Academic Writing

What's in a Name? Identity and Names in Charles Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities

Identity and duality are two ideas that Charles Dickens plays with interconnectedly throughout A Tale of Two Cities. Often the duality, or even plurality, of a character’s persona provides another turning point in the plot to advance the story. Also, there is often a duality to the received connotation of identity that is equally demonstrative of Dickens’s manipulation of meaning. This occurrence is perhaps best seen during Madame Defarge’s interaction with the spy, John Barsad, as the use, disuse, and discovery of naming traditions illuminates the pervasive theme of identity throughout the novel. In both the coded secrecy of the “Jacquerie” revolutionaries and the revelation of Charles Darnay as the new Marquis, the name of the thing is proven to have more weight than the actuality, suggesting a preoccupation with presumed identity over reality.

The use of the name Jacques to refer to all members of the revolution simultaneously destroys the individual identity while forging a new one through group identification. This identity via group membership is especially apparent in the coining of the group as the “Jacquerie,” as Madame Defarge points out, “consider the rage and discontent to which the Jacquerie addresses itself with more and more of certainty every hour;” the group even acts and thinks as one body (Dickens 185). Throughout the novel, the various Jacques characters remain unidentified as they are not important in their individual characteristics, nor are they even distinctly important in what they offer to the revolution. At one point, Defarge goes so far as to distinguish “‘Jacques One, Jacques Two, Jacques Three!” but none of these characters is memorable beyond the scene, such as they are absorbed into the larger revolutionary mass (Dickens 173). In fact, the Defarges are the only revolutionary leaders identified by name to the readers, but their name is not enough to stop the crowd from immediately killing the governor who guards the Bastille. The group mentality of the Jacquerie is further helpful in identifying and acting on “us” and “them.”

John Barsad is excluded from the naming tradition of “Jacques” in the scene with Madame Defarge, first in that Madame Defarge immediately identifies him by first and last name and second that Defarge does not respond to Jacques for Barsad and gives him his true, full name, saying, “‘You deceive yourself, monsieur,’ […] ‘That is not my name. I am Ernest Defarge’” (Dickens 189). That Defarge’s real name is less sacred to him than the codified naming system of the revolution is an important insight into the seriousness with which he treats the group identity of the Jacquerie. Defarge and the other revolutionaries are revolutionaries first, individuals second. Furthermore, Defarge giving Barsad his full name is significant in that it depersonalizes and diminishes their relationship. Whereas the other characters in the novel call each other by their last names as a signifier of companionship, Defarge sets himself apart from Barsad in an instantly recognizable way, confirming that they are strangers and should remain so. However, it is interesting to say they are strangers as Madame Defarge just finishes knitting John Barsad’s name into her shroud. Indeed, the readers only know the spy’s name because Madame Defarge does, but the name is only important in her recording—and coordinately, Dickens’s recording of these dramatized historical events. This diminishing of names and identity is in direct contrast with the most shocking moment of the scene, which is the discovery of Charles Darnay’s true identity.

Retrospectively, Darnay can be seen struggling to develop a new identity in England, but it is his French past that drags him back into the revolutionary action and drives the plot. Moreover, his specific ties to the names he chooses and receives are significant in the context of the history and the plot. As Barsad reveals, Darnay “‘lives unknown in England, he is no Marquis there; he is Mr Charles Darnay. D’Aulnais is the name of his mother’s family’” (Dickens 191). Not only does Darnay leave behind the family name of the Marquis, but he attempts to hide any reference to his French heritage, Anglicizing his mother’s family name to become Darnay. Furthermore, as is seen later in the novel, Darnay’s real surname, Evrémonde, has significance for the understanding of his identity in A Tale of Two Cities as well. A crude translation for Darnay’s name offers his alternate identity as a sort of “Everyman,” as despite his attempts to escape his French heritage for personal and sociopolitical reasons, he is inevitably drawn in to the conflict (Alter 138). When Barsad reveals Darnay’s identity to the Defarges, he sets in motion a conflict and panic over the redefinition of identity both in the Defarges’ historical association with the Manettes and their present revolutionary plans. This confrontation of duality within one’s own self is increasingly present in the novel as it progresses as previous preconceptions are invalidated and discarded. Moreover, though the novel at first seems to be lauding the struggle to recover one’s identity—Doctor Manette and Darnay’s post-imprisonment revival—it is more often identity that leads to catastrophe. In fact, Darnay only survives because Sydney Carton dies in his place.

Dickens presents a dual opinion of the importance of personal identity in A Tale of Two Cities, both sides of which are present in the interaction between Madame Defarge and John Barsad. Whereas the Jacquerie phenomenon erases individual identity, it forms for the revolutionaries a stronger, more important group identity—one that allows them to discriminate against Barsad and protect their plots. Barsad’s entrance is doubly important in that it sets up the conflict of Charles Darnay’s secret identity as the new Marquis. Darnay himself presents an interesting selection of significant naming traditions, as his Anglicized name change indicates a complete removal from his personal heritage, even as the French Evrémonde is ultimately responsible for his reentrance into the conflict of the French Revolution. The use (and dis- and misuse) of names holds an important key in understanding the theme of identity in A Tale of Two Cities, and the frequent duality of character’s names would be an interesting further study throughout the novel as it compares to Dickens’s other works.

EnglishSarah Burk