Madame Defarge or Thérèse Defarge is the relentless villain in Charles Dickens’ 1859 novel, A Tale of Two Cities. Her villainy is not without reason, and in a way, she metaphorically represents the revolutionary spirit that swept through France during the 18th century French Revolution, which first demanded equal rights for all citizens, and then in mob fashion stripped those very rights from many innocents. Dickens creates a powerful, memorable, and chilling character in his depiction of her, much motivated by his concern that England was, in his time, on the brink of a revolution if greater social justice was not pursued for all its inhabitants.
Dickens loved to reveal mysteries as his books progressed, and the reason behind Madame Defarge’s dispassionate demand for violence, and particularly for the deaths of the main female character, Lucy Manette Darnay, her husband Charles, and their child is not explained until nearly the end of the novel. Since the book is so well known, it will hopefully not be considered a spoiler to explain this reason. Long before Madam Defarge married her husband, her sister and brother were victims to terrible abuse and cruelty by the Evremonde brothers, one of whom was Charles Darnay’s father. As a result, she is determined to see the Evremonde line, down to the Darnays’ young daughter, killed.
As the novel progresses, Defarge moves from a relatively passive position — we first see her knitting in the wine shop she owns with her husband — to a much more active place. It is this devious needlework that often gives people the chills when they first meet her character. The reader later finds that Madame is knitting the names of all those who will be guillotined or charged with crimes in the coming Revolution.
The experiences of Thérèse as a young girl warp and twist her reason. She is childless, a figure without compassion, but with considerable energy in the exacting of her revenge. She is the mob, in essence, since she does not consider or stop to think that her own actions may be unjust. Despite Charles Darnay’s rejection of his family inheritance and in spite of him denouncing the acts of the Evremondes and leaving England, he is guilty by relationship and association. Lucy, a complete innocent, and daughter of the much respect Dr. Manette, is equally at fault for having married an Evremonde. Hints at the end of the novel suggest that Madame Defarge will accuse Dr. Manette, the only one who assisted Thérèse’s sister and brother and paid for it by years in prison, of conspiracy.
In the end, the villain is defeated by the thing she lacks most: the love of others. Miss Pross, Lucy’s companion and servant, physically defends herself, and in this battle, Defarge’s own gun is discharged, killing her instantly. This moment in the novel underscores one of Dickens main points, that love, compassion, and true justice can best vengeance.
It is not that Dickens remains unsympathetic to the real evils done to characters like Madame Defarge and her family. In fact, he contends through her character that these evils can exact an extraordinarily high price by stripping people of their humanity, making them far less likely to seek justice for all in any manner except a violent one. In the end, Dickens’ character has become as evil as her oppressors, and it is this mob mentality that provides a strong argument for providing all citizens of England with equal rights and decent living circumstances. Thérèse Defarge is not just the symbol of the mob and revolution, but also a distinct warning from Dickens.