A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens - Essay

Charles Dickens


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

A Tale of Two Cities Charles Dickens

The following entry presents criticism of Dickens's novel A Tale of Two Cities (1859). See also, Hard Times for These Times Criticism, Our Mutual Friend Criticism, and Little Dorrit Criticism.

A Tale of Two Cities was originally serialized in Dickens's own periodical, All the Year Round, in 1859 and chronicles the lives of a number of characters prior to and during the French Revolution. While immensely popular with the reading public, critical response to the novel was mixed. Perhaps the least characteristic of Dickens's works, A Tale of Two Cities prompted more than a few critics to note that the novel lacked the author's trademark humor and that, while it does address important social issues, the time and place depicted are far removed from the author's typical Victorian/Industrial Revolution era concerns. Nonetheless, despite its initial less-than-enthusiastic critical reception A Tale of Two Cities has come to occupy a central place in Dickens's body of work.

Plot and Major Characters

The novel's events begin in Paris, roughly fourteen years prior to the French Revolution. Dr. Alexandre Manette has been released from the Bastille after having been unjustly imprisoned for eighteen years for trying to bring two members of the noble St. Evrémonde family to trial for their crimes. His daughter, Lucie, whom he has not seen since she was a small child, has traveled to Paris from London with Jarvis Lorry, a family friend, to bring him home. Lucie and Lorry arrive in Paris at the wineshop of Monsieur and Madame Defarge, who are both active in the movement to incite a peasant revolution. Dr. Manette, now old, feeble, and too mentally impaired to recognize his daughter, has been staying in a room above the shop, where he works at a shoemaker's bench in the belief that he is a cobbler.

Five years later in London, the Manettes are called to testify in the treason trial of Charles Darnay, whom they had met during their return from France. Darnay, a French language tutor who is the nephew of the Marquis St. Evrémonde, has been accused of spying for the French. Darnay is acquitted when his attorney, C. J. Stryver, confuses a witness by presenting his law partner, Sydney Carton, who so closely resembles Darnay that the witness is unable to make a positive identification. Carton, who has a brilliant legal mind but suffers from alcoholism, becomes attracted to Lucie and through his feelings for her finds new direction in his life. Darnay, Carton, and Stryver, all of whom seek Lucie's hand in marriage, become frequent visitors at the Manette household, which is governed by Miss Pross. In the interim, the situation in France worsens as its citizens grow more angry and dissatisfied with the French aristocracy. Though Darnay has taken his mother's maiden name in an effort to shed his connection with his noble family, he feels compelled to return to France when his uncle runs down a peasant child with his carriage. Darnay pleads with his uncle to make amends for the past deeds committed by the family, but the Marquis refuses. Later that night, the Marquis is killed in his sleep by Gaspard, the father of the child he killed.

Darnay returns to England and asks Manette for his daughter's hand in marriage. He tries to reveal his true name to the old man, but Manette tells him to wait until the morning of his wedding day. Carton is also in love with Lucie, but she refuses his proposal of marriage. Carton tells her never to forget that he will do anything he can to help her and those she loves. Six years later, the Bastille is stormed and the French Revolution begins. Darnay again returns to France, this time in an effort to save a loyal family servant from the revolutionaries. When his true identity is discovered, Darnay is arrested and put on trial. Lucie and Dr. Manette come to Paris on his behalf, and Manette's sympathetic testimony at Darnay's trial succeeds; Darnay is released, but under condition that he remain in France. Shortly thereafter, Darnay is arrested again, accused of crimes against the people by Defarge and an unknown party. In an effort to help, Carton, Miss Pross, and Jerry Cruncher, an employee of Lorry's, arrive in Paris, where they encounter Miss Pross's long-lost brother, Solomon, whom Cruncher recognizes as John Barsad, the man who accused Darnay of being a spy almost fourteen years before. At Darnay's trial, Defarge testifies against him, claiming that Dr. Manette is the second accuser, presenting papers he recovered from Manette's cell in the Bastille in which Manette chronicled the various crimes of the St. Evrémonde family and showed how they were responsible for his imprisonment. Darnay is found guilty and sentenced to death. Carton blackmails Barsad, a prison turnkey, and gains access to Darnay's cell. He then drugs Darnay and has him taken away so that he may pose as the Frenchman and take his place. While attempting to prevent the Manettes from leaving Paris, Madame Defarge is shot and killed during a struggle with Miss Pross. Lucie and Darnay escape to England, and Carton sacrifices himself, taking Darnay's place at the guillotine.

Major Themes

For Dickens, prisons are symbolic of the grave—a comparison he makes throughout his works. Critics note that the prevalence of this theme may be related to Dickens's father's incarceration in debtors' prison. Coupled with this notion in A Tale of Two Cities is the possibility of resurrection: Manette is “resurrected” upon his release from the Bastille, and Carton, who serves as a Christ-figure in his act of self-sacrifice, essentially lives on in the form of his double, Darnay. Additionally, Dickens uses memory as a driving force in the novel, whether as an instrument of destruction or of hope. While it is the memory of the rape and deaths of her siblings that prompts Madame Defarge's hatred of the aristocrats, it is the memory of Manette's dead wife that begins the process of his resurrection from the grave of his prison and insanity. Carton, in fact, is referred to by Stryver as “Memory Carton” for his brilliant legal mind; Carton renounces the memory of his former life when he dies with the words, “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done.”

Critical Reception

Though A Tale of Two Cities was immensely popular with general readers, many of Dickens's contemporary critics found fault with the novel. These critical attacks essentially focused on three fronts: that the novel is flawed as history, mechanical and unrealistic in its construction, and uncharacteristic of Dickens. It is perhaps upon this last point that most critics choose to base their criticisms; many argue that the novel lacks the characteristic humor usually present in Dickens's work, and that the events with which it concerns itself are too far removed from the Victorian issues that Dickens typically chose to address. Rather than examine the novel on its own merits, these critics often fall into comparisons of A Tale of Two Cities with Dickens's other works. Regardless of the initial criticisms leveled at the novel, A Tale of Two Cities has come to receive a great deal of praise from modern critics, and it continues to be included on high school and college reading lists.

Principal Works

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

*Sketches by Boz, Illustrative of Every-Day Life and Every-Day People (sketches and short stories) 1836

The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, Edited by “Boz” (novel) 1836–[1838]

Oliver Twist; or, The Parish Boy's Progress, by “Boz” (novel) 3 vols. 1838

Memoirs of Joseph Grimaldi, Edited by “Boz” (novel) 2 vols. 1838

The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby (novel) 1839

Barnaby Rudge. A Tale of the Riots of 'Eighty (novel) 1841

The Old Curiosity Shop (novel) 1841

American Notes for General Circulation (travel essay) 1842

A Christmas Carol, in Prose: Being a Ghost Story of Christmas (short story) 1843

The Chimes: A Goblin Story of Some Bells That Rang an Old Year Out and a New Year In (short story) 1845

The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit (novel) 1844

The Cricket on the Hearth: A Fairy Tale of Home (short story) 1846

Pictures from Italy (travel essay) 1846

Dealings with the Firm of Dombey and Son, Wholesale, Retail, and for Exportation (novel) 1847

The Personal History of David Copperfield (novel) 1850

Bleak House (novel) 1853

Hard Tmes. For These Times (novel) 1854

Little Dorrit (novel) 1857

A Tale of Two Cities (novel) 1859

Great Expectations (novel) 1861

The Uncommercial Traveller (sketches and short stories) 1861

Our Mutual Friend (novel) 1865

No Thoroughfare [with Wilkie Collins] (drama) 1867

The Mystery of Edwin Drood (unfinished novel) 1870

Charles Dickens' Book of Memoranda: A Photographic and Typographic Facisimile of the Notebook Begun in January 1855 (notebook) 1981

*All of Dickens's novels were first published serially in magazines, usually over periods of one to two years.

Leonard Manheim (essay date 1970)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “A Tale of Two Characters: A Study in Multiple Projection,” in Dickens Studies Annual, Volume I, edited by Robert B. Partlow, Jr., Southern Illinois University Press, 1970, pp. 225-37.

[In the following essay, Manheim explores the duality of the main “character” in A Tale of Two Cities, arguing that Sydney Carton and Charles Darnay are essentially a single “Fantasy-Hero” who embodies Dickens's own ideal of himself.]

Dickens scholars have never been able to forgive A Tale of Two Cities its popularity—its very special kind of popularity. Pickwick Papers has survived the adulation of the special Pickwick cult; David...

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David D. Marcus (essay date 1976)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Carlylean Vision of A Tale of Two Cities,” in Charles Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities, edited by Harold Bloom, Chelsea House Publishers, 1987, pp. 23-35.

[In the following essay, first published in 1976, Marcus compares aspects of Thomas Carlyle's French Revolution with A Tale of Two Cities.]

A Tale of Two Cities is the most disparaged and least understood of Dickens's late novels. Overwhelmingly, the critics have judged the work a failure and dismissed it as intellectually superficial. According to this view, Dickens held only the most simpleminded view of history, and although the novel fictionalizes events whose memory haunted...

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Lawrence Frank (essay date 1979)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities: The Poetics of Impasse,” in American Imago, Vol. 36, No. 3, Fall, 1979, pp. 215-44.

[In the following essay, Frank states that the hero of the novel is not Sydney Carton, but Charles Darnay. Using Georg Lukacs's The Historical Novel, Frank argues that Darnay is a “modernist hero.”]

A Tale of Two Cities has, for too long, been Sydney Carton's novel. The sheer melodramatic force of his last, unspoken words continues to obscure the significance of Charles Darnay's moral and psychological dilemma. Of course, Darnay is all too often a prig, a bourgeois pilgrim en route, like David Copperfield, to a...

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Murray Baumgarten (essay date 1983)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Writing the Revolution,” in Dickens Studies Annual, Vol. 12, edited by Michael Timko, et al., AMS Press, 1983, pp. 161-76.

[In the following essay, Baumgarten examines the significance of writing in A Tale of Two Cities.]

Lives are saved by bits of paper on which a few words have been written in A Tale of Two Cities and they are also doomed by them. Letters of safe passage make it possible for Lucie and her father, Jarvis Lorry and Pross to leave France at the end of the novel; but no passport is available for Charles Darnay in his own name and he must use his double's. Madame Defarge's knitting is a deadly form of writing. Gaspard writes on the...

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J. M. Rignall (essay date 1984)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Dickens and the Catastrophic Continuum of History in A Tale of Two Cities,” in ELH, Vol. 51, No. 3, Fall, 1984, pp. 575-87.

[In the following essay, Rignall discusses the relationship between “narrative form and historical vision” in A Tale of Two Cities.]

It is not surprising that the most remembered scene in A Tale of Two Cities is the last, for this novel is dominated, even haunted, by its ending. From the opening chapter in which the “creatures of this chronicle” are set in motion “along the roads that lay before them,” while the Woodman Fate and the Farmer Death go silently about their ominous work, those roads lead with...

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Harland S. Nelson (essay date 1988)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Shadow and Substance in A Tale of Two Cities,” in The Dickensian, Vol. 84, Part 2, No. 415, Summer, 1988, pp. 96-106.

[In the following essay, Nelson argues that elements of The Substance and the Shadow, a romance by John Frederick Smith, influenced Dickens while writing A Tale of Two Cities.]

A Tale of Two Cities took Dickens a long time to tell, if we count the year and a half which John Forster says passed between the first ‘vague fancy’, which struck him while he was acting in Wilkie Collins's The Frozen Deep in August 1857, and March 1859, when ‘he fairly buckle[d] himself to the task he had contemplated so...

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Cates Baldridge (essay date 1990)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Alternatives to Bourgeois Individualism in A Tale of Two Cities,” in Studies in English Literature 1500-1900, Vol. 30, No. 4, Autumn, 1990, pp. 633-54.

[In the following essay, Baldridge explores an aspect of the French Revolution depicted in A Tale of Two Citiesthat he claims has been neglected by critics: the assertion that “the group, the class, the Republic—and not the individual—comprise, or should comprise, the basic unit of society.”]

Dickens's ambivalence toward the Revolution he depicts in A Tale of Two Cities has been the subject of much thoughtful comment, and over the past few decades a number of differing causes...

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Lisa Robson (essay date 1992)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The ‘Angels' in Dickens's House: Representation of Women in A Tale of Two Cities,” in Dalhousie Review, Vol. 72, No. 3, Fall, 1992, pp. 311-33.

[In the following review, Robson discusses Dickens's depiction of women in A Tale of Two Cities.]


A Tale of Two Cities is not a woman's text; indeed, there is little chance of its being mistaken for one. In his interpretation of the causes and effects of the French Revolution, Charles Dickens focusses on a patriarchal world of politics and historical development in which men dominate the scene, both privately and publicly. Yet several women characters factor rather...

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Tom Lloyd (essay date 1992)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Language, Love, and Identity: A Tale of Two Cities,The Dickensian, Vol. 88, No. 428, Part 3, Autumn, 1992, pp. 154-70.

[In the following essay, Lloyd discusses the “precarious nature of identity” illustrated by Dickens in A Tale of Two Cities.]

Thirty years ago G. Robert Stange criticized the ‘excessive artificiality’ of Charles Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities, writing that ‘its construction constantly calls attention to itself’ (74). Much has changed in the critical realm since 1957, for now this is exactly what commends the novel to the attention of those nurtured on post-structuralist ideas. A number of writers in recent years...

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Don Nardo (essay date 1997)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Promise of a Better Future: Dickens and A Tale of Two Cities,” in Readings on A Tale of Two Cities, edited by Don Nardo, Greenhaven Press, 1997, pp. 14-27.

[In the following essay, Nardo discusses Dickens's background and its influence on his writing.]

The scene is a scaffold in Paris during the French Revolution. A large crowd of spectators has gathered to watch the brutal beheading of a group of condemned prisoners, most of them French aristocrats or persons condemned as sympathizers or accomplices of the nobility. In one of the carts heading for the scaffold stands a man holding a young girl's hand. “Down Evrémonde!” comes a cry from the...

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John Gross (essay date 1998)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “A Tale of Two Cities: An Appealing but Flawed Novel,” in Readings on Charles Dickens, edited by Clarice Swisher, Greenhaven Press, 1998, pp. 141-45.

[In the following excerpt, Gross gives A Tale of Two Cities a mixed assessment, criticizing Dickens's lack of a sense of humor and his thin portrayal of society.]

A Tale of Two Cities ends fairly cheerfully with its hero getting killed. …

A Tale of Two Cities is a tale of two heroes. The theme of the double has such obvious attractions for a writer preoccupied with disguises, rival impulses, and hidden affinities that it is surprising that Dickens didn’t make...

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David Rosen (essay date 1998)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “A Tale of Two Cities: Theology of Revolution,” in Dickens Studies Annual, Vol. 27, edited by Stanley Friedman, et al, AMS Press, 1998, pp. 171-85.

[In the following essay, Rosen explores the religious imagery surrounding the acts of the revolultionaries in A Tale of Two Cities.]

At the Royal George Hotel in Dover, Mr. Lorry encounters, for the second time in his life, the heroine of the novel.

As his eyes rested on [her], a sudden vivid likeness passed before him, of a child whom he had held in his arms on the passage across that very Channel, one cold time, when the hail drifted heavily and the sea ran high. The...

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Further Reading

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)


Beckwith, Charles E., editor. Twentieth Century Interpretations of “A Tale of Two Cities.” Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1972, 122 p.

Collection of critical essays addressing a variety of themes in A Tale of Two Cities.

Collins, Philip, editor. Dickens: The Critical Heritage. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1971, 641 p.

Collection of critical reviews on Dickens's novels and articles, including A Tale of Two Cities.

Daleski, H. M. “Imagining Revolution: The Eye of History and of Fiction.” The Journal of Narrative Technique 18, No. 1 (Winter, 1988): pp. 61-72....

(The entire section is 444 words.)