A Tale of Two Cities Charles Dickens (1812-1870)

A Tale of Two Cities
Charles Dickens (1812-1870)
Type of Work:
Historical fiction
London and Paris during the French Revolution
Principal Characters
Dr. Manette, a French physician, wrongfully
imprisoned for 18 years
Lucie Manette, his daughter
Charles Darnay, a former French aristocrat
who has repudiated his title and left France to live in England
Jarvis Lorry, the able representative
of Tellson & Co., a banking house
Sydney Carton, a law clerk
Madame Defarge, a French peasant and longtime
Story Overveiw
(In the year 1775, King George III sat
on the throne of England, preoccupied with his rebellious colonies in America.

Across a narrow neck of water to the east, Louis XVI reigned in France,
not very much bothered by anything except seeing to his own comforts.)
On a cold and foggy night in late November,
Mr. Jarvis Lorry was headed out of London bound for Paris, via Dover, on
a matter of business. In the darkness of the coach, as he and the other
passengers waked and drowsed by turns, Lorry was confronted by a gaunt
and ghostly apparition, who engaged him in a silent and macabre conversation
The figure haunting him through the night
was Dr. Manette, a French physician and the father of Mr. Lorry’s young
ward. When the doctor had disappeared from his home eighteen years before,
his young English wife had diligently and sorrowfully searched for him,
until she died two years later, leaving her small daughter Lucie, who was
placed in the care of Mr. Lorry. Lorry had brought the child to England,
where she was turned over to Lorry’s servant, Miss Press, a wild-looking,
wonderful woman who adored her.

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At Dover, Lorry was joined by Lucie – now
a young woman – and Miss Press. Lorry informed Lucie that her father had
been found alive after years as a political prisoner, and that he, Mr.

Lorry, was making this trip to Paris in order to identify him. Lucie, it
was hoped, could then help “restore him to life.” The sudden reality of
finally meeting her father was so great that Lucie could only mutter in
an awestricken, doubting voice, “I am going to see his Ghost! It will be
his Ghost – not him!”
In Paris, Mr. Lorry proceeded directly
to the wine-shop of Monsieur Defarge, a former attendant to Dr. Manette,
who was now looking after him. The company ascended to the attic. Lucie
had been prophetic; indeed, Manette seemed but the ghost of a man, bending
over his little shoemaker’s bench, unaware of anything around him. Still,
together with the free and bewildered Manette, the little group journeyed
back to England. Lucie already showed a love and understanding for her
long-isolated father, and her companions felt sure she would accomplish
the miracle of calling him back to his former self.

Five years later, Lucie and her father
were called as witnesses in an English court, where a Frenchman, Charles
Darnay, was on trial for treason. In the courtroom sat another young man,
a lawyer’s clerk named Sydney Carton. Carton was immediately struck by
the resemblance he and Damay bore to one another, and when a key witness
identified the prisoner as the man he had seen gathering information at
a dockyard, Carton managed to discredit the witness by calling attention
to the fact that in that very courtroom sat another – himself – who could
easily be mistaken for the prisoner. The jury was swayed, and Darnay was

During the trial, both Carton and Darnay
became acquainted with the Manettes. From that time on, they often visited
the Manette’s comfortable little house on Soho Square. Both men enjoyed
the company of the good doctor, whose health of mind and body had been
restored through Lucie’s patient ministrations – and they also came to
see Lucie. As suitors, their physical resemblance was never remarked upon
because they were so different in attitude and demeanor. While Darnay,
who had turned his back on his ancestral name and title, showed his refined
upbringing in his confidence and courtliness, Carton seemed to be his own
worst enemy. He was only confident of continued failure, and assured himself
of it through drink, slovenliness and a morose character. Though Lucie
elcomed them both, she was most drawn to Darnay. Being of a sympathetic
and loving nature, she listened and wept one day as Carton, in uncharacteristic
openness, confessed his love for her. He asked from her nothing in return
because he believed even her love would not be enough to redeem him. The
conversation ended with Carton’s strange statement and promise: It is useless
to say it, I know, but … for you, and for any dear to you, I would do
anything, think, now and then, that there is a man who would give his life,
to keep a life you love beside you!
Lucie and Charles Darnay were eventually
married and began their family. They were happy; but always in the background
of their lives lurked a cloud, which seemed to draw menacingly closer year
by year.

Finally, in 1789, the French Revolution
exploded into being. Centuries of aristocrat indifference to the plight
of the starving peasants, and the years of third accuser. And Charles,
for his ancestor’s crimes, cruelty and selfishness, had at last brought
on a bitter rebellion that turned Paris into a cauldron of chaos. Madame
Defarge, the wife of Dr. Manette’s former servant, became a leader in the
Revolution. Through the long years from girlhood on, Madame Defarge had
always kept her knitting in hand, recording with each stitch a death-list
of the names of all those whose injustices she witnessed. Now her denunciations
came forth as if they had been coiled inside the knitting; out came the
hatred, vengeance and lust for blood that only a woman who had seen all
her familv killed bv the aristocracy could feel. When Madame Defarge and
her husband and cohorts, armed with knives and axes, stormed the Bastille,
they opened a floodgate of mob violence that would inundate the country.

Three years of tumult elapsed. At last,
both Mr. Lorry and Charles Darnay felt they must go to Paris. Lorry, true
and loyal Businessman that he was, looked after the affairs of the Paris
branch of Tellson ; Co., while Darnay visited a family retainer who
had written, begging for his help and presence. But upon his arrival, Darnay
was immediately taken into custody and imprisoned, along with many aristocrats
and political victims.

When Lucie and her father discovered what
had happened, Dr. Manette was convinced that, as a former prisoner of the
Bastille, he alone could rescue his son-in-law. He hurried to Paris with
his daughter and grandchild. There he was quickly accepted by the revolutionaries
and allowed access to civil authorities who could perhaps help. But Charles,
now identified under his true name as heir to the notorious house of Evremond,
had become a certain target of Madame Defarge. She would not allow his

When, after fifteen months in prison, Charles
was acquitted of his alleged crimes through the quiet, confident and moving
defense of Dr. Manette, the family’s rejoicing was short-lived. Four men
came to arrest the young husband again that very afternoon, declaring that
he had been denounced b’ v three other accusers – the Defarges and one
other. it was only at the second trial that the identitv of the third accuser
was discovered – Dr. Manette himself!
Now at last came the complete story of
Manette’s imprisonment. It was presented in the form of a letter written
by the doctor after he had spent ten years in prison and was fearing for
his sanity. He had hidden the letter behind a stone wall in his cell, where
Defarge had encountered it the day the Bastille was stormed. The letter
gave the names of those responsible for Manette’s abduction and imprisonment
– two brothers of the House of Evremond, Charles’ father and his uncle
– and ended with a condemnation of that house and its descendants. Thus,
Dr. Manette, in a tragic and ironic turn of events, was named as his son-in-law’s
third accuser. And Charles, for his ancestor’s crimes, was pronounced guilty
and sentenced to death by guillotine.

Sydney Carton, who had by now come to Paris,
appeared singly calm and purposeful in the face of such terrible news.

With a disciplined courage quite foreign to himself, he gained entrance
to Charles’ cell as his final visitor. There he drugged Darnay, rendering
him unconscious, exchanged clothes with him, and had him carried from the
cell as “Sydney Carton,” a friend of the prisoner totally overcome with
grief. Carton remained in Darnay’s stead
Hours later, as the coach bearing the Manettes,
Mr. Lorry and a still unconscious Darnav thundered toward the Channel and
refuge in England, Sydney Carton was making his own escape – from his selfimposed
prison of constant failure. Riding along at an unhurried pace in the third
tumbrel of six bound that day for La Guillotine, Carton’s face and demeanor
were those of a man who had found his way. And he was unafraid of his destination.

“It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is
a far better rest that I go to, than I have ever known,” he whispered to
himself. He was now about to offer up his life for his friends.

Dickens conceived the idea for this complicated
plot while acting in a play. Every event penned in A Tale of Two Cities
draws toward one great climax, set against the backdrop of the greater
drama: history. Master of detailed settings and characterizations, Dickens
gave himself the challenge of stripping details down to the bone and letting
the many intertwining characters be swept along with the action and violence
of the times.

Fortunately for the reader, the novelist
couldn’t resist the temptation of fleshing out his minor characters, who
provide some relief in an otherwise grim account of the French Revolution.

Dickens takes the least time with Lucie and Darnay, supposing, perhaps,
that we would see them clearly enough; Sydney Carton’s inner reform is
more fully drawn; and Dr. Manette’s brief lapses back into insanity are
an early study of the psychological effects of extended inhumane treatment.

Jarvis Lorry shows the most character development, evolving from a man
of strict business and propriety to one of feeling and warmth. The vindictive
Madame Defarge, at first glance, seems to be the main villain in the piece;
but, on reflection, La Guillotine, a symbol of revenge run amok, seems
to vie for the honor.

A Tale of Two Cities is a sad account of
man’s inhumanity to man, for even though Darnay escapes, the reader is
left haunted by the many innocent who did not.