|Illustrator||Hablot Knight Browne (Phiz)|
|Cover artist||Hablot Knight Browne (Phiz)|
|Set in||London and Paris, 1775–93|
|Published||Weekly serial April – November 1859|
|Publisher||London: Chapman & Hall|
|LC Class||PR4571 .A1|
|Preceded by||Little Dorrit (1855–1857)|
|Followed by||Great Expectations (1860–1861)|
|Text||A Tale of Two Cities at Wikisource|
A Tale of Two Cities is an 1859 historical novel by Charles Dickens, set in London and Paris before and during the French Revolution. The novel tells the story of the French Doctor Manette, his 18-year-long imprisonment in the Bastille in Paris and his release to live in London with his daughter Lucie, whom he had never met. The story is set against the conditions that led up to the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror.
As Dickens' best-known work of historical fiction, A Tale of Two Cities is claimed to be one of the best-selling novels of all time. In 2003, the novel was ranked 63rd on the BBC's The Big Read poll. The novel has been adapted for film, television, radio, and the stage, and has continued to influence popular culture.
Book the First: Recalled to Life
Dickens opens the novel with a sentence that has become famous:
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, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
Plot of the first book
In 1775, a man flags down the nightly mail-coach en route from London to Dover. The man is Jerry Cruncher, an employee of Tellson's Bank in London; he carries a message for Jarvis Lorry, one of the bank's managers. Lorry sends Jerry back with the cryptic response "Recalled to Life", referring to Alexandre Manette, a French physician who has been released from the Bastille after an 18-year imprisonment. On arrival in Dover, Lorry meets Dr Manette's daughter Lucie and her governess, Miss Pross. Believing her father to be dead, Lucie faints at the news that he is alive. Lorry takes her to France for a reunion.
In the Paris neighbourhood of the Faubourg Saint-Antoine, Dr Manette has been given lodgings by his former servant Ernest Defarge and his wife Therese, the owners of a wine shop. Lorry and Lucie find him in a small garret where he spends much of his time distractedly and obsessively making shoes – a skill he learned in prison. Lorry and Lucie take him back to England.
Book the Second: The Golden Thread
Plot of the second book
In 1780, French émigré Charles Darnay is on trial in London for treason against the British Crown. The key witnesses against him are two British spies, John Barsad and Roger Cly. Barsad claims that he would recognise Darnay anywhere, but Darnay's lawyer points out that his colleague in court, Sydney Carton, bears a strong resemblance to the prisoner. With Barsad's testimony thus undermined, Darnay is acquitted.
In Paris, the hated and abusive Marquis St. Evrémonde orders his carriage driven recklessly fast through the crowded streets, hitting and killing a child. The Marquis throws a coin to the child's father, Gaspard, to compensate him for his loss; as the Marquis drives on, a coin is flung back into the carriage.
Arriving at his country château, the Marquis meets his nephew and heir, Darnay. Out of disgust with his aristocratic family, the nephew has shed his real surname (St. Evrémonde) and anglicised his mother's maiden name, D'Aulnais, to Darnay. He despises the Marquis' views that "Repression is the only lasting philosophy. The dark deference of fear and slavery ... will keep the dogs obedient to the whip, as long as this roof [looking up to it] shuts out the sky." That night, Gaspard creeps into the château and stabs and kills the Marquis in his sleep. He avoids capture for nearly a year, but is eventually hanged in the nearby village.
In London, Carton confesses his love to Lucie, but quickly recognises that she cannot love him in return. Carton nevertheless promises to "embrace any sacrifice for you and for those dear to you". Darnay asks for Dr Manette's permission to wed Lucie, and he agrees. On the morning of the marriage, Darnay reveals his real name and lineage to Dr Manette, facts that Manette had asked him to withhold until that day. The unexpected revelation causes Dr Manette to revert to his obsessive shoemaking. He returns to sanity before their return from honeymoon, and the whole incident is kept secret from Lucie.
As the years pass, Lucie and Charles raise a family in England: a son (who dies in childhood) and a daughter, little Lucie. Lorry finds a second home with them. Carton, though he seldom visits, is accepted as a close friend and becomes a special favourite of little Lucie.
In Paris in July 1789, the Defarges help to lead the storming of the Bastille, a symbol of royal tyranny. Defarge enters Dr Manette's former cell, One Hundred and Five, North Tower, and searches it thoroughly. Throughout the countryside, local officials and other representatives of the aristocracy are slaughtered, and the St. Evrémonde château is burned to the ground.
In 1792, Lorry travels to France to save important documents stored at Tellson's Paris branch from the chaos of the French Revolution. Darnay receives a letter from Gabelle, one of his uncle's former servants who has been imprisoned by the revolutionaries, pleading for the Marquis to help secure his release. Without telling his family or revealing his position as the new Marquis, Darnay also sets out for Paris.
Book the Third: The Track of a Storm
Plot of the third book
Shortly after Darnay's arrival in Paris, he is denounced as an illegal emigrated aristocrat and jailed in La Force Prison. Hoping to be able to save him, Dr Manette, Lucie and her daughter, Jerry, and Miss Pross all move to Paris and take up lodgings near those of Lorry.
Fifteen months later Darnay is finally tried, and Dr Manette – viewed as a popular hero after his long imprisonment in the Bastille – testifies on his behalf. Darnay is acquitted and released, but is re-arrested later that day.
While running errands with Jerry, Miss Pross is amazed to run into her long-lost brother Solomon. Now posing as a Frenchman, he is an employee of the revolutionary authorities and one of Darnay's gaolers. Carton also recognises him – as Barsad, one of the spies who tried to frame Darnay at his trial in 1780. Solomon is desperate to keep his true identity hidden, and by threatening to denounce him as an English spy Carton blackmails Solomon into helping with a plan.
Darnay's retrial the following day is based on new denunciations by the Defarges, and on a manuscript that Defarge had found when searching Dr Manette's prison cell. Defarge reads the manuscript to the tribunal. In it, Dr Manette had recorded that his imprisonment was at the hands of the Evrémonde brothers (Darnay's father and uncle) after he had tried to report their crimes. Darnay's uncle had kidnapped and raped a peasant girl. Her brother, first hiding his remaining younger sister, had gone to confront the uncle, who ran him through with his sword. In spite of the best efforts of Dr Manette, both the elder sister and the brother died. Dr Manette's manuscript concludes by denouncing the Evrémondes, "them and their descendants, to the last of their race." The jury takes that as irrefutable proof of Darnay's guilt, and he is condemned to die by the guillotine the next afternoon.
In the Defarges' wine shop, Carton discovers that Madame Defarge was the surviving sister of the peasant family, and he overhears her planning to denounce both Lucie and her daughter. He visits Lorry and warns him that Lucie and her family must be ready to flee the next day. He extracts a promise that Lorry and the family will be waiting for him in the carriage at 2 pm, ready to leave the very instant he returns.
Shortly before the executions are due to begin, Carton puts his plan into effect and, with Solomon's reluctant assistance, obtains access to Darnay's prison cell. Carton intends to be executed in Darnay's place. He drugs Darnay and trades clothes with him, then has Solomon carry Darnay out to the carriage where Lorry and the family are expecting Carton. They flee to England with Darnay, who gradually regains consciousness during the journey.
Meanwhile, Madame Defarge goes to Lucie's lodgings, hoping to apprehend her and her daughter. There she finds Miss Pross, who is waiting for Jerry so they can follow the family out of Paris. The two women struggle and Madame Defarge's pistol discharges, killing her outright and permanently deafening Miss Pross.
As Carton waits to board the tumbril that will take him to his execution, he is approached by another prisoner, a seamstress. Carton comforts her, telling her that their ends will be quick and that the worries of their lives will not follow them into "the better land where ... [they] will be mercifully sheltered." A final prophetic thought runs through his mind in which he visualises a better future for the family and their descendants.
Dickens closes with Carton's final prophetic vision as he contemplates the guillotine:
I see Barsad, and Cly, Defarge, The Vengeance [a lieutenant of Madame Defarge], the Juryman, the Judge, long ranks of the new oppressors who have risen on the destruction of the old, perishing by this retributive instrument, before it shall cease out of its present use. I see a beautiful city and a brilliant people rising from this abyss, and, in their struggles to be truly free, in their triumphs and defeats, through long years to come, I see the evil of this time and of the previous time of which this is the natural birth, gradually making expiation for itself and wearing out.
I see the lives for which I lay down my life, peaceful, useful, prosperous and happy, in that England which I shall see no more. I see Her with a child upon her bosom, who bears my name. I see her father, aged and bent, but otherwise restored, and faithful to all men in his healing office, and at peace. I see the good old man [Lorry], so long their friend, in ten years' time enriching them with all he has, and passing tranquilly to his reward.
I see that I hold a sanctuary in their hearts, and in the hearts of their descendants, generations hence. I see her, an old woman, weeping for me on the anniversary of this day. I see her and her husband, their course done, lying side by side in their last earthly bed, and I know that each was not more honoured and held sacred in the other's soul than I was in the souls of both.
I see that child who lay upon her bosom and who bore my name, a man winning his way up in that path of life which once was mine. I see him winning it so well, that my name is made illustrious there by the light of his. I see the blots I threw upon it, faded away. I see him, fore-most of just judges and honoured men, bringing a boy of my name, with a forehead that I know and golden hair, to this place—then fair to look upon, with not a trace of this day's disfigurement—and I hear him tell the child my story, with a tender and a faltering voice.
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.
In order of appearance:
Book the First (November 1775)
- Jerry Cruncher: Porter and messenger for Tellson's Bank and secret "Resurrection Man" (body-snatcher); though rough and abusive towards his wife, he provides courageous service to the Manettes in Book the Third. His first name is short for Jeremiah; the latter name shares a meaning with the name of Jarvis Lorry.
- Jarvis Lorry: A manager at Tellson's Bank: "...a gentleman of 60 ... Very orderly and methodical he looked ... He had a good leg, and was a little vain of it..." He is a dear friend of Dr Manette and serves as a sort of trustee and guardian of the Manette family. The bank places him in charge of the Paris branch during the Revolution, putting him in position to provide life-saving service to the Manettes in Book the Third. The end of the book reveals that he lives to be 88.
- Lucie Manette: Daughter of Dr Manette; an ideal pre-Victorian lady, perfect in every way. About 17 when the novel begins, she is described as short and slight with a "pretty figure, a quantity of golden hair, a pair of blue eyes..." Although Sydney Carton is in love with her, he declares himself an unsuitable candidate for her hand in marriage and instead she marries Charles Darnay, with whom she is very much in love, and bears him a daughter. However, Lucie genuinely cares about Carton's welfare and defends him when he is criticised by others. She is the "golden thread" after whom Book the Second is named, so called because she holds her father's and her family's lives together (and because of her blonde hair like her mother's). She also ties nearly every character in the book together.
- Monsieur Defarge: Given name Ernest, he is the owner of a Paris wine shop and leader of the Jacquerie. "A bull-necked, martial-looking man of thirty ... He was a dark man altogether, with good eyes and a good bold breadth between them." He is devoted to Dr Manette having been his servant as a youth. One of the key Revolutionary leaders, in which he is known as Jacques Four, he embraces the Revolution as a noble cause, unlike many other revolutionaries. Though he truly believes in the principles of the Revolution, Defarge is far more moderate than some of the other participants (notably his wife).
- Madame Defarge: Given name Thérèse; a vengeful female Revolutionary, she is arguably the novel's antagonist and is presented as a more extreme and bloodthirsty personality than her husband Ernest. "There were many women at that time, upon whom the time laid a dreadfully disfiguring hand; but, there was not one among them more to be dreaded than this ruthless woman ... Of a strong and fearless character, of shrewd sense and readiness, of great determination, of that kind of beauty which not only seems to impart to its possessor firmness and animosity, but to strike into others an instinctive recognition of those qualities." The source of her implacable hatred of the Evrémonde family is revealed late in the novel to be the rape of her sister and killing of her brother when she was a child.
- Jacques One, Two, and Three: Revolutionary compatriots of Ernest Defarge. Jacques Three is especially bloodthirsty and serves as a juryman on the Revolutionary Tribunals.
- Dr Alexandre Manette: Lucie's father; when the book opens, he has just been released after a ghastly 18 years as a prisoner in the Bastille. Weak, afraid of sudden noises, barely able to carry on a conversation, he is taken in by his faithful former servant Defarge who then turns him over to Jarvis Lorry and the daughter he has never met. He achieves recovery and contentment with her, her eventual husband Charles Darnay, and their little daughter. All his happiness is put at risk in Book the Third when Madame Defarge resolves to send Evrémonde/Darnay to the guillotine, regardless of his having renounced the Evrémondes' wealth and cruelty. At the same time, the reader learns the cause of Dr Manette's imprisonment: he had rendered medical care to Madame Defarge's brother and sister following the injuries inflicted on them by the Evrémonde twins back in 1757; the Evrémondes decided he couldn't be allowed to expose them.
Book the Second (Five years later)
- Mrs Cruncher: Wife of Jerry Cruncher. She is a very religious woman, but her husband, somewhat paranoid, claims she is praying (what he calls "flopping") against him, and that is why he does not often succeed at work. Jerry often verbally and, almost as often, physically abuses her, but at the end of the story, he appears to feel somewhat guilty about this.
- Young Jerry Cruncher: Son of Jerry and Mrs Cruncher. Young Jerry often follows his father around to his father's odd jobs, and at one point in the story, follows his father at night and discovers that his father is a Resurrection Man. Young Jerry looks up to his father as a role model and aspires to become a Resurrection Man himself when he grows up.
- Charles Darnay: A Frenchman of the noble Evrémonde family; "...a young man of about five-and-twenty, well-grown and well-looking, with a sunburnt cheek and a dark eye." When introduced, he is on trial for his life at the Old Bailey on charges of spying on behalf of the French crown. In disgust at the cruelty of his family to the French peasantry, he took on the name "Darnay" (after his mother's maiden name, D'Aulnais) and left France for England. He and Lucie Manette fall deeply in love, they marry, and she gives birth to a daughter. He exhibits an admirable honesty in his decision to reveal to Dr Manette his true identity as a member of the infamous Evrémonde family. He puts his family's happiness at risk with his courageous decision to return to Paris to save the imprisoned Gabelle, who, unbeknownst to him, has been coerced into luring him there. Once in Paris, he is stunned to discover that, regardless of his rejection of his family's exploitative and abusive record, he is imprisoned incommunicado simply for being an aristocrat. Released after the testimony of Dr Manette, he is re-arrested and sentenced to be guillotined owing to Madame Defarge's undying hatred of all Evrémondes. This death sentence provides the pretext for the novel's climax.
- John Barsad (real name Solomon Pross): An informer in London and later employed by the Marquis St. Evrémonde. When introduced at Charles Darnay's trial, he is giving damning evidence against the defendant but it becomes clear to the reader that he is an oily, untrustworthy character. Moving to Paris he takes service as a police spy in the Saint Antoine district, under the French monarchy. Following the Revolution, he becomes an agent for Revolutionary France (at which point he must hide his British identity). Although a man of low character, his position as a spy allows him to arrange for Sydney Carton's final heroic act (after Carton blackmails him with revealing his duplicity).
- Roger Cly: Barsad's collaborator in spying and giving questionable testimony. Following his chaotic funeral procession in Book the Second, Chapter 14, his coffin is dug up by Jerry Cruncher and his fellow Resurrection Men. In Book the Third, Jerry Cruncher reveals that in fact the casket contained only rocks and that Cly was clearly still alive and no doubt carrying on his spying activities.
- Mr Stryver: An ambitious barrister, senior partner to Sydney Carton. "... a man of little more than thirty, but looking twenty years older than he was, stout, loud, red, bluff, and free from any drawback of delicacy..."; he wants to marry Lucie Manette because he believes that she is attractive enough. However, he is not truly in love with her and in fact treats her condescendingly. Jarvis Lorry suggests that marrying Lucie would be unwise and Stryver, after thinking it over, talks himself out of it, later marrying a rich widow instead.
- Sydney Carton: A quick-minded and highly intelligent but depressed English barrister, referred to by Dickens as "The Jackal" because of his deference to Stryver. When introduced, he is a hard-drinking cynic, having watched Stryver advance while never taking advantage of his own considerable gifts: Dickens writes that the sun rose "upon no sadder sight than the man of good abilities and good emotions, incapable of their directed exercise, incapable of his own help and his own happiness, sensible to the blight on him, and resigning himself to let it eat him away." In love with Lucie Manette, she cares about him but more as a concerned mother figure than a potential mate. He ultimately becomes a selfless hero, redeeming everything by sacrificing his life for a worthy cause.
- Miss Pross: Lucie Manette's governess since Lucie was 10 years old: "... one of those unselfish creatures—found only among women—who will, for pure love and admiration, bind themselves willing slaves, to youth when they have lost it, to beauty that they never had..." She is fiercely loyal to Lucie and to England. She believes her long-lost brother Solomon, now the spy and perjurer John Barsad, is "the one man worthy of Ladybird," ignoring the fact that he "was a heartless scoundrel who had stripped her of everything she possessed, as a stake to speculate with, and had abandoned her in her poverty for evermore..." She is not afraid to physically fight those she believes are endangering the people she loves. She permanently loses her hearing when the fatal pistol shot goes off during her climactic fight with Madame Defarge.
It took four men, all four a-blaze with gorgeous decoration, and the Chief of them unable to exist with fewer than two gold watches in his pocket, emulative of the noble and chaste fashion set by Monseigneur, to conduct the happy chocolate to Monseigneur's lips.
It was impossible for Monseigneur to dispense with one of these attendants on the chocolate and hold his high place under the admiring Heavens. Deep would have been the blot upon his escutcheon if his chocolate had been ignobly waited on by only three men; he must have died of two.
And who among the company at Monseigneur's reception in that seventeen hundred and eightieth year of our Lord, could possibly doubt, that a system rooted in a frizzled hangman, powdered, gold-laced, pumped, and white-silk stockinged, would see the very stars out!
- "Monseigneur": An unnamed generic aristocrat whose extraordinary decadence and self-absorption, described in detail, are used by Dickens to characterise the ancien régime in general. "The leprosy of unreality disfigured every human creature in attendance upon Monseigneur." His fellow nobles also luxuriate in vast wealth, but this does not inoculate them from feeling envy and resentment: as the Marquis St. Evrémonde leaves Monseigneur's house "with his hat under his arm and his snuff-box in his hand", he turns to the latter's bedroom and quietly says, "I devote you ... to the Devil!" When the Revolution begins, Monseigneur puts on his cook's clothing and ignominiously flees, escaping with only his life.
- Marquis St. Evrémonde: Uncle of Charles Darnay: "...a man of about sixty, handsomely dressed, haughty in manner, and with a face like a fine mask." Determined to preserve the traditional prerogatives of the nobility until the end of his life, he is the twin brother of Charles Darnay's late father; both men were exceptionally arrogant and cruel to peasants. Lamenting reforms which have imposed some restraints on the abusive powers of his class, the Marquis is out of favour at the royal court at the time of his assassination. Murdered in his bed by the peasant Gaspard.
- Gaspard: A peasant whose child is run over and killed by the Marquis St. Evrémonde's carriage. He plunges a knife into Evrémonde's heart, pinning a note that reads, "Drive him fast to his tomb," a reference to the careless speed that caused his little child's death. After being in hiding for a year, he is found, arrested, and executed.
- The Mender of Roads: A peasant who later works as a woodsawyer; the Defarges bring him into a conspiracy against the aristocracy, where he is referred to as Jacques Five.
- Théophile Gabelle: Gabelle is "the Postmaster, and some other taxing functionary, united" for the tenants of the Marquis St. Evrémonde. Gabelle is imprisoned by the revolutionaries, and his beseeching letter brings Darnay to France. Gabelle is "named after the hated salt tax".
Book the Third (Autumn 1792)
- The Vengeance: A companion of Madame Defarge referred to as her "shadow" and lieutenant, a member of the sisterhood of women revolutionaries in Saint Antoine, and Revolutionary zealot. (Many Frenchmen and women did change their names to show their enthusiasm for the Revolution.) Carton predicts that the Vengeance, Defarge, Cly, and Barsad will be consumed by the Revolution and end up on the guillotine.
- The Seamstress: "...a young woman, with a slight girlish form, a sweet spare face in which there was no vestige of colour, and large widely opened patient eyes..." Having been caught up in The Terror, she strikes up a conversation with the man she assumes is Evrémonde in the large room where the next day's guillotine victims are gathered. When she realises that another man has taken Charles Darnay's place, she admires his sacrifice and asks if she can hold his hand during their tumbril ride to the place of execution.
While performing in The Frozen Deep, Dickens was given a play to read called The Dead Heart by Watts Phillips which had the historical setting, the basic storyline, and the climax that Dickens used in A Tale of Two Cities. The play was produced while A Tale of Two Cities was being serialised in All the Year Round and led to talk of plagiarism.
Other sources are The French Revolution: A History by Thomas Carlyle (especially important for the novel's rhetoric and symbolism); Zanoni by Edward Bulwer-Lytton; The Castle Spector by Matthew Lewis; Travels in France by Arthur Young; and Tableau de Paris by Louis-Sébastien Mercier. Dickens also used material from an account of imprisonment during the Terror by Beaumarchais, and records of the trial of a French spy published in The Annual Register.
The 45-chapter novel was published in 31 weekly instalments in Dickens' new literary periodical titled All the Year Round. From April 1859 to November 1859, Dickens also republished the chapters as eight monthly sections in green covers. All but three of Dickens' previous novels had appeared as monthly instalments prior to publication as books. The first weekly instalment of A Tale of Two Cities ran in the first issue of All the Year Round on 30 April 1859. The last ran 30 weeks later, on 26 November.
Dickens uses literal translations of French idioms for characters who cannot speak English, such as "What the devil do you do in that galley there?!!" and "Where is my wife? … Here you see me." The Penguin Classics edition of the novel notes that "Not all readers have regarded the experiment as a success."
J. L. Borges quipped: "Dickens lived in London. In his book A Tale of Two Cities, based on the French Revolution, we see that he really could not write a tale of two cities. He was a resident of just one city: London." London itself has two cities, Westminster and London.
In Dickens' England, resurrection always sat firmly in a Christian context. Most broadly, Sydney Carton is resurrected in spirit at the novel's close (even as he, paradoxically, gives up his physical life to save Darnay's). More concretely, "Book the First" deals with the rebirth of Dr Manette from the living death of his incarceration.
Resurrection appears for the first time when Mr Lorry replies to the message carried by Jerry Cruncher with the words "Recalled to Life". Resurrection also appears during Mr Lorry's coach ride to Dover, as he constantly ponders a hypothetical conversation with Dr Manette: ("Buried how long?" "Almost eighteen years." ... "You know that you are recalled to life?" "They tell me so.") He believes he is helping with Dr Manette's revival and imagines himself "digging" up Dr Manette from his grave.
Resurrection is a major theme in the novel. In Jarvis Lorry's thoughts of Dr Manette, resurrection is first spotted as a theme. It is also the last theme: Carton's sacrifice. Dickens originally wanted to call the entire novel Recalled to Life. (This instead became the title of the first of the novel's three "books".) Jerry is also part of the recurring theme: he himself is involved in death and resurrection in ways the reader does not yet know. The first piece of foreshadowing comes in his remark to himself: "You'd be in a blazing bad way, if recalling to life was to come into fashion, Jerry!" The black humour of this statement becomes obvious only much later on. Five years later, one cloudy and very dark night (in June 1780), Mr Lorry reawakens the reader's interest in the mystery by telling Jerry it is "Almost a night ... to bring the dead out of their graves". Jerry responds firmly that he has never seen the night do that.
It turns out that Jerry Cruncher's involvement with the theme of resurrection is that he is what the Victorians called a "Resurrection Man", one who (illegally) digs up dead bodies to sell to medical men (there was no legal way to procure cadavers for study at that time).
The opposite of resurrection is of course death. Death and resurrection appear often in the novel. Dickens is angered that in France and England, courts hand out death sentences for insignificant crimes. In France, peasants had formerly been put to death without any trial, at the whim of a noble. The Marquis tells Darnay with pleasure that "[I]n the next room (my bedroom), one fellow ... was poniarded on the spot for professing some insolent delicacy respecting his daughter—his daughter!"
The demolition of Dr Manette's shoe-making workbench by Miss Pross and Mr Lorry is described as "the burning of the body". It seems clear that this is a rare case where death or destruction (the opposite of resurrection) has a positive connotation since the "burning" helps liberate the doctor from the memory of his long imprisonment. But Dickens' description of this kind and healing act is strikingly odd:
So wicked do destruction and secrecy appear to honest minds, that Mr Lorry and Miss Pross, while engaged in the commission of their deed and in the removal of its traces, almost felt, and almost looked, like accomplices in a horrible crime.
Sydney Carton's martyrdom atones for all his past wrongdoings. He even finds God during the last few days of his life, repeating Christ's soothing words, "I am the resurrection and the life". Resurrection is the dominant theme of the last part of the novel. Darnay is rescued at the last moment and recalled to life; Carton chooses death and resurrection to a life better than that which he has ever known: "it was the peacefullest man's face ever beheld there ... he looked sublime and prophetic".
In the broadest sense, at the end of the novel, Dickens foresees a resurrected social order in France, rising from the ashes of the old one.
Hans Biedermann writes that water "is the fundamental symbol of all the energy of the unconscious—an energy that can be dangerous when it overflows its proper limits (a frequent dream sequence)." This symbolism suits Dickens' novel; in A Tale of Two Cities, the frequent images of water stand for the building anger of the peasant mob, an anger that Dickens sympathizes with to a point, but ultimately finds irrational and even animalistic.
Early in the book, Dickens suggests this when he writes, "[T]he sea did what it liked, and what it liked was destruction." The sea here represents the coming mob of revolutionaries. After Gaspard murders the Marquis, he is "hanged there forty feet high—and is left hanging, poisoning the water." The poisoning of the well represents the bitter impact of Gaspard's execution on the collective feeling of the peasants.
After Gaspard's death, the storming of the Bastille is led (from the St. Antoine neighbourhood, at least) by the Defarges; "As a whirlpool of boiling waters has a centre point, so, all this raging circled around Defarge's wine shop, and every human drop in the cauldron had a tendency to be sucked towards the vortex..." The crowd is envisioned as a sea. "With a roar that sounded as if all the breath in France had been shaped into a detested word [the word Bastille], the living sea rose, wave upon wave, depth upon depth, and overflowed the city..."
Darnay's jailer is described as "unwholesomely bloated in both face and person, as to look like a man who had been drowned and filled with water." Later, during the Reign of Terror, the revolution had grown "so much more wicked and distracted ... that the rivers of the South were encumbered with bodies of the violently drowned by night..." Later a crowd is "swelling and overflowing out into the adjacent streets ... the Carmagnole absorbed them every one and whirled them away."
During the fight with Miss Pross, Madame Defarge clings to her with "more than the hold of a drowning woman". Commentators on the novel have noted the irony that Madame Defarge is killed by her own gun, and perhaps Dickens means by the above quote to suggest that such vicious vengefulness as Madame Defarge's will eventually destroy even its perpetrators.
So many read the novel in a Freudian light, as exalting the (British) superego over the (French) id. Yet in Carton's last walk, he watches an eddy that "turned and turned purposeless, until the stream absorbed it, and carried it onto the sea"—his fulfilment, while masochistic and superego-driven, is nonetheless an ecstatic union with the subconscious.
Darkness and light
As is frequent in European literature, good and evil are symbolized by light and darkness. Lucie Manette is the light, as represented literally by her name; and Madame Defarge is darkness. Darkness represents uncertainty, fear, and peril. It is dark when Mr Lorry rides to Dover; it is dark in the prisons; dark shadows follow Madame Defarge; dark, gloomy doldrums disturb Dr Manette; his capture and captivity are shrouded in darkness; the Marquis' estate is burned in the dark of night; Jerry Cruncher raids graves in the darkness; Charles' second arrest also occurs at night. Both Lucie and Mr Lorry feel the dark threat that is Madame Defarge. "That dreadful woman seems to throw a shadow on me," remarks Lucie. Although Mr Lorry tries to comfort her, "the shadow of the manner of these Defarges was dark upon himself". Madame Defarge is "like a shadow over the white road", the snow symbolising purity and Madame Defarge's darkness corruption. Dickens also compares the dark colour of blood to the pure white snow: the blood takes on the shade of the crimes of its shedders.
Charles Dickens was a champion of the poor in his life and in his writings. His childhood included some of the pains of poverty in England, as he had to work in a factory as a child to help his family. His father, John Dickens, continually lived beyond his means and eventually went to debtors' prison. Charles was forced to leave school and began working ten-hour days at Warren's Blacking Warehouse, earning six shillings a week.
Dickens considered the workings of a mob, in this novel and in Barnaby Rudge, creating believable characters who act differently when the mob mentality takes over. The reasons for revolution by the lower classes are clear, and given in the novel. Some of his characters, notably Madame Defarge, have no limit to their vengeance for crimes against them. The Reign of Terror was a horrific time in France, and she gives some notion for how things went too far from the perspective of the citizens, as opposed to the actions of the de facto government in that year. Dickens does not spare his descriptions of mob actions, including the night Dr Manette and his family arrive at Tellson's bank in Paris to meet Mr Lorry, saying that the people in the vicious crowd display "eyes which any unbrutalized beholder would have given twenty years of life, to petrify with a well-directed gun".
The reader is shown that the poor are brutalised in France and England alike. As crime proliferates, the executioner in England is
- stringing up long rows of miscellaneous criminals; now hanging housebreaker ... now burning people in the hand" or hanging a broke man for stealing sixpence. In France, a boy is sentenced to have his hands removed and be burned alive, only because he did not kneel down in the rain before a parade of monks passing some fifty yards away. At the lavish residence of Monseigneur, we find "brazen ecclesiastics of the worst world worldly, with sensual eyes, loose tongues, and looser lives ... Military officers destitute of military knowledge ... [and] Doctors who made great fortunes ... for imaginary disorders".
This incident is fictional, but is based on a true story related by Voltaire in a famous pamphlet, An Account of the Death of the Chevalier de la Barre.
So riled is Dickens at the brutality of English law that he depicts some of its punishments with sarcasm: "the whipping-post, another dear old institution, very humanising and softening to behold in action". He faults the law for not seeking reform: "Whatever is, is right" is the dictum of the Old Bailey.
Dickens wants his readers to be careful that the same revolution that so damaged France will not happen in Britain, which (at least at the beginning of the book) is shown to be nearly as unjust as France; Ruth Glancy has argued that Dickens portrays France and England as nearly equivalent at the beginning of the novel, but that as the novel progresses, England comes to look better and better, climaxing in Miss Pross' pro-Britain speech at the end of the novel. But his warning is addressed not to the British lower classes, but to the aristocracy. He repeatedly uses the metaphor of sowing and reaping; if the aristocracy continues to plant the seeds of a revolution through behaving unjustly, they can be certain of harvesting that revolution in time. The lower classes do not have any agency in this metaphor: they simply react to the behaviour of the aristocracy. In this sense it can be said that while Dickens sympathizes with the poor, he identifies with the rich: they are the book's audience, its "us" and not its "them". "Crush humanity out of shape once more, under similar hammers, and it will twist itself into the same tortured forms. Sow the same seed of rapacious licence and oppression over again, and it will surely yield the same fruit according to its kind".
With the people starving and begging the Marquis for food, his uncharitable response is to let the people eat grass; the people are left with nothing but onions to eat and are forced to starve while the nobles are living lavishly upon the people's backs. Every time the nobles refer to the life of the peasants it is only to destroy or humiliate the poor.
Some have argued that in A Tale of Two Cities Dickens reflects on his recently begun affair with eighteen-year-old actress Ellen Ternan, which was possibly platonic but certainly romantic. Lucie Manette has been noted as resembling Ternan physically.
After starring in a play by Wilkie Collins titled The Frozen Deep, Dickens was first inspired to write Tale. In the play, Dickens played the part of a man who sacrifices his own life so that his rival may have the woman they both love; the love triangle in the play became the basis for the relationships among Charles Darnay, Lucie Manette, and Sydney Carton in Tale.
Sydney Carton and Charles Darnay may bear importantly on Dickens' personal life. The plot hinges on the near-perfect resemblance between Sydney Carton and Charles Darnay; the two look so alike that Carton twice saves Darnay through the inability of others to tell them apart. Carton is Darnay made bad. Carton suggests as much:
'Do you particularly like the man [Darnay]?' he muttered, at his own image [which he is regarding in a mirror]; 'why should you particularly like a man who resembles you? There is nothing in you to like; you know that. Ah, confound you! What a change you have made in yourself! A good reason for talking to a man, that he shows you what you have fallen away from and what you might have been! Change places with him, and would you have been looked at by those blue eyes [belonging to Lucie Manette] as he was, and commiserated by that agitated face as he was? Come on, and have it out in plain words! You hate the fellow.'
Many have felt that Carton and Darnay are doppelgängers, which Eric Rabkin defines as a pair "of characters that together, represent one psychological persona in the narrative". If so, they would prefigure such works as Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Darnay is worthy and respectable but dull (at least to most modern readers), Carton disreputable but magnetic.
One can only suspect whose psychological persona it is that Carton and Darnay together embody (if they do), but it is often thought to be the psyche of Dickens. He might have been quite aware that between them, Carton and Darnay shared his own initials, a frequent property of his characters. However, he denied it when asked.
The novel takes place primarily in London and Paris in the latter half of the eighteenth century. It spans a time period of roughly 36 years, with the (chronologically) first events taking place in December 1757 and the last in either late 1793 or early 1794.
In a building at the back, attainable by a courtyard where a plane tree rustled its green leaves, church organs claimed to be made, and likewise gold to be beaten by some mysterious giant who had a golden arm starting out of the wall... as if he had beaten himself precious.
The "golden arm" (an arm-and-hammer symbol, an ancient sign of the gold-beater's craft) is now housed at the Charles Dickens Museum, but a modern replica could be seen sticking out of the wall near the Pillars of Hercules pub at the western end of Manette Street (formerly Rose Street), until this building was demolished in 2017.
The reports published in the press are very divergent. Thomas Carlyle is enthusiastic, which makes the author "heartily delighted". On the other hand, Mrs. Oliphant finds "little of Dickens" in the novel. Critic James Fitzjames Stephen sparked off a scandal by calling it a "dish of puppy pie and stewed cat which is not disguised by the cooking" and "a disjointed framework for the display of the tawdry wares, which are Mr Dickens's stock-in-trade.
- A Tale of Two Cities, a 1911 silent film.
- A Tale of Two Cities, a 1917 silent film.
- A Tale of Two Cities, a 1922 silent film.
- The Only Way, a 1927 silent British film directed by Herbert Wilcox.
- A Tale of Two Cities, a 1935 black-and-white film starring Ronald Colman, Elizabeth Allan, Reginald Owen, Basil Rathbone, and Edna May Oliver, nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture.
- A Tale of Two Cities, a 1958 version, starring Dirk Bogarde, Dorothy Tutin, Christopher Lee, Leo McKern, and Donald Pleasence.
- A Tale of Two Cities, a 1980 version, starring Chris Sarandon, Alice Krige and Kenneth More.
- On 25 July 1938, The Mercury Theatre on the Air produced a radio adaptation starring Orson Welles. Welles also starred in a version broadcast on Lux Radio Theater on 26 March 1945.
- Ronald Colman recreated his 1935 film role three times on radio: twice on the Lux Radio Theatre, first on 12 January 1942 with Edna Best and again on 18 March 1946 with Heather Angel, and once on the 9 March 1948 broadcast of Favorite Story (director Cecil B. DeMille's "favorite story").
- On 7 October 1943, a portion of the novel was adapted to the syndicated programme The Weird Circle as "Dr Manette's Manuscript."
- In 1950, the BBC broadcast a radio adaptation by Terence Rattigan and John Gielgud of their unproduced 1935 stage play.
- A half-hour version titled "Sydney Carton" was broadcast on 27 March 1954 on Theatre Royal hosted by and starring Laurence Olivier.
- In June 1989, BBC Radio 4 produced a seven-hour drama adapted for radio by Nick McCarty and directed by Ian Cotterell. This adaptation has been occasionally repeated by BBC Radio 7 and later BBC Radio 4 Extra (most recently in 2009). The cast included Charles Dance as Sydney Carton, Maurice Denham as Dr Manette, Richard Pasco as Mr Lorry, John Moffatt as Marquis St. Evrémonde, Charlotte Attenborough as Lucie Manette, John Duttine as Darnay, Aubrey Woods as Mr Stryver and Barbara Leigh-Hunt as Miss Pross.
- In December 2011, as part of its special season on Charles Dickens' Bicentenerary, BBC Radio 4 produced a new five-part adaptation for radio by Mike Walker with original music by Lennert Busch and directed by Jessica Dromgoole and Jeremy Mortimer which won the 2012 Bronze Sony Radio Academy Award for Best Drama. The cast included Robert Lindsay as the voice of Charles Dickens, Paul Ready as Sydney Carton, Karl Johnson as Dr Manette, Lydia Wilson as Lucie Manette, Jonathan Coy as Mr Lorry, Andrew Scott as Darnay, Alison Steadman as Miss Pross and Clive Merrison as Marquis St. Evrémonde.
- In 2018, A Tale of Two Cities: Aleppo and London, a three-part adaptation of the Dickens novel written by Ayeesha Menon and directed by Polly Thomas was broadcast on BBC Radio 4, updating the story and characters to set it in modern-day London and war-torn Syria. The cast included Shaun Parker as Sid (Sydney Carton), Lara Sawalha as Lina (Lucie Manette), Fatima Adoum as Taghreed (Madame Defarge), Phil Davis as Jarvis (Mr Lorry), Khalid Abdalla as Shwan Dahkurdi (Charles Darnay) and Nadim Sawalha as Dr Mahmoud (Dr Manette).
- ABC produced a two-part mini-series in 1953.
- The BBC produced an eight-part mini-series in 1957 starring Peter Wyngarde as Sydney Carton, Edward de Souza as Charles Darnay and Wendy Hutchinson as Lucie Manette.
- The BBC produced a ten-part mini-series in 1965 starring John Wood as Carton, Nicholas Pennell as Charles Darnay, Kika Markham as Lucie Manette and Patrick Troughton as Dr Manette.
- The BBC produced another eight-part mini-series in 1980 starring Paul Shelley as Carton/Darnay, Sally Osborne as Lucie Manette and Nigel Stock as Jarvis Lorry.
- A Tale of Two Cities, a 1984 TV animated version by Burbank Animation Studios.
- ITV Granada produced a two-part mini-series in 1989 starting James Wilby as Sydney Carton, Xavier Deluc as Charles Darnay and Serena Gordon as Lucie Manette. The production also aired on Masterpiece Theatre on PBS in the United States.
- Royal & Derngate Theatre produced an adaptation by Mike Poulton with original music by Rachel Portman, directed by James Dacre.
- The Regent's Park Open Air Theatre staged an adaptation by Matthew Dunster in 2017, directed by artistic director Timothy Sheader.
Stage musical adaptations of the novel include:
- Two Cities, the Spectacular New Musical (1968), with music by Jeff Wayne, lyrics by Jerry Wayne and starring Edward Woodward.
- A Tale of Two Cities (1998), with music by David Pomeranz and book by Steven David Horwich and David Soames. The musical was commissioned by Paul Nicholas and co-produced by Bill Kenwright ran at the New Alexandra Theatre in Birmingham during their 1998 Christmas season with Paul Nicholas as Sydney Carton.
- Two Cities (2006), a musical by Howard Goodall, which was set during the Russian Revolution, with the two cities being London and St. Petersburg.
- A Tale of Two Cities, a musical by Jill Santoriello, which opened on Broadway at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre on 18 September 2008. The production starred James Barbour as Sydney Carton, Natalie Toro as Madame Defarge and Brandi Burkhardt as Lucie Manette. The show was directed and choreographed by Warren Carlyle. Since Broadway, the show has been performed in the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, Germany, Japan and Korea.
- Arthur Benjamin's operatic version of the novel, subtitled Romantic Melodrama in Six Scenes, premiered on 17 April 1953, conducted by the composer. It received its stage premiere at Sadler's Wells on 22 July 1957, under the baton of Leon Lovett.
- Dav Pilkey wrote a comic titled Dog Man: A Tale of Two Kitties, loosely based on the novel.
At the 1984 Democratic National Convention in the US, the keynote speaker Mario Cuomo of New York delivered a scathing criticism of then-President Ronald Reagan's comparison of the United States to a "shining city on a hill" with an allusion to Dickens' novel, saying: "Mr President, you ought to know that this nation is more a Tale of Two Cities than it is just a 'Shining City on a Hill'."
A Tale of Two Cities served as an inspiration to the 2012 Batman film The Dark Knight Rises by Christopher Nolan. The character of Bane is in part inspired by Dickens' Madame Defarge: He organises kangaroo court trials against the ruling elite of the city of Gotham and is seen knitting in one of the trial scenes like Madame Defarge. There are other hints to Dickens' novel, such as Talia al Ghul being obsessed with revenge and having a close relationship to the hero, and Bane's catchphrase "the fire rises" as an ode to one of the book's chapters. Bane's associate Barsard is named after a supporting character in the novel. In the film's final scene, Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) reads aloud the closing lines of Sydney Carton’s inner monologue—"It's a far far better thing I do than I have ever done, it's a far far better rest I go to than I have ever known"—directly from the novel.
In DC Entertainment's show Titans, Beast Boy, portrayed by Ryan Potter, reads part of the opening paragraph of Book 1, Chapter 1 – The Period, in season 2, episode 9 titled "Atonement". He is shown reading it to an unconscious Conner who is recovering from a previous injury.
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- Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities, Book the First, Chapter I.
- Dickens 2003, p. 128 (Book 2, Chapter 9). This statement (about the roof) is truer than the Marquis knows, and another example of foreshadowing: the Evrémonde château is burned down by revolting peasants in Book 2, Chapter 23.
- Dickens 2003, p. 159 (Book 2, Chapter 14)
- Dickens 2003, p. 344 (Book 3, Chapter 10)
- Dickens 2003, p. 390 (Book 3, Chapter 15)
- Dickens 2003, p. 83 (Book 2, Chapter 4)
- After Dr Manette's letter is read, Darnay says that "It was the always-vain endeavour to discharge my poor mother's trust, that first brought my fatal presence near you." (Dickens 2003, p. 347 [Book 3, Chapter 11].) Darnay seems to be referring to the time when his mother brought him, still a child, to her meeting with Dr Manette in Book 3, Chapter 10. But some readers also feel that Darnay is explaining why he changed his name and travelled to England in the first place: to discharge his family's debt to Dr Manette without fully revealing his identity. (See note to the Penguin Classics edition: Dickens 2003, p. 486.)
- Stryver, like Carton, is a barrister and not a solicitor; Dickens 2003, p. xi
- Also called "The Younger", having inherited the title at "the Elder"'s death, the Marquis is sometimes referred to as "Monseigneur the Marquis St. Evrémonde". He is not so called in this article because the title "Monseigneur" applies to whoever among a group is of the highest status; thus, this title sometimes applies to the Marquis and other times does not.
- Dickens 2003, p. 120 (Book 2, Chapter 8)
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This figure of 200 million is – to state the obvious – pure fiction. Its ultimate source is unknown: perhaps a hyperbolic 2005 press release for a Broadway musical adaptation of Dickens' novel. But the presence of this canard on Wikipedia had, and continues to have, a startling influence. Since 2008, the claim has been recycled repeatedly…
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- The Marquis emphasizes his because Dickens is alluding to the (probably mythical) Droit du seigneur, under which any girl from the Marquis' land would belong to the Marquis rather than to her parents. Dickens 2003, p. 127 (Book 2, Chapter 9)
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- The Chevalier de la Barre was indeed executed for acts of impiety, including failure to pay homage to a procession of monks. These acts were attributed to him, it seems, by his mother's slighted lover. A synopsis of the story is given by Stanford University's Victorian Reading Project. See also Andrew Sanders, Companion to A Tale of Two Cities (London: Unwin Hyman, 1988), p. 31; see also Voltaire, An Account of the Death of the Chevalier de la Barre (1766); translated by Simon Harvey, Treatise on Tolerance (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000).
- Dickens 2003, p. 63 (Book 2, Chapter 2). Dickens is quoting Alexander Pope's Essay on Man of 1733.
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- Dickens 2003, p. 385 (Book 3, Chapter 15)
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- A Tale of Two Cities at Standard Ebooks
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- A Tale of Two Cities – The original manuscript of the novel, held by the Victoria and Albert Museum (requires Adobe Flash).
- 'Dickens: A Tale of Two Cities', lecture by Dr. Tony Williams on the writing of the book, at Gresham College on 3 July 2007 (with video and audio files available for download, as well as the transcript).
- A Tale of Two Cities summary, Charles Dickens
- A Tale of Two Cities public domain audiobook at LibriVox
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