Tropes and Symbols in A Tale of Two Cities

 What is a trope?

There are several dictionary definitions of “trope,” but the one we’re going to use for talking about literature is this: a pattern in storytelling, not only within the media works themselves, but also in related aspects such as the behind-the-scenes aspects of creation, the technical features of a medium, and the fan experience. The idea being that storytelling is not just writing, it is the whole process of creating and telling/showing a story. (TVTropes)

Be warned: some of the tropes listed on this page have some foul language in their names! (I didn’t come up with them!)

You can probably recognize tropes even without realizing they are tropes. For example, some of the tropes present in Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities include:

  • The Alcoholic
  • The Ingenue
  • The Anti-Hero
  • The Cynic

Character Tropes

Can you identify the character just by their trope? (Hint: there may be more than one character for some of these tropes, but for most of them, there’s only ONE character that fits it or fits it the most. However, there may be multiple tropes that apply to ONE character.)

When you have a trope, there are usually particular characteristics that are used over and over again. For example, an alcoholic in a Dickens work is likely to have many of the same traits as an alcoholic in another work, by a completely different author, writing in a different genre, with events taking place in a different time period. Why? Because both authors are utilizing a familiar trope to help identify characters and experiences to (and with) their readers.

Many readers will recognize these tropes automatically because they are based on common conventions you see in all kinds of media, from television shows and movies to books and games.

Let’s think a little bit more about The Alcoholic trope. Without necessarily identifying a character from A Tale of Two Cities, what do you expect a character who fits into The Alcoholic trope to be like?

You probably thought of something along the lines of “always drunk” or “carries a flask with him/her everywhere,” or maybe you imagined other characters complaining about that character, how they are unreliable, or always seem lazy or tired, or perhaps they seem unclean, smelly, dirty, or just that they don’t take care of themselves.

These characteristics are somewhat stereotypical, but there’s a grain of truth in every stereotype, and in the case of tropes, there’s a reason why they “catch on” and get reused, over and over again through the ages, in all different kinds of media.

How are Tropes Used?

Tropes can be used in a story many different ways. Here are the methods most likely to be seen in classical literature like A Tale of Two Cities:

  • Played straight. That is, the trope is used. It’s “exactly what it says on the tin.” The Alcoholic is an Alcoholic, acting exactly the way you’d expect an alcoholic to act.
  • Justified. There’s a good reason in-universe for the trope to occur. Perhaps The Alcoholic drinks so much because he had a traumatic past, and drinks to forget. He started young and is now addicted, and he can’t stop.
  • Inverted. The trope or its elements are reversed and then used. There’s not a real good example here for The Alcoholic, but consider the butler character in many murder mysteries. If it turned out the butler wasn’t the murderer, but the victim or the crime solver instead, that’s an inversion of The Butler Did It trope.
  • Subverted. You think a trope is going to occur, but then the author surprises you by having it not occur. Using The Butler Did It trope again, imagine if everyone thinks the butler did it at first, but then the audience discovers he’s innocent!

Tropes in A Tale of Two Cities

Many of these tropes refer to characters. Some of them refer to places or events in the story, though, which means there are possible spoilers ahead.

  • The Alcoholic
  • The Anti-Hero
  • Aristocrats are Evil
  • Asshole Victim
  • Athens and Sparta
  • Ax-Crazy
  • Babies Ever After
  • Bang Bang BANG
  • Beauty Equals Goodness
  • Best Served Cold
  • Big Bad Slippage
  • Big Fancy House
  • Bilingual Dialogue
  • Bittersweet Ending
  • Blue Blood
  • Brilliant, but Lazy
  • Bullet Holes and Revelations
  • Butt-Monkey
  • Buy Them Off
  • Casanova Wannabe
  • Chekhov’s Gun
  • Companion Cube
  • Contrived Coincidence
  • Cool Old Guy
  • The Cynic
  • Dark Action Girl
  • Dark and Troubled Past
  • Darker and Edgier
  • Dead Guy Junior
  • Deadpan Snarker
  • Death by Irony
  • Designated Girl Fight
  • The Determinator
  • Disproportionate Restitution
  • Disproportionate Retribution (note the difference in the last word!)
  • Droit du Seigneur
  • Domestic Abuse
  • Dying Alone
  • Entitled to Have You
  • Even Evil Has Standards
  • Everyone Calls Him “Barkeep”
  • Face Death with Dignity
  • Faking the Dead
  • Famous Last Words
  • Final Speech
  • Grave Robbing
  • Gun Struggle
  • The Hecate Sisters
  • Heroic B.S.O.D. (Blue Screen of Death)
  • Heroic Sacrifice
  • He Who Fights Monsters
  • Hoist by His Own Petard
  • Honor Before Reason
  • I Am Spartacus
  • Identical Grandson
  • Identical Stranger
  • I Have This Friend…
  • Improbable Hairstyle
  • Incorruptible Pure Pureness
  • The Ingenue
  • I Want My Beloved to be Happy
  • Kangaroo Court
  • Kick the Dog
  • Knight in Shining Armor
  • Knight Templar
  • Laser-Guided Karma
  • Living Emotional Crutch
  • Mama Bear
  • Meaningful Name
  • Missing Mom
  • More Expendable Than You
  • Names to Run Away From Really Fast
  • Nay-Theist
  • Ninja Maid
  • Noble Fugitive
  • Noble Male, Roguish Male
  • Off with His Head!
  • Orphan’s Ordeal
  • Pinball Protagonist
  • Politically Correct History
  • The Power of Love
  • Psycho Supporter
  • Rebel Relaxation
  • Reign of Terror
  • Revenge by Proxy
  • The Revolution Will Not Be Civilized
  • Roaring Rampage of Revenge
  • Sins of Our Fathers
  • Stay With Me Until I Die
  • A Storm is Coming
  • Survivor’s Guilt
  • Suspiciously Specific Denial
  • Tender Tears
  • Textile Work is Feminine
  • Token Evil Teammate
  • Too Dumb to Live
  • Translation Convention
  • Twin Switch
  • Underside Ride
  • What Beautiful Eyes!
  • Woobie, Destroyer of Worlds
  • Would Hurt a Child
  • Your Princess is in Another Castle

Charles Dickens’ Tropes

Charles Dickens himself was fond of using several tropes throughout his works:

  • Author Tract
  • Contrived Coincidence (mentioned earlier; it’s used in many of Dickens’ stories!)
  • Earn Your Happy Ending
  • Lemony Narrator
  • Loves Secrecy
  • Padding
  • Signature Line (he is perhaps most famous for the opening and closing lines from A Tale of Two Cities)
  • Sliding Scale of Idealism vs. Cynicism

Your Mileage May Vary

The acronym “YMMV” stands for “Your Mileage May Vary,” and deals with events in a story that can be interpreted differently depending on who is doing the reading (or watching). In other words, you may feel differently about these interpretations than the original poster does:

A Tale of Two Cities YMMV (spoilers through the end of the book are present, but you won’t see them unless you highlight over the text)

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