Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities is a picturesque story that deliberately mirrors the most famous picturesque story of all time: the Biblical story, which culminates in Christ’s death and resurrection, and which in turn brings life back to a lifeless world.
“With a roar that sounded as if all the breath in France had been shaped into the detested word, the living sea rose, wave on wave, depth on depth, and overflowed the city to that point. Alarm-bells ringing, drums beating, the sea raging and thundering on its new beach, the attack begun.” Charles Dickens crafted an unforgettable image of the sea, in its tumult and turbulence, rising over the barriers to contain it, wreaking chaos, destruction, and hazard all around it. Dickens’ image of the sea rising builds on two ancient traditions concerning the sea; the more traditional and universal depiction of the sea as a center of chaos and storm and the traditional Christian depiction of the sea as the element of chaos, confusion, and sin.
When Mr. Jarvis Lorry visited the Manettes, his dear friends, he was greeted by the exhausted but loving Ms. Pross who remarked that “crowds and multitudes of people” have begun to seek Miss Lucie Manette. This unsettled Mr. Lorry. He expected to be overwhelmed in a tidal wave of rushing incomers. It is in this scene, and others like it, that Dickens’ literary genius slowly emerges as he crafts the story. Mr. Lorry is at the Manettes with only two gentlemen present alongside him: Charles Darnay and Sydney Carton. Outside a chaotic commotion is heard which causes Carton to reflect on the swirling and chaotic multitude that was bearing down on them. Protected in their castle of a home and with the multitude simply fleeing a natural storm, the rising multitude and the sea doesn’t wreak its ugly head against them at that moment, but the barrier of the house and England won’t be there to protect them in the final part of the book.
The prefigured foreshadowing by Dickens is a stroke of literary genius. Carton looks out and says, “There is a great crowd coming one day into our lives.” Everyone present in that house would be greeted by a great crowd and a dangerous storm, but the storm of the human passions is far more dangerous than the thunderclap of lightning and downpouring of rain encountered in that ominous moment.
A Tale of Two Cities is a triumph of the Christian literary imagination. Original sin, blood guilt, sacrifice, intertangling covenants, love, and resurrection are all embedded in the novel. Indeed, these themes are integral to understanding Dickens’ great work. Not to mention the craftily inserted references to messianic and eschatological passages from the Old and New Testament which become visibly apparent for all to see, like the incarnation, toward the end of the novel when the Guillotine supersedes the Cross as the instrument of rebirth and salvation and this blasphemy of the French revolutionaries is counteracted by Sydney Carton’s dwelling on one of the memorable lines of St. John’s gospel, “I am the resurrection and the life saith the Lord.”
A Tale begins with the promise of being recalled to life. Though it is easy, but sloppy, to identify Dr. Manette as the individual being recalled to life, the more obvious candidates who are being recalled to life—but for different reasons—are Charles Darnay and Sydney Carton. Darnay suffers from the blood stain of original sin in the novel. He has inherited the sin of being an aristocrat—and a dastardly aristocrat at that. Though not his father, the Marquis St. Evrémonde is the blood relation to Darnay and Darnay inherits the blood guilt of his uncle which makes him a wanted man back in France during the climax of the work. Conversely, Carton does not suffer from the blood stain of inherited original sin like Darnay. Instead, he is just a sinful wretch who has squandered away his talents and has become a reprobate man and he knows it. He indulges his sins and is unable to get out of the desolate hole he has dug himself. Despite abundance around him, Carton is stuck in a cesspool of desolation because of his own actions.
Dickens does an incredible thing in intertwining two men heading to their Calvary but for different reasons. Of course, the genius of Dickens is in how this intertwining of two men being recalled to life plays itself out. Dickens’ novel is a picturesque story, a picturesque story that deliberately mirrors the most famous picturesque story of all time: the Biblical story which culminates in Christ’s death and resurrection which brings life back to a lifeless world.
The resurrection of Charles Darnay is not as memorable as the resurrection of Sydney Carton, in part, because Carton is clearly the more Christ-like figure of the two insofar that he undergoes the penal swap and, who in that penal swap, gave life to Darnay and who was resurrected in the second child of Lucie and Charles who bore his name. Nevertheless, Darnay does undergo a resurrection in the story too. More to the point, Darnay’s death to the law, need for replacement, and restored life only from an act of sacrifice, is a resurrection that all should be familiar with. It is easy to get wrapped up in the replacement Christ-figure that is Sydney Carton, but to do so misses a greater part of the wholeness of A Tale which mirrors the story of man’s salvation.
As already mentioned, Darnay is tainted by the original sin of blood guilt through being a relative of the Marquis St. Evrémonde. This blood guilt is something that Darnay is trying to escape from. He emigrates to England to find a new life. He tries to reject his blood guilt inheritance by forsaking the aristocratic titles passed on to him by the Marquis’ death. He has assumed, in England, a new identity. Darnay is attempting to be a new man but he cannot outrun who he is. He cannot outrun, or ignore, the fact that he is of aristocratic blood—which is Dickens’ literary equivalent for imputed Adamic sin.
Though the circumstances in France change for the worst with the onset of the Revolution, Darnay is called back to France and—in being called to return to the land of his ancestral blood—must come face to face with the reality of his blood guilt. Upon his return he is greeted by the depersonalized forces of the totalitarian revolutionary state. He is not referred to by name but by “emigrant” in contrast to “citizen.” In being arrested, the Jacobin citizens tell him he is cursed and to be judged on account of his blood inheritance. “You are a cursed emigrant,” a farrier tells Darnay, “you are a cursed aristocrat.” This is subsequently met by the statement, “He will be judged in Paris.” All the sins of his uncle, the Marquis St. Evrémonde, are transferred onto Darnay. Covenants of blood abound in A Tale. And Darnay has entered the storm of the multitude which eluded them back in England.
What follows in the third book is the great Dickensian triumph of the work. Interweaving Scripture, Christian symbolism and imagery, and mixing it with the faux substitute of state “salvation” offered up by the new republic being born in blood, Dickens manages to make explicit which he had ingeniously prefigured in the earlier books. The third book reveals the Christian meaning and symbolism of the story. There can be no mistaking the Christian implications of the story anymore. What was hinted at earlier is now fully revealed like the incarnation itself. Indeed, Darnay as the sinner in need of a sacrificial atonement to be recalled to life is made clear in his tribulations and trials before the law. After his first arrest and acquittal, Darnay returns with his family with the prospects of life and liberty. But rather than entering an abode of abundance he is arrested again and sentenced to a new trial. Darnay is brought before “that unjust Tribunal” like the Sanhedrin, where he is said to be “Dead in Law.” In the false courtroom it is read aloud, “Charles Evrémonde, called Darnay, in right of such proscription, absolutely Dead in Law.” The Law cannot save Darnay. The Law demands his death. Only an act of loving sacrificial replacement can save him.
While Darnay is dead in law, Sydney Carton is dead to himself through his sin. Where Darnay is the embodiment of the reality of Original Sin, Carton is the embodiment of the reality of the consequences of personal sin. The once promising and intelligent Carton, like Adam in the Garden, has been brought low in his sin. A drunkard and general low-life, Carton describes himself as a degraded profligate to Lucie in their touching scene which prefigures what is to come at the closure of the story. “For you, and for any dear to you, I would do anything,” Carton informs her. “If my career were of the better kind that there was any opportunity or capacity of sacrifice in it, I would embrace any sacrifice for you and for those dear to you.”
The contrasts between the two men who are, in their own ways, dead to sin, couldn’t be starker. Darnay is under the target of blood guilt and the covenant of blood. Carton establishes, in that earlier moment with Lucie, a covenant by the word and a covenant of sacrifice; Carton’s covenant will fully unveil itself in Darnay’s hour of need. Through Carton, Dickens reveals what true love is all about—sacrifice and self-giving. Through sacrifice the love of life is manifested. It is a thoroughly and completely Christian outlook about life and the world. “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”
The covenant of blood and Original Sin, and the covenant of the promise and sacrificial self-giving, are now running their course through the story and they will soon be intertwined with each other. When Darnay is imprisoned and sentenced for execution, the dripping blood of the blade of Madame Guillotine—the false and Satanic imitation of the Cross—begins to stare Darnay in the face. He is, after all, “Dead in Law.”
The callous hypocrisy of the Dafarges, like the Pharisees or Levitical priests, has been revealed to the reader also. From helping the Manettes to condemning the Manettes. From feigning religiosity and hope that Darnay would not return to France aware of the danger that aristocrats are in, to becoming the active players in Darnay’s second arrest and trial, the emptiness of the Dafarges is fully manifested just like the crowds that demanded Christ’s death after having welcomed in with palm branches and shouts of jubilee. But even the emptiness of the Dafarges was prefigured in the earlier parts of the novel.
Madame Dafarge, the most barbaric and cruel woman and revolutionary of them all, was always seen knitting. Knitting was a symbolic activity for lack of compassion and pity during the French Revolution. Thus, what was prefigured in the beginning is revealed in totality at the end. The seeming compassion of the Dafarges is revealed as an utter nothingness.
To this end, Dickens also created a remarkable literary construction that mirrored traditional Christian hermeneutics. What was prefigured in the Old Testament was revealed in the New Testament. In fact, this is the only proper way to interpret Scripture. Dickens, aware of this, replicated this hermeneutic as integral to the unfolding of A Tale.
Throughout the first two books we find prefigurations of what is to come: A recalling to life; the lack of compassion and pity of the Dafarges (especially Madame Dafarge); blood guilt and the demand for so-called justice; a great crowd like a raucous sea crashing into the lives of the protagonists; Jarvis Lorry as a guardian angel; and a covenant of sacrifice made by a promise. These prefigurations are all revealed in the third and final act of the story. The third and final act of the story allows us to make sense of everything that was previously veiled and alluded to.
The emptiness of the shallow utopian politics of the French Revolution is contrasted with the substantive life offered by self-sacrifice (in the person of Carton who becomes the novel’s in persona Christi). “Liberty, equality, fraternity, or death; – the last, much the easiest to bestow, O Guillotine!” But the Guillotine, the instrument of France’s supposed deliverance and rebirth from the sins of the Ancien Régime, can only bestow death instead of life. The bloodthirsty Jacobins even callously joke about how many she has decapitated with no concern given to the victims. But Carton, like Christ with the cross, will redeem this horrible instrument of brutality by following through on his covenant promise with Lucie.
A Tale’s climax is the recalling to life of two men and how their recalling to life intersect with each other. Darnay is recalled to life when he is drugged and swapped by Sydney Carton who takes his place on the execution block. Darnay, who was dead in the law, is recalled to life by this act of sacrificial replacement on the part of Carton who can now live his life with Lucie and his daughter without fear of imprisonment or death. Carton is recalled to life by his action of self-sacrifice and fulfillment of the covenant promise he made to Lucie—his spiritual bride who could never be his actual bride. There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friend or beloved, and this Carton does with great dignity and nobility. Through Carton’s act of sacrificial self-giving he is recalled to life alongside Darnay.
Rebirth, Dickens informs us, is not through the instrumentalizing and depersonalizing arm of politics as virtually all moderns have been falsely indoctrinated to believe. Rebirth is only possible through spirituality. Specifically, through sacrifice. More specifically, through the imitation of Christ and Christ’s sacrifice.
Through Carton’s sacrificial atonement, the Manette family that was shattered by Original Sin and the demands of legal punishment is restored and made whole. The first man is resurrected to life by the actions of the second man. The harmony of the family which should have been is now realized because of the sacrifice of the second man.
Carton, by contrast, is resurrected by his very act of self-giving sacrifice. He finally showed his great magnanimity that Lucie told Charles he was capable of, “I am sure that he is capable of good things, gentle things, even magnanimous things.” And there was no greater magnanimous action than his sacrificing his own life so that Darnay could live and Lucie be happy with her husband. “I am the resurrection and the life saith the Lord.”
When Sydney Carton imagines his statement to the crowd, he foreshadows the Beatific Vision which calls us to abundant love and life. Carton ends by prefiguring that last of joyful rest and nourishing abundance which waits for all who imitate Christ. “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to, than I have ever known.” Amen.
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Editor’s Note: The featured image is “Fête de la Raison” (“Festival of Reason”), Notre Dame, Paris, courtesy of Wikipedia.