Motifs

A Tale of Two Cities

by

Charles Dickens

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A Tale of Two Cities: Motifs 5 key examples

Definition of Motif
A motif is an element or idea that recurs throughout a work of literature. Motifs, which are often collections of related symbols, help develop the central themes of a book... read full definition
A motif is an element or idea that recurs throughout a work of literature. Motifs, which are often collections of related symbols, help develop the... read full definition
A motif is an element or idea that recurs throughout a work of literature. Motifs, which are often collections of... read full definition
Motifs
Explanation and Analysis—Dickensian Doubles:

A Tale of Two Cities is full of doubles, from the eponymous two cities to the polar opposite personalities of Lucie Manette and Madame Defarge. Doubles are a motif that recurs throughout the novel, both in its characters and its plot structure.

The peasantry and the aristocracy are one opposing double, locked in a violent struggle over resources and political power. The novel opens and closes with Charles Darnay on trial, and this structural doubling frames the plot. The Vengeance is a double for Madame Defarge, externalizing and intensifying her rage. Lucie gets her pick of two suitors—Darnay and Carton—and must use her restorative influence on two different men—Carton and Manette—and thus “restore them to life.” Both Carton and Manette exist in a state of living death before Lucie works her magic on them. Inquisitive readers are sure to identify many more doubles in the text.

Motifs
Explanation and Analysis—Resurrection Men:

The motif of resurrection recurs frequently throughout A Tale of Two Cities. Dr. Manette is “recalled to life” after his long imprisonment in the Bastille.

After Carton sacrifices himself for Lucie’s family, he sees “a child who lay upon [Lucie’s] bosom and who bore [his] name, a man, winning his way up in that path of life which was once [his]” (3.15). Lucie’s future child is a new and improved version of Carton, who gives Carton a form of afterlife and allows his memory to continue. Jerry Cruncher is a “resurrection man” or graverobber. Though his profession offers an ironic take on the concept of resurrection, his knowledge of the contents (or lack thereof) of Roger Cly’s grave helps Carton save Darnay from execution, making him a true resurrection man.

The novel culminates with Carton reciting the words of Christ in John 11:25: “I am the resurrection and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live.” Like Christ, Carton sacrifices himself for the sake of others. His reenactment of the crucifixion underscores Dickens’s belief that Christianity is a more powerful tool than violence for enacting social change.

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Book 2, Chapter 15
Explanation and Analysis—Domesticity, Destruction:

Throughout A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens uses the motif of threads and knitting to comment on the relationship between history and the actions of individuals. Both Lucie Manette and Madame Defarge are weavers, though their threads hold very different symbolic implications. In Book 2, Chapter 15, Lucie weaves a golden thread of harmonious domesticity:

Ever busily winding the golden thread which bound her husband, and her father, and herself, and her old directress and companion, in a life of quiet bliss, Lucie sat in the still house […] listening to the echoing footsteps of years.

Lucie’s quiet influence, confined to the domestic sphere, is a force for good in the lives of her loved ones. Madame Defarge’s ambitions, however, are more far-reaching. She seeks to influence the trajectory of the French government. She does not knit sweaters for children; instead, her knitting marks the names of those who are fated to die in the revolution. Of her knitting, her husband remarks in Book 2, Chapter 21:

It would be easier for the weakest poltroon that lives, to erase himself from existence, than to erase one letter of his name or crimes from the knitted register of Madame Defarge.

Lucie Manette’s golden thread benefits her family, whereas Madame Defarge knits for the destruction of the aristocracy. When Madame Defarge knits, she is “counting dropping heads” alongside the other knitting women of the Revolution. Ultimately, Lucie Manette’s golden threads are more successful at protecting her family than Madame Defarge’s knitting is at destroying her enemies. Lucie’s family remains intact while Madame Defarge dies an inconsequential death, unsuccessful in her attempts to extinguish the Evrémonde line.

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Book 2, Chapter 21
Explanation and Analysis—Echoing Footsteps:

Dickens uses the motif of echoes to foreshadow the coming revolution and to illustrate how seemingly small actions, made by individuals, can echo throughout time. The house where the Manettes live has a corner that is “a wonderful place for echoes." Initially, it seems that the echoing capabilities of this corner are literal—by some accident of construction, footsteps on the street are easily audible inside if residents sit in the right location. However, as the novel progresses, the echoes gain greater symbolic significance:

But, there were other echoes, from a distance, that rumbled menacingly in the corner […] they began to have an awful sound, as of a great storm in France with a dreadful sea rising.

The echoing corner becomes a barometer for measuring national tension. The motif of echoing footsteps tracks how the people of France morph from discrete beings to a unified collective, committed to inciting social change by any means necessary.

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Explanation and Analysis—Domesticity, Destruction:

Throughout A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens uses the motif of threads and knitting to comment on the relationship between history and the actions of individuals. Both Lucie Manette and Madame Defarge are weavers, though their threads hold very different symbolic implications. In Book 2, Chapter 15, Lucie weaves a golden thread of harmonious domesticity:

Ever busily winding the golden thread which bound her husband, and her father, and herself, and her old directress and companion, in a life of quiet bliss, Lucie sat in the still house […] listening to the echoing footsteps of years.

Lucie’s quiet influence, confined to the domestic sphere, is a force for good in the lives of her loved ones. Madame Defarge’s ambitions, however, are more far-reaching. She seeks to influence the trajectory of the French government. She does not knit sweaters for children; instead, her knitting marks the names of those who are fated to die in the revolution. Of her knitting, her husband remarks in Book 2, Chapter 21:

It would be easier for the weakest poltroon that lives, to erase himself from existence, than to erase one letter of his name or crimes from the knitted register of Madame Defarge.

Lucie Manette’s golden thread benefits her family, whereas Madame Defarge knits for the destruction of the aristocracy. When Madame Defarge knits, she is “counting dropping heads” alongside the other knitting women of the Revolution. Ultimately, Lucie Manette’s golden threads are more successful at protecting her family than Madame Defarge’s knitting is at destroying her enemies. Lucie’s family remains intact while Madame Defarge dies an inconsequential death, unsuccessful in her attempts to extinguish the Evrémonde line.

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Book 3, Chapter 3
Explanation and Analysis—Shadowy Secrets:

Dickens uses the motif of shadows to suggest the existence of hidden secrets and hint at future events. One instance of this motif is in Book Three, Chapter Three, “The Shadow,” when Dickens describes Madame Defarge’s reaction to Lucie’s child:

The shadow attendant on Madame Defarge and her party seemed to fall so threatening and dark on the child, that her mother instinctively kneeled on the ground beside her, and held her to her breast.

When Lucie tells Mr. Lorry that Madame Defarge seems to cast a shadow on all her hopes, Mr. Lorry comforts her by saying that there is no substance to the shadow. However, in Chapter Ten, this menacing shadow becomes literal as the horrifying actions of Darnay’s family are revealed. The shadow thus stands in for hidden secrets.

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