A Tale of Two Cities is a historical novel by Charles Dickens; it is moreover a moral novel strongly concerned with themes of guilt, shame and retribution. Dickens' primary source for this historical novel is Thomas Carlyle's The French Revolution. The narrative is extraordinarily dependant upon correspondence as a medium for ensuring the flow of events, and while not an epistolary novel in the way that Pierre Choderlos de la Clos' Les Liaisons Dangereuses is, nevertheless, it is immediately apparent that the flow of letters forms a driving center to much of the narrative development in this novel. The novel covers a period in history between 1757 and 1793, from the Seven Years War until the middle period of the French Revolution.
The plot centers around the years leading up to French Revolution, and culminates in the Jacobin Reign of Terror. It tells the story of two men, Charles Darnay and Sydney Carton, who look very alike, but are entirely different in character. Darnay is a romantic descended from French aristocrats, while Carton is a cynical English barrister. The two are in love with the same woman, Lucie Manette: one of them will give up his life for her, and the other.
Other major characters in the book include Dr Alexandre Manette (Lucie's father) who was unjustly imprisoned for many years prior to the commencement of the novel under a lettre de cachet and Madame Defarge, a female revolutionary with a grudge against Darnay's family.
The twists and turns in the novel are sinuous. Originally written as a serial novel for publication in newspapers, the chapters open and close with great drama and mystery. The coincidences at the end are painful constructions but Dickens' take on the French Revolution is balanced even while describing the horrors and atrocities committed on both sides.
The two cities of the title are London and Paris. The opening passage, beginning with the line, "It was the best of times. It was the worst of times," is one of the most famous in all literature. The final line, spoken by Sidney Carton, "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," is equally famous.
The novel begins with the banker, Jarvis Lorry's, journey from London to Dover by coach; while climbing the then notorious Shooter's Hill, he is overtaken by a messenger who brings him details of the discovery of Dr Manette, who had been imprisoned. His daughter, Lucy Manette, had been led to believe her father was dead; her mother had died when she was aged two, and had been brought from France to England where she was brought up. Lorry is en route to France on bank business and he sends back a cryptic message back to the bank by the same messenger "Recalled to Life". On arrival in Dover he checks in to a local hotel and awaits the arrival of Lucy Manette who is to travel to France with him. (Incidentally the bank Lorry works for, Tellson and Co., is based on the London Bank Child and Co.)
They are transported effortlessly to Paris, where Dickens engages in a hallmark Dickensian piece of metaphorical prefiguration: a cask of red wine spills onto the ground in a street in the Saint Antoine faubourg and the proletariat lap it from the cobbles; the character Gaspard daubs his finger in the wine and writes the word 'blood' on a convenient nearby whitewashed wall. Dr Manette is in the care of his former servant Ernest Defarge. The years spent in prison were unkind to Dr Manette; his body is wasted and his mind is gone; he is obsessionally engaged in making a pair of shoes and he gives his address as 105 North Tower, the cell in which he had been held in the Bastille. He is unable to recognise Lorry, a former friend, but is reminded of his dead wife by the appearance of his daughter and breaks down in tears, a reunion which Dickens milks for every cent of mawkishness. Lucy and Jerry Lorry then take Dr Manette back to England to look after him.
In London, Dr Manette recovers somewhat under the care and attention of his daughter. Charles Darnay an emigre is tried at the Old Bailey for spying but is released on account of the fact that the people implicating him are unable to discern the difference between him and his lawyer Sidney Carton. Carton is depicted unflatteringly as a drunkard; conversely Darnay is set out as a handsome and gallant victim of the unfair attentions of a deficient British legal process.
In Paris, the Marquis St. Evrémonde, a relative of Charles Darnay, returning from the opera in his coach runs over the child of the peasant Gaspard and kills him; he throws money to Gaspard; in the assembled crowd is the implacable face of the tricoteuse, Madame Defarge.
Charles Darnay returns to France to meet his uncle, the Marquis. Darnay and the Marquis' political positions are diametrically opposed: Darnay is a democrat and the Marquis is an adherent of the ancien regime. Dickens paints the Marquis black, as for example in this excerpt from their conversation:
- "There is not," pursued the nephew, in his former tone, "a face I can look at, in all this country round about us, which looks at me with any deference on it but the dark deference of fear and slavery."
- "A compliment," said the Marquis, "to the grandeur of the family, merited by the manner in which the family has sustained its grandeur. Hah!" And he took another gentle little pinch of snuff, and lightly crossed his legs.
- But, when his nephew, leaning an elbow on the table, covered his eyes thoughtfully and dejectedly with his hand, the fine mask looked at him sideways with a stronger concentration of keenness, closeness, and dislike, than was comportable with its wearer's assumption of indifference.
- "Repression is the only lasting philosophy. The dark deference of fear and slavery, my friend," observed the Marquis, "will keep the dogs obedient to the whip, as long as this roof," looking up to it, "shuts out the sky."
That night the Gaspard had his revenge upon the Marquis and murdered him in his sleep.
Returning to England, Darnay asks Dr Manette for his consent in wedding Lucie. Against Darnay's suit, Dickens complicates the matter by injecting that of Stryver, Carton's patron, by way of comic interlude, and more seriously that of Carton himself.
In Paris, Monsieur and Madame Defarge foment Jacobin sympathies; in her knitting, Madame Defarge enciphers the lists of those who are to be killed when the revolution occurs. They learn, from an informant within the police that a spy is to be quartered in Saint Antoine, John Barsad, one of those gave false testimony against Charles Darnay in his treason trial. Madame Defarge takes the long view as opposed to her husband who is desperate for immediacy in bringing on the revolution. The following morning Barsad entered the Defarge's wine shop; Madame Defarge recognised him instantly from the description which she had been given. Barsad is acting as an agent provocateur and strives to lure Madame Defarge into controversial conversation, trying to get her to discuss the impending execution of the unfortunate Gaspard who had been taken prisoner. During the course of his conversation, he mentions that Darnay is to be married to Lucie Manette.
On the morning of Darnay's marriage to Lucy Manette, Darnay, at Dr Manette's request, reveals who his family is, a detail which Dr Manette had asked him to withhold until such time. Unfortunately this unhinges Dr Manette who again reverts to his obsessional shoemaking. After some time, Jarvis Lorry is able to bring him around and he is restored to his right mind before Lucie returns from her honeymoon.
Later in time in the narrative, in mid-July 1789, Jarvis Lorry visits Lucie and Charles at home and tells them of the curious and inexplicable uneasiness in Paris. Dickens then promptly cuts to the Saint Antoine fauborg to enlighten the reader: they are storming the Bastille, Monsieur and Madame Defarge leading their cohorts into action. With the Bastille in their hands, Monsieur Defarge heads for the cell which contained Dr Manette. He finds his initials inscribed in the wall and digs down beneath them and uncovers a manuscript which Dr Manette had written in his confinement, condemning the Evremonts, pere et fils, for the wrongful imprisonment he had endured and the destruction of his family. Dickens' depiction of the seizure of the Bastille is nothing if not balanced; he portrays the joy of the prisoners at their release and does not shirk from detailing the cost which is exacted upon their jailers.
A letter arrives in the summer of 1792 at Tellson's bank, addressed to the heir of the Marquis of Evremonde, who is unknown to the bank, the secret of Darnay's true identity reposing between himself and Dr Manette. The letter is addressed from the Prison of the Abbaye, Paris, and recounts the tale of the imprisonment of one of the Marquis' retainers, Gabelle, and beseeches the new Marquis to come to his aid. By chance the letter falls into Darnay's possession. Darnay is, of course, being set up for a fall by Madame Defarge; like a true Dickensian patsy, he makes plans to travel to a revolutionary Paris in which the Terror runs bloody riot, blithely indifferent to the consequences of his actions. Jarvis Lorry is sent on ahead with a (cryptic) message to the imprisoned Gabelle that he is on his way.
In Beauvais, erstwhile home of Dr Manette, Darnay is denounced by the revolutionaries as an emigre,an aristo, and a traitor, however his military escort brings him safely to Paris where he is brought before a revolutionary tribunal where he is confronted by Defarge, who identifies Darnay as the Marquis d'Evremonde. He is consigned to prison, La Force.
Film and television adaptations
A Tale of Two Cities has been filmed at least 13 times for film and television. Notable productions:
- A Tale of Two Cities (http://www.dickens-literature.com/A_Tale_Of_Two_Cities/index.html) - searchable, indexed e-text.
- A Tale of Two Cities (http://www.charles-dickens.org/a-tale-of-two-cities/) - in easy to read HTML format.
- A Tale of Two cities (http://www.literature.org/authors/dickens-charles/two-cities/) - another easy to read HTML format
- Notes (http://www.enotes.com/twocities/) - excellent information on themes, characters etc.
- Chapter Summaries (http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/twocities/) - a lot of ads, but it'll get you up to speed quickly.
- Free eBook of A Tale of Two Cities (http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/98) at Project Gutenberg