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Madame Defarge in Tale of Two Cities: Character Analysis, Knitting Code & Revenge

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Debbie Notari

Every good story needs an antagonist, and Madame Defarge fits this category well in Dickens' classic novel about the French Revolution, 'A Tale of Two Cities.' In this lesson, we will examine the character and motivations of this vengeful woman.

We also recommend watching A Tale of Two Cities: Dickens' Novel of the French Revolution and The Knight's Tale and the Wife of Bath's Tale: Two Approaches to Chivalric Romance

Who is Madame Defarge?

In order to understand this character's motivations, it helps to take a glance at her background. We know that the setting of A Tale of Two Cities is during the time of the French Revolution and that much of the novel is set in France. Dickens describes Madame Defarge as 'a stout woman . . . with a watchful eye that seldom seemed to look at anything, a large hand heavily ringed, a steady face, strong features, (with) great composure of manner.' Madame Defarge becomes bitter toward the aristocratic Evremonde brothers because they raped her sister (causing her to die) and killed her brother many years before. She is bent on revenge, not only toward the Evremonde brothers but also toward all French aristocracy.

Evil Intent

Madame Defarge is not content to see the death of just the two Evremonde brothers who so wrongly misused her family. When she learns that Charles Darnay (the nephew of the Marquis Evremonde) is alive, and that he has a wife and child, Madame Defarge wishes to see them all go to the guillotine. Even though Darnay has denounced his uncle for his evil ways and even changed his name, it matters little. Darnay is married to Lucie Manette, and by marriage, she, too, is deemed guilty. Madame Defarge's husband owns a wine shop, and it is there that she meets with other nefarious characters, scheming to see the Evremonde family wiped off of the map.

The Significance of Knitting

Although Madame Defarge looks fairly harmless, sitting there knitting in the wine shop, she is anything but. Her very knitting is symbolic in that she actually stitches the names of intended victims into her patterns. As she knits, she reminds herself of every aristocrat she wishes would die. Then she schemes with others like herself.

Her knitting also reminds us of the Greek Fates. In Greek mythology, three old women, the Fates would spin, measure, and then cut thread, which symbolized the creating and ending of a person's lifespan. In this case, the 'fate' of many aristocrats, and even those related to them, were literally and symbolically thread in Madame Defarge's hands, much like the Greek's 'fates' were in the Fates' hands.

A Symbol of Victimization

Even though she is the antagonist in the novel, Madame Defarge is also a portrayal of a victim. She loses her family members to the cruel disregard of human life that the Evremonde brothers display. She is an example of many French peasants who were exploited by the aristocracy before the French Revolution, and Dickens wants us to see why she acts as she does.

Her Downfall

At the end of the novel, we see Madame Defarge pursuing Lucie Manette with a gun and a knife hidden under her cloak. Dickens here states that because she was 'imbued from her childhood with a brooding sense of wrong, and an inveterate hatred of a class, opportunity had developed her into a tigress. She was absolutely without pity. If she had ever had the virtue in her, it had quite gone out of her.'

When Miss Pross, Lucie's servant, confronts Madame Defarge, she says, 'You might, from your appearance, be the wife of Lucifer . . . Nevertheless, you shall not get the better of me. I am an Englishwoman.' There is almost a moment of humor, here, and we want to say, 'You go, girl!' Miss Pross fights with Madame Defarge, who dies as the two struggle for her gun.

Lesson Summary

We pity Madame Defarge for the abuse her family endured at the hands of the Evremonde brothers, but with the lack of forgiveness, only bitterness can grow. Because Madame Defarge allowed this bitterness and hate toward the Evremonde family to thrive, many people suffered. Her own lust for revenge blinded her to the damage, horror, and loss she caused other families. In the end, the seed planted by the Evremondes grew into a tree of death for many people.

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