The Role of Women in “A Tale of Two Cities”
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Charles Dickens’s novel “A Tale of Two Cities” is a story of intricately woven plot lines driven by intriguing characters. The female characters are often primary forces in driving the other players and advancing the plot. It’s been said that Dickens uses the women in his story to somewhat questionable ends; some say that he merely uses their womanhood for symbolism and crudely limits their portrayal to the reader to their rather boring superlatives. However this is not the case, as the beauty of Dickens’s female characters, especially one Lucie Manette, lies in their actions and dialogue, and these techniques are used to paint a more subtle picture of their personalities and roles in the story. The female characters (namely Lucie) in A Tale of Two Cities is more than just a crude symbol, and through her underlying qualities and irresistible embodiment of the 19th century ideal of the perfect woman, she exudes a power over the male characters like no one else in the story.
If there is one single female character that encapsulates all the qualities that make a woman influential in this story, it must be Lucie Manette. Intentionally so on Dickens’s part Lucie is characterized as, from a 19th century perspective, the perfect woman. She’s compassionate (O, so overwhelmingly compassionate!), she’s beautiful, she’s delicate, and she’s loyal. These qualities allow her (as so eloquently stated by said male characters) to exercise an uncanny efficaciousness over the gender so hormonally inclined to bend to a damsel’s whim.
Through her interactions with the other male (and female) characters we learn infinitely more about them than we ever could otherwise. A perfect example of this is when Mr. Stryver asks Lucie for her hand in marriage. Stryver had always carried himself with an air of arrogance and rigorous self-satisfaction. However, after he falls in love with and is subsequently (and ever so politely) refused by the Manette family (vicariously through Mr. Lorry), he is shown on the inside to have a very fragile ego, and says, injured, to hide his shame: “‘I assure you,’ returned Mr. Stryver, in the friendliest way, ‘that I am sorry for it on your account, and sorry for it on the poor father’s account. I know this must always be a sore subject with the family; let us say no more about it (135).'” Stryver may not let anyone see it, but his hauteur in regard to his rejection belies his bruised pride at being turned down by the one he loves. Dickens needed to use Lucie and her magnetism to bring out this aspect of Stryver and prove just how powerful of a persona Lucie is.
Another male character that Lucie has an especially profound influence on is her father, Doctor Manette. When he is first encountered in the Defarges’ wine shop, he is a dilapidated wreck of a man, both mentally and physically, looking disheveled and fixed on the delusion that he is a shoemaker. However upon meeting Lucie and being nursed back to stability by her and thus being recalled to his life as a doctor and a father, he is clearly cajoled into a state of safety and calm brought on by his daughter: “[Lucie] was the golden thread that united him to a Past beyond his misery, and to a Present beyond his misery: and the sound of her voice, the light of her face, the touch of her hand, had a strong beneficial influence with him almost always (71).” After suffering such a terrible life as a prisoner of the Bastille and retreating into a crippling psychosis as a chronically bewildered shoemaker, it is only Lucie who can bring him out of his rut and back into happiness.
Lucie has an incalculable effect on another essential player in this story, and that player’s name is Sydney Carton. Before falling in love with Lucie, Carton is shown to be an overly self-pitying wretch of a man, squandering tears on his pillow for his wasted life. He is the embodiment of depression and self-loathing, and he sees nothing and no one but himself to blame for his mistakes. However, when he is professing his undying love for Lucie on bended knee, he states rather clearly that she has awaked a light somewhere amidst the darkness that is his soul, however wan: “‘And yet I have had the weakness, and have still the weakness, to wish you to know with what a sudden mastery you kindled me, heap of ashes that I am, into a fire… (139)” Through Lucie, through her overwhelming compassion, through her unyielding lovability, Sydney Carton, the black hole of self deprecation that he was, found himself at least partially redeemed by his love for her, and this has a profound effect not only on his character, but on his actions later on in the story.
A man in this story that Lucie perhaps has a more subtle but equally powerful influence on is Jarvis Lorry, the banker. Lorry had always presented himself (and in a way prided himself) as being a man of business, and strictly business, and even tries very hard to leave his emotions at the door when he leaves in the morning for work. However, in the face of Lucie’s emotional display at hearing the news of her father’s resurfacing in France, he finds it difficult to maintain his image of stolidity: “‘You speak collectedly, and you – are collected. That’s good!’ (Though his manner was more satisfied than his words.) ‘A matter of business. Regard it as a matter of business – business that must be done (21).'” Lorry’s façade of “strictly business” is clearly a thin veneer he’s employing in a desperate bid to mask his emotions – the very emotions that Lucie is so effectively bringing out in him.
It can no longer be said that the female characters are merely items in the story of “A Tale of Two Cities”, because Lucie is the exception that negates the rule. She is almost a divinity to the men of Dickens’s tale, a shining light that brings out the best in everyone who meets her. Lucie is vitally important character to the story, and without her, not only would the plot be virtually nonexistent, but the characters would be frustratingly two-dimensional and woefully underdeveloped.