In A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens uses shifting points of view, personification, and descriptions of characters’ physical appearances in order to establish a dark setting in the first book, “Recalled to Life”.
Dickens uses the 3rd person omniscient point of view-that is, told from the characters’ perspectives, but in the 3rd person, and sometimes delving into their thoughts, sometimes not. This POV is significant, as instead of seeing the setting as objectively described by the author, one instead sees the setting’s effect on the character, something substantially more revealing. Chapter 4, about Mr. Lorry’s sojourn in the Royal George Hotel, arrives through Mr. Lorry’s point of view. Probably the most striking feature of the chapter is the description of Lucy’s room as very dark funereal and heavy. (A very common idea throughout the books it that setting almost becomes the characters, or more accurately, that features of setting weigh on the characters. Thus, the prominence of mist and darkness, which serve as another barrier between characters and their surroundings.) Mr. Lorry first notes the two tall candles reflecting on the oil table, “as if they were buried in deep graves of black mahogany, and no light to speak of could be expected from them until they were dug out” (24). As Mr. Lorry has just been preoccupied with the idea of digging out Doctor Manette or the person buried alive for 18 years, his thoughts project themselves subconsciously into his perceptions of other objects. Mr. Lorry also speaks of what “could be expected from them”, perhaps hinting that the candles in his mind represent Dr. Manette, and just as it would be unreasonable to “expect anything” productive from Dr. Manette, so too from the candles. By comparing Dr. Manette to a candle, Mr. Lorry highlights that his time is dwindling (just as a candle burns down), though on a more positive note, he is still alive (burning) like a candle. Thus, setting repeatedly finds its way into character’s thoughts, as made possible only through revealing the story from the characters’ points of view. (Other examples include the coach ride and when Mr. Lorry reminisces about the time when Lucy was a baby, “one cold time, when the hail drifted heavily and the sea ran high”, and the significance of the picture in her room.)
Dickens consistently personifies attributes (Death, Fate, the Vengeance, etc.) throughout the novel, thus attempting to bestow on his ideas a more universal significance; Dickens personifies Saint Antoine and Hunger in order to establish setting in chapter 5. (He also foreshadows in this chapter a lot-Gaspard writing “blood”, the symbolism of wine, etc.) Again, Dickens uses the words “darkness” and “heavy” to describe the cloud on Saint Antoine, “ploughed into every furrow of age and coming up afresh, was the sign, Hunger”. It is ironic that Dickens describes Hunger as possessing great vitality, probably the only thing in Saint Antoine with enough energy to do anything like farming. The idea of Hunger being a farmer, too, is amusing, as one associates farming with finding food. Hunger is described as well in the passive voice: “Hunger was pushed…Hunger was painted…Hunger was repeated”, etc. Furthermore, Hunger penetrates even to the food itself, another irony. Dickens already indulges in such irony previously, when he suggests that the horse, a brute animal, is endowed with more reason than the “article of war” made by the French government. Even earlier, the irony is presented that to predict Fate accurately would be atheistical and traitorous. Thus, Dickens compares his characters to personified character traits, both as an effective way of describing setting and to establish the idea of parallels/contradictions.
Finally, Dickens describes the occupations and daily manner of living of his characters through describing their clothing. The idea of clothing attains added significance when one bears in mind the idea already made explicit that we are mysteries to one another; clothing is the outer layer that others see. The idea of appearances creates an aspect of setting in the Royal George, for “although but one kind of man was seen to go into it, all kinds and varieties of men came out of it”. Thus, the Royal George Hotel is a place where something of a person’s character, formerly hidden to the world, is unwrapped. On to the details of Mr. Lorry’s daily manner of living: he wears a worn brown suit, which probably reflects his dullness (despite his eyes’ brightness, the rest of his character seems dull), and his devotion to the sole Purpose (capital P, per Dickens’s style) of Business. Though he thus tries to present this uniformity of purpose to the world, he nevertheless feels emotion; his struggle between the two eventually ends with emotion winning over, as his business in Paris will revolve less around Tellson’s bank and more around the Darnays. Another point about the novel is that people almost ‘wear” expressions like clothes, such as the unique Dr Manette and Lucy forehead “knitting”; in this case, Mr. Lorry wears a carefree expression, despite the seriousness of the business of Lucy, to again convey his struggle of emotion. (Dickens’ metaphor/analogy, that “just as there are second-hand clothes, there are second-hand worries” corroborates the idea that clothing is significant and represents more than mere clothes.)
Thus, Dickens reveals important insights through setting, personification and external appearances in Book I of A Tale of Two Cities.