illustration of a guillotine

A Tale of Two Cities

by Charles Dickens

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Tellson & Co

Tellson & Co. English merchant bank with branches in London and Paris. The bank’s London office is dark, ugly, and staffed by old-fashioned bankers. Dickens describes the bank as resembling both a prison and a grave. As the oldest bank in England, Tellson’s is a symbol not only of English economic dominance but also of resistance to change. The bank’s London office is located “in the shadow” of Temple Bar, a large stone gateway which was used until 1780 to display on spikes the heads of executed criminals. The London office becomes a place of refuge for French aristocrats fleeing the violence of the revolution. In the yard of the bank’s Paris branch, the mob sharpens its weapons on a large grindstone, while the blood of already-executed victims drips from their clothes.

For Dickens, England is peaceful only on the exterior. Like France, it suffers from cruelty and widespread oppression of the majority of its population. The Old Regime in Europe comprises an upper class resistant to change and high-handed kings attempting to maintain the status quo. Dickens models Tellson’s Bank on Child and Company (founded in the seventeenth century on 1 Fleet Street and Thelusson’s Bank in Paris, in which a major financial adviser to King Louis XVI named Jacques Necker once worked).

*Saint Antoine

*Saint Antoine (sah[n]-tahn-twahn). Poor and densely populated district in Paris’s eastern suburb, where the attack on the Bastille takes place. It is an emotionally charged setting in which actions of violence and vengeance take place during the revolution. Descriptions of streets and buildings in Saint Antoine take on the character of the residents. It is at the main fountain in St. Antoine that a child is accidentally hit by the speeding coach of the marquis, who offers a few coins as a compensation for the child’s life.

Defarge’s Wine Shop

Defarge’s Wine Shop. Parisian wine shop which for Dickens is the eye of the storm that becomes the French Revolution. The shop serves as a meeting place for the leaders of the revolution. It is in front of the wine shop that one of the most memorable scenes in the novel takes place. A broken casket of wine results in neighborhood people rushing to salvage the precious drops of wine from the casket with their earthenware mugs, thus establishing not only an intoxicating brotherhood of blood but also one of wine.


*Bastille. Massive fortification in Paris that served as an armory and a prison for the four centuries preceding the French Revolution. Although it houses only four prisoners in 1789, the Bastille stands as a gargantuan symbol of the oppression of the Old Regime. In Cell 105, North Tower (a fictional creation), Dr. Manette languishes for eighteen years. As the revolution begins, a great firestorm surrounds the Bastille. Dickens borrows from Thomas Carlyle’s history The French Revolution (1837) in describing the storming of the Bastille in minute detail. It was at the Bastille that Defarge finds the letter from Dr. Manette that will later be used to condemn Darnay.

Château St. Evrémonde

Château St. Evrémonde (shah-toh sah[n]-tev-ray-MOHND). Sumptuous but heavily stoned mansion of the marquis. The villagers meet at the fountain at the château, and their rural poverty is stressed by Dickens. The descriptions of the stony home symbolize the coldness and inhumanity of the French aristocracy. The decadence of the marquis’ salon, at the château and in Paris, stands in stark contrast to the poverty of the general populace. It is the château life that Charles Darnay, the nephew of the marquis, rejects. Ultimately, after the assassination of the marquis, the château is destroyed by fire. Water boils in the fountain, followed by molten lead and iron; fountains symbolized life and also death for Dickens.


*Beauvais (boh-VAY). French province that was the center of the fourteenth century serf revolt against the aristocracy. The revolt was bloodily suppressed. The Defarges originate from Beauvais, and their blood lust is an attempt to gain retribution for historical crimes. Beauvais, which is thirty miles north of Paris, is also the hometown of Dr. Manette. It is in Beauvais, a symbol of the rural violence of the French Revolution, where Darnay is almost killed by an infuriated mob.

*Dover Road

*Dover Road. Filled with ruts and clouded with steamy mist and fog, this access road to the ferry leaving Dover for France is a dangerous road to travel. Dickens uses it as a symbol of the rampant lawlessness still a part of England. Shooter’s Hill, near the road, is a thickly wooded rise that is the scene of many robberies by highwaymen. The hill was so named because of the many armed robberies that took place in the vicinity. In the novel, Dickens discusses many roads, all of which have metaphorical significance. In short, Dickens attempts to portray England as similar to France in burglaries, highway robberies, and exploitation of the general population by the elite minority.

*Soho Square

*Soho Square. London neighborhood that is the site of the Manettes’ secure and peaceful household, which is located in a fashionable square laid out in 1681. It is here that Lucie hears footsteps in a rainstorm, a symbol of the threat of revolution within England. For Dickens, although England is just across the English Channel, it is relatively secure compared to events on the Continent.

*La Force

*La Force. Prison used during the French Revolution for the proceedings of the Revolutionary Tribunal courts. La Force was the scene of the 1792 September Massacres, in which more than 1,100 accused counterrevolutionaries were massacred. The killing of prisoners is meant by Dickens as an ironic contrast to the saving of prisoners at the Bastille, three years earlier. It is at La Force (and three other prisons) that Dr. Manette tends to the medical needs of inmates.


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Dickens sets A Tale of Two Cities primarily in Paris and London during one of the most turbulent periods of European history, the French Revolution. The novel covers events between 1775 and 1793, referring also to incidents occurring before that time. The French Revolution began in 1789 and continued in various forms through at least 1795. Dickens takes most of his historical perspective from The French Revolution (1837), a three-volume description and philosophical discussion by his friend Thomas Carlyle. Carlyle's view was not objective or well documented; his intention was argumentative and dramatic. He portrays vividly the suffering of the poor and especially the Reign of Terror, best symbolized by the guillotine. Dickens greatly admired Carlyle and his work, and he read The French Revolution many times. Like Carlyle, Dickens cared less for accurate history and factual presentation than for vivid descriptions and the meanings he found behind the events. He did not concern himself with the revolution's immediate political or economic causes but focused on the human suffering that he believed warped the very humanity of individuals on both sides of the battle lines.

On the eve of the French Revolution, national debts and aristocratic unwillingness to sacrifice forced heavy tax increases on a populace already living at near-subsistence levels. Bickering between King Louis XVI and leading aristocrats revealed that the king could not effectively enforce his will through the military. In 1787 and 1788 excessive exports of already-scarce food caused near starvation among the poorer classes, and a bumper grape harvest depressed prices and further reduced the buying power of poor agricultural workers. Then came the winter of 1788- 1789, probably the worst of the entire century. Inspired by political philosophers and the recent success of the American Revolution, many members of the middle and lower classes became increasingly hostile to the system that seemed to cause their suffering. During these years members of the poorer classes working toward revolutionary action referred to themselves as "Jacques," as do the patrons of the Defarges' shop in Dickens's novel. On July 14, 1789, a large group of Parisian citizens attacked the Bastille, the large central prison that symbolized to the populace the worst aristocratic offenses. Dickens describes this event in part 2, chapter 21 of A Tale of Two Cities. Chapter 22, in which Foulon, an aristocrat, is captured by a mob and cruelly executed, illustrates what happened in France during the months that followed, as local bastilles were attacked and aristocrats murdered. In chapter 23 Dickens shows peasants burning the chateau of Charles Darnay's uncle. Power struggles for control of the country—both political and philosophical—dominated the next few years. In August 1792, when Darnay leaves England for France, the dominant political group passed a series of laws renouncing monarchy and proclaiming death for any returning aristocrats. During the months that followed, this political group used the infamous guillotine to behead aristocrats and others who opposed their policies. As Dickens shows, it became very dangerous even to voice opinions contrary to the prevailing ideas. During this period approximately 300,000 people were jailed, and about 17,000 of these were executed.

Literary Style

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The chief characteristic of A Tale of Two Cities that sets it apart from Dickens's other novels is its historical setting. Most of the author's works comment on contemporary English society; A Tale of Two Cities does this, too, but not as directly as, say, David Copperfield or Great Expectations. Dickens contrasts late eighteenth-century Paris and London both to advance the plot and to draw conclusions about the nature of freedom and the redeeming power of love. The novel begins in England, and most of the first book takes place in that country. In the second book, chapters alternate between the English and the French settings, and the third is set almost entirely in France. "At the beginning of the novel," writes Ruth Glancy in A Tale of Two Cities: Dickens's Revolutionary Novel, "Dickens paints a grim picture of both countries. They both had kings who believed in their divine right to rule. English spirituality had deteriorated into communing with spirits and other superstitious practices.… France he says, was less given over to such spiritual revelations, but had instead a clergy that inflicted cruel punishments for minor offenses." In England minor legal offenses were often punished with hanging. At the end of the novel, Dickens contrasts the two countries in the persons of Frenchwoman Madame Defarge and Englishwoman Miss Pross; in the struggle, however, he portrays not the triumph of one country over another, but the triumph of love over hatred.


One of the most notable devices that Dickens uses in A Tale of Two Cities is the contrast of thesis and antithesis. The opening words of the novel introduce this conflict. Most of the major themes of the novel are summed up in these lines: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair." Characters mirror and oppose each other. For example, Madame Defarge's experiences mirror those of Dr. Manette. Defarge's sister is raped and her brother is murdered by the Marquis St. Evremonde; Manette witnesses the crime and is imprisoned by the aristocratic criminal. Ernest Defarge and Mr. Lorry mirror each other; they both regard themselves as businessmen and they both care for Dr. Manette. However, while Defarge becomes consumed by hate and will eventually die under the guillotine, Mr. Lorry is redeemed by his love for the Darnays and escapes France in their company. These conflicts, which Dickens pursues throughout the novel, are resolved by Sydney Carton's sacrifice for love of Lucie. He concludes with a positive statement of goodness: "It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done, it is a far, far better rest that I go to, than I have ever known."


The device of the doppelganger, or identical double, is central to A Tale of Two Cities. Charles Darnay and Sydney Carton are physically nearly identical, and some critics suggest that they are psychologically two sides of the same psyche. When Darnay is accused of spying and placed on trial in England, his lawyer, C. J. Stryver, secures his release. Stryver discredits the prosecution witness, who upon seeing Carton can no longer swear that Darnay was the man he saw spying. The climax of the novel, in which Carton takes Darnay's place on the execution grounds, is dependent on their close physical resemblance. The fact that both Carton and Darnay are in love with the same woman—Lucie Manett—echoes the physical resemblance between the two. In other ways, however, the two are opposed. Darnay, for instance, is consumed with the need to undo the evils that his uncle, the Marquis St. Evremonde, has inflicted on people. He makes his nearly-fatal trip to Paris in order to try to rescue Gabelle, a former family servant, but he is unsuccessful; he is caught, imprisoned, and sentenced to be executed. On the other hand Carton, who reveals to Lucie that he has previously lived a life of idleness, is successful in his bid to release Darnay from prison. Ironically Darnay, who has lived an upright, moral life, is successful only as a passive figure in his marriage. Carton, who has lived an immoral life of drunkenness and idleness, is successful in his activity, although the price of his success is his life.

Literary Qualities

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A Tale of Two Cities, though not typical of Dickens's writing in many ways, is a very strong novel. First, its remarkable use of language astounds the careful reader. The opening passage, beginning "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times," has become justly famous. Throughout the novel Dickens creates powerful moods, manipulates tone brilliantly, and portrays characters with unusual but precise descriptions (such as Miss Pross, whose hat looks like "a great Stilton cheese"). He satirizes pomposity, as in his account of the legal document accusing Darnay of spying "wickedly, falsely, traitorously, and otherwise evil-adverbiously." Dickens often describes characters metaphorically, then refers to them primarily by their metaphorical identifications thereafter. For example, he calls Carton the jackal for the lion Stryver, then refers to the two characters as jackal and lion for several chapters.

A Tale of Two Cities also provides excellent examples of literary devices. The novel abounds with symbols: spilled wine as blood, the knitting Madame Defarge as the classical Fates, the sunset making everything red and foreshadowing the aristocracy's bloody end. Especially powerful are Dickens's repeated references to water and storm imagery that foreshadows the approaching violence in France. Indeed, Dickens foreshadows events to come throughout the novel, and many students enjoy working out some of these patterns.

This novel also provides many examples of literary repetition. Numerous parallels ask readers to compare various characters and events. Such parallels include the trials, prisoners, and similarities between London and Paris or between English and French characters. Also, Dickens often juxtaposes chapters in such a way that he offers observant readers interesting contrasts or divergent treatments of similar subjects in consecutive chapters.

To fully appreciate Dickens's achievement, readers should keep in mind that, as with all his novels, he published A Tale of Two Cities serially in a magazine, in this case, one or two chapters each week. This means that once an installment had been published, he could not go back and revise it. By this point in his career, however, Dickens had learned to plan his novels out in detail before he began writing. Given the constraints of serial publication, A Tale of Two Cities is remarkably coherent and unified.

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Historical and Social Context