A Tale of Two Cities Summary

Charles Dickens

A Tale of Two Cities

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A Tale of Two Cities Summary

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“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness….” This anaphora, or repeated phrase, that opens nineteenth-century English novelist Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities juxtaposes the factors that created the duality of the time period. Characters in opposition to one another, good and evil, and the cities London and Paris are pairs that the novel will define by “the best” and “worst” of times.

Published in 1859 and set both before and following the French Revolution, the novel focuses on French doctor Alexandre Manette, who is released after eighteen years in prison in Paris and joins Lucie, the daughter he never knew, in London. The story begins in 1775. London banker Jarvis Lorry receives a message from a bank employee, Jerry Cruncher, while on a coach from London to Dover. The reply Lorry gives Cruncher to bring back to the bank is “Recalled to life,” which foretells the release of Manette. Upon reaching Dover, Lorry encounters Manette’s daughter Lucie along with Miss Pross, her governess. Lucie had thought that her father was dead, but Lorry takes her to France to meet him.

As the first section of the novel—also titled “Recalled to Life”—continues, Lorry and Lucie find Manette in Paris, where he is staying with Ernest Defarge and his wife Therese, the proprietors of a wine store. Manette had learned to make shoes in prison and spends time doing this to occupy his mind. He does not recognize his daughter, but from her hair and eyes realizes that she looks like her mother, and he goes with her and Lorry back to England.

The second section of A Tale of Two Cities, “The Golden Thread,” finds Charles Darnay, in 1780, on trial for treason against the British Crown. Two spies have charged that they received information for France about British troops in America from Darnay. Darnay, however, is acquitted. Meanwhile, in Paris, the oppressive Marquis St. Evremonde commands that his carriage be driven at a high speed, and ends up killing the child of a peasant, Gaspard. Defarge offers comfort to Gaspard. The Marquis is joined by Darnay, who is his nephew as well as his heir, at the Marquis’s country home. In an attempt to distance himself from his aristocratic family, Darnay had taken the name “Darnay” as a version of his mother’s maiden name, D’Aulnais. Gaspard, who had followed the Marquis home by hiding under his carriage, fatally stabs him during the night. Gaspard leaves a note with the weapon he used, and after a year as a fugitive is caught and hung.

Back in London, Darnay receives Manette’s permission to marry Lucie, though English lawyer Sydney Carton loves her as well. Carton pledges to do anything he can for her and her family, though he does not expect she will return his love. On Darnay and Lucie’s wedding day, Darnay tells Manette his true family background, which sends Manette into a period of focusing on nothing but shoemaking. Manette returns to his senses while the couple is honeymooning and does not tell his daughter about her new husband’s family. Lorry and Pross destroy the shoemaking paraphernalia Manette had brought with him from Paris. Lucie and Charles have a son who dies in childhood and a daughter named after Lucie. By 1789, the Defarges are part of the storming of the Bastille and the Marquis’ chateau is burned as officials and other members of the aristocracy are killed throughout the region. Lorry goes to Paris to retrieve documents from a bank branch there and bring them to London for safety during the French Revolution.  Darnay, meanwhile, comes upon a letter written by a servant of his uncle, who has been put in prison and is begging that the Marquis help him. Keeping his position as the new Marquis secret, Darnay heads for Paris.

As the third section, “The Track of a Storm,” opens, Darnay has arrived in Paris and been imprisoned, seemingly by mistake, for being an aristocrat. Manette and Lucie go to Paris and join with Lorry to try to gain Darnay’s freedom. More than a year passes before he is put on trial.  Manette, who is considered a hero for his time in prison, testifies, and Darnay is released—but he is arrested again before the day is over because of accusations brought by Madame Defarge, who seeks revenge against the Marquis for his treatment of members of her family. The situation is hopeless for Darnay, leading Sydney Carton to get himself imprisoned so as to take Darnay’s place, allowing Darnay to flee and allowing Carton to keep his vow to do anything for Lucie.

A rare instance in which Charles Dickens wrote historical fiction, A Tale of Two Cities is true to his frequent theme and objective of giving voice to the poor and downtrodden. In revolution, here, the lower class is given a voice.