118 pages 3 hours read

Charles Dickens

A Tale of Two Cities

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1859

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Summary and Study Guide


A Tale of Two Cities, published in 1859, is a historical drama written by Charles Dickens. The backdrop of the novel takes place in London and Paris prior to the French Revolution. The novel, told in three parts, has been adapted into numerous productions for film, theater, radio, and television.

In 1775, a banker named Jarvis Lorry travels to Dover, where he meets a young, half-French woman named Lucie Manette. Together, the pair travel to Paris to recover her father, Alexandre Manette. Once a successful doctor, Manette was, for unknown reasons, imprisoned 18 years ago in the infamous Bastille prison. He has now been released and is in the care of a former servant named Ernest Defarge, who now runs a wine-shop in the impoverished Saint Antoine district of Paris. Doctor Manette’s long imprisonment has left him in a bad psychological state; he is largely unaware of his surroundings and constantly busies himself making shoes. His daughter’s arrival seems to spark some signs of recognition in him, however, and the group departs for England.

Five years later, Lucie and Manette (now largely recovered) are witnesses in a treason case in London. The defendant is a young Frenchman named Charles Darnay, whom they initially met on the crossing from Calais. It initially seems likely that Darnay will be convicted of being a French spy, but at the last moment Darnay’s legal team asks whether Darnay might have been misidentified by a witness. To prove the plausibility of this, one of the lawyers—a man named Sydney Carton—stands up, revealing himself to look very much like Darnay.

Over the next several months, Darnay and Carton pay several visits to the Manettes at their London home; both men fall in love with Lucie, but where Darnay is hardworking, courteous, and noble, Carton is a cynical and depressed alcoholic. Darnay and Lucie eventually become engaged, while Carton, in confessing his love for Lucie, swears that he would give his life to keep her and those she loves safe.

Meanwhile, change is underway in France. Shortly after his trial, Darnay had visited his uncle, who is revealed to be a corrupt and cruel nobleman: the Marquis St. Evrémonde. On the night of Darnay’s visit, however, the Marquis was killed by the father of a peasant boy he had run over with his carriage earlier that day. The man—Gaspard—is arrested and executed, but the events surrounding the murder generate further interest in a revolutionary society headed by Defarge and his wife Thérèse.

Darnay and Lucie marry, with Doctor Manette’s permission, although Manette suffers a brief relapse after learning Darnay’s true name. Several years pass in domestic bliss, and Darnay and Lucie have a daughter (also named Lucie). By the time the child is 6 events have come to a head in France; led by the Defarges, the French peasantry storm the Bastille and execute its guards. More violence quickly follows, with the killing of a government official and the arson of the Marquis’s former mansion.

Three years after the French Revolution begins, Darnay receives a letter from a man named Gabelle, whom he had entrusted with the disposal of the Evrémonde property after Darnay himself renounced it. Gabelle is now accused of aiding an “emigrant”—an aristocrat who has fled France—and asks Darnay to come to Paris and speak for him. Darnay, trusting in his record of sympathy with the French peasantry, agrees. When he arrives in Paris, however, he is arrested and placed in La Force prison.

Lucie and Doctor Manette quickly follow Darnay to France; Manette’s imprisonment under the French monarchy has made him a national celebrity there, and he hopes to use this public sympathy to secure Darnay’s release. Even as France descends deeper into violence, it appears that Manette may be successful; a little over a year after his initial arrest, Darnay appears in court, and Manette’s testimony on his behalf secures his acquittal. Later that night, however, Darnay is re-arrested. At his trial the next day, a statement written by Manette during his imprisonment is read aloud: it describes how Manette was imprisoned by Darnay’s uncle and father because he had treated (and consequently knew about) a young peasant woman raped by one of the Evrémonde brothers, and a boy (her brother) who was fatally injured trying to defend her. These two victims of the Evrémondes were Madame Defarge’s older siblings, and their deaths are what have made her so bitter and vengeful.

Darnay is sentenced to death, and even Manette proves powerless to save him; his attempts to speak to those in power only cause him to relapse into his traumatized state. In the meantime, however, Carton has arrived in Paris and devised a plan. Carton instructs Lorry (in Paris attending to his bank’s business) to ensure that Lucie, her father, and her child leave France the day of the execution; Madame Defarge will seek revenge on the rest of Darnay’s family next. He also entrusts his own travel papers to Lorry.

Carton successfully blackmails one of Darnay’s jailers (whom he knows to be an English spy) into allowing him to see Darnay. Once inside the cell, he drugs Darnay and takes his place, while Darnay himself, in the guise of Carton, leaves Paris with his family and Lorry. Belatedly, Madame Defarge arrives at the Manettes’ former Paris residence hoping to find and arrest Lucie, only to be killed in a struggle with Miss Pross, Lucie’s devoted maid. Meanwhile, Carton is taken to the guillotine in Darnay’s place. After comforting a young seamstress condemned alongside him, Carton mounts the scaffold, finally at peace with himself and his life.