A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens
A Tale of Two Cities Charles Dickens
The following entry presents criticism of Dickens's novel A Tale of Two Cities (1859). See also, Hard Times for These Times Criticism, Our Mutual Friend Criticism, and Little Dorrit Criticism.
A Tale of Two Cities was originally serialized in Dickens's own periodical, All the Year Round, in 1859 and chronicles the lives of a number of characters prior to and during the French Revolution. While immensely popular with the reading public, critical response to the novel was mixed. Perhaps the least characteristic of Dickens's works, A Tale of Two Cities prompted more than a few critics to note that the novel lacked the author's trademark humor and that, while it does address important social issues, the time and place depicted are far removed from the author's typical Victorian/Industrial Revolution era concerns. Nonetheless, despite its initial less-than-enthusiastic critical reception A Tale of Two Cities has come to occupy a central place in Dickens's body of work.
Plot and Major Characters
The novel's events begin in Paris, roughly fourteen years prior to the French Revolution. Dr. Alexandre Manette has been released from the Bastille after having been unjustly imprisoned for eighteen years for trying to bring two members of the noble St. Evrémonde family to trial for their crimes. His daughter, Lucie, whom he has not seen since she was a small child, has traveled to Paris from London with Jarvis Lorry, a family friend, to bring him home. Lucie and Lorry arrive in Paris at the wineshop of Monsieur and Madame Defarge, who are both active in the movement to incite a peasant revolution. Dr. Manette, now old, feeble, and too mentally impaired to recognize his daughter, has been staying in a room above the shop, where he works at a shoemaker's bench in the belief that he is a cobbler.
Five years later in London, the Manettes are called to testify in the treason trial of Charles Darnay, whom they had met during their return from France. Darnay, a French language tutor who is the nephew of the Marquis St. Evrémonde, has been accused of spying for the French. Darnay is acquitted when his attorney, C. J. Stryver, confuses a witness by presenting his law partner, Sydney Carton, who so closely resembles Darnay that the witness is unable to make a positive identification. Carton, who has a brilliant legal mind but suffers from alcoholism, becomes attracted to Lucie and through his feelings for her finds new direction in his life. Darnay, Carton, and Stryver, all of whom seek Lucie's hand in marriage, become frequent visitors at the Manette household, which is governed by Miss Pross. In the interim, the situation in France worsens as its citizens grow more angry and dissatisfied with the French aristocracy. Though Darnay has taken his mother's maiden name in an effort to shed his connection with his noble family, he feels compelled to return to France when his uncle runs down a peasant child with his carriage. Darnay pleads with his uncle to make amends for the past deeds committed by the family, but the Marquis refuses. Later that night, the Marquis is killed in his sleep by Gaspard, the father of the child he killed.
Darnay returns to England and asks Manette for his daughter's hand in marriage. He tries to reveal his true name to the old man, but Manette tells him to wait until the morning of his wedding day. Carton is also in love with Lucie, but she refuses his proposal of marriage. Carton tells her never to forget that he will do anything he can to help her and those she loves. Six years later, the Bastille is stormed and the French Revolution begins. Darnay again returns to France, this time in an effort to save a loyal family servant from the revolutionaries. When his true identity is discovered, Darnay is arrested and put on trial. Lucie and Dr. Manette come to Paris on his behalf, and Manette's sympathetic testimony at Darnay's trial succeeds; Darnay is released, but under condition that he remain in France. Shortly thereafter, Darnay is arrested again, accused of crimes against the people by Defarge and an unknown party. In an effort to help, Carton, Miss Pross, and Jerry Cruncher, an employee of Lorry's, arrive in Paris, where they encounter Miss Pross's long-lost brother, Solomon, whom Cruncher recognizes as John Barsad, the man who accused Darnay of being a spy almost fourteen years before. At Darnay's trial, Defarge testifies against him, claiming that Dr. Manette is the second accuser, presenting papers he recovered from Manette's cell in the Bastille in which Manette chronicled the various crimes of the St. Evrémonde family and showed how they were responsible for his imprisonment. Darnay is found guilty and sentenced to death. Carton blackmails Barsad, a prison turnkey, and gains access to Darnay's cell. He then drugs Darnay and has him taken away so that he may pose as the Frenchman and take his place. While attempting to prevent the Manettes from leaving Paris, Madame Defarge is shot and killed during a struggle with Miss Pross. Lucie and Darnay escape to England, and Carton sacrifices himself, taking Darnay's place at the guillotine.
For Dickens, prisons are symbolic of the grave—a comparison he makes throughout his works. Critics note that the prevalence of this theme may be related to Dickens's father's incarceration in debtors' prison. Coupled with this notion in A Tale of Two Cities is the possibility of resurrection: Manette is “resurrected” upon his release from the Bastille, and Carton, who serves as a Christ-figure in his act of self-sacrifice, essentially lives on in the form of his double, Darnay. Additionally, Dickens uses memory as a driving force in the novel, whether as an instrument of destruction or of hope. While it is the memory of the rape and deaths of her siblings that prompts Madame Defarge's hatred of the aristocrats, it is the memory of Manette's dead wife that begins the process of his resurrection from the grave of his prison and insanity. Carton, in fact, is referred to by Stryver as “Memory Carton” for his brilliant legal mind; Carton renounces the memory of his former life when he dies with the words, “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done.”
Though A Tale of Two Cities was immensely popular with general readers, many of Dickens's contemporary critics found fault with the novel. These critical attacks essentially focused on three fronts: that the novel is flawed as history, mechanical and unrealistic in its construction, and uncharacteristic of Dickens. It is perhaps upon this last point that most critics choose to base their criticisms; many argue that the novel lacks the characteristic humor usually present in Dickens's work, and that the events with which it concerns itself are too far removed from the Victorian issues that Dickens typically chose to address. Rather than examine the novel on its own merits, these critics often fall into comparisons of A Tale of Two Cities with Dickens's other works. Regardless of the initial criticisms leveled at the novel, A Tale of Two Cities has come to receive a great deal of praise from modern critics, and it continues to be included on high school and college reading lists.
*Sketches by Boz, Illustrative of Every-Day Life and Every-Day People (sketches and short stories) 1836
The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, Edited by “Boz” (novel) 1836–
Oliver Twist; or, The Parish Boy's Progress, by “Boz” (novel) 3 vols. 1838
Memoirs of Joseph Grimaldi, Edited by “Boz” (novel) 2 vols. 1838
The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby (novel) 1839
Barnaby Rudge. A Tale of the Riots of 'Eighty (novel) 1841
The Old Curiosity Shop (novel) 1841
American Notes for General Circulation (travel essay) 1842
A Christmas Carol, in Prose: Being a Ghost Story of Christmas (short story) 1843
The Chimes: A Goblin Story of Some Bells That Rang an Old Year Out and a New Year In (short story) 1845
The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit (novel) 1844
The Cricket on the Hearth: A Fairy Tale of Home (short story) 1846
Pictures from Italy (travel essay) 1846
Dealings with the Firm of Dombey and Son, Wholesale, Retail, and for Exportation (novel) 1847
The Personal History of David Copperfield (novel) 1850
Bleak House (novel) 1853
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SOURCE: “A Tale of Two Characters: A Study in Multiple Projection,” in Dickens Studies Annual, Volume I, edited by Robert B. Partlow, Jr., Southern Illinois University Press, 1970, pp. 225-37.
[In the following essay, Manheim explores the duality of the main “character” in A Tale of Two Cities, arguing that Sydney Carton and Charles Darnay are essentially a single “Fantasy-Hero” who embodies Dickens's own ideal of himself.]
Dickens scholars have never been able to forgive A Tale of Two Cities its popularity—its very special kind of popularity. Pickwick Papers has survived the adulation of the special Pickwick cult; David Copperfield has survived the sentimental biography-hunting of the Dickensians; even Great Expectations may survive its selection as the Dickens work to be presented in “service courses” on the lower college level. But A Tale of Two Cities will never wholly live down the fact that it has received a kiss of death by its almost universal adoption as the Dickens work to be presented to secondary school students, usually during the tenth year of their formal education. Several factors have contributed to the persistence of the high-school syllabus-makers in prescribing the reading of A Tale of Two Cities. The first reason seems to be its compactness; it is not as long as most other Dickens works. In my own experience, it has...
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SOURCE: “The Carlylean Vision of A Tale of Two Cities,” in Charles Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities, edited by Harold Bloom, Chelsea House Publishers, 1987, pp. 23-35.
[In the following essay, first published in 1976, Marcus compares aspects of Thomas Carlyle's French Revolution with A Tale of Two Cities.]
A Tale of Two Cities is the most disparaged and least understood of Dickens's late novels. Overwhelmingly, the critics have judged the work a failure and dismissed it as intellectually superficial. According to this view, Dickens held only the most simpleminded view of history, and although the novel fictionalizes events whose memory haunted the Victorian era, it never places those events in the context of a coherent understanding of the processes of social change; the book is an amalgam of romantic melodrama based on Dickens's experience as an actor in Wilkie Collins's Frozen Deep and fragments taken from Carlyle's French Revolution, a work from which Dickens unsystematically borrowed details but not any conceptual framework. Thus understood, the novel splits in two; its connection between romance and the French Revolution seems tenuous and contrived. As Georg Lukács complains, “neither the fate of Manette and his daughter, nor of Darnay-Evrémonde, the least of all of Sidney Carton, grows organically out of the age and its social events.” Taylor Stoehr's very...
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SOURCE: “Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities: The Poetics of Impasse,” in American Imago, Vol. 36, No. 3, Fall, 1979, pp. 215-44.
[In the following essay, Frank states that the hero of the novel is not Sydney Carton, but Charles Darnay. Using Georg Lukacs's The Historical Novel, Frank argues that Darnay is a “modernist hero.”]
A Tale of Two Cities has, for too long, been Sydney Carton's novel. The sheer melodramatic force of his last, unspoken words continues to obscure the significance of Charles Darnay's moral and psychological dilemma. Of course, Darnay is all too often a prig, a bourgeois pilgrim en route, like David Copperfield, to a secular celestial city. But he is, however ambiguously, the novel's hero. It is Carton, not Darnay, who is the foil. In the popular imagination, their rôles are commonly reversed. For who can resist either the novel's insistence in that cadenced conclusion, “‘It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known’”; or memories of Ronald Coleman as Sydney Carton? Dickens himself had been fascinated by Carton's precursor, Richard Wardour, a character in Wilkie Collins' The Frozen Deep. He helped to fashion the part of Wardour and then portrayed it in private, and finally, public performances of the play in 1857: Richard Wardour, like Sydney Carton, is a man...
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SOURCE: “Writing the Revolution,” in Dickens Studies Annual, Vol. 12, edited by Michael Timko, et al., AMS Press, 1983, pp. 161-76.
[In the following essay, Baumgarten examines the significance of writing in A Tale of Two Cities.]
Lives are saved by bits of paper on which a few words have been written in A Tale of Two Cities and they are also doomed by them. Letters of safe passage make it possible for Lucie and her father, Jarvis Lorry and Pross to leave France at the end of the novel; but no passport is available for Charles Darnay in his own name and he must use his double's. Madame Defarge's knitting is a deadly form of writing. Gaspard writes on the walls in wine what he will later inscribe in blood. Despite the intentions of their authors, these written messages are ambiguous, just as the inscriptions of servitude Monseigneur inflicts upon his peasants and servants do not lead to desired effects. Meanings change. Sense turns into non-sense. This world is characterized by contradiction from which writing is not excluded. Writing saves here but it also attaints and is tainted.1
The inherent difficulties of writing come to a focus in the narrative of Doctor Manette's imprisonment. Serving as the testimony that condemns Evremonde-Darnay, the tale—despite Doctor Manette's later change of heart and acceptance of Darnay into his family—fulfills its original...
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SOURCE: “Dickens and the Catastrophic Continuum of History in A Tale of Two Cities,” in ELH, Vol. 51, No. 3, Fall, 1984, pp. 575-87.
[In the following essay, Rignall discusses the relationship between “narrative form and historical vision” in A Tale of Two Cities.]
It is not surprising that the most remembered scene in A Tale of Two Cities is the last, for this novel is dominated, even haunted, by its ending. From the opening chapter in which the “creatures of this chronicle” are set in motion “along the roads that lay before them,” while the Woodman Fate and the Farmer Death go silently about their ominous work, those roads lead with sinister inevitability to the revolutionary scaffold.1 To an unusual extent, especially given the expansive and centrifugal nature of Dickens's imagination, this is an end-determined narrative whose individual elements are ordered by an ending which is both their goal and, in a sense, their source. In a historical novel like this there is a transparent relationship between narrative form and historical vision, and the formal features of A Tale—its emphatic linearity, continuity, and negative teleology—define a distinctive vision of history. As Robert Alter has argued in his fine critical account of the novel,2 it is not the particular historical event that ultimately concerns Dickens here, but rather a wider...
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SOURCE: “Shadow and Substance in A Tale of Two Cities,” in The Dickensian, Vol. 84, Part 2, No. 415, Summer, 1988, pp. 96-106.
[In the following essay, Nelson argues that elements of The Substance and the Shadow, a romance by John Frederick Smith, influenced Dickens while writing A Tale of Two Cities.]
A Tale of Two Cities took Dickens a long time to tell, if we count the year and a half which John Forster says passed between the first ‘vague fancy’, which struck him while he was acting in Wilkie Collins's The Frozen Deep in August 1857, and March 1859, when ‘he fairly buckle[d] himself to the task he had contemplated so long’.1 On 30 January 1858 it was not clear that he had anything more in mind yet than to distract himself from his domestic unhappiness:
If I can discipline my thoughts into the channel of a story, I have made up my mind to get to work on one: always supposing that I find myself, on the trial, able to do well. Nothing whatever will do me the least ‘good’ in the way of shaking the one strong possession of change impending over us that every day makes stronger. … Sometimes, I think I may continue to work; sometimes, I think not. What do you say to the title, ONE OF THESE DAYS?2
Nothing in that title suggests A Tale of Two Cities, and it is...
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SOURCE: “Alternatives to Bourgeois Individualism in A Tale of Two Cities,” in Studies in English Literature 1500-1900, Vol. 30, No. 4, Autumn, 1990, pp. 633-54.
[In the following essay, Baldridge explores an aspect of the French Revolution depicted in A Tale of Two Citiesthat he claims has been neglected by critics: the assertion that “the group, the class, the Republic—and not the individual—comprise, or should comprise, the basic unit of society.”]
Dickens's ambivalence toward the Revolution he depicts in A Tale of Two Cities has been the subject of much thoughtful comment, and over the past few decades a number of differing causes for this ambivalence have been proposed. George Woodcock, for instance, sees in the “vigor” with which the author depicts the scenes of Revolutionary violence a kind of vicarious retribution against the society which betrayed him in his youth: “in one self [Dickens] is there, dancing among them, destroying prisons and taking revenge for the injustices of childhood.”1 Others have interpreted it as the result of the author's fitful attempts to work out an overarching theory of history, or to adapt Carlyle's ideas on historical necessity to the needs of his fictional genre.2 Some critics have even pointed out parallels between the methods of the Jacquerie and the literary techniques employed by Dickens...
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SOURCE: “The ‘Angels' in Dickens's House: Representation of Women in A Tale of Two Cities,” in Dalhousie Review, Vol. 72, No. 3, Fall, 1992, pp. 311-33.
[In the following review, Robson discusses Dickens's depiction of women in A Tale of Two Cities.]
A Tale of Two Cities is not a woman's text; indeed, there is little chance of its being mistaken for one. In his interpretation of the causes and effects of the French Revolution, Charles Dickens focusses on a patriarchal world of politics and historical development in which men dominate the scene, both privately and publicly. Yet several women characters factor rather importantly in the novel's development, and, as such, merit close scrutiny. The current body of criticism concerning A Tale of Two Cities concentrates mainly on the political and historical elements of the text, while conspicuously absent is a detailed examination of the female role in Dickens's representation of the Revolution. On the other hand, although various studies of the women in Dickens's fiction have been offered (for example, Michael Slater's Dickens and Women and Sylvia Jarmuth's Dickens' Use of Women in his Novels), most are general in nature and provide little more than a cursory examination of, if they explore at all, the women in A Tale of Two Cities. In this paper, therefore, I intend to present a...
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SOURCE: “Language, Love, and Identity: A Tale of Two Cities,” The Dickensian, Vol. 88, No. 428, Part 3, Autumn, 1992, pp. 154-70.
[In the following essay, Lloyd discusses the “precarious nature of identity” illustrated by Dickens in A Tale of Two Cities.]
Thirty years ago G. Robert Stange criticized the ‘excessive artificiality’ of Charles Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities, writing that ‘its construction constantly calls attention to itself’ (74). Much has changed in the critical realm since 1957, for now this is exactly what commends the novel to the attention of those nurtured on post-structuralist ideas. A number of writers in recent years have analysed Dickens's fascination with language, including ‘redoubling of the theme of writing’ (Baumgarten 163), closure, hidden desires (Vanden Bossche 211), and in general the strong influence of Thomas Carlyle's Romantic Irony on Dickens's work.1A Tale of Two Cities does question the value of language divorced from feeling and experience, but in the end affirms the value of the word. By stressing the act of writing throughout the novel, Dickens creates a discomfort in the reader owing to the fact that the fiction is thereby robbed of its capacity to enchant the reader into a willing suspension of disbelief. But this is not to deny meaning; instead, it calls into question the reader's command of the word. This is...
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SOURCE: “The Promise of a Better Future: Dickens and A Tale of Two Cities,” in Readings on A Tale of Two Cities, edited by Don Nardo, Greenhaven Press, 1997, pp. 14-27.
[In the following essay, Nardo discusses Dickens's background and its influence on his writing.]
The scene is a scaffold in Paris during the French Revolution. A large crowd of spectators has gathered to watch the brutal beheading of a group of condemned prisoners, most of them French aristocrats or persons condemned as sympathizers or accomplices of the nobility. In one of the carts heading for the scaffold stands a man holding a young girl's hand. “Down Evrémonde!” comes a cry from the bloodthirsty crowd. “To the Guillotine all aristocrats! Down Evrémonde!”
But unbeknownst to the crowd, the man in the cart is not Charles Darnay, relative of the now dead but still much hated Marquis St. Evrémonde, who frequently mistreated servants and other commoners. The prisoner heading to his death is instead Sydney Carton, an English lawyer. The night before, Carton, out of his own love and respect for Darnay's wife, Lucie, helped Darnay escape prison and now faces the dreaded blade in his place. Having wasted his life in idleness and drink, Carton finally feels that he is doing something good and worthy. Even as he stands near the steps of the scaffold, he continues to comfort the young girl, a seamstress....
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SOURCE: “A Tale of Two Cities: An Appealing but Flawed Novel,” in Readings on Charles Dickens, edited by Clarice Swisher, Greenhaven Press, 1998, pp. 141-45.
[In the following excerpt, Gross gives A Tale of Two Cities a mixed assessment, criticizing Dickens's lack of a sense of humor and his thin portrayal of society.]
A Tale of Two Cities ends fairly cheerfully with its hero getting killed. …
A Tale of Two Cities is a tale of two heroes. The theme of the double has such obvious attractions for a writer preoccupied with disguises, rival impulses, and hidden affinities that it is surprising that Dickens didn’t make more use of it elsewhere. But no one could claim that his handling of the device is very successful here, or that he has managed to range the significant forces of the novel behind Carton and Darnay. Darnay is, so to speak, the accredited representative of Dickens in the novel, the ‘normal’ hero for whom a happy ending is still possible. It has been noted, interestingly enough, that he shares his creator's initials—and that is pretty well the only interesting thing about him. Otherwise he is a pasteboard character, completely undeveloped. His position as an exile, his struggles as a language-teacher, his admiration for George Washington are so many openings thrown away.
Carton, of course, is a far more striking...
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SOURCE: “A Tale of Two Cities: Theology of Revolution,” in Dickens Studies Annual, Vol. 27, edited by Stanley Friedman, et al, AMS Press, 1998, pp. 171-85.
[In the following essay, Rosen explores the religious imagery surrounding the acts of the revolultionaries in A Tale of Two Cities.]
At the Royal George Hotel in Dover, Mr. Lorry encounters, for the second time in his life, the heroine of the novel.
As his eyes rested on [her], a sudden vivid likeness passed before him, of a child whom he had held in his arms on the passage across that very Channel, one cold time, when the hail drifted heavily and the sea ran high. The likeness passed away, say, like a breath along the surface of the gaunt pier glass behind her, on the frame of which, a hospital procession of negro cupids, several headless and all cripples, were offering baskets of Dead Sea fruit to black divinities of the feminine gender—and he made his formal bow to Miss Manette.1
The moment is epiphanic. Mr. Lorry is not alone in feeling the past's mysterious, even ghostly, influence on the present. The pier glass, which, taken by itself, might suggest simply an innkeeper's fondness for exotic decor, circumscribes Lucie in a particularly sinister manner. The “short, slight, pretty” Frenchwoman, with her “quantity of golden hair, [and] pair of blue...
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Beckwith, Charles E., editor. Twentieth Century Interpretations of “A Tale of Two Cities.” Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1972, 122 p.
Collection of critical essays addressing a variety of themes in A Tale of Two Cities.
Collins, Philip, editor. Dickens: The Critical Heritage. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1971, 641 p.
Collection of critical reviews on Dickens's novels and articles, including A Tale of Two Cities.
Daleski, H. M. “Imagining Revolution: The Eye of History and of Fiction.” The Journal of Narrative Technique 18, No. 1 (Winter, 1988): pp. 61-72.
Compares the extent to which the historian and the novelist may or may not actually be shown to write in a similar manner. Includes a discussion of A Tale of Two Cities.
Eigner, Edwin M. “Charles Darnay and Revolutionary Identity.” Dickens Studies Annual, Vol. 12, edited by Micheal Timko, et al. New York: AMS Press, 1983, pp. 147-59.
Discusses Darnay as the romantic hero of A Tale of Two Cities.
Gibson, Frank A. “The Saddest Book.” The Dickensian LX, No. 342 (January, 1964): pp. 30-32.
Discusses the lack of humor Dickens displays in A Tale of Two Cities.
Gilbert, Elliott L. “‘To Awake From...
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