In nearly all novels by Dickens, characters take the main the stage and generally are just as important as the plot becuase of their complexity. Charles Dickens’ novel, A Tale of Two Cities, offers far more to the reader than the title suggests, particularly because of the enormous complexity of the characters—both central and peripheral. “A Tale of Two Cities” by Dickens is also a series of tales about dual identities and the ways in which one character serves as a foil to another. In Books I and II of “Tale of Two Cities”, Dickens establishes the setting and the dynamic relationships among the characters, all of whom are struggling, to greater and lesser degrees, with their positions regarding the Revolution and as a result, this creates a struggle with their identities. While some characters in the Dickens novel “A Tale of Two Cities”, especially Darnay, clearly have more acute conflicts to resolve and far more to lose than the seemingly minor characters, it is by examining the marginal characters that the reader can understand the dynamic conflicts of the period more fully. Two of the novel’s marginal characters, John Barsad, the duplicitous spy in “A Tale of Two Cities” by Dickens, and Gaspard, the quiet but determined peasant who takes justice into his own hands, represent two faces of the Revolution, and help to emphasize the conflicts and conditions of the major characters.
When John Barsad is introduced in the novel “A Tale of Two Cities” by Dickens, it is immediately clear that he is not only self-serving and hypocritical, he is a man who is not to be trusted. While he is not a popular character, he is, nonetheless an excellent candidate for a character analysis as Barsad is complex and multilayered. For example, in “A Tale of Two Cities” by Dickens the character of Barsad testifies falsely against Darnay for spying, when he himself is a spy which shows him to be not only untrustworthy but willing to be a hypocrite when his own interests are at stake. Barsad will eventually play a significant role in other aspects of Darnay’s affairs as well. Although Barsad represents himself before the court as a loyal patriot, a skilled barrister exposes Barsad’s seedier side as a gambler and debtor. The narrator of “A Tale of Two Cities” by Dickens describes Barsad as “a hired spy and traitor, an unblushing trafficker in blood, and one of the greatest scoundrels upon the earth since accursed Judas–which he certainly did look rather like…” (Dickens 72).
This description is apt, and it foreshadows the effects that Barsad will have on the other characters. While he is a minor character in the larger scheme of the novel, his sphere of influence is rather extensive, and his actions have a decisive impact on the trajectory of the plot and upon the decisions of the other characters. When he visits the DeFarge’s wine shop, for instance, Barsad knowingly drops a tidbit of information that he knows will set a chain of events into motion. He reveals that Lucie is to be married to Darnay. This is news which puts the DeFarges into conflict because they care for Lucie and her father, but not for Darnay. This information shapes Madame DaFarge’s future revolutionary activities.
In the Dickens novel A Tale of Two Cities Gaspard is a different sort of character altogether. Whereas Barsad is obnoxious and grandstanding, trying to seem as someone more respectable than he is, Gaspard is quiet and unassuming. Nonetheless, Gaspard holds as least as much power and influence as Barsad exercises, for he takes justice into his own hands and kills the Marquis for having run over his child and then insulting him with the compensation of a coin. While the reader of A Tale of Two Cities is never privy to the thought process that leads to Gaspard’s decision to ride on the undercarriage and to stab the Marquis in his sleep, it is perhaps easy enough for the reader to empathize with this marginal character, for he could be any common man who has been wronged by a haughty and careless aristocrat. Gaspard’s actions are a mirror of revolutionary thought and feeling, and it is through Gaspard that the reader of A Tale of Two Cities can understand the sentiments that provoked uprisings against the traditional social structure. Gaspard not only represents, but he embodies fully, the suffering and rage of his class. Rather than accepting his position of powerlessness, however, he finds a way to seize personal agency and to act upon it. In doing so, he clearly affects the life—or rather, the death—of the Marquis, but his action also influences Darnay’s position and the circumstances which will eventually envelop him later in the novel. Beyond affecting Darnay, though, Gaspard’s actions serve as the spark for the Revolution itself. It is the tipping point for some characters; those who might have felt lukewarm about the Revolution beforehand, are incensed by Gaspard’s sentence and execution, and are thereby compelled to change their opinions.
Aside from the case of A Tale of Two Cities the literary canon is full of examples of seemingly minor men and women who become heroes and highly worthy of character analysis, hardly-noticed characters who turn into villains, and people of no reputation who shape the entire course of a novel’s events. This is part of what makes the story Dickens is telling so interesting—even though the events themselves are worthy of note, the characters who are the subjects of great interest and character analysis and their level of complexity make A Tale of Two Cities what it is. Beyond offering the reader a mere narration of the events leading up to the Revolution, Dickens creates suspense, tension, and the opportunity for opinions and actions to be transformed by elevating the influence of characters worthy of intense character analysis in “A Tale of Two Cities” by Dickens who would otherwise be marginal to the plot. John Barsad and Gaspard are two men who are quite different from one another, and who also differ in their motives and means of expressing their power and influence. Nonetheless, in several relatively brief scenes, both men shape the outcome of the novel by acting upon their beliefs and passions decisively and without apology. As a result, the lives of the major characters in “A Tale of Two Cities” by Dickens and the decisions that they are able and which they choose to make are transformed.
Dickens, Charles. A Tale of Two Cities. New York: Books, Inc, 1868.