Summary of the Novel
A Tale of Two Cities is concerned with events in Paris and London before and during the French Revolution. The story focuses on Charles Darnay, the self-exiled nephew of French nobility, and his wife, Lucie Manette, daughter of Dr. Alexandre Manette. As the first of the novel’s three sections begins, Jarvis Lorry is on his way to Paris to reunite Dr. Manette with the daughter who thought he has been dead for the past 18 years. Over this time Dr. Manette has forgotten his past life; he sits in a small attic room and makes shoes. Slowly, Jarvis and Lucie Manette “recall (him) to life.”
The novel’s second section starts five years later. Lucie Manette marries Charles Darnay. Darnay confesses a secret to Dr. Manette on the eve of the wedding. This secret turns out to be that Darnay is really Charles Evremonde, a member of the French ruling class. Darnay has renounced his past and wishes to settle in England. Meanwhile, unrest is growing in the Paris suburb of St. Antoine. The center of this unrest is a wine-shop owned by the Defarges, who are shown leading the storming of the Bastille.
The final section of the novel opens with Darnay on his way to Paris at the entreaty of a former servant who is endangered. Darnay is arrested and sentenced to die. The Manettes and Lorry hurry to Paris and succeed in freeing Darnay, but he is soon arrested again. He is sentenced to the guillotine. Sydney Carton, who bears a striking resemblance to Darnay, sneaks into the prison and switches places with Darnay. Carton is on his way to the guillotine, willing to die for the love of Lucie, while Darnay, the Manettes and Lorry flee to London.
Estimated Reading Time
Like most Victorian authors, Dickens could be verbose. At roughly 400 pages, A Tale of Two Cities is actually one of his shorter novels. While the optimal way to read this novel would be to read one weekly installment at a time, this is impractical. As the novel is broken into three sections, a better reading plan would be to read the first section in one sitting, while devoting two sittings each to the final two longer sections. Total reading time should be approximately 12 hours.
The early rumblings of the French Revolution are echoing across the English Channel when, in Paris, an old man waits in an attic for his first meeting with a daughter whom he has not seen since she was a baby. With the aid of Mr. Jarvis Lorry, an agent for the Franco-British banking house of Tellson & Co., the lovely Lucie Manette is brought to Paris to be reunited with her father, who was imprisoned for eighteen years in the Bastille. Above the wineshop of Madame and Monsieur Defarge, Dr. Manette is kept secretly until his rescuers can take him safely back to England. Day after day, Madame Defarge sits outside her wineshop, knitting into a long scarf strange symbols that will later spell out a death list of hated aristocrats and enemies of the Revolution.
Five years later, Lucie sits beside her father in the courtroom of the Old Bailey, where Charles Darnay, a teacher of languages, is on trial for treasonable activities that involve his passing between France and England on secret business. A man named John Barsad brings charges against him. Lucie and her father testify that they met Darnay on the boat when they traveled from France five years earlier. The prisoner was saved when Mr. Stryver, the prisoner’s counsel, pointed across the courtroom to another man, Sydney Carton, who so resembled the prisoner that legal identification of Darnay was shaken and Mr. Stryver was able to secure an acquittal for the prisoner. Carton’s relationship to Stryver is that of the jackal to the lion; the alcoholic, aimless Carton writes the cases that Stryver pleads in court.
Lucie and her father live in a small tenement under the care of their maid, Miss Pross, and their kindly friend, Mr. Lorry. Jerry Cruncher, the porter at Tellson & Co. and a secret resurrectionist, is often helpful. Darnay and Carton become frequent callers in the Manette household, after the trial that brought them together.
In France, the fury of the people grows. Monseigneur the Marquis St. Evrémonde is driving in his carriage through the countryside when he carelessly kills a child of a peasant named Gaspard. The nobleman returns to his castle to meet his nephew, Charles Darnay, who is visiting from England. Darnay’s views differ from those of his uncle. Darnay knows that his family committed grave injustices, and he begs his uncle to make amends. Monseigneur the Marquis haughtily refuses. That night, the marquis is murdered in his bed.
Darnay returns to England to seek Dr. Manette’s permission to court Lucie. In order to construct a bond of complete honesty, Darnay attempts to tell the doctor his true French name, but Manette fearfully asks him to wait until the morning of his marriage before revealing it. Carton also approaches Lucie with a proposal of marriage. When Lucie refuses, Carton asks her always to remember that there is a man who will give his own life to keep a life she loves beside her.
In France, Madame Defarge knits the story of the hated St. Evrémondes into her scarf. Gaspard was hanged for the assassination of the marquis; Monseigneur’s house must be destroyed. Barsad, the spy, brings news that Lucie will marry Darnay, the nephew of the marquis. This news disturbs Defarge, for Dr. Manette, a former prisoner of the Bastille, holds a special honor in the eyes of the revolutionists.
Lucie and Darnay are married. Carton becomes a loyal friend of the family. Time passes, and tiny Lucie arrives. When the child is six years old, in the year 1789, the French people storm the Bastille. At the Bastille, Defarge goes to the cell where Dr. Manette was a prisoner and extracts some papers hidden behind a stone in the wall.
One day, while Darnay is talking to Mr. Lorry at Tellson & Co., a letter addressed to the Marquis St. Evrémonde is placed on Mr. Lorry’s desk. Darnay offers to deliver it to the proper person. When he is alone, he reads the letter. It is from an old family servant who is imprisoned by the revolutionists. He begs the Marquis St. Evrémonde to save his life. Darnay realizes that he must go to Paris. Only Dr. Manette knows of Darnay’s family name, and the doctor is sworn to secrecy.
Darnay and Mr. Lorry go to Paris, the latter to look after the French branch of Tellson & Co. Shortly after his arrival, Darnay is seized as an undesirable immigrant after Defarge orders his arrest. Mr. Lorry is considerably upset when Lucie and Dr. Manette suddenly arrive in Paris. Some of the doctor’s friends inform him of Darnay’s arrest. The old man feels that his own imprisonment in the Bastille will win the sympathy of the revolutionists and enable him to save his son-in-law.
After fifteen months of waiting, Darnay is brought to trial. Because he is able to prove himself innocent of harming the French people, he is freed but forbidden to leave France. A short time later, he is again arrested, denounced by Defarge and one other person whose name the officer refuses to disclose.
While shopping one day in the Paris market, Miss Pross and Jerry Cruncher, who are in Paris with Lucie and Mr. Lorry, meet a man who causes Miss Pross to scream in amazement and Jerry to stare in silent astonishment. The man is Solomon, Miss Pross’s lost brother. Jerry remembers him as Barsad, the man who was a spy-witness at the Old Bailey. Carton arrives on the scene at that moment, and he is able to force Barsad to come with him to the office of Tellson & Co. for a private conference. Barsad fears detection of his duplicity, for he is now an employee of the Republican French Government. Carton and Jerry threaten to expose him as a former spy for the English government, the enemy of France. Carton makes a deal with Barsad.
When Darnay is once more brought before the tribunal, Defarge testifies against him and names Dr. Manette as the other accuser. Defarge produces the papers that he found in Dr. Manette’s cell in the Bastille. Therein the doctor wrote the story of his arrest and imprisonment because he learned of a secret crime committed by a St. Evrémonde against a woman of humble birth and her young brother. His account is enough to convict Darnay. Sentenced for the crimes of his ancestors, Darnay, the young St. Evrémonde, is condemned by the tribunal to the guillotine.
Carton now begins to visit the Defarge wineshop, where he learns that Madame Defarge is the sister of the woman ruined by St. Evrémonde years before. With the help of the false Barsad, he gains admittance to the prison where Darnay was taken. There he drugs the prisoner and, still aided by the cowed Barsad, has him carried from the cell, himself remaining behind. The resemblance between the two will allow him to pass as Darnay and prevent discovery of the aristocrat’s escape.
Madame Defarge goes to the lodgings of Lucie and Dr. Manette to denounce them. Only Miss Pross is there; the others, including Darnay, are already on their way to safety. To keep Madame Defarge from learning of their escape, Miss Pross struggles with the furious woman when she demands admittance to Lucie’s apartment. Madame Defarge is killed when her pistol goes off. Miss Pross is deaf for the rest of her life. Lucie and Darnay return safely to England. Carton dies at the guillotine, giving his own life for the happiness of those he loved.