A Tale of Three Easters
By Catherine Gath
The recurring image of new life from the dead is the animating force of Dickens' most celebrated novel.
Among the many brilliant motifs and themes woven throughout Charles Dickens’ masterpiece, A Tale of Two Cities, one stands out more prominently than the others. This is the theme of burial and resurrection. Written during a dark period in England, about a darker period in France, Dickens’ tale certainly has undertones warning of the consequences of a stark class dichotomy, but trumping that is the hope that permeates the story. Dickens uses the theme of burial and resurrection to not only give the reader a hopeful message, but to lead up to describing the moment for which every human was created: the resurrection into new life.
Almost immediately, Dickens introduces the theme of burial and resurrection with the title of the first book: “Recalled to life.” This phrase is first spoken in Chapter Two of Book One by Jarvis Lorry. Lorry is involved in an operation to rescue Dr. Manette, who has been imprisoned in the Bastille for eighteen years; the chapter closes with Mr. Lorry’s strange dream of men arising from graves. Although these first few chapters are vague and cryptic, Dickens draws the reader’s attention to death and resurrection. Not long after, as events are made clearer, the theme of death and resurrection grows and is hinted at in both small and large ways. The attempt to rescue Dr. Manette from prison is one of the larger ways: Dr. Manette had been buried alive in the Bastille, and although he was still physically alive (barely), he had undergone such great mental and spiritual decay that his daughter Lucie is told that she must “restore him to life.” After five years, Dr. Manette’s lifeless self has been completely transformed. Dickens writes, “It would have been difficult by a far brighter light, to recognise in Doctor Manette, intellectual of face and upright of bearing, the shoemaker of the garret in Paris.” This complete shift—from the rescue of the entombed, crazed prisoner, to the revelation of the living, respectable gentleman—is the novel’s first example of resurrection.
The theme of resurrection is also subtly entwined in other parts throughout the book. Jerry Cruncher’s night job is a “resurrection man,” someone who digs up bodies of the dead to sell. This occupation contributes to the imagery, particularly when Cruncher believes that a spy named Roger Cly has died, only to realize that he is still alive—he has “come to life again”, in Cruncher’s words. Moreover, the idea of death and resurrection is symbolized in Book Two by the French Revolution, the uprising of the culturally buried masses. In Chapter Twenty-One, the French peasants storm the Bastille. Not only does this begin their own uprising, or “resurrection,” but they also free many people who had been buried forever in their cells, thus effectively dead to the outside world.
The theme is brought to its apex at the end of the story, with Sydney Carton’s ultimate sacrifice. Carton, a character who, at the beginning of the book, was an indifferent drinker convinced his life was worthless, heroically switches places with Charles Darnay, saving Darnay from the guillotine by giving up his own life. Through Carton’s death, there is a three-fold kind of resurrection. First, he preserves Darnay’s life (for the second time, in fact). Secondly, and more importantly, this act effects redemption for Carton himself; after living a life with no energy or purpose—hardly living at all—he rises to both qualities through his death. He transforms himself from a man with a dead soul, a “self-flung away, wasted, drunken, poor creature,” into a man truly alive, with a life that is “peaceful, useful, prosperous, and happy.” Carton believes this will bring him to life in the Resurrection of Christ, the third and most important resurrection that happens. It is the recollection of the words of Christ, “I am the resurrection, and the life, saith the Lord: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: And whosoever liveth and believeth in me, shall never die,” which inspires Carton to demonstrate the act of greatest love in laying down his life for another.
By showing the triumph of the resurrection even while surrounded by hatred, A Tale of Two Cities is essentially an optimistic work with a moral. It warns the audience to not allow selfish revenge to eat away at them, like Madame Defarge, but to selflessly give for others. With Carton’s final vision before he dies, he demonstrates that living life this way will not only create better life on earth, but also provide entry to the world to come. Carton says, “I see a beautiful city and a brilliant people rising from this abyss, and, in their struggles to be truly free, in their triumphs and defeats, through long years to come, I see the evil of this time and of the previous time of which this is the natural birth, gradually making expiation for itself and wearing out … It is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.” Carton realizes that selfless actions will defeat the evil that permeates France, but he is also aware that his own selfless act will bring him eternal life.
By weaving this motif throughout A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens not only provides the audience with a message of hope, but also illustrates what the perfect resurrection is. Dr. Manette’s resurrection is flawed—even after the five years of Lucie’s tenderness, he still occasionally would regress. As for Jerry Cruncher, the “resurrection man,” what he is doing is criminal, a parody of resurrection. However, Sydney Carton’s resurrection is perfect: he finally learns how to love selflessly, and not only does this create a heartwarming moment amidst the bloody revolution, it gives him participation in the resurrection of Christ. This is the ultimate goal of any human, and an encouraging message for any era: the evil that is currently in the world will not last forever. Burial must take place before resurrection, so if it seems as though the world is buried in evil, this is only a sign that someday, it can and will be defeated.
Catherine Gath is a high school senior from Long Beach, CA, homeschooled through Kolbe Academy. Next year, she hopes to study classics and the liberal arts at either Ave Maria University, Thomas More College, or Wyoming Catholic College. In her spare time, Catherine enjoys reading great works of classic literature and poetry, spending time outdoors, and dancing ballet.
If you enjoyed this piece, take a look at some of our other posts here at the Journal, like this author profile of Jean-Paul Sartre, this “Great Conversation” post on the concept of opposites, or this student essay on natural beauty. And don’t miss our podcast on education and culture, Anchored.
Published on 1st April, 2022.