Critical Overview

A Tale of Two Cities is perhaps the least characteristic of Charles Dickens's works. Unlike both his earlier and his later novels, which are largely concerned with events within the Victorian society in which he lived, A Tale of Two Cities is set during a period some seventy years earlier. It shows both France and England in an unflattering light. Perhaps because the novel is so uncharacteristic of the author, it remains among the author's most popular works with readers who do not generally enjoy Dickens. On the other hand, it is often rated the least popular Dickens novel among Dickens fans.

While A Tale of Two Cities was immensely popular with the reading public on its original serialization in 1859, its critical reception was mixed. "One feature that appears from the outset," explains Norman Page in his essay "Dickens and His Critics," "is a polarisation of responses, the novel being found either superlatively good or superlatively bad." According to Ruth Glancy in A Tale of Two Cities: Dickens's Revolutionary Novel, most contemporary critics routinely dismissed the type of popular literature that Dickens wrote as being unworthy of ranking as art. The most famous and the most caustic of the early critics of A Tale of Two Cities was Sir James Fitzjames Stephen, who wrote a very harsh review of the book in the December 17, 1859, issue of Saturday Review. "After condemning the plot—'it would perhaps be hard to imagine a clumsier or more disjointed framework for the display of the tawdry wares which form Mr. Dickens's stock in trade'—Stephen dismissed A Tale of Two Cities as a purely...

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