A Tale of Two Cities Themes, Symbols, and Motifs

This Storyboard That activity is part of the lesson plans for A Tale of Two Cities

A Tale of Two Cities Themes, Symbols, and Motifs


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Activity Overview

Themes, symbols, and motifs come alive when you use a storyboard. In this activity, students will identify themes and symbols from the novel, and support their choices with details from the text.

A Tale of Two Cities Themes to Look For and Discuss

The Destructive Nature of Revenge

Madame Defarge’s brother, brother-in-law, father, and sister either died or were murdered by the Marquis St. Evrémonde twin brothers. It makes sense that Mme. Defarge would be extremely bitter towards these men who used their privilege to destroy her entire family. Her thirst for revenge, however, goes beyond the brothers to Charles Darnay, the son, nephew, and heir of the Marquis. She believes that Darnay should pay for the sins of his family, despite the fact that he renounced his title and property years before. She also wants to destroy his wife, Lucie, and their daughter, to end the bloodline for good. Mme. Defarge’s desire to avenge her family ultimately leads to her own destruction at the hands of Miss Pross, but also backfires because Charles is rescued from death by Carton.


The French Revolution was caused by a number of things, including drought and poor harvests, increased taxation, and oppression of the Third Estate. Being stuck in a cycle of poverty and injustice is a powerful motivator for people to move towards change, and with the recent Declaration of Independence by the United States from England, the commoners were beginning to realize the power the will of the people have over their rulers. However, Revolution for the French was a double-edged sword: while they initially fought for noble causes like their rights as citizens and as men, radical factions of the movement quickly turned the revolution into a bloodbath, ushering in the Reign of Terror where the cause was maintaining power.


The title of the first book, “Recalled to Life”, deals with the resurrection of Dr. Manette from his imprisonment. In a sense, he is being physically resurrected because his daughter Lucie believed him to be dead; metaphorically, he is being resurrected as Lucie helps to pull him out of his prisoner mindset. The novel also deals with Sydney Carton’s resurrection from hopelessness to fulfillment as he rediscovers his humanity by sacrificing his own life to save Charles Darnay’s. In addition, through this sacrifice, Darnay is able to walk away from death and live a renewed life with his wife and daughter.

The Importance of Sacrifice

As a young man, Sydney Carton feels that he wasted all of his potential, and finds himself without hope for a brighter future. He routinely sees Charles as an example of who he could have been, but he is unable to find the courage within himself to change his life. He hopes one day to redeem something in his life by swearing to do anything for Lucie and her family. He gets to fulfill this promise by making the ultimate sacrifice, switching places with Charles for his execution, allowing Charles, Lucie, and their family to escape to safety. By making this sacrifice, Sydney finally finds purpose and becomes whole again.

A Tale of Two Cities Motifs & Symbols to Look For and Discuss

La Guillotine

The winds of revolution also bring about the age of the guillotine. The guillotine is used against revolting peasants first, and then becomes a symbol of retribution and justice for the peasants against the nobles. The guillotine became so prevalent and so routine that the narrator observes it became a symbol of a pseudo-religion. He observes, “It superseded the Cross. Models of it were worn on breasts from which the Cross was discarded, and it was bowed down to and believed in where the Cross was denied.”

The Grindstone

The grindstone is both a symbol of fear and of strength for the characters in the novel. The revolutionaries use the grindstone to keep their weapons sharp as they continue to rid their world of traitors and nobles. As Lorry, Dr. Manette, and Lucie gaze upon it, however, they see the blood covering the men and women as they sharpen their weapons for more murder. The revolution seems to be taking a turn towards something more ugly, and the revolutionaries are being driven by revenge and love of violence rather than by change for a greater good.

The Knitted Register

Madame Defarge’s knitting reveals a register of names, a hit-list of enemies of the revolution that must be taken care of. Mme. Defarge rarely puts down her knitting, her desire for revenge for her family and for her nation making her one of the more frightening figures of the cause. The register is indecipherable to anyone except Madame Defarge, and seems to be a source of personal comfort to her as well as her duty to the cause.

The Shoemaker’s Bench and Tools

Dr. Manette, imprisoned for 18 years by the Marquis, found solace in his shoemaking when the isolation and boredom became enough to drive him mad. He continues this after his release, almost incoherent when his daughter finally reaches him.Through her care, he does come back to his senses, but relapses when he realizes that Charles might be a nobleman, and when he discovers that he is, indeed, related to the very men who stole his freedom for nearly two decades.

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Template and Class Instructions

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Student Instructions

Create a storyboard depicting important themes, symbols, and motifs in the story.

  1. Use the template provided by your teacher.
  2. Identify important themes, symbols, and motifs.
  3. Describe how the theme, symbol, or motif is important to the story.
  4. Illustrate each example with appropriate images, scenes, characters, and items.
  5. Save and submit your storyboard.
3 Examples Chart


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