Charles Dickens wrote many of his works for publication, in parts, in periodicals. In fact, he initially published A Tale of Two Cities in his own literary periodical All the Year Round. The first installment was initially published on April 30, 1859 and the last one on November 26, 1859. Knowing that the story was published in installments helps explain some of the story’s structure. The novel went on to become one of the world’s best-selling fiction novels and has become a staple in high-school and college-level literature courses.
Many believe that A Tale of Two Cities was inspired by Dickens’ romantic life. In addition to being a writer, Dickens was also an actor, and he had recently starred in a Wilkie Collins’ play The Frozen Deep, which featured a love triangle and the self-sacrifice of a character because of his love for a woman. Elements of the plot made their way into the novel, which features self-sacrifice. In addition, when it was written, Dickens had begun an affair with Ellen Ternan, an 18-year old actress with a physical resemblance to the novel’s character Lucie Manette. Some people suggest that Dickens saw himself as a mixture of the novel’s look-alike protagonists, Darnay and Carton.
The opening line of A Tale of Two Cities may be one of the most recognized lines in all of English literature. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” This dichotomy helps establish the framework for the novel, which examines life in England and France in 1775. year is 1775, and social ills plague both France and England. The novel begins with news of Alexandre Manette’s release from the Bastille after an 18-year imprisonment. Manette is lodging with the Defarges, the owners of a wine shop. The book then quickly moves to 1780, when Charles Darnay is accused of treason. One of Darnay’s defenders in court is a drunken lawyer, Sydney Carton, who happens to look like Darnay. Lucie watches in court and the triangle of Carton, Darnay, and Lucie is established.
Meanwhile, in France, the Marquis St. Evremonde runs down a child in the streets with his carriage. He shows no remorse. Evremonde is Darnay’s uncle and Darnay arrives that evening, only to be disgusted by his uncle’s treatment of the common people in France. Darnay renounces his family name and plans to return to England. That night, the Marquis is murdered and the murderer leaves a card signed by Jacque, a nickname for the French Revolutionaries.
Although portrayed as a lazy alcoholic in the beginning of the novel, Carton is arguably the protagonist of the novel. He talks about having no feelings for anyone or anything, but he falls in love with Lucie. He loves her despite the fact that he does not envision himself with her, and, while jealous of Darnay, he does not really present himself to Lucie as a rival for Darnay’s affections. Throughout the novel, he continues to become a better person. His initial successful defense of Darnay, built on the coincidence that the two men physically resemble one another, foreshadows his intentional impersonation of Darnay later in the novel.
The selfless nature of Carton’s love for Lucie is revealed at the conclusion of the novel, when he schemes to day in place of Darnay. This self-sacrifice is seen as a redemptive action that helps complete Carton’s transformation from a worthless person who values nothing to the novel’s most worthwhile character. Carton’s action is seen as Christ-like by many critics, who point out that the Christian theme of redemption plays a major role in the novel.
The primary antagonist of the novel, Madame Defarge is meant as a personification of the French Revolution. She is described as bloodthirsty and vengeful, with a desire to see Lucie punished. While she is the novel’s main antagonist, she is not a villain. Her desire for revenge is motivated by her sister’s rape and murder by the Evrémondes. She sees Darnay and Lucie as responsible because of their family relationships to the killers. While Dickens stops short of ever making Madame Defarge’s actions seem acceptable, he does not make them understandable. However, she dies by her own gun at the end, which symbolizes the idea that revenge and hatred are, ultimately, very self-destructive.
In many ways, Manette’s life is a mystery. That he was even alive was a mystery to all who knew him, including Lucie, the daughter who presumed he was dead. The reason for his imprisonment is also a mystery, which, once revealed, proves pivotal to acts that occur near the conclusion of the novel. At the beginning of the novel, Manette appears to be a broken man who finds solace in the shoemaking that he learned while in prison. He is transformed into a leader, and, once the story of how he came to be imprisoned is well-known, it is clear that he was a man of principle before he was imprisoned, as well.
Many believe that Darnay is the protagonist/hero of A Tale of Two Cities, but his character is very underdeveloped for a major character. He rejects his role in the French aristocracy because he has a problem with the general treatment of social classes in pre-Revolutionary France. He also has the courage to go to France to try to free Gabelle, despite knowing that it will mean risking his life. However, he is otherwise a largely undeveloped character. In fact, the readers get the most sense of his character when looking at Sydney Carton, who looks like him, but is described as his opposite in many ways................
There are enough recurring ideas in A Tale of Two Cities that exploring all of its major and minor themes is a substantial undertaking. We are going to cover the main themes, but the reader should be aware that there are more.
From the very beginning of the novel, when Dickens is contrasting the differences between Paris and London, the reader becomes aware that the novel will be focused on doubles, particularly the idea of doppelgangers. The two cities are established as doubles, but the biggest double pair consists of Charles Darnay and Sydney Carton, who look alike but are otherwise a contrast. During the course of the novel other contrasting pairs emerge, such as Lucie and Madame Defarge.
Throughout the novel, characters are reborn in some way. Manette’s release from jail is the first example of a type of resurrection or rebirth, but it is echoed in both subtle and overt ways throughout the novel. From Jerry Cruncher’s job as a resurrection-man that pulls bodies out of the ground to Roger Cly’s rebirth after a fake death, the reader sees a number of fresh starts in the novel. Darnay experiences several rebirths. First, he escapes execution in England, then he renounces his family name in France, then he is acquitted at trial in France, and, finally, he is saved from execution when Carton switches places with him. Of course, the major rebirth in the novel comes with Carton’s transformation from a wretched man to the novel’s hero, a journey that is symbolic of Christ’s own role as a martyr who died for others.
The French Revolution was a class-based revolution and targeted the French aristocracy and their wealth and power in a way that the similar American Revolution did not. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that the aristocracy is often portrayed as heartless and cruel throughout the novel. Despite that, Dickens seems to reveal some of his own middle class bias, because he reveals cruelty and oppression among the peasants leading the Revolution that highlight their similarities to the aristocrats that they have overthrown. Class-based conflict appears repeatedly in the novel, whether in murder plots or in humorous outtakes about Jerry Cruncher and his family......
A Tale of Two Cities is divided into three books, which are each divided into chapters. A very lengthy work, we will summarize it in sections. However, the novel was presented in chapters, and, at the conclusion of each chapter Dickens tried to include a cliffhanger as a way of getting the readers to purchase the next installment in the series.
The novel begins in 1775. It is set in both London and Paris. Both countries are on the verge of anti-monarch revolutions. However, while London will have to deal with Americans revolting in the colonies, the people in Paris will have to directly deal with revolutionary activities. In response to the threat of revolution, both the French and the English governments are getting more totalitarian, while the people are engaging in more acts of criminal disobedience, including highway robbery.
Jarvis Lorry, a clerk at Tellson’s Bank in London, is headed to Dover in a mail coach. Because of the increase in robberies, Lorry and the other passengers are wary of each other. A rider comes galloping towards them on a horse, scaring all of them. It is Jerry Cruncher, who works for Tellson’s Bank, and gives Lorry a message that Lorry is to wait at Dover for a young woman. Lorry responds with “recalled to life” a cryptic phrase that is only explained later. Crunches heads to the bar to drink and reflect on the cryptic message. Lorry falls asleep in the coach, dreaming about a man who has been buried for 18 years.
When Lorry arrives in Dover, and he meets Lucie Manette after breakfast. Lorry has served as a type of guardian for Lucie, in his role as a clerk at Tellson’s Bank, which manages her money. She has been told to meet up with Lorry to travel to France and that Lorry had news for her. Lorry tells her that her father is not actually dead, but has been imprisoned for years and has finally been released. They will travel to Paris to get him. Lucie worries about the condition her father will be in and is overcome by the situation and her servant and childhood nurse, Miss Pross, revives her with smelling salts.
The time setting is critical to A Tale of Two Cities, but is also one of the most difficult things for modern readers to master. The abuses of the aristocracy in France were very well-known in England, but the French Revolutionaries used an extraordinary violence that was frightening and chaotic for the aristocracy and commoners, alike. Dickens used an indirect approach to help readers of his time depersonalize events that were relatively close in time to when he was originally published, but that same indirect approach mutes how horrific the events would have been both before and after the French Revolution.
There is another time gap in the book, this time a year. Darnay is working in England as a French tutor. He has been in love with Lucie since they met, and decides to ask to marry her. Dr. Manette is hesitant, which is interesting, since Manette has known and been a friend of Darnay this entire time. Darnay senses Manette’s unease and thinks that it is due to the fact that Darnay is not being completely honest. Darnay tells Manette that he is using an assumed name and begins to reveal his true identity. However, Manette stops him and tells him to wait until the morning of the wedding to reveal those secrets. Something has clearly upset Manette; when Lucie gets home, she finds him engaged in shoemaking.
Stryver and Carton are drinking together when Stryver announces that he plans to marry Lucie. Carton does not voice any objections, but does drink more than usual. Stryver tells Carton he needs to find a woman of means and marry her. Stryver stops by Tellson’s to tell Lorry of his plans to marry Lucie. Lorry is not enthusiastic, which surprises Stryver because he considers himself a catch. Lorry tries to handle it with diplomacy and suggests that he should go to the Manettes and see how they feel about Stryver proposing. Later that night, Lorry goes to Stryver’s to let him know that a proposal would be unwelcome. Stryver first pretends not to know what Lorry is discussing and then tries to suggest that Lucie has been disgraced and is no longer marriageable. It is important to consider this allegation because, at that time, it would have damaged Lucie’s social reputation in a way that could not be fixed. It was an extreme and shocking insult, which is evidenced by Lorry not even knowing how to respond to it.
Carton has a habit of hanging out near Lucie’s house. He decides to visit her and speak with her one day. He does not present himself as a suitor, but does make his feelings for her known. He also makes it known that he credits her with inspiring him to try to be a good man, again. He tells her that if she or anyone she loves every needs anything, he is there for her.
In addition to romance, this part of the novel introduces the reader to intrigue. Jerry Cruncher joins a funeral mob following the procession for Robert Cly, who was a spy. He goes out that night to rob Cly’s grave, but discovers that there is no body in the coffin. The mob scene is important because of the role that mob violence will play in France. It shows that England is also prone to similar group violence, but also that England does not get to the same dangerous point as France.
This book opens in Defarge’s wine shop in Paris, where people are drinking despite it being early in the day and Defarge being absent. Defarge comes into the wine shop with a man named Jacques, whom he introduces to the other revolutionaries. This Jacque discusses seeing the man handing from the Marquis’s carriage. He says he would recognize the man because of his height. He later saw the man had been captured. He gives a physical description of the man and says that he is charged with murdering the Marquis. This extra Jacque leaves and Defarge and the other revolutionaries discuss what to do. They decide that this man’s name will go in their register, which Madame Defarge knits using a code.
The police are looking for an English spy, John Barsad, and they give Defarge his description. After they leave, Defarge looks exhausted, but Madame encourages him and reminds him that they must be prepared for the Revolution.
Barsad enters the wine shop the next day. Madame Defarge recognizes him. She picks up a rose and puts it in her hair, which is the signal for others to leave the stop. They engage in some conversation, with Barsad baiting Madame to see if he can get her to complain about being poor or about Gaspard’s execution. The spy tells the that he knows Darnay, that Darnay and Lucie have married, and Darnay’s true identity.
Lucie and Darnay are married. The only guests are Lorry and Miss Pross. Lucie and Darnay are going to live with Dr. Manette, so that Lucie can be sure he stays healthy. The wedding is a happy affair, though Miss Pross thinks that Lucie should have married Miss Pross’s missing brother, Solomon. Lorry flirts with Miss Pross, regretting that he chose to remain a bachelor. Darnay reveals his true identity to Manette, who is rattled by it, but makes it through the wedding. When Lucie leaves for her honeymoon, Manette returns to his shoemaking. It concerns Lorry and Miss Pross, who are watching him, but they do not send for Lucie.
Manette returns to normal. Miss Pross and Lorry decide that they are not going to do anything about his episode, but Lorry decides to get Manette’s opinion about it by presenting it to the doctor as a hypothetical. Manette suggests that someone remove the shoemaking equipment without the patient’s knowledge. Miss Pross and Lorry destroy and burn the shoemaking equipment.
The Darnays are greeted by Carton when they return from their honeymoon. Carton speaks with Darnay and asks for Darnay’s forgiveness because Carton used to not like him. Darnay is appreciative that Carton saved his life and tells Carton he is always welcome in their home. Darnay mentions the conversation at dinner and speaks of Carton in a way that is less than friendly. Lucie asks him to speak with Carton with more compassion.
Time passes in the Darnay household. Lucie and Darnay have a baby boy who dies, and then a daughter, Lucie, who lives. They remain friends with Carton, who becomes a treasured family friend. Stryver marries a wealthy widow and becomes a stepfather to three boys. Events in Paris are growing tenser, with many people sending their money to London. Even though they are removed from the danger, it is impacting Lorry, who even irrationally worries about little Lucie.
In France, the Revolution officially begins. The Revolutionaries, led by Defarge, descend on the Bastille. Defarge inspects Manette’s old cell and removes a document before the revolutionaries destroy the legendary prison. Madame Defarge leads the women in the charge. The mob beats the governor to death, and Madame Defarge beheads and mutilates the body. A week later, the violence resurges. The mob has found an aristocrat named Foulon, who once told starving peasants to eat grass. They tie a bundle of grass to Foulon and hang him, then kill his son-in-law. Later, they burn down the Marquis’ chateau, then go after Gabelle because he was a tax collector. Gabelle escapes, but this foreshadows that he will eventually be in danger.
The revolution continues, with much of the aristocracy being killed and the monarchy destroyed. Tellson’s Bank has become a spot for information about France, since French people come to retrieve their money from the bank when they get to England. Lorry is set to travel to France, but Darnay tries to convince him not to go. He is worried about Lorry’s safety, but equally upset when he hears upper class people discussing retribution against the peasants once the revolution is concluded. Darnay overhears that a letter has been sent to Tellson’s addressed to the Marquis St. Evremonde, which is his real identity. None of the French noblemen know his real identity, but they discuss him, saying that they know he supported the revolution and gave his land to the peasants. Darnay says that he knows the man and gets his hands on the letter. It is a plea from Gabelle, who has been imprisoned, and is asking for Darnay’s help. Darnay tells Lorry that the Marquis will come and is leaving for Paris immediately. Darnay writes letters to the doctor and to Lucie letting them know that he is departing and heads to France.
Darnay has a difficult trip to Paris, which culminates in him being forced to pay for an escort into the city. The escort is Defarge. Darnay is greeted with hostility and finds out that a law has been passed that allows for the death penalty for emigrants who return to France. Darnay is put in prison in La Force. Defarge reveals that he knows Darnay’s identity and that he is married to Lucie, but refuses to help.
In Paris, Lorry is alarmed by the violence and expresses his gratitude that no one he loves is in Paris when Lucie and Manette rush in and tell him that Darnay is in Paris and is in prison. Manette is not a target by the revolutionaries because he was once a prisoner in the Bastille. They hear the sound of the grindstone sharpening weapons and realize that they are murdering prisoners. Manette uses his position as a former Bastille prisoner to encourage the crowd to save Darnay for him and they carry him on their backs to La Force.
Lorry is concerned about Tellson’s Bank’s reputation and determines to find Lucie and her family a different place to stay. He is already suspicious of Defarge. He finds an apartment for Lucie, Manette, little Lucie, and Miss Pross. He leaves Cruncher to guard it. When Lorry returns to the bank, Defarge is there with a message from Manette. It says that he and Darnay are safe, but cannot yet leave the prison. He carries a similar message to Lucie, who kisses Madame Defarge’s hands in gratitude. Madame Defarge asks to see the whole family under the pretense of wanting to be able to recognize them and protect them from violence in the street. Lucie begs for her help with Darnay, but Madame Defarge says that a single person’s suffering is nothing to the hardships she has seen many endure.
Over the next four days, over 1000 prisoners are killed. He is almost able to get Darnay released, but he is returned to his cell at the last minute. Manette got permission to stay with him, to keep him from being murdered. Manette tends to the wounds of a prisoner who was injured and he helps revolutionaries as well. Even once he goes home, Manette travels back and forth to the jail and is able to ensure that Darnay is healthy, as well as passing messages from Darnay to Lucie. Darnay is kept in jail for a year and three months.
At home, Lucie tries to remain hopeful about Darnay’s future, and continues a family routine as if he is at home. Once she hears that Darnay may be able to see her is she walks on a certain section of sidewalk, she goes and walks there for two hours each day. A nearby wood-sawyer, who was Jacques Four in the revolution, mocks her for knowing a prisoner and pantomimes guillotining the whole family. One day she is descended upon by a mob that includes the wood-sawyer and the Vengeance. While she is terrified, Manette reassures her that she is safe. Madame Defarge salutes her as they pass.
Darnay finally has his day in court. The Defarges are in the front row of the court room. He is charged with being an emigrant and the crowd does not care that he renounced his title and lands. However, when they hear that Manette is his father-in-law, they support him. Gabelle and Manette testify on Darnay’s behalf, and Darnay is acquitted. Darnay is almost immediately rearrested. He has been denounced by the Defarges and an additional person.
Unaware that Darnay has been rearrested, Miss Pross and Jerry Cruncher continue shopping, even entering the Defarges’ wine shop. There Miss Pross screams because she recognizes her brother Solomon Pross, who is dressed as an officer of the French Republic. Jerry Cruncher also recognizes Pross as the English spy John Barsad. Carton is also in the wine shop. Carton brings Pross/Barsad to Tellson’s to speak with Lorry. They try to get him to help free Darnay, and Carton says he knows that Barsad was speaking with Cly. Barsad says that Cly is dead, but Cruncher is able to say that Cly’s coffin was empty. Barsad agrees to help Carton.
Lorry asks Cruncher how he knows that Cly’s coffin was empty and Cruncher hints at his profession. Lorry has been given permission to leave Paris. Carton talks to Lorry about his life and the fact that he would have people to mourn his death. Carton goes to look at La Force. He talks to the wood-sawyer, who speaks with glee about people being guillotined. Carton heads to the chemist’s shop and orders some drugs. In the morning, he attends the trial. This jury is bloodthirsty and is not swayed by Darnay’s relationship with Manette. Instead, the tribunal says that Manette is one of the three who have denounced him. Defarge produces the letter that he took from Manette's old cell in the Bastille.
The letter, which Manette wrote while imprisoned and then hid in the chimney of his cell, discusses why he was imprisoned. As a young doctor, two men who looked like twins forced him into their carriage and took him into a house where a woman, tied to a bed, is raving with a fever. She is talking about her husband, father, and brother. Another man is in the house, and Manette realizes that it is her brother and he is dying of a knife wound. The nobleman tried to have sex with the woman, but she refused them. So, they tied her husband to a cart like a horse and drove him to the brink of death. He then died in his wife’s arms. The boy managed to get his other sister to safety, then attacked the noblemen, who gave him the fatal stab wound. Manette realizes that the woman is pregnant and pieces together that they sexually assaulted her. He tries to treat the woman and the boy, but they both die. The noblemen are not concerned with the deaths. Manette returns to his home, knowing he will not be able to get justice for the deaths. He learns the identity of one of the attackers when the man’s wife, the Marquess St. Evremonde, comes to visit. She wants to do right by the surviving sister, but Manette does not know where to find her. The Marquess leaves with her son, Darnay, in tow. That night, Manette is arrested because of the brothers using their influence. He denounces the Evremonde family. The jury convicts Darnay based on this denunciation and sentences him to death.
Lucie and Manette go to say goodbye to Darnay. Manette attempts to apologize, but Darnay apologizes to him for what his family did to him. Lucie faints when Darnay is taken away and Carton gets her into a carriage to send her to safety. He kisses her and tells her “a life you love,” which goes back to his earlier promise to do anything for her or a loved one. Manette attempts to use his influence to save Darnay, but is not successful a second time.
Carton goes for some wine at the Defarges’ shop, where he speaks in a poor accent and eavesdrops on the conversation. Madame Defarge is talking about her desire to exterminate the Darnay family, but Defarge is less radical. Eavesdropping, Carton discovers that Madame Defarge is the sister of the family killed by the Evrémondes. Carton joins up with Lorry and Manette, who is so distraught that he is asking for his shoemaking tools. Carton asks for Lorry’s trust and gives him explicit instructions to follow. He tells them that Madame Defarge intends to denounce the whole family with testimony by the wood-sawyer, who will say that they were sending signals to prisoners. He says the family must be ready to leave by 2pm the next day, and must leave as soon as they see Carton get into the carriage.
The next day, Darnay prepares for death. He writes letters to Lucie, Manette, and Lorry. Barsad lets Carton into prison. Carton convinces Darnay to swap clothes with him, then drugs him. Barsad comes into the cell and drags Darnay, now dressed as Carton, to safety. The other prisoners to be executed believe that he is Darnay, except for one woman, who recognizes that he is not but does not reveal him.
The coach carrying Lucie, Darnay, and their family gets out of Paris just in time. They are stopped as they leave and fear that they are caught, but it is just a man asking how many people were guillotined that day. Meanwhile, the Vengeance, Madam Defarge, and Jacque Three are having a secret meeting to plan how to set up Lucie and the rest of the family. They have left out Defarge because he has pity on Manette, while Madam Defarge wants to see the entire family, including little Lucie, killed. Madam Defarge decides to pay a surprise visit to Lucie, who will undoubtedly be upset about the upcoming execution of her husband and say things against the Republic, which will bolster Madame Defarge’s efforts to denounce her.
Of course, Lucie is not at the apartment. Miss Pross and Cruncher are there to pack up before heading home that afternoon. Cruncher leaves to get the horses ready, leaving Miss Pross alone in the apartment. When Madame Defarge arrives, she and Miss Pross scuffle. Madame Defarge’s gun accidentally fires, killing Madame Defarge and deafening Miss Pross. Miss Pross manages to escape Paris with Cruncher.
Carton is driven in a tumbril to his execution. He and the girl who recognized that he was not Darnay hold hands until the end. The Vengeance watches for Madam Defarge, knowing that she will want to witness the execution, but does not see her. The novel concludes with the information that Bar