had followed his father to the grave.

Grief at the loss of his parents caused Carton to spend his adulthood living as if he were already dead. His sacrificial approach to life (combined with his convenient resemblance to Darnay) puts him in the perfect position to save Lucie and her family at the end of the novel.

Unlock with LitCharts A+
Book 3, Chapter 15
Explanation and Analysis—Golden Thread, Red Yarn:

Seductive revolutionary Madame Defarge is a foil to angelic housewife Lucie Manette. While male characters like Darnay, Manette, and Carton frequently attempt to shield Lucie from even the sight of violence, Madame Defarge leads the revolutionary charge, often encouraging her husband to adopt severer tactics. While both women are described as beautiful, Lucie’s beauty is domestic whereas Madame Defarge’s is sensual. In Book 2, Chapter 10, when Darnay asks Manette for Lucie’s hand, he describes her as simultaneously childlike and motherly:

[…] mingled with the affection and duty of a daughter who has become a woman, there is, in her heart towards you, all the love and reliance of infancy itself […] I know that when she is clinging to you, the hands of baby, girl, and woman, all in one, are round your neck.

Though Lucie’s commitment to caring for Manette is admirable, the codependency of their relationship casts Lucie in an eternally childlike role and creates an underlying rivalry for her love between her husband and her father. Madame Defarge’s character, on the other hand, reveals no traces of infantile behavior. She is a full-fledged adult woman with a “fine figure," not dependent on masculine authority. Though she is ruthless, she is not an entirely unsympathetic character. Dickens describes her as she arms herself for a visit to the Darnay apartment in Book 3, Chapter 15:

To appeal to her, was made hopeless by her having no sense of pity, even for herself. If she had been laid low in the streets […] she would not have pitied herself. Such a heart Madame Defarge carried under her rough robe. Carelessly worn, it was a becoming robe enough, in a certain weird way, and her dark hair looked rich under her coarse red cap […] with the supple freedom of a woman who had habitually walked in her girlhood, bare-foot and bare-legged, on the brown sea-sand, Madame Defarge took her way along the streets.

Though Madame Defarge is the primary villain of A Tale of Two Cities, her beauty, self-reliance, and total lack of hypocrisy make it difficult to hate her. Dickens also provides readers with an unexpected window into her girlhood in the pages before her death. The image of Madame Defarge in her youth, serene and at one with nature as she enjoys a stroll on the beach, is at odds with the cunning and vengeful woman readers have come to know. This short passage suggests that Madame Defarge is not inherently evil—the cruel circumstances of pre-revolutionary France made her what she is. The image also sets Madame Defarge at odds with the chaste Lucie, who Dickens would never represent “bare-foot and bare-legged” on the beach for fear of sullying her pure, domestic femininity. In A Tale of Two Cities, female sexuality is reserved for threatening, vengeful revolutionary women and is not available to virtuous, golden-haired mothers like Lucie.

Unlock with LitCharts A+