The opening of Chapter Three, Book One of A Tale of Two Cities, “The Night Shadows,” is a passage unlike any other in the novel. The omniscient narrator of the text addresses readers directly to contemplate the fundamental unknowability of mankind:
A wonderful fact to reflect upon, that every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other. A solemn consideration, when I enter a great city by night, that every one of those darkly clustered houses encloses its own secret […] that every beating heart in the hundreds of thousands of breasts there, is, in some of its imaginings, a secret to the heart nearest it! Something of the awfulness, even of Death itself, is referable to this.
This soliloquy suggests that each human being, and by extension each character in the novel, is a secret even to their closest confidants. No amount of love and honest communication can bridge the inviolable gap between people's minds. This may be due in part to the fact that, for Dickens, people are often secrets to themselves. Dr. Manette, who is haunted by repressed memories of his time in the Bastille, is an excellent example of this.
Using the character of Manette, Dickens draws a parallel between physical imprisonment and mental imprisonment. Even when Manette is no longer trapped in the Bastille, he is still trapped in his mind, which is often overcome with darkness. This phenomenon is reflected in the opening of “The Night Shadows:”
My friend is dead, my neighbor is dead, my love, the darling of my soul, is dead; it is the inexorable consolidation and perpetuation of the secret that was always in that individuality, and which I shall carry in mine to my life’s end.
For the narrator, individuality is a prison. It is impossible to escape the self and discover the secrets that exist within friends, neighbors, and loved ones. The narrator’s reflections in “The Night Shadows” highlight the ongoing tension between individuals and collectives in A Tale of Two Cities. Dickens describes Monseigneur and Jacques as if they are individuals when they actually stand for entire social classes. Even though Darnay, as an individual, does not commit any crimes against Madame Defarge’s family, Madame Defarge sees him as yet another manifestation of Monseigneur, and a member of the Evrémonde line. While Dickens recognizes the dangers of conflating individuals and groups, he also recognizes the immense loneliness of experiencing the world from a singular consciousness.