Surveiller et punir


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Paul-Michel Foucault

Symbols are those things in a novel that actually represent something else. A Tale of Two Cities is replete with symbols. Though it openly discusses the French Revolution, it also indirectly alludes to a number of ideas reflecting the cultural and political milieu of the time.

Knitting – Knitting plays an important role in the story and refers to the idea of fate controlling human life. Lucie is considered the golden thread holding her family together, and as such, she knits them together to make a family out of a group of people who did not know each other at the beginning of the novel. However, knitting is also linked to Madame Defarge, who also involves people in her knitting, but in a destructive manner. In addition, Madame Defarge is like a spider spinning its web; her knitting condemns people to death.

Wine – It is significant that Defarge ran a wine shop rather than another type of shop, as the wine symbolizes the heady irresponsibility of many of the characters in the novel. First, Carton has a drinking problem, so that one can see the direct negative impact that wine has on his life. More importantly, the Revolutionaries are drunk on power, and their intoxication causes them to act irrationally. Moreover, the wine in the story is red wine, and the red wine symbolizes blood. For example, the wine spilled outside of Defarge’s wine shop foreshadows the blood that would soon spill in the streets. Likewise, the fact that the Defarges trafficked in wine foreshadows that they will traffic in blood.

Guillotine – The guillotine symbolizes fear, but not just any fear; it symbolizes the fear that comes when chaos becomes the norm. Throughout the novel, Dickens reveals the dangers of mob rule, and the guillotine and its associated executions reveal a society in which mob mentality controls the country.

Footsteps – At different times throughout the book, Dickens observes that the characters hear footsteps. These are not ghostly footsteps; the characters either know or could find the origin of the footsteps if they looked. However, the footsteps symbolize people coming into the characters’ lives.

Shoes/shoemaking – Dr. Manette’s prison work of making shoes sets the stage for shoes to symbolize the past.

Madame Defarge – Madame Defarge is a central character who comes to symbolize many things throughout the novel. She symbolizes unnatural womanhood, with her thirst for blood and childlessness. As the younger sister of a woman who was raped and murdered by aristocrats, she symbolizes the peasantry victimized by the aristocracy. As a woman turned vengeful by her past, she symbolizes the destructive power of hate.

Dr. Manette – Dr. Manette is a central character who symbolizes different things in different parts of the novel. He symbolizes the concept of resurrection, as he is brought back to life when he emerges from prison. He also symbolizes forgiveness; not only does he befriend Darnay, but he even permits Darnay to marry his daughter.

Sydney Carton – A central theme in the novel is the idea of resurrection and rebirth, which is ultimately symbolized by Sydney Carton. Carton changes throughout the novel, eventually sacrificing himself for others and for the opportunity to be reborn. This is evidenced by his dying hope that Lucie and Darnay have another son and name him after Carton.

Themes are the universal ideals explored in the story. While themes may be specific to a story, they have greater meaning beyond the context of the story.


Clearly, doubles are a major theme of the novel. It opens with a sentence describing the best and worst of times, which sets the stage for comparisons throughout the novel. The setting is doubled; both Paris and London serve as backdrops for the story. This is merely the beginning, as doubles appear throughout the novel. Carton and Darnay are doubles: men who look alike but behave differently, and who serve to highlight details about one another. Miss Pross and Madame Defarge are doubles; both women show a single-minded determination for their causes, but Miss Pross is constructive while Madame Defarge is destructive. Madame Defarge and Dr. Manette are doubles; he represents forgiveness, while she represents vengeance. Moreover, there are smaller elements of doubles throughout the novel. For example, the Evrémonde brothers are twins, which means that they are doubles. The children in the novels, young Jerry and young Lucie, are named after their same-gender parents. Darnay and Dr. Manette are both wrongfully imprisoned because of their link to the same underlying event. All of these events demonstrate how Dickens used doubles as a means of comparing and contrasting individuals and events.


Another theme of the novel is sacrifice. The novel features a number of different times when various characters sacrifice themselves for other characters. First, Dr. Manette risks everything—and eventually loses it—because he cannot condone what the Evrémondes have done. Darnay renounces his title and wealth because of their behavior, as well. Lucie devotes her life to helping the father she never knew, which is a form of sacrifice. The Revolutionaries are willing to sacrifice everything, including their lives, to bring about a better France. Each sacrifice is meaningful and is meant to bring about an improvement in conditions, not only for the person making the sacrifice, but for society in general. The final sacrifice, and the most meaningful one in the book, is when Carton willingly trades his life for Darnay’s.


The French Revolution and the actions leading up to both the French and American Revolutions serve as the backdrop to the entire story, and the French Revolution is central to the later part of story. Moreover, Dickens’s descriptions of the abuses by the aristocracy help to illuminate the fact that there was a need for some type of revolution. At the same time, Dickens does not paint the Revolutionaries as heroes. They do not carry out the goals of the Revolution, which is to replace tyranny with fairness, but instead, once in power, seize the control for themselves. Rather than removing the aristocracy from power, the Revolutionaries merely replace them. This sets up a cyclical relationship between tyranny and revolution, with Dickens suggesting that violence and injustice cannot be a cure for violence and injustice.


Without secrets, there would be no plotline in A Tale of Two Cities. Some of the secrets are intentional, such as Darnay hiding his identity at the beginning of the novel and Cruncher’s secret that he is a grave robber. Moreover, prior to the actual Revolution, all of the planning by the Defarges and the Jacquerie must be kept secret. Therefore, secrets drive the novel, and it is only as these secrets are revealed that the novel can reach its conclusion. What is interesting is that even close loved ones have secrets. In the novel, these secrets are not, themselves, secret. For example, the characters feel close to Carton but realize that they do not know his history, the one secret that is not revealed by the novel’s end. The novel also demonstrates the destructive power of secrets, but does so in a manner that does not condemn the secret-keepers. While the resolution of the novel cannot occur until the characters have shared their secrets, they are not considered bad people for having kept the secrets in the first place.


Many times in the novel, the idea of fate surfaces. For example, when Darnay’s mother has him promise to find the younger sister of the raped and murdered peasant woman, she expresses the fear that if he does not make amends to her, he will be called to justice for what was done to her. As a result, Darnay tries to find the woman, but is unable to alter his fate. His actions are mirrored by Dr. Manette, who tries to change fate by reporting the Evrémondes, but ends up taking the injustice they have planned upon himself. Fate is manifest in the symbolism of the novel, as well. In mythology, the Fates actually knitted destiny, and Madame Defarge knits the future for those in her register. Likewise, Lucie knits a very different future by being the thread that binds together her family.


Imprisonment, and particularly wrongful imprisonment, plays a significant role in the novel. Dr. Manette is released from the Bastille at the first part of the novel. The Bastille plays a role in the novel, and the fall of the Bastille indicates the fall of the aristocracy. Darnay is imprisoned in the beginning of the novel as he awaits trial in England and also at the end of the novel. Prison serves not as a sign of justice, but as a sign of the abuse of power.

Rebirth and Resurrection

Rebirth and resurrection are themes that pervade the entire novel. Dr. Manette’s release from prison is characterized as him being recalled to life. Throughout the novel, different characters experience that same release and change. Most notably, Carton’s fantasy sequence at the end of the novel, in which he envisions that after his death Lucie and Darnay will have another son and name him after Carton, represents a literal rebirth. However, the theme of resurrection in the novel is not always about rebirth in the literal sense. For example, Cruncher’s grave robbing is a way of resurrecting bodies, which should have been left in peace. Likewise, Monsieur Defarge unearthing Dr. Manette’s prison document is a resurrection of a past that Dr. Manette has wished to let die.

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