A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

I’m still reading A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens and thought I’d publish a few discussion questions to think about:

  1. What are some of the ways in which Dickens parallels the personal and the political in A Tale of Two Cities.
  2. One of the novel’s most important motifs is the figure of the double. What is the effect of Dickens’s doubling technique? Does he use doubles to draw contrasts, comparisons, or both?
  3. What are some examples of Dickens’s use of foreshadowing in A Tale of Two Cities.
  4. How sympathetic is Dickens towards the French Revolution?
  5. The first paragraph of this book is widely quoted — “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.” — why is this?
  6. Some critics charge that Dickens, in much of his work, failed to create meaningful characters because he exaggerated them to parodic extremes. Is this a fair assessment of his characterization in A Tale of Two Cities? Does the author’s use of caricature detract from his novel’s ability to speak to human nature?
  7. Dickens relies heavily on coincidence to fuel the plot of A Tale of Two Cities: letters are found bearing crucial information, for example, and long-lost brothers are discovered in crowded public places. Do such incidents strengthen or weaken the plot and overall themes of the novel?
  8. Based on Dickens’s portrayals of the villainous characters in his novel (particularly Madame Defarge), what conclusions might the reader draw about the author’s notions of human evil? Does he seem to think that people are born evil? If so, do they lack the ability to change? Or does he suggest that circumstances drive human beings to their acts of cruelty?

And since I plan on re-reading Dickens’s Great Expectations soon, I’m including some discussion questions for that classic as well:

  1. In this novel, Great Expectations, things are often not what they seem. Discuss how the theme of “expectations” is illustrated by and through the various major characters in this book. How are Pip’s expectations different and similar from those of his surrogate father, Joe (the blacksmith), Miss Havisham (the eccentric recluse), Estella (the daughter of a convict and murderess) and Pip’s benefactor, (the convict) Magwitch?
  2. Why do you think it is one of Magwitch’s principal conditions that Pip (his nickname) “always bear the name of Pip” in order to receive his financial support?
  3. If Pip had not received his “Great Expectations” and never left Joe’s forge, how do you think his life would have been different? Are the lessons he learns during his physical and emotional journey necessary for him to arrive at the wisdom he evinces as the middle-aged narrator of this tale? In what ways?
  4. Why do you think Miss Havisham manipulates and misleads Pip into thinking she is his secret benefactor? What, if anything, does she derive from this action?
  5. Given Dickens’s portrayal of Estella, what do you think attracts Pip to her in the first place and what, when he learns of her cold-blooded manipulation of men such as her husband, keeps Pip devoted to her until the end, loving her, as he says, “against reason, against promise, against peace?”
  6. In the final chapter Estella says to Pip: “Suffering has been stronger than all other teaching.” Discuss the theme of suffering in this book—specifically how it instructs Pip, Miss Havisham and Estella.
  7. In Chapter 49 Miss Havisham confesses to Pip that in adopting Estella, she “meant to save her (Estella) from misery like my own.” Do you believe this, given Dickens’s harsh characterization of Miss Havisham throughout the novel?
  8. And in the same Chapter (49) when Miss Havisham is set afire, do you believe that, given her state of mind, Dickens intends us to read this as an accident or a kind of penance/attempted suicide on her part for her cruelty to Pip and Estella?
  9. What do you think makes Pip change his opinion of his benefactor Magwitch from one of initial repugnance to one of deep and abiding respect and love?
  10. In Chapter 59, when Pip places Joe and Biddy’s son (also named Pip) on the same tombstone that opens the novel, what do you think Dickens intends to tell us with this image? Given the novel’s theme of how the sins of others are visited upon us, do you view this image as a foreboding one in any way?

And in case you’re a teacher looking for materials to help you lead your class through A Tale of Two Cities, click here to view a Teachers’ Guide (provided by Penguin Group).

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