A Tale of Two Cities

This teaching guide includes a brief overview of A Tale of Two Cities followed by teaching ideas to be used before, during, and after reading the novel by Charles Dickens.
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Updated on: December 8, 2000
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Dicken's The Tale of Two Cities

Questions for Deeper Understanding

The following can be used as reading journal topics, essay topics, the basis for oral reports, class discussion starters, and so forth.

1. Reread the first paragraph of the novel. How could it be used to describe today's world?
2. What were the conditions in France that lead to the revolution?
3. This is a novel of scenes, not characters. Find important scenes in which Dickens used visual descriptions as symbols for some theme or idea and explain what the descriptions are symbols of. (i.e. the spilled wine as a symbol of blood in Chapter 5, "The Wineshop")
4. Do a plot outline being sure to mark the climax. Explain how you made your choice.
5. Explore Dickens' image of "the road" as it runs throughout the novel. (I.e., The last sentence in Chapter 1)

6. In Book 1, Chapter 4, why is Mr. Lorry reluctant to be seen talking to Charles Darnay? Give some examples how this attitude does or does not change over time.
7. Dickens describes Tellson's much in the same way he describes his characters. If Tellson's was a person, describe his/her appearance, social philosophy, and political beliefs.
8. Why does Dickens describe Stryver as "the lion" and Carton as "the jackal."
9. Look at Charles Darnay and his uncle the Marquis; how are they different, and why did Charles develop so differently from his uncle and his father?
10. Support or argue against the following statement: Madame Defarge is Dickens' symbol for the French Revolution.
11. Reread the scene between Madame Defarge and Miss Pross in Book 3, Chapter 14. Compare and contrast the two, focusing on their actions and motivations. 12. Discuss the following relationships: Mr. Lorry and the Manettes, Sydney Carton and Lucie, Charles and Dr. Manette, Defarge and Dr. Manette, Charles and the Marquis.
13. Decide if the following characters are well rounded, flat, static, or dynamic: Mr. Lorry, Lucie Manette, Dr. Manette, Charles Darnay, Sydney Carton, Stryver, Miss Pross, Jerry Cruncher, Defarge, and Madame Defarge. Be prepared to defend your answer.

14. Explore Dr. Manette and Sydney Carton as symbols of the idea of social regeneration through suffering and sacrifices.
15. Madame Defarge obviously believes that children should be punished for the sins of their fathers. Support or defend her position.
16. Compare and contrast how Charles Darnay and Defarge both put duty before desire.
17. Discuss how Gaspard's actions and fate symbolize the cruelty of the French aristocracy and the effect this cruelty had on the French people.
18. Look up the term noblesse oblige." What language does it come from, and what does it mean? In light of the events in the novel, how is this ironic?
19. Write your definition of honor and dishonor. In light of your definition, would you describe the following characters as either honorable or dishonorable? Defarge, Stryver, Sydney Carton, Mr. Lorry, and Jerry Cruncher.
20. Trace the author's symbolic use of light and shadow throughout the novel (Lucie-lucid-light).
21. Contrast the stoicism of the Defarges with the self-pity of Carton.

Additional Follow-up Activities
In addition to dealing with these questions, students can engage in some of the following activities.
1. Have the students reenact Charles Darnay's trial in England and his last trial in France. Use the students' performances as a basis for a discussion of the French and English legal systems of the time.
2. Have the students cast the novel as a movie using current actors and actresses. Have the students explain their choices in light of Dickens' characterizations of each one.
3. Have students write eulogies for Sydney Carton, the seamstress, and Madame Defarge.
4. Have students write a poem or rap to summarize a specific scene in the novel or the novel as a whole.
5. Have students build models of some of the more notable objects and buildings in the novel, such as "the grindstone," "La Guillotine," the Bastille, and Tellson's
6. Have students conduct a trial of Gaspard based on current laws in this country.
7. Have students draw a picture of the final garment that Madame Defarge's knitting would have produced.
8. After reading Edgar Johnson's "Afterword," write an essay discussing Dickens' reasons for writing about the French Revolution.


In addition to the selected bibliographies related to Dickens' times, life, and other works found in the Signet Classic edition of A Tale of Two Cities, we recommend the following books for additional information about the French Revolution:

Alderman, Clifford L. Liberty! Equality! Fraternity! The Story of the French Revolution. NY: Messner, 1965
Arasse, Daniel. The Guillotine and the Terror. Translated by Christopher Miller. NY: Viking, 1990; Penguin, 1991 in paperback.
de Tocqueville, Alexis. The Old Regime and the French Revolution. Translated by Stuart Gilbert. NY: Doubleday
Carlyle, Thomas. The French Revolution. Edited by K.J. Fielding and David Sorenson. NY: Oxford University Press, 1989.
Dowd, David L. The French Revolution. NY: American Heritage, 1965.
Rude, George. The Crowd in the French Revolution. NY: Oxford University Press, 1967.


James (Jim) R. Cope is an Assistant Professor at the University of Central Florida in Orlando. Until last year he taught English in high school. His research focuses on the development of readers, their interests and attitudes, and the forces that have shaped them.

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