Personification

A Tale of Two Cities

by

Charles Dickens

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A Tale of Two Cities: Personification 5 key examples

Definition of Personification
Personification is a type of figurative language in which non-human things are described as having human attributes, as in the sentence, "The rain poured down on the wedding guests, indifferent... read full definition
Personification is a type of figurative language in which non-human things are described as having human attributes, as in the sentence, "The rain poured down... read full definition
Personification is a type of figurative language in which non-human things are described as having human attributes, as in the... read full definition
Book 1, Chapter 5
Explanation and Analysis—The Sign, Hunger:

Dickens personifies the hunger of the peasantry, adding to the novel’s sense of foreboding:

Plowed into every furrow of age and coming up afresh, was the sign, Hunger. It was prevalent everywhere…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 rattled its dry bones among the roasting chestnuts in the turned cylinder. 

Dickens portrays hunger as an evil presence that permeates the city of Saint Antoine. By casting hunger as a skeletal, semi-human being, with a vital force and a will of its own, he makes its influence on the community more palpable. Though Dickens is not entirely sympathetic to the violent means that the peasants use to demand bread from the French leadership, passages like this suggest that the revolutionaries’ grievances are justified, though Dickens does not condone their methods.

Book 2, Chapter 7
Explanation and Analysis—The Marquis' Stone Face:

Dickens personifies one of the stone gargoyles on the Marquis’ home, turning them all into stand-ins for the Marquis himself. Describing the Marquis’ face in Book 2, Chapter 7, Dickens writes:

The nose, beautifully formed otherwise, was very slightly pinched at the top of each nostril. In those two compressions, or dints, the only little change that the face ever showed, resided.

The face of the Marquis St. Evrémonde is an emotionless mask, with the exception of his distinctively-shaped nose, which occasionally displays emotion. One of the stone faces that are carved in the outside of the Marquis’ house, near the spot where the Evrémonde brothers murdered a peasant family, shares his characteristic nostril shape. This gargoyle has “two fine dints […] in the sculptured nose, which everybody recognized.”

Dickens draws a clear parallel between this stone face and the real face of the Marquis. He describes the Marquis’ features as “chiseled,” suggesting that Evrémonde has an unyielding, emotionless beauty. Later in Book 2, Chapter 23, when the peasantry burns down the Marquis’ house, the stone gargoyle stands in for the Marquis yet again:

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. 

By personifying the gargoyle, Dickens turns the destruction of the Marquis’ home into a symbolic execution of the Marquis.

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Book 2, Chapter 22
Explanation and Analysis—Vengeance, Personified:

Dickens personifies Madame Defarge’s insatiable desire for revenge using the character of her friend, the Vengeance. The Vengeance is the human embodiment of merciless retaliation. She is known for her utter lack of sympathy and for her almost supernatural ability to provoke the masses to new heights of fury:

The Vengeance, uttering terrific shrieks, and flinging her arms about her head like all the forty Furies at once, was tearing from house to house, rousing the women.

In the literal sense, the Vengeance is just another character in the novel. However, her flat characterization and her telling name suggest that she could also be read as an outgrowth of Madame Defarge’s rage. She appears right after the storming of the Bastille, and her arrival may represent a turning point for Madame Defarge—for her, the revolution has ceased to be a tool for the people’s liberation and has become a bloodthirsty game of personal revenge.

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Book 2, Chapter 23
Explanation and Analysis—Monseigneur as a Class:

Dickens personifies the aristocracy using the figure of Monseigneur, who stands in for the entire noble class:

Monseigneur (often a most worthy individual gentleman) was a national blessing […] nevertheless, Monseigneur as a class had, somehow or other, brought things to this. Strange that Creation, designed expressly for Monseigneur, should be so soon wrung dry and squeezed out!

Monseigneur, as the aristocracy personified, allows Dickens to elucidate the tension between individuals and the classes they comprise. Any given aristocrat may well be perfectly lovely—a family man, great with kids—but as a part of the aristocratic class, he is contributing to the exploitation of the peasantry.

The figure of Monseigneur is also an example of synecdoche—a figure of speech in which a part of something stands in for the whole.

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Explanation and Analysis—The Marquis' Stone Face:

Dickens personifies one of the stone gargoyles on the Marquis’ home, turning them all into stand-ins for the Marquis himself. Describing the Marquis’ face in Book 2, Chapter 7, Dickens writes:

The nose, beautifully formed otherwise, was very slightly pinched at the top of each nostril. In those two compressions, or dints, the only little change that the face ever showed, resided.

The face of the Marquis St. Evrémonde is an emotionless mask, with the exception of his distinctively-shaped nose, which occasionally displays emotion. One of the stone faces that are carved in the outside of the Marquis’ house, near the spot where the Evrémonde brothers murdered a peasant family, shares his characteristic nostril shape. This gargoyle has “two fine dints […] in the sculptured nose, which everybody recognized.”

Dickens draws a clear parallel between this stone face and the real face of the Marquis. He describes the Marquis’ features as “chiseled,” suggesting that Evrémonde has an unyielding, emotionless beauty. Later in Book 2, Chapter 23, when the peasantry burns down the Marquis’ house, the stone gargoyle stands in for the Marquis yet again:

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. 

By personifying the gargoyle, Dickens turns the destruction of the Marquis’ home into a symbolic execution of the Marquis.

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Book 3, Chapter 4
Explanation and Analysis—The Sharp Female:

Dickens uses personification to describe the guillotine and the quasi-religious cult that has developed around its image:

Above all, one hideous figure grew as familiar as if it had been before the general gaze from the foundations of the world—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 hair from turning grey, it imparted a peculiar delicacy to the complexion, it was the National Razor which shaved close. 

In A Tale of Two Cities, working-class women tend to lead the insurrectionary charge. As a result, it is fitting that Dickens personifies the guillotine—the central symbol of the French Revolution—as a “sharp female.” Dickens’s choice to place women like Madame Defarge and the Vengeance at the forefront of the revolution is partly a matter of historical accuracy, since the Women’s March on Versailles played a vital role in overturning the French monarchy.

However, this choice also reflects Dickens’s Victorian-era views on femininity in general. The character that most closely aligns with the Victorian feminine ideal is the pure and domestic Lucie Manette. As a mother, she is a symbol of fertility and she has a restorative influence on everyone she meets. Madame Defarge and her fellow “sharp females” represent the opposite of this ideal. They are not women who give life; they are women who kill. By casting the guillotine as a woman, Dickens suggests that the “proper” social order, in which women remain in their domestic sphere, has been overturned. When women become killers, chaos reigns in France.

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