A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

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What happens in A Tale of Two Cities?

In A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Darnay tries to escape his heritage as a French aristocrat in the years leading up to the French Revolution. During the Revolution, he's captured, but Sydney Carton, a man who looks like Darnay, takes his place and dies on the guillotine.

  • A Tale of Two Cities takes before and during the French Revolution. Jarvis Lorry is traveling to Paris to reunite Dr. Manette with his long-lost daughter Lucie.

  • Dr. Manette has been living in hiding in Paris, awaiting his rescuers who will return him to England.

  • Five years later, Lucie marries Charles Darnay who confesses to Dr. Manette that he is a member of the French ruling class. Charles is hoping to bury his past and begin a new life in England.

  • When Darnay returns to Paris to save a former servant, he is arrested by the revolutionaries and sentenced to death.

  • Sydney Carton, who resembles Darnay, trades places with him in prison and dies on the guillotine in his stead while Darnay returns to London.

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Summary

A Tale of Two Cities contrasts the social and political events taking place in Paris and London during (and prior to) the French Revolution in the mid-to-late eighteenth century. Dickens draws unsettling parallels between the two cities, describing abject poverty, appalling starvation, rampant crime, ruthless capital punishment, and aristocratic greed. The novel, which was published in three books during the mid-nineteenth century, retrospectively questions the degree to which the French revolutionaries of the late eighteenth century upheld Enlightenment-era ideals of rational thought, tolerance, constitutional government, and liberty.

Book the First: Recalled to Life

Book One opens in 1775 and focuses on the symbolic resurrection of Dr. Alexandre Manette, who has finally been released after an eighteen-year imprisonment in the Bastille. Lucie Manette (his dutiful seventeen-year-old daughter) and Jarvis Lorry (a business-minded bank clerk) retrieve him from a garret at the top of a wine shop in Paris. Dr. Manette cannot remember who he is, but he begins to recall his past life after seeing Lucie for the first time.

Book the Second: The Golden Thread

Book Two takes place five years after the events of Book One. It focuses on Charles Darnay, a French emigrant who denounces his aristocratic heritage for a new life in England. Darnay, whose real surname is Evrémonde, is on trial for treason—but is spared by the intervention of Sydney Carton, a young, alcoholic attorney who happens to be nearly identical to Darnay. Dr. Manette, who made a full recovery from his trauma-induced memory loss, builds a successful medical practice in his home near Soho. Darnay, unaware that his father and uncle were responsible for Dr. Manette’s long imprisonment, falls in love with Lucie Manette, and the two marry. The novel’s preoccupation with revolutionary sentiment deepens as the French peasantry buckles under increasing oppression from the aristocracy. The French Revolution begins, and Darnay decides to rescue his uncle’s longtime servant, Monsieur Gabette, from Paris.

Book the Third: The Track of a Storm

Book Three highlights the brutality of the French Revolution, particularly during the Reign of Terror in Paris between 1793 and 1794. Darnay, who cannot hide his aristocratic heritage, is imprisoned for the crimes of the Evrémondes. He is initially released (with the help of Dr. Manette, who rushed to Paris with Lucie after they learned about Darnay’s imprisonment) but is rearrested and sentenced to death. Ultimately, Sydney Carton, the irredeemable drunk, selflessly switches places with Darnay—sacrificing himself so Lucie, whom he loves, can return to London with her husband and daughter.

Summary

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

The early rumblings of the French Revolution are echoing across the English Channel when, in Paris, an old man waits in an attic for his first meeting with a daughter whom he has not seen since she was a baby. With the aid of Mr. Jarvis Lorry, an agent for...

(The entire section is 3,479 words.)