illustration of a guillotine

A Tale of Two Cities

by Charles Dickens

Start Free Trial

Book the First, Chapters 1, 2, and 3 Summary and Analysis

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share


The novel opens on England in 1775. Western Europe is in the throes of social unrest, and France is headed toward revolution (the French Revolution began in 1789). England is not faring much better; corruption and criminality are major problems, with crimes ranging from muggings to murders happening daily.

Late on a densely foggy night, Jarvis Lorry accompanies a mail coach to Dover. Highway robberies are common, and everyone in the coach is petrified when they hear a horse approaching. However, it is only Jerry Cruncher, who has a message for Lorry from Tellson’s Bank: “Wait at Dover for Mam’selle.” Lorry gives Cruncher a message in return: “RECALLED TO LIFE.” Cruncher appears startled and gallops away on his horse.

The three passengers are left alone. The narrator muses that although they are crowded together within the small mail coach, they are strangers. Cruncher makes his way back to Tellson’s Bank, but he continues to agonize over Lorry’s message. Lorry, meanwhile, falls asleep in the mail coach and dreams about digging a man out of a grave. The man tells him he has been buried alive for eighteen years and had “abandoned all hope of being dug out.” Lorry wakes up with a start.


In the novel’s opening lines (“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”), Charles Dickens establishes a parallel between London and Paris—the “Two Cities”—in order to explore the profound and unsettling sociopolitical changes of mid-eighteenth-century Western Europe. Corruption is as rampant in England as it is in pre-revolutionary France; harsh laws, as well as aristocratic and political nefariousness, incite unrest and radicalism. Though Dickens acknowledges that England is no better than France, he suggests the possibility of redemption and, as we will see later, resurrection through Jarvis Lorry’s words: “RECALLED TO LIFE.” Presumably, redemption will be possible if England avoids making the same mistakes that are being made in France.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

Book the First, Chapter 4 Summary and Analysis