Critical Essays Women as the Central Characters


Curiously, one of the aspects readers most commonly overlook when studying A Tale of Two Cities is the centrality of women in the story. The characters around whom the action revolves in both London and Paris are women: Lucie Manette and Madame Defarge. Additionally, Dickens uses women throughout the book to represent the moral climate of a group or family. Although Dickens may not develop his female characters as fully as he does some of the male characters in A Tale of Two Cities, nevertheless, the women provide the men in the novel with an emotional foundation that causes the men to act for or react against what the women represent.

Lucie and Madame Defarge, for instance, drive the action in their respective spheres of influence. As the "golden thread"that binds the lives of Doctor Alexandre Manette, Mr. Lorry, Darnay, and Carton together, Lucie is a passive character who influences others through who she is rather than by what she does. The comfortable home she creates comforts the men in her life and her devout compassion for others inspires them. Her goodness enables them to become more than they are and to find the strength to escape the prisons of their lives.

On the other hand, Madame Defarge stands at the center of the revolutionary activity in Paris as an active agent of change, even when she is just sitting in the wine-shop and knitting her death register. Madame Defarge instigates hatred and violence, exemplified by her leadership in the mob scenes and the way The Vengeance and Jacques Three feed off of her desire to exterminate the Evrémonde line. Her patient ruthlessness helps to support her husband when he has doubts about the Revolution. In the end, however, her desire for revenge becomes something Monsieur Defarge reacts against as he recognizes that the killing must end somewhere.

Dickens also portrays the other women in the novel as either nurturing life or destroying it. Mothers play an especially important role in this sense, as Dickens differentiates between natural and unnatural mothers. Women such as Darnay's mother, Madame Evrémonde, and Lucie's mother, Madame Manette, represented mothers who die young but leave their children with a sense of conscience and love. Madame Evrémonde's exhortations to Darnay to atone for the family's wrongdoing, for instance, motivate him to risk his life in order to help others. Lucie is also a natural mother, nurturing her daughter and protecting her from harm.

The women of Monseigneur's court, however, represent unnatural mothers, who care so little for their children that they push them off on wet nurses and nannies and pretend that the children don't even exist. Similarly, Dickens portrays even the mothers of Saint Antoine who do nurture their children as unnatural in the fact that they can spend the day as part of a vicious mob killing and beheading people and then return home smeared with blood to play with their children. The behaviors of both the aristocratic and the peasant women are destructive in that they either create an environment that lacks love and guidance or they guide the next generation into further anger and violence.