illustration of a guillotine

A Tale of Two Cities

by Charles Dickens

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Book the Third, Chapter 1 Summary and Analysis

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Charles Darnay arrives in France, but his journey to Paris is difficult. He is stopped and questioned by “patriots”—instigators of the Revolution who (according to the narrator) live by the new motto of “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, or Death”—in every small town through which he passes. He quickly realizes that he will not be able to return to England unless he is “declared a good citizen at Paris.” In one small town, Darnay is awakened in the middle of the night and ordered to pay for an escort to deliver him to Paris. He politely objects but is forced to pay a high price for two armed patriots to accompany him. They ride only during the night and hide after daybreak. Darnay is uncomfortable but takes comfort in the belief that he will be safe after his “individual case” is heard in Paris.

In the town of Beauvais, however, Darnay is labeled a “cursed emigrant” and “cursed aristocrat.” He insists that he returned voluntarily, but the crowd becomes violent. A postmaster intervenes, reminding them that Darnay “will be judged at Paris.” We learn that a decree was passed (on the day Darnay left England) that strips emigrants of their property rights and that another decree declaring that all emigrants be executed will soon be passed.

Darnay reaches Paris, where he is promptly conveyed to a guard-room. He meets with a guard, who happens to be Ernest Defarge. Defarge informs Darnay that he has been “consigned” to La Force prison. Darnay objects and insists that he has the right to make a case for himself; Defarge informs him that, as an emigrant, he has no rights. Defarge, who knows that Darnay is Lucie’s husband, asks why, ‘in the name of that sharp female newly born, and called La Guillotine . . . did [he] come to France?” Darnay repeats his mission, which is to aid Monsieur Gabelle, and asks if Defarge will help him. Defarge refuses, saying that his duty is to France and “the People.” He writes “In secret” on a piece of paper and sends Darnay to La Force. Darnay is confined to a private cell, where he begins pacing back and forth and repeating, “He made shoes, he made shoes, he made shoes.”


Darnay’s journey to Paris becomes increasingly difficult as he moves closer to inevitable incarceration—a unifying of themes (fate and imprisonment) that suggests that he will be expected to answer for the tyranny of the Evrémondes. Darnay seems to be moving backwards in human history; the nearer he is to Paris, the more animalistic and bloodthirsty the French peasants become. Moreover, the Republic seems to have exchanged the Christian God for a new idol: La Guillotine, the brutally efficient beheading machine.

The Republic’s new motto is particularly significant. In reality, the Republic’s motto was “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” (a motto that France retains to this day). Dickens’s addition of “or Death” cements the novel’s argument that violence only perpetuates oppression and death; one cannot truly be liberated if the penalty for disagreement is execution.

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