Set in London and Paris at the time of the French Revolution, A Tale of Two Cities is both a love story and a tale of political intrigue. The narrative depicts the corruption of the French aristocracy, the violence of the French Revolution, and the fate of a family swept up in circumstances and events beyond their control. Dickens’s novel is one of injustice and revenge, love and loss; at its conclusion, it is a story of rebirth and redemption.
At the time A Tale of Two Cities was published in 1859, Charles Dickens was the most popular novelist in Victorian England, and the novel initially attracted a hundred thousand readers. It first appeared in serial installments in Dickens’s literary magazine, All the Year Round; his reading public followed the story as it unfolded and eagerly awaited the next chapters. Some critics of the day dismissed the novel out of hand, contending that it could not be very good because it was so enormously popular. In subsequent literary criticism, Dickens’s historical narrative is most usually viewed as being masterfully crafted, filled with suspense and rich in symbolism.
A Tale of Two Cities is structured in three books and begins in 1775. Doctor Manette has been imprisoned for eighteen years in the abhorrent Bastille for having witnessed a crime committed by members of the aristocracy. Released and “recalled to life,” Manette is taken to London and cared for by his daughter Lucie and his good friend, Jarvis Lorry. Years pass, and Lucie marries Charles Darnay, a French aristocrat who has renounced his heritage and lives in London, his personal history unknown. Meanwhile, revolutionary fervor is building in France.
Returning to Paris on a mission of mercy after the revolution has begun, Charles is arrested; Lucie, her father, and Sydney Carton, who is devoted to Lucie, rush from London to Paris to rescue him. Briefly, Doctor Manette is considered a hero within the revolution because of his imprisonment in the Bastille at the hands of the aristocracy, but he is unable to save Charles from the ruthless and vengeful Madame Defarge. A central figure in the revolution, Madame Defarge holds power in the New Republic and is determined to destroy Darnay. Finally, Sydney Carton saves Charles by trading places with him in prison on the day of his execution. Throughout the novel, Dickens is sympathetic to the political and social ideals of the French Revolution, but he is critical of the terror it unleashed.
A Tale of Two Cities is a typical Victorian Gothic novel in that it describes a fallen world, ruined and decaying, and evokes an atmosphere of dread and deterioration. Famous for creating characters and literary caricatures noted for their idiosyncratic speech and exaggerated mannerisms, Dickens writes A Tale of Two Cities with less focus on the characters’ distinguishing traits and more attention to what they do in the historical context of the revolution. Dickens abandons his typically “Dickensian” characterizations, with the exception of the minor characters Jerry Cruncher and Miss Pross, in order to tackle the scope of an era and its major historical event. Most critics agree that A Tale of Two Cities is an innovative departure from Dickens’s previous work.
Rich in the imagery of the French revolution, the novel can be interpreted as a cautionary tale, although readers in Dickens’s day may have interpreted it differently since his audience was not limited to a particular social class. The poor no doubt found the tale of violent revolution to be a warning to the English ruling class who enjoyed great wealth while workers often starved. Dickens identified with the suffering of the English lower class, having grown up in poverty as the son of a father imprisoned for his debts, but his novel does not glorify political revolution or call for it. Dickens’s emphasis on the horrors of the French Revolution suggests that A Tale of Two Cities is instead a warning against the continuing violence spawned by revolution and its effects upon the innocent and the guilty alike.
By the end of the unit the student will be able to:
1. Identify and describe the central conflict and the subplots in A Tale of Two Cities.
2. Discuss the influence of women on the evolution of the novel’s plot.
3. Identify the primary themes and motifs.
4. Discuss the effects of violence and oppression and the ideas developed through them.
5. Explain the causes and consequences of the French Revolution.
6. Identify the symbols in the novel, explain the ideas they communicate, and discuss their significance.
7. Identify the various representations of love presented in the text and explain how love affects character development.
8. Show how suspicion, lack of privacy, imprisonment, and loss of memory or the burden of memory contribute to the personal tragedies described in the novel.
9. Explain how love triumphs over hate and goodness triumphs over evil in the novel.
10. Recognize literary techniques, such as parody, anaphora, first-person and third-person narratives, foreshadowing, and the suspension of disbelief.
11. Determine and define those elements that make A Tale of Two Cities a celebrated classic.