Assessment of Character Development as Portrayed in Charles Dickens’ Book, A Tale of Two Cities


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Growing up a young and rich aristocrat, St. Ignatius of Loyola always coveted the vainglorious prestige of knighthood and courtship. Perverted by ideals of fame, glory, and superficiality, Ignatius spent most of his youth consumed by the sinful vices associated with his privileged upbringing. However, his perception of himself as a dashing, handsome soldier, and hence his wicked lifestyle up to that point, quickly disintegrated along with his leg as a result of a cannonball injury sustained in battle. This affliction, a blessing in disguise, allowed for Ignatius’ eventual spiritual conversion, as he read about the noble and compassionate deeds of Jesus and the Saints and strove to emulate them. With this new sense of direction, Ignatius was able to leave behind his materialistic propensities and progress along the path of asceticism and religious devotion. St. Ignatius’ transformation adheres to the format of the archetypal spiritual transformation, in which one starts off in a state of spiritual darkness, experiences a single event that results in a metanoia or complete shift in one’s thoughts and actions, and then ascends to a state of harmony and bliss. Doctor Manette undergoes a similarly structured metamorphosis in Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, his imprisonment precipitating psychological as opposed to spiritual weakness that he then overcomes to experience empowerment and liberation after Darnay’s capture. Doctor Manette’s movement from powerlessness to vitality mirrors the archetypal psychological transformation of coping with a traumatic event.

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Doctor Manette begins the novel engulfed by oppression and helplessness, his misery mirroring the dark, infernal initial stage of the archetypal psychological transformation in which one struggles to confront one’s agony. At the beginning of the novel, Dr. Manette’s unjust imprisonment renders him practically lifeless, his mind subjugated to the agonizing horror he experienced. As a result, he lacks the agency necessary to overcome this torment, this impotency evident in his “pitiable and dreadful” voice: “…it was the faintness of solitude and disuse. It was like the last feeble echo of a sound made long and long ago” (1.6.43). The repetition of weakness associated with diction like “faintness,” “feeble,” and “echo” characterizes Manette as an incapacitated individual, a vulnerable shadow of his former self, mirroring the deficiency seen in the apparently hopeless period of post-traumatic stress preceding transformation. His weakness escalating into desensitized remoteness, upon Lucie’s arrival, Doctor Manette exhibits a personality characterized by disorientation and detachment: “He never looked at the figure before him, without first looking down on this side of himself, and then that, as if he had lost the habit of associating place with sound; he never spoke, without first wandering in this manner (1.6.45).” Altogether, these images of confusion and vacant absentmindedness, conveyed by the diction of “wandering,” speak to the isolation and perplexity evident in this period of numbness accompanying feelings of impotency in this stage, as an oppressive force, the psychologically painful memory of his imprisonment, facilitates a disconnect between himself and the world around him. Finally, Doctor Manette, deeply rooted in one of his trauma-inducing episodes, later conveys the sheer antagonistic power of his lasting affliction to Mr. Lorry, explaining, “You have no idea how such an apprehension weighs on the sufferer’s mind, and how difficult- how almost impossible- it is, for him to force himself to utter a word upon the topic that oppresses him,” (2.19.208). Manette, referencing his own current state of uncontrollable pain, provides an image of immersion, his mind sinking under the pressure of this apprehension, the anguish orchestrated by the aristocracy. Furthermore, the detail of futility, of the ostensible impossibility of surmounting or coping with this quieting power, evokes a sense of stagnancy, Manette fixed within a shroud of tyranny that cannot be dispelled despite his most arduous efforts. This image of subjugation and vulnerability parallels the tendency of the human spirit to be manipulated or enslaved by dictatorial evils or vices that oppose psychological growth, a tendency that manifests itself during this initial post-traumatic stage of transformation.

Doctor Manette’s antithetical reversal into a resolute man of distinction after Darnay’s incarceration corresponds with the later stages of recovery and renewal in this transformation. Manette, a father who cares deeply for his daughter, rises from his torporific suffering after her happiness is jeopardized by Darnay’s potential execution: “For the first time, the Doctor felt, now, that his suffering was his strength and power” (3.4.280). Darnay’s arrest serves as the turning point in Doctor Manette’s psychological transformation, affording him the first real opportunity to re-embrace his fatherly role and support Lucie by utilizing his personal influence as a former prisoner. Therefore, his self-image shifts from one characterized by instability and deprivation to one of “strength” and “power” as he comes to grips with his trauma, this confidence representing the advent of this period of renewal. Manette’s transformation process is heightened with the detail that he becomes “so far exalted by the change, that he took the lead and direction” (3.4.281) among his company against the injustices of the Revolution. The diction “exalted” conveys the upward movement in the developing stage of his transformation, while the mention that he “took the lead and direction” furthers this development by portraying his newfound assertiveness and his liberation from oppression. Later, Manette’s psychological transformation is brought to fulfillment with his facilitation of Darnay’s extrication: “He had accomplished the task he had set himself, his promise was redeemed” (3.6.297). This redemption through physical action, the “[accomplishment]” of Darnay’s release, cements his ascension to the courageous, tenacious persona of the psychologically strengthened. This final assertion of power, “[redeeming]” himself of his previously-displayed weakness and ridding himself of the source of his trauma, provides a complete contrast with the inaction and exploitation of his previous self, bringing his period of transformation to a close and representing this final stage.

The drastic transformation of Doctor Manette from oppressed to empowered not only mirrors the process of the archetypal spiritual transformation but also the movement typical of comedy. The novel beginning in the infernal realm, Manette combats sinister vices like the corrupt, unfeeling French aristocracy, only to overcome these forces and exit the world marked by isolation and wickedness, gradually transitioning into the purgatorial and finally ascending into a paradisal atmosphere of love and grace. Dickens utilizes this theme of transformation, of “recalled to life,” to point to this comedic progression by allowing Manette’s own redemptive process to reflect the journey through these comedic realms. In doing so, I believe that he captures the essence of Revolutionary France and its similar comedic development as aspiring, growing, healing; reclaiming virtue; and emerging from stagnancy. This auspicious progression is ultimately why comedy is such a powerful form of literature; it reaffirms the possibility of encountering hope and virtue in a seemingly hopeless and virtue-less environment or situation in cases like Manette’s and Ignatius’, proving that after every storm the sun will shine again, that after times of turmoil come periods of much-awaited prosperity and peace.

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