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.
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.”
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.