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A Tale of Two Cities

by Charles Dickens

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A Tale of Two Cities Summary

A Tale of Two Cities is a novel by Charles Dickens about Paris and London during the French Revolution. 

  • Jarvis Lorry travels to Paris to reunite Dr. Manette with his long-lost daughter, Lucie.
  • Five years later, Lucie marries Charles Darnay, who confesses to Dr. Manette that he is a member of the French aristocracy. 
  • When Darnay returns to Paris to save a former servant, he is arrested by the revolutionaries and sentenced to death.
  • Sydney Carton, who resembles Darnay, trades places with him in prison and dies on the guillotine in his stead.


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Last Updated on September 14, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 891

Historical Context

A Tale of Two Cities is a novel by Charles Dickens, set in London and Paris before and during the French Revolution. It explores themes of love, sacrifice, and the consequences of social injustice against the tumultuous backdrop of this historical event.

The French Revolution, which lasted from 1789 until 1799, was a period of radical social and political upheaval that significantly impacted Europe—the revolution aimed to establish a republic and create a more just and equitable society in France.

The revolution stemmed from multiple factors, many described in A Tale of Two Cities, including economic inequality, political corruption, and Enlightenment ideals. The revolution began with the storming of the Bastille prison, which Dickens describes in Book 2: Chapter 21. The revolution was exceptionally violent, saw thousands of people executed, and France forever changed.

When Dickens first published A Tale of Two Cities in 1859, England was undergoing a period of rapid social and economic change, particularly with the growth of cities and the rise of a new working class. Dickens was deeply concerned about the plight of workers, in which he saw similarities to the French peasants before the revolution.

Dickens frequently addressed contemporary social and economic injustices in his novels. He viewed the French Revolution as a pivotal historical event and sought to create a story that examined its impact and relevance. Dickens was also influenced by the revolutions of the mid-19th century, particularly the failed 1848 revolutions in Europe that sought to dismantle monarchies and promote social reforms. Like many others, he worried about the possibility of a similar rebellion occurring in England.

Although Dickens supported social progress and reforms, he rejected the violence and turmoil usually associated with revolutions. A Tale of Two Cities explores the consequences of well-intentioned movements taken to violent extremes and the individuals swept up in these events. Consequently, Dickens approaches the revolutionaries with ambivalence. Although he supported their overarching goals, the harrowing depictions of their actions show that he feared their methods.

Dickens intended this story to be a cautionary tale for the people and leaders of England. He wanted to show the need for social change in his country and the possible consequences if those changes are not made peacefully. He feared a revolution like the one in France, which saw the liberators become the new oppressors.

Sow the same seed of rapacious license and oppression over again, and it will surely yield the same fruit according to its kind. (Book 3, Chapter 15)


The novel is divided into three main sections or books. In the first book, "Recalled to Life," Jarvis Lorry, a London bank manager, accompanies Lucie Manette to Paris to retrieve her father, Doctor Alexandre Manette, who was recently released from prison after 18 years.

Dr. Manette stays with his former servant, Ernest Defarge, and Defarge's wife, Therese. Dr. Manette has lost his sanity in prison and spends his time in a little room making shoes. Lucie reunites with him and brings him to England.

This part of the novel is rich in metaphors and foreshadowing, hinting at the suffering of France's peasants and the impending revolution. For instance, a cask of wine resembling blood bursts open in the street and is eagerly consumed by a hungry mob.

Book the Second, "The Golden Thread," occurs five years later in 1780. Dr. Manette is recovering with the help of Lucie. Charles Darnay, a French immigrant, is on trial for treason. The trial takes a surprising turn when Sydney Carton, a depressed...

(This entire section contains 891 words.)

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and alcoholic lawyer who looks just like Darnay, creates doubt concerning the witness identifications, leading to Darnay's acquittal.

Four months later, the Manettes lead a peaceful life while Darnay and Carton compete for Lucie's affection. Meanwhile, in Paris, the aristocrats are depicted as gluttonous and callous parasites robbing France of its wealth.

Monseigneur could swallow a great many things with ease and was by some few sullen minds supposed to be rather rapidly swallowing France. (Book 2, Chapter 7)

One aristocrat, the Marquis St. Evrémonde, runs over a child after telling his coachman to drive too fast. At his home, the marquis meets Darnay, his nephew. Disgusted with the cold-heartedness and decadence of the aristocracy, Darney renounces his inheritance and returns to England. Despite their many differences and his lingering love of Lucie, Carton befriends Darnay. Darnay marries Lucie, and they have a child together.

In July 1789, Paris erupts in violence with the Bastille's storming. Darnay returns to France, hoping to rescue his uncle's servant and positively impact the growing revolution.

In the third and final book, "The Track of a Storm," Darnay is arrested in France for being an aristocrat. Monsieur Defarge, escorting him to Paris, refuses to help, emphasizing his duty to the revolution. Dr. Manette and Lucie come to Paris to aid Darnay.

Despite initial hope, when Darnay wins his case, he's arrested again. An account written by Dr. Manette during his imprisonment reveals the crimes of the St. Evrémondes, leading to Darnay's conviction and death sentence. However, Carton, using his resemblance to Darnay, switches places with him and arranges Darnay's escape.

As Darnay and Lucie head back to London, Carton sacrifices himself at the guillotine, declaring,

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. (Book 3, Chapter 15)


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Last Updated on April 27, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1788

Many critics consider Dickens the greatest novelist of the English-speaking world. Historically he is probably the most popular. Dickens is one of those rare writers—like Shakespeare—who has always appealed to a wide variety of readers. When each installment of a new Dickens novel appeared, people of all social and economic classes rushed out to discover what had happened to their favorite characters. Scholars estimate that for every copy sold, ten people read or heard the story. Often while the rich laughed over a Dickens novel upstairs, the servants were downstairs in the kitchen hearing the same story read with equal enjoyment. In America herds of people would wait on the docks for the boats carrying a new installment of Dickens's latest book.

Dickens's novels are still amazingly popular among a wide range of readers. Scholars publish articles and books on Dickens at a rate second only to that of Shakespeare criticism. Yet his stories and characters still delight readers of vastly different ages, backgrounds, and experience.

A Tale of Two Cities is probably the least typically Dickensian of all Dickens's novels. This is probably why many critics have called it either his best work or his worst. Shorter than most of his greatest achievements, A Tale of Two Cities lacks what Dickens called "elbow room." It includes few of the grotesque comic characters that populate his longer works, and it does not pause in its rapid pace to fill pages with humorous situations, pleasing descriptions, and hilarious details.

On the other hand, A Tale of Two Cities is certainly more direct and unified than many other Dickens novels. Its plot moves quickly toward climax, it contains few extraneous details, and everything serves a clear thematic purpose. Many passages create considerable suspense, and Dickens's language in this novel, written at the peak of his powers, amazes the sensitive reader with its aptness and power to make one seem to see and feel the events and people it describes. A Tale of Two Cities also provides particularly good opportunities to study such novelistic tools as allusion, foreshadowing, symbol, characterization, plot structure, repetition, tone and irony, and point of view.

Book One: Recalled to Life

On a cold November night in 1775, Mr. Jarvis Lorry, who works for Tellson's Bank, tells a messenger who stops his mail coach to return with the message, "Recalled to Life," in A Tale of Two Cities. That evening in a Dover hotel he meets Miss Lucie Manette, a young woman whom Lorry brought to England as an orphaned child many years earlier and whom he is now to return with to France to recover her father, recently released from prison after eighteen years.

In Paris, Mr. Lorry and Miss Manette arrive at the wine shop of Madame and Monsieur Defarge. In a top floor garret room above the shop, working away at a shoemaker's bench, sits an old, white-haired man, too feeble and too altered to recognize his daughter. With the help of Lorry and Defarge, Lucie takes Dr. Manette away in a carriage to return him to London.

Book Two: The Golden Thread

On a March morning in 1780, Mr. Charles Darnay is being tried at the Old Bailey for treason. In the court as witnesses are Dr. Manette and his daughter Lucie, who testifies that on the night five years earlier when she was returning with her father from France, the prisoner comforted her and her father aboard the boat on which they crossed the channel. Darnay is acquitted after the counsel for the defense, Mr. Stryver, befuddles a witness by presenting Mr. Sydney Carton, who so closely resembles Mr. Darnay that the witness is unable to stand by his story. Mr. Jerry Cruncher, messenger for hire, rushes the news of the acquittal to Tell-son' s Bank, as he was instructed to do by Mr. Lorry. Outside the courtroom, everyone congratulates Darnay on his release.

In France, meanwhile, both the abuses of the aristocracy and the furor of the oppressed grow. Monseigneur, the Marquis St. Evremonde, "one of the great lords in power at the court," drives off in a gilded carriage and runs over a child. He tosses a gold coin to the child's grieving father, Gaspard. Someone throws a coin at the carriage, but when the Marquis looks to see who, he sees only Madame Defarge, knitting. She knits into a scarf growing longer by the day the names in symbols of those who will later die at the hands of the revolutionaries. Later at his chateau, the Marquis asks if "Monsieur Charles" has yet arrived from England. Charles Darnay, the nephew, tells the Marquis that he believes his family has done wrong and that he wishes to redress the wrongs of the past. The Marquis, who scorns Darnay's suggestions, is later found stabbed to death in his bed.

Lucie and her father live in a London apartment with her maid, Miss Pross. Darnay prospers as a teacher in France and visits England frequently. He speaks of his love of Lucie to Dr. Manette, who grants his permission for a marriage, although he refuses to hear until the wedding day the secret of his identity which Darnay tries to tell him. Sydney Carton, self-described wastrel and unsuccessful suitor, tells Lucie he is "a man who would give his life, to keep a life you love beside you."

At the Defarge wine shop, local anger over the execution of Gaspard and the news that Lucie Manette is about to marry Charles Darnay, a French Marquis, grows. All the women knit.

After Lucie and Darnay go off to honeymoon, Mr. Lorry discovers Dr. Manette making shoes, lapsed into an absent mental state which lasts for nine days while Lucie is away. On the tenth day of Dr. Manette's mania, he recovers, converses with Mr. Lorry about a "friend" who suffered similarly, and agrees to have the things of his old occupation—his shoemaking bench and tools which he had returned to in his distress—destroyed for his mental well-being.

On a July evening in 1789 Lucie Darnay, now the mother of a six-year-old girl, sits and worries over the future. Mr. Lorry speaks of the run on Tellson's Bank as a consequence of the turmoil in Paris. There citizens storm the Bastille to free its seven prisoners. Among them are Madame and Monsieur Defarge, who find Manette's old cell. The people of St. Antoine hang a man named Foulon, who had once told the starving people to eat grass. They seek out aristocrats with a frenzy. One evening they burn down the chateau of the Marquis.

The chateau was left to itself to flame and burn. In the roaring and raging of the conflagration, a red-hot wind, driving straight from the infernal regions, seemed to be blowing the edifice away. With the rising and falling of the blaze, the stone faces showed as if they were in torment. When great masses of stone and timber fell, the face with the two dints in the nose became obscured, anon struggled out of the smoke again, as if it were the face of the cruel Marquis, burning at the stake and contending with the fire.

In August of 1792, Mr. Lorry is about to embark on a trip to Paris to organize accounts there. Darnay learns from him that the bank has been holding an unopened letter addressed to "Monsieur Heretofore the Marquis," whom he says he knows. The letter from Monsieur Gabelle, a servant, begs St. Evremonde/Darnay to come to France to free him from the mob who hold him. Darnay resolves to leave for France, for his honor demands it. He leaves a letter to Lucie, but he does not tell her his identity or purpose.

Book Three: The Track of a Storm

On his way to Paris, Darnay is captured, imprisoned, charged with being an aristocratic emigrant, now to suffer the justice of the revolution. Lucie and her father have also hastened to France to meet Mr. Lorry at Tellson's Paris bank. Dr. Manette uses his influence as one formerly imprisoned to calm the revolutionaries and to have Darnay's life spared during the Reign of Terror when the King and Queen and 1100 others lose their lives to the guillotine. Yet shortly thereafter, Darnay is again arrested, charged by the Defarges and "one other."

Miss Pross and Jerry Cruncher, with the Manettes in Paris, come upon a man on the streets whom they identify as Miss Press's lost brother. Sydney Carton then pursues the man's identity to reveal that he is John Barsad, who had been involved in Darnay's trial in England and who had spied for the English. Carton uses this knowledge as leverage to persuade Barsad, a turnkey at the prison, to work for him.

At the second trial, Darnay is denounced by the Defarges and "the other," who is no other than Dr. Manette himself. Defarge tells how when he stormed the Bastille, he found in Manette's old cell a paper in Manette's hand in a crevice in the wall. He proceeds to read the paper. Manette's story dates to 1857 when he was summoned by two men, the twin St. Evremondes, to attend to a dying peasant woman and a dying, peasant boy, wounded fighting in her defense. The woman had been raped by the two men. They tried to pay Manette off, but he refused; when he tried to write to authorities regarding their case, they destroyed his letter and threatened to kidnap his wife. He then denounced them and their descendants (and thus Charles Darnay). Darnay is condemned to die within 24 hours.

After Carton takes Lucie home, he visits the Defarges, where Madame Defarge reveals that the woman in Manette's story was her sister. He returns to the Manettes that evening to find that Dr. Manette has this time been unsuccessful in freeing Darnay. Carton instructs Lorry on plans to have the Manettes escape Paris the next day. "The moment I come to you," he says, "take me in and drive away." Carton enters the prison and Darnay's cell with the help of Barsad. He drugs Darnay, then exchanges clothes with him. Barsad carries Darnay out; Carton remains behind. The Manettes, Darnay, and Mr. Lorry all escape in a carriage. Miss Pross and Jerry Cruncher also devise a plan of escape. While Cruncher goes for a carriage, Madame Defarge, armed with a gun and a knife, comes to the apartment to execute Lucie and her daughter, confronts Miss Pross, and dies of a gunshot in the ensuing struggle. Miss Pross and Cruncher escape, the former forever after deaf. Carton is executed as Darnay, willingly giving his life for the one he loves.


Chapter Summaries