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She is arguably the main villain of the novel, obsessed with revenge against the Evrémondes. She ruthlessly seeks revenge against the Evrémondes, including Charles Darnay, his wife Lucie Manette and their child, for crimes a prior generation of the Evrémonde family had committed. These crimes include the deaths of her sister, brother, and father. She refuses to accept the reality that Charles Darnay's father changed his ways by intending to renounce his title to the lands to give them to the peasants who worked on them, and his son Charles renounces his title to the lands, however Charles' arrogant and snobbish uncle becomes the Marquis St. Evrémonde, and his arrogance and cause of the death of an innocent child makes him hated, and helps legitimate Defarge's rage.
Defarge symbolizes several themes. She represents one aspect of the Fates. The Moirai (the Fates as represented in Greek mythology) used yarn to measure out the life of a man, and cut it to end it; Defarge knits, and her knitting secretly encodes the names of people to be killed. Defarge also symbolizes the nature of the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution in which radical Jacobins engaged in mass political persecution of all real or supposed enemies of the Revolution who were executed on grounds of sedition to the new republic through the guillotine, particularly targeting people with aristocratic heritage.
In the 1980 TV movie A Tale of Two Cities, Madame Defarge is played by Billie Whitelaw.
In the 1981 Mel Brooks film, History of the World, Part I, Madame Defarge (played by Cloris Leachman) is the chief conspirator in the plot to overthrow King Louis XVI. She has become so poor, she has run out of wool, simply rubbing her knitting needles together.
In the 1989 Masterpiece Theater two-part miniseries "A Tale of Two Cities", Madame Defarge is played by Kathy Kriegel.
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