A Tale of Two Cities Lesson Plans
by Charles Dickens

A Tale of Two Cities book cover
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A Tale of Two Cities Themes Lesson Plan

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Theme Revealed through Character Development:

This lesson plan focuses on how Dickens characterizes Charles Darnay and Sydney Carton and how their characterizations contribute to the development of major themes in the novel. Students will examine Darnay and Carton as literary foils and dynamic characters, and they will compare and contrast these characters’ feelings and motivations at key turning points in the text. In studying how the two protagonists change throughout the narrative, students will be better able to describe the novel’s major themes.

Learning Objectives:
By the end of this lesson, students will be able to

  • define and explain literary foils and describe Darnay’s and Carton’s characters as literary foils;
  • compare and contrast Darnay’s and Carton’s feelings and motivations at key turning points in the novel;
  • define and explain dynamic characters and explain how Darnay’s and Carton’s characters change as the plot develops and concludes;
  • identify and describe two major themes that can be drawn from how Darnay and Carton are characterized in the novel.

Skills: close reading, comparing and contrasting, drawing inferences from passages in the text, character analysis, drawing themes from the text

Common Core Standards: RL.9-10.1, RL.9-10.2, RL.9-10.3, SL.9-10.1

Introductory Lecture:

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times..." The beginning of A Tale of Two Cities is one of the most famous in world literature, and the novel is one of Dickens’s most popular works.

Much of the novel’s appeal can be attributed to its memorable setting, characters, and compelling plot. Two men who look remarkably alike, one a failed, alcoholic English attorney, the other a French aristocrat in hiding, fall in love with the same woman during the French Revolution. It should be noted that A Tale of Two Cities is Dickens’s only work of historical fiction and that the violence and horror of the French Revolution as it ensued in Paris is depicted with historically accurate details.  

Along with its two protagonists—the attorney Carton and the aristocratic Darnay—A Tale of Two Cities is structured around other contrasting dualities as well: the cities of London and Paris at the time of the revolution, the conflicting dual elements in Carton’s and Darnay’s characters, and the pairing of contrasting images, such as those of the guillotine and the cross. The novel features many of Dickens’s stylistic flourishes—biting satire, characters from all walks of life, laugh-out-loud comedy—but readers are most engaged by the novel’s romantic elements as Dickens’s characters are swept up in an adventure on two continents with life-or-death stakes and thrilling turns of events.

The themes in A Tale of Two Cities are better understood when the novel is placed in the context of the era when Dickens wrote it in 1859. At that time England was one of many nations in a state of rapid transition. European nations, such as Italy and Russia, were unifying, and the United States was careening toward the American Civil War that would result in a more powerful federal government. While historical analysis suggests that England was not headed toward the political revolution that Dickens and many of his contemporaries feared, they were living through the advent of a new, powerful entity: the nation-state. As feudal, agriculturally based economies gave way to modern industrialization, rapidly shifting demographics like those Dickens saw in London were the norm. In England as elsewhere, the educated middle classes and the lower classes were concerned that industrialists profiting from mass production would usurp the powers of government for their benefit while the working classes sank further into poverty.

Dickens found disturbing parallels between the growing social and economic unrest in England and the conflicts that plunged France into revolution and anarchy in 1789. He addresses them in A Tale of Two Cities by presenting his story of the French Revolution as an allegory. Through the parallel characterizations of Charles Darnay and Sydney Carton, Dickens examines the agency of individuals to find redemption by acting with courage against injustice in society; thus, personal sacrifice in the pursuit of a greater good emerges as a primary and universal theme in the novel. Whether read as an examination of moral behavior in times of crisis or a thrilling romantic adventure, A Tale of Two Cities continues to appeal to readers more than a century after Dickens wrote it and will no doubt endure as a remarkable work of historical fiction.

About this Document

Our eNotes Lesson Plans have been developed to meet the demanding needs of today’s educational environment. Each lesson incorporates collaborative activities with textual analysis, targeting discrete learning objectives. We've aligned all of these lessons to particular Common Core standards, and we list the specific standard met by each lesson. The main components of each plan include the following:

  • An introduction to the text
  • A step-by-step guide to lesson procedure
  • Previous and following lesson synopses for preparation and extension ideas
  • A collection of handouts and worksheets complete with answer keys

Each of these lesson plans focuses on promoting meaningful interaction, analytical skills, and student-centered activities, drawing from the Common Core Standards for English Language Arts and the expertise of classroom teachers. Each lesson includes an instructional guide on how to present the material, engage students in an activity, and conclude the class.