illustration of a guillotine

A Tale of Two Cities

by Charles Dickens

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Key Plot Points

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Last Updated on July 9, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 782

Dr. Manette is “Recalled to Life” (Book the First: Chapters 1–4): The novel’s ongoing themes of social corruption and resurrection are immediately established when Jarvis Lorry learns that Dr. Manette has been liberated after more than a decade of imprisonment in France. Jarvis and Lucie, Dr. Manette’s daughter, retrieve Dr. Manette from Saint Antoine, where readers witness the grim oppression and poverty of the French peasants. Dickens foreshadows the French Revolution in his detailed description of red wine spilling into the streets of Saint Antoine. 

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Charles Darnay Escapes Execution in England (Book the Second: Chapter 3): The novel develops its theme of resurrection when Charles Darnay’s life is spared by Sydney Carton, Jarvis Lorry’s attorney. Sydney Carton and Charles Darnay are revealed as foils for each other: though the two are identical in appearance, Sydney is a lazy, unfriendly alcoholic, whereas Charles is an upstanding, polite gentleman. Dickens uses this interaction to foreshadow a repeated situation years later. 

The Marquis Evrémonde and the Corrupt Aristocracy (Book the Second: Chapters 7–9): Readers encounter the extent of the corruption and entitlement of the French aristocrats when the Marquis Evrémonde thoughtlessly runs over and kills a child in front of the Defarges’ wine shop in Saint Antoine. Far from repenting, he tosses a coin to the boy’s father, who angrily throws the coin back into the carriage. The Marquis, infuriated, rides away. The boy’s father, whose name is Gaspard, follows the Marquis to his country estate and murders him. 

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Jerry Cruncher “Resurrects” a Dead Body (Book the Second: Chapter 14): Jerry Cruncher is a “Resurrection-Man” whose son catches him “fishing,” a term Jerry uses for digging up freshly-buried bodies to sell for scientific research. It is important to the plot that the body Jerry attempts to unearth is that of Roger Cly, who becomes a prison spy during the French Revolution. We discover later in the novel that, instead of a body, Roger’s coffin is full of dirt and stones. 

Charles Darnay Reveals his Identity (Book the Third: Chapter 18): Charles Darnay reveals his long-hidden family identity on the evening before his marriage to Lucie Manette. Dr. Manette, who recognizes Charles’s true surname (Evrémonde), is visibly but inexplicably disturbed. Charles and Lucie marry, and Dr. Manette falls into a delusional state after they depart, forgetting his identity and making shoes as he did in prison. 

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The Bastille and Revolutionary Sentiment (Book the Second: Chapter 21): The long-foreshadowed French Revolution begins with the storming of the Bastille, where Ernest Defarge retrieves a letter that Dr. Manette wrote during his confinement. Dickens describes the outraged peasants of Saint Antoine, lead by the Defarges, as though they are intoxicated by a thirst for bloodshed. Together they beat the governor to death, and Madame Defarge uses her “cruel knife” to sever his head and mount it on a pike for display at the Bastille. Additional heads on pikes are stationed around the Bastille as the revolutionaries continue to inflict bloodshed. 

Charles Evrémonde’s Arrest (Book the Third: Chapters 1–5): The novel’s climactic resurrection begins with the opening of the novel’s third and most dramatic book. Charles Darnay/Evrémonde, who has returned to France to rescue his imprisoned servant, is arrested and sentenced to solitary confinement for emigration, which was considered a crime by the revolutionaries. Dr. Manette and Lucie Darnay unexpectedly arrive in France, surprising Jarvis Lorry at the Paris branch of Tellson’s Bank. Dr. Manette devises a plan to rescue Charles, which includes becoming a prison doctor. He quickly becomes popular with the revolutionaries, who trust him because he was imprisoned for so long in the Bastille. Charles is eventually put on trial and released when the jury discovers that the beloved Dr. Manette is his father-in-law. However, Charles is arrested again that evening when Ernest Defarge produces a letter denouncing the Evrémonde family. The letter was written many years ago by Dr. Manette, whose long imprisonment was the fault of Charles Darnay’s father. Charles is sentenced to death at the guillotine. 

The Final Resurrection (Book the Third: Chapters 9–15): The novel’s theme of resurrection concludes with Sydney Carton’s selfless act of switching places with Charles Darnay on the night before his execution. Sydney, who loves Lucie and wishes to redeem his past wrongdoings, thinks of the son that Charles and Lucie will have in the future— and name after him—thus fulfilling his resurrection into the form of a pure, innocent child capable of living an honorable life. Sydney’s uncharacteristic selflessness also establishes the novel’s ultimate suggestion that social redemption may be possible through sacrifice. 

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