Background on A Tale of Two Cities



A Tale of Two Cities opens in the year 1775, with the narrator comparing conditions in England and France, and foreshadowing the coming French Revolution. The first action is Jarvis Lorry's night journey from London, where he serves as an agent for Tellson's Bank. The next afternoon, in a Dover inn, Lorry meets with Lucie Manette, a seventeen-year-old French orphan raised in England. Lorry tells Lucie that her father, the physician Alexandre Manette, is not dead as she's always believed. Dr. Manette has just been released from years of secret imprisonment in the Paris prison, the Bastille.
Lorry escorts Lucie across the English Channel to a house in a poor Paris suburb where her father, in a dazed state from long solitary confinement, confusedly works at the shoemaker's trade he learned in prison. Dr. Manette has been taken care of by Ernest Defarge, a former servant of the Manette family, now the keeper of a wine shop. Defarge and his wife- a strong-looking, confident woman- appear to be engaged in antigovernment activity. Lucie is saddened by her father's state and, resolving to restore him to himself, she and Lorry carry the doctor back to England.
Five years pass. In London, at Old Bailey (the courthouse) we meet Charles Darnay, a French expatriate who is on trial for treason. Lucie Manette and Jarvis Lorry both testify that they met Darnay on their return trip across the Channel five years earlier. John Barsad, an English spy, swears that Darnay's purpose in traveling was to plot treason against England. Darnay is acquitted when his lawyer, Stryver, shatters a witness' identification by pointing at Darnay's uncanny resemblance to Sydney Carton- a brilliant but dissolute lawyer who is wasting his talents in poorly paid servitude to Stryver.
Lucie and her father- who has regained his faculties and returned to medical practice- now live happily in a quiet corner of Soho with Lucie's fiercely loyal companion, Miss Pross. They are frequently visited by Lorry (now a close family friend), Darnay, and Carton. Lucie imagines hearing "hundreds of footsteps" thundering into her life- a fantasy that in fact foreshadows the revolutionary strife in France.
The scene shifts to France. Driving in his carriage through the streets of Paris, the cruel Marquis St. Evremonde runs over and kills a poor man's child. We learn that the Marquis is Charles Darnay's uncle (out of shame for his wicked male forebears, Darnay had changed his name from St. Evremonde to the English-sounding Darnay). Meeting the Marquis at the St. Evremonde chateau, Darnay says he will renounce the family property when he inherits to show his disgust with the aristocracy. St. Evremonde expresses his hate of his nephew, and his continued support of the old, unjust order. The next morning the Marquis is found stabbed to death. Gaspard, the father of the boy the Marquis ran over, has killed him as an act of vengeance.
Back in England again, Darnay becomes engaged to Lucie. Sydney Carton also declares his hopeless, lasting devotion to Lucie, and vows he would give his life to save anyone dear to her. John Barsad, now a spy for the French monarchy, tips off the Defarges in Paris to the impending marriage of Lucie and Darnay. Privately and meaningfully, Monsieur Defarge comments that he hopes destiny will keep Lucie's husband out of France.
The marriage ceremony, together with a story Darnay has told about discovering hidden papers in a prison, send Dr. Manette into amnesiac shock. For nine days, until Miss Pross and Jarvis Lorry pull him out of it, he reverts to his former shoemaking habits. We learn later that on the wedding morning, Dr. Manette secured Darnay's promise not to reveal his true name- St. Evremonde- to anyone, not even Lucie.
Paris, 1789: the French Revolution breaks out. Defarge leads the attack on the Bastille, while his wife marshals the revolutionary women. In the country rebellious peasants burn down the St. Evremonde chateau. Gabelle, the property's rent and tax collector, is eventually arrested and thrown into Paris' L'Abbaye prison. Rushing overseas, Darnay is at once seized by the revolutionaries as an aristocrat, and flung into another prison, La Force. Lucie, her young daughter, Miss Pross, and Dr. Manette rush to Darnay's aid, lodging in Paris near Jarvis Lorry, who's there on business.
As an ex-Bastille prisoner, Dr. Manette has sufficient influence to visit his son-in-law in La Force, but he is unable to free Darnay. For fifteen months Lucie stands each afternoon outside of La Force, praying that Charles may catch a glimpse of her. The Terror is in full swing, the guillotine "shaving" innocent and aristocratic heads alike. At last Darnay is brought up before the French Tribunal. He is released through the testimony of Dr. Manette and the long-suffering Gabelle. But the very night of his freedom the Defarges and "one other" denounce Darnay. On the spot, he is hauled back to the Conciergerie, the scene of his trial. Ignorant of the disaster, Miss Pross and Jerry Cruncher, Lorry's jack-of-all-trades, go shopping for provisions and encounter Miss Pross' long-lost brother, Solomon. Cruncher recognizes Solomon as the spy-witness John Barsad who once testified against Darnay. Suddenly Sydney Carton is on the scene (he has come to Paris to help his friends). Leading Barsad off to Tellson's headquarters for a meeting, Carton informs Jarvis Lorry that Darnay has been rearrested, and forces Barsad to cooperate with him by threatening to reveal the spy's turncoat maneuvers. Currently in the pay of the revolutionaries, Barsad's job is to spy on their prisoners, and so he has access to Darnay in the Conciergerie. Carton sets a secret plan in motion, using Barsad.
Darnay's retrial the next morning produces a sensation. A journal discovered by Defarge in Dr. Manette's old cell at the Bastille is read aloud to the Tribunal. In his journal Dr. Manette blames his arrest on two brothers of the St. Evremonde family who had summoned him to their country house to treat a young peasant wife the younger St. Evremonde had raped. The woman's brother lay beyond treatment, dying from a wound received when he tried to attack the rapist. After both the brother and sister had died, Dr. Manette received a visit in his home from the elder St. Evremonde's wife and her small son, Charles Darnay. The Marquise St. Evremonde believed the dead woman had a sister, and wished to make reparations to her. Dr. Manette attempted to reveal the St. Evremonde brothers' infamy, but they arranged for him to be arrested and put in jail. Dr. Manette ended his story with a curse on the whole St. Evremonde clan, and hid the document in a hole in the chimney. On this evidence Charles Darnay is condemned for his ancestors' evil deeds, and is sentenced to die in 24 hours.
After the verdict, Sydney Carton, drinking in the Defarge wine shop, overhears Madame Defarge announce that she is the missing sister, the last survivor of the family exterminated by the St. Evremondes. She swears to complete her vengeance by wiping out all of Darnay's relations- Lucie, her little girl, and even Dr. Manette himself. Carton goes to Jarvis Lorry's lodgings where both men receive Dr. Manette, who, from the shock of Charles' condemnation has again slipped into his amnesiac- shoemaker role. Carton warns Lorry of Madame Defarge's murderous intentions, and they plan an escape from the country. Carton tells Lorry to keep the proper papers ready, and when Carton appears at two the next afternoon, all- including Lucie and her child- will ride swiftly away. The following day, Carton enters Darnay's cell, drugs him, and exchanges clothes with him. Carton intends to take Darnay's place on the guillotine, and thus fulfill his old promise to give his life for anyone dear to Lucie. As agreed, Barsad hurries Darnay's unconscious body- dressed as Carton- out of the Conciergerie to the coach where Jarvis Lorry's party awaits. All flee successfully.
In the meantime Miss Pross, alone in the Manette apartment, has a grim meeting with Madame Defarge, who has come armed with pistol and knife to take her personal revenge. There is a struggle and the pistol fires, killing Madame Defarge and forever deafening Miss Pross. Nonetheless, she is able to meet Jerry Cruncher as they have planned, and escape.
Sydney Carton goes to the guillotine with dignity. (For the first time Madame Defarge's ringside seat is vacant.) He comforts a little seamstress, has a final vision of better times ahead, and reflects: "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."


The series of events related in A Tale of Two Cities begins 18 years before the novel opens. Through flashbacks and narrations, Dickens eventually reveals these earlier events, weaving them into the ongoing action. Here is a chronological reconstruction of the complete story. Book and chapter references are given in parentheses.
DECEMBER 1757 Dr. Manette is recruited by the St. Evremonde brothers to treat a raped young woman and her wounded, dying brother. Attempting to publicize what he has witnessed, the doctor is imprisoned (III, 10).
DECEMBER 1767 Dr. Manette writes a journal account of his sufferings and hides it in his Bastille cell (III, 10).
NOVEMBER 1775 Released to the care of Ernest Defarge, the doctor remains in a confused state. His daughter, Lucie, and the banker Jarvis Lorry carry him to London (I, 1-6).
MARCH 1780 Charles Darnay tried and acquitted of treason at the Old Bailey court in London (II, 2-4).
JULY 1780 Peaceful Sunday at the Manettes' Soho residence. Lucie hears "hundreds of footsteps," signalling the approach of revolution in France (II, 6).
SUMMER 1780 Driving in his carriage, Charles Darnay's uncle the Marquis St. Evremonde runs over and kills Gaspard's child. In the morning, St. Evremonde is found dead (II, 7-9).
SUMMER 1781 Darnay and Stryver announce hopes of marrying Lucie. Carton swears love to her (II, 10-13). Roger Cly's funeral. Jerry Cruncher attempts to rob Cly's grave, but finds it empty (II, 14). In France the Defarges learn that Gaspard has been hanged. John Barsad appears as spy for the French monarchy (II, 15-16).
1781 Lucie and Darnay marry; Dr. Manette lapses into amnesia (II, 17-19).
1783 Birth of little Lucie (II, 21).
JULY 14, 1789 Storming of the Bastille; Defarge searches Dr. Manette's old cell. Start of French Revolution (II, 21).
JULY 1789 Peasants burn St. Evremonde chateau (II, 23).
AUGUST 1792 Darnay's return to France, and imprisonment in Paris (II, 24).
SEPTEMBER 1792 September Massacres. Lucie and her father arrive in Paris; Dr. Manette's influence protects Darnay from death at the hands of the mob (III, 2-4).
DECEMBER 1793 Darnay tried and acquitted at La Conciergerie (III, 6); Darnay rearrested same night, through Defarge's influence (III, 7). John Barsad revealed as Solomon Pross, Miss Pross' missing brother; Sydney Carton exposes him as spy of the Revolutionary prisons and blackmails him into helping Carton (III, 8). Darnay's second trial; evidence from Dr. Manette's journal condemns him to die (III, 9- 10). Carton takes Darnay's place in La Conciergerie; Darnay party flees France (III, 13). Madame Defarge killed; Miss Pross deafened (III, 14). Carton dies on guillotine (III, 15).


Keep in mind that Dickens was experimenting in A Tale of Two Cities. He hoped to reveal character through events in the story, rather than by dialogue. He attempted to comment on French history by creating not only individuals but characters who seem to stand for entire social classes. The little mender of roads, a common man thrust into Revolutionary excesses, is one example; Monseigneur, whose chocolate-drinking requires the services of four strong men, is another.
One of the great caricaturists of his age, Dickens often found his talent hard to suppress. Remember Dickens' penchant for exaggeration when you meet Miss Pross (with her phenomenal bonnet like a Stilton cheese) and spiky-haired Jerry Cruncher. These characters may not strike you as conventionally realistic, but think again. Are they meant to be just like you and me? Some readers feel that the simpler characters, set in the framework of a dense plot, express Dickens' sense of the complexity of life.


One way you may approach Lucie Manette is as the central figure of the novel. Think about the many ways she affects her fellow characters. Although she is not responsible for liberating her father, Dr. Manette, from the Bastille, Lucie is the agent who restores his damaged psyche through unselfish love and devotion. She maintains a calm, restful atmosphere in their Soho lodgings, attracting suitors (Charles Darnay, Stryver, Sydney Carton) and brightening the life of family friend Jarvis Lorry. Home is Lucie's chosen territory, where she displays her fireside virtues of tranquility, fidelity, and motherhood. It's as a symbol of home that her centrality and influence are greatest. Even her physical attributes promote domestic happiness: her blonde hair is a "golden thread" binding her father to health and sanity, weaving a fulfilling life for her eventual husband, Charles Darnay, and their daughter. Lucie is central, too, in the sense that she's caught in several triangles- the most obvious one involving Carton and Darnay. Lucie marries Darnay (he's upcoming and handsome, the romantic lead) and exerts great influence on Carton.
A second, subtler triangle involves Lucie, her father, and Charles Darnay. The two men share an ambiguous relationship. Because Lucie loves Darnay, Dr. Manette must love him, too. Yet Darnay belongs to the St. Evremonde family, cause of the doctor's long imprisonment, and is thus subject to his undying curse. Apart from his ancestry, Darnay poses the threat, by marrying Lucie, of replacing Dr. Manette in her affections.
At the very end of the novel you'll find Lucie caught in a third triangle- the struggle between Miss Pross and Madame Defarge. Miss Pross, fighting for Lucie, is fighting above all for love. Her triumph over Madame Defarge is a triumph over chaos and vengeance. Let's move now from Lucie's influence on other characters to Lucie herself. Sydney Carton, who loves Lucie devotedly, labels her a "little golden doll." Carton means this ironically- he's hiding his true feelings from Stryver- but some readers have taken his words at face value. They see Lucie as a cardboard creation, and her prettiness and family devotion as general traits, fitting Dickens' notions of the ideal woman. Readers fascinated with Dickens' life have traced Lucie's origins to Ellen Ternan, the 18-year-old actress Dickens was infatuated with while writing A Tale. Ellen was blonde, and she shared Lucie's habit of worriedly knitting her brows. Of course, the artist who draws on real life nearly always transforms it into something else, something original. Finally, consider viewing Lucie allegorically- as a character acting on a level beyond the actual events of the story. Dickens frequently mentions Lucie's golden hair. The theme of light versus dark is one that runs all through A Tale, and Lucie's fair hair seems to ally her with the forces of light. The force of dark seems to come from Lucie's opposite in most respects, the brunette Madame Defarge.


Sydney Carton dies on the guillotine to spare Charles Darnay. How you interpret Carton's sacrifice- positively or negatively- will affect your judgment of his character, and of Dickens' entire work. Some readers take the positive view that Carton's act is a triumph of individual love over the mob hatred of the Revolution. Carton and the seamstress he comforts meet their deaths with great dignity. In fulfilling his old promise to Lucie, Carton attains peace; those watching see "the peacefullest man's face ever beheld" at the guillotine. In a prophetic vision, the former "jackal" glimpses a better world rising out of the ashes of revolution, and long life for Lucie and her family- made possible by his sacrifice.
This argument also links Carton's death with Christian sacrifice and love. When Carton makes his decision to die, the New Testament verse beginning "I am the Resurrection and the Life" nearly becomes his theme song. The words are repeated a last time at the moment Carton dies. In what sense may we see Carton's dying in Darnay's place as Christ-like? It wipes away his sin, just as Christ's death washed clean man's accumulated sins.
For readers who choose the negative view, Carton's death seems an act of giving up. These readers point out that Stryver's jackal has little to lose. Never useful or happy, Carton has already succumbed to the depression eating away at him. In the midst of a promising youth, Carton had "followed his father to the grave"- that is, he's already dead in spirit. For such a man, physical death would seem no sacrifice, but a welcome relief.
Some readers even go so far as to claim that Carton's happy vision of the future at the novel's close is out of place with his overall gloominess. According to this interpretation, the bright prophecies of better times ahead are basically Dickens' way of copping out, of pleasing his audience with a hopeful ending. If Sydney Carton's motives seem complicated to you, try stepping back and viewing him as a man, rather than an influence on the story. He's a complex, realistic character. We see him so clearly, working early morning hours on Stryver's business, padding between table and punch bowl in his headdress of sopping towels, that we're able to feel for him. Have you ever known someone who's thrown away his talent or potential, yet retains a spark of achievement, as well as people's sympathy? That's one way of looking at Sydney Carton.
Dickens adds an extra dimension to Carton's portrait by giving him a "double," Charles Darnay. For some readers, Carton is the more memorable half of the Carton/Darnay pair. They argue that Dickens found it easier to create a sympathetic bad character than an interesting good one. Carton's own feelings toward his look-alike waver between admiration and hostility. But see this for yourself, by noticing Carton's rudeness to Darnay after the Old Bailey trial. When Darnay has gone, Carton studies his image in a mirror, realizing that the young Frenchman is everything he might have been- and therefore a worthy object of hatred. It's interesting that both Carton and Darnay can function in two cultures, English and French. Darnay, miserable in France, becomes a happy French teacher in England. In a kind of reversal, Carton, a lowly jackal in London, immortalizes himself in Paris.
Carton and Darnay have one further similarity- the doubles may represent separate aspects of Dickens. If we see Darnay as Dickens' light side, then Carton corresponds to an inner darkness. The unhappy lawyer is a man of prodigious intelligence gone to waste, a man who fears he'll never find happiness. These concerns mirror Dickens' own worries about the direction his career was taking in the late 1850s, and about his disintegrating marriage. It's been suggested that Dickens, though a spectacularly successful writer, had no set place in the rigid English class system. Regarded from this perspective, Dickens, like Carton, was a social outsider.


Charles Darnay has many functions: he holds a place in the story, in Dickens' scheme of history, and in Dickens' life. We can view him on the surface as A Tale of Two Cities' romantic lead. We can also look for depth, starting at Darnay's name.
St. Evremonde is Darnay's real name. He is French by birth, and English by preference, and emerges as a bicultural Everyman. He's a common, decent person, caught in circumstances beyond his control. Darnay isn't merely caught in the Revolution, he's pulled by it, as if by a magnet. He's at the mercy of fate. Besides fate, a leading theme, Darnay illustrates a second concern of the novel: renunciation or sacrifice. He gives up his estate in France, substituting for his old privileges the very unaristocratic ideal of work. Darnay's political liberalism and decision to earn his own living (tutoring young Englishmen in French language and literature) put him in conflict with his uncle, the Marquis St. Evremonde. If you've ever disagreed with a member of your own family, multiply your differences by ten and you'll understand the relationship between Charles Darnay and his uncle. The two men live in different philosophical worlds. Young Darnay signals the new, progressive order (though you'll see that he's never tagged a revolutionary); the older Marquis sticks to the old, wicked ways.
The resemblance between Darnay and Sydney Carton is so marked that it saves Darnay's life at two critical junctures. As we've seen, the two men are doubles. For many readers, they form halves of a whole personality. Darnay is sunny and hopeful, representing the chance for happiness in life; Carton is depressed and despairing. Both characters compete for Lucie Manette, and both enact the novel's all- important theme of resurrection. If we think of Darnay, saved twice by Carton's intervention, as the resurrectee, then Carton becomes the resurrector. (As you'll recall, Carton in fact dies imagining himself "the Resurrection and the Life.")
Many readers have noted that "Charles Dickens" and "Charles Darnay" are similar names, and they view Darnay as the bright, forward-looking side of Dickens, the hero. Though he undergoes trial and imprisonment, Darnay ultimately gets the girl and leads a long, blissful life. He has a pronounced capacity for domestic happiness, something Dickens yearned for.
There's also been debate over whether Darnay is a fully realized character or just a handsome puppet. You'll have to reach your own conclusions about Darnay, of course. In doing so, take into account that Dickens intended his plot to define character, and was working in a limited space- A Tale of Two Cities is one of his shortest novels.


Dr. Manette's release from the Bastille after 18 years of solitary confinement sounds the first note in the theme of resurrection, and sets Dickens' plot in motion. The secret papers left in Manette's cell lead directly to A Tale's climax, Charles Darnay's sentence to die.
Does the doctor seem believable, a man of psychological depth? To support a yes answer, look at Dickens' rendering of a white-haired man, just released from his living tomb, whose face reflects "scared, blank wonder." As the story continues, Dr. Manette's spells of amnesia feel authentic. Doesn't it seem natural that Dr. Manette returns to shoemaking- the task that preserved his sanity in the Bastille- whenever he's reminded of that dark period of his life?
Less believable for some readers is the journal Dr. Manette composes in blood and haste, and hides in his cell. These readers find the doctor's journal long and melodramatic, and point to the dying peasant boy, gasping a vengeful monologue, as an instance of realism being sacrificed to drama.
From the point of view of the French Revolutionaries, Dr. Manette is a living reminder of their oppression. They revere him for his sufferings as a Bastille prisoner. During Darnay's imprisonment in Paris, Dr. Manette uses the Revolutionaries' esteem to keep his son-in-law alive. As a result, you watch him grow stronger, regaining the sense of purpose he'd lost in the Bastille.


All through the story Jarvis Lorry protests that he's nothing more or less than a man of business. "Feelings!" he exclaims, "I have no time for them." Mr. Lorry's time belongs to Tellson's bank, "the House," his employer for over 40 years. Yet behind his allegiance to business, Lorry hides a kind heart. When Dr. Manette responds to Lucie's marriage by falling into an amnesiac spell, Lorry deserts Tellson's for nine full days to look after his friend.
How closely does Lorry conform to modern ideas about bankers and businessmen? He admittedly values the bank above himself, an attitude you might consider old fashioned. Readers have described him as the sort of clerk Dickens saw passing in his own day, and mourned. Lorry compares favorably with the two other men of business in the story: Stryver, the pushing lawyer, and Jerry Cruncher, the "honest tradesman" who digs up bodies and sells them to medical science.
During the Revolution Tellson's in London becomes a haven for emigrant French aristocrats, the same aristocrats found guilty, a few chapters earlier, of squeezing their peasants dry. How should you view Tellson's for sheltering an oppressing class? (Dickens has already revealed that the cramped, dark bank resists change of any sort.) More to the point, how should you judge Jarvis Lorry for dedicating his life to such an establishment? Readers have suggested that Dickens, despite his liberal politics, found the solidity of institutions like Tellson's appealing; the old bank and its banker, Jarvis Lorry, represent a kind of bastion against the new, aggressive ways of men like Stryver- and against the frenzied violence of the French mob.


Dickens is famous for tagging his characters with a habit, trait, or turn of phrase. Just as Jarvis Lorry's constant catchword is "business," so Madame Defarge's defining activity is knitting. Madame knits a register of those she's marked for death, come the revolution. This hobby links her closely with the novel's theme of fate. By referring to myth, we may interpret her as one of the Fates- the Greek goddesses who first spin the thread of human life, and then cut it off. But it's not necessary to go beyond the story for other equivalents to Madame Defarge's fast-moving fingers. Dickens implicitly contrasts her ominous craft with Lucie Manette's "golden thread," or blonde hair. Lucie weaves a pattern of love and light, holding her family together, while Madame Defarge never knits a sweater, only death.
Occupying relatively little space in the novel, Madame Defarge has nonetheless been called its most memorable character. She and her husband have a curiously modern air. Perhaps you can imagine the Defarges by picturing today's guerrilla fighters in embattled underdeveloped countries. Madame Defarge is a professional who knows how to use political indoctrination. On a fieldtrip to Versailles with the little mender of roads she identifies the dressed-up nobility as "dolls and birds." She's teaching the mender of roads to recognize his future prey.
As you read, try seeing Madame Defarge as neither political force nor mythic figure, but as a human being. Her malignant sense of being wronged by the St. Evremondes turns her almost- but not quite- into a machine of vengeance. Dickens inserts details to humanize her: she is sensitive to cold; when the spy John Barsad enters her shop, she nods with "a stern kind of coquetry"; at the very end of the book, making tracks for Lucie's apartment, she strides with "the supple freedom" of a woman who has grown up on the beach. Do you think such "personal" touches make Therese Defarge less terrifying, since she's so clearly human? Or does she seem more nightmarish, because, violent and vengeful, she's one of us?


Keeper of the wine shop in Saint Antoine, leader of the attack on the Bastille, Defarge is a man of divided loyalties. He owes allegiance to 1. Dr. Manette, his old master; 2. the ideals of the Revolution; 3. his wife, Therese. A strong, forceful character with natural authority, Defarge can for a time serve three masters. There's no conflict of interest between taking in Dr. Manette after his release from the Bastille and furthering the Revolution. Defarge actually displays his confused charge to members of the Jacquerie- a group of radical peasants- as an object lesson in government evil.
Only when Revolutionary fervor surges out of bounds are Defarge's triple loyalties tested. He refuses to aid Charles Darnay- Dr. Manette's son-in-law- when Darnay is seized as an aristocrat; by now the orders are coming from Defarge's bloodthirsty wife. Goaded by Madame, Defarge ends by denouncing Darnay and providing the evidence (ironically, in Dr. Manette's name) needed to condemn him. Defarge stops just short of denouncing Dr. Manette and Lucie, too, but there are hints from Madame and friends that he'd better start toeing the line.
Dickens leaves us with the thought that, finally, Defarge is controlled by a force more powerful than politics, or even his wife. In Sydney Carton's last vision, Defarge and Madame Defarge perish by the guillotine. Is it fate, irony, or historic inevitability that kills them? You decide.


Eccentric, mannish-looking Miss Pross is a type of character familiar to readers of Dickens' novels. Beneath her wild red hair and outrageous bonnet, she's as good as gold, a fiercely loyal servant. Dickens places Miss Pross in the plot by means of her long-lost brother. Solomon Pross is revealed to be John Barsad, Old Bailey spy and "sheep of the prisons."
Miss Pross' two defining characteristics are her devotion to Lucie and Solomon, and her stalwart Britishness. When Madame Defarge marches in, armed, to execute Lucie and her family, Miss Pross understands the Frenchwoman's intent- but not a word she says. Miss Pross has refused to learn French. Miss Pross' blind patriotism and devotion work to her advantage. She's empowered by love. Mistaking Miss Pross' tears of resolve for weakness, Madame Defarge moves toward a closed door, and in a heated struggle is shot by her own pistol. A Tale of Two Cities isn't markedly anti-France or pro- England, but Miss Pross' victory may strike you as a victory for her country, too.


Dickens dislikes Stryver. You may be hard put to find a single lovable feature in this "shouldering" lawyer, who has been "driving and living" ever since his school days with Sydney Carton. Yet the ambitious Stryver- his name a neat summing up of the man- is making his way in the world. With little talent for law, he pays the doomed but brilliant Carton to do his work for him. For the Stryvers of society, ambition and unscrupulousness count far more than skill. Dickens' Stryver is one of the new men of industrialized Victorian England. Abhorring his progress in real life, Dickens renders him the butt of jokes and scorn in the novel: Stryver's three adopted sons, though not of his flesh and blood, seem tainted by the mere connection.
Dickens' portrayal of Stryver as the man we love to hate seems rather one-sided. Does this make him a more memorable creation, or of limited interest? Notice how sharply Stryver is drawn in individual scenes- during his midnight work sessions with Carton, and in his conferences with Lorry about marrying Lucie. But once Lucie is married, and Darnay returns to France, Stryver drops out of the story. His role as the object of Dickens' satire is at an end.


For some readers, spiky-haired Jerry Cruncher supplies an element of humor in an otherwise serious novel. Other readers claim that the Cockney odd-job man who beats his wife for "flopping" (praying) isn't a particularly funny fellow. Cruncher's after hours work is digging up newly buried bodies and selling them to surgeons, which may not seem a subject for comedy. But it does contribute, in two important ways, to A Tale's development.
Cruncher's grave robbing graphically illustrates the theme of resurrection: he literally raises people from the dead. (Victorian grave robbers were in fact nicknamed "resurrection men.")
One of the plot's biggest surprises hinges on Cruncher's failed attempt to unearth the body of Roger Cly, the spy who testified with John Barsad against Charles Darnay. In France, years after his graveyard expedition, Cruncher discloses that Cly's coffin contained only stones and dirt. This information enables Sydney Carton to force Barsad, Cly's partner, into a plot to save Charles Darnay's life.
As for Cruncher's moral character, a brush with Revolutionary terror reforms him. He promises to make amends for his former "honest trade" by turning undertaker, burying the dead instead of raising them. In the last, tense pages of the novel, Cruncher's vow, "never no more will I interfere with Mrs. Cruncher's flopping," finally strikes a humorous chord. It's darkly comic relief.


A Tale of Two Cities takes place in England and France, largely London and Paris. The narrative starts in November 1775, but the actual events of the story begin in December 1757 with Dr. Manette's imprisonment in the Bastille. The action closes in December 1793 when Lucie Darnay and her party successfully flee France.
The historical background is the French Revolution. From page one, it approaches unstoppably. Once revolution breaks out, the action shifts to France and remains there for the duration of the novel. Which of the two cities- London or Paris- makes the stronger impression? You don't have to be familiar with Paris or its history to get a concrete sense of the city's revolutionary atmosphere. London, by contrast, may seem to fade out of the novel. With the exception of the crowd following Roger Cly's tomb, you might have trouble singling out an incident of London street life. Perhaps it's Dickens' handling of time that puts the emphasis on Paris. Book the Third covers only 15 months in a time scheme of 26 years. Yet that entire part of the novel takes place in France, mainly in strife-torn Paris. The emotion-charged events serve to make the setting memorable.


Some of the main themes of A Tale of Two Cities are listed below. Notice that some themes form contrasting pairs, forces in conflict. Dickens never declares outright which force triumphs. You must decide, weighing the accumulated evidence of the story.
1. RESURRECTION: The idea of being "recalled to life" penetrates every aspect of the novel. Characters "recalled" from either a symbolic or impending death include Dr. Manette, Charles Darnay, and, in an ironic way, Roger Cly. Jerry Cruncher, "resurrection man," brings the dead back into this world in a grisly way; Lucie Manette, gently restoring her father's memory, brings the doctor back in a loving way. In your own reading you may find Sydney Carton the most striking example of this theme. Dying in order to save Charles Darnay, Carton becomes the "Resurrection and the Life."
2. SACRIFICE (RENUNCIATION): If we accept Carton's death as the greatest sacrifice in the novel, we can't overlook its connection with the theme of resurrection. Actually, Carton makes a double sacrifice. Long before he gave up his life, he renounced all claims to Lucie Manette. Would you consider it a great sacrifice to give up the person who might be your one chance for worldly happiness? Other important sacrifices are made by Charles Darnay, Dr. Manette, and Miss Pross, who loses her hearing for Lucie's sake.
3. FATE: In A Tale of Two Cities the sweep of history and the flow of everyday life seem beyond individual control. Society's collective excesses, the greed and selfishness of the French aristocracy, bring about a revolution. As you read, be alert for correspondences between individual evil, and cruelty on a large scale. The unjust imprisonment of Dr. Manette by the St. Evremondes leads directly to the unjust imprisonment of Charles Darnay by the people. You'll notice that aristocratic oppression both causes and resembles the Revolutionary Terror.
4. LIGHT/DARK:The world of the novel seems naturally to divide into the forces of light and dark, or good and evil. Look for golden-haired Lucie Manette to lead the forces of light. She's a radiant angel, a golden thread weaving happiness into the lives of her loved ones. Darkness and shadows have unpleasant associations with threats and death. Note the gloom surrounding prisons, hangings (Gaspard's dangling corpse casts a shadow), and Madame Defarge and company.
5. REALITY/UNREALITY: Throughout the story characters question whether they're awake or dreaming. Sometimes it's hard to decide which state is preferable. Both reality and unreality have drawbacks. The Farmer-General, a cruel oppressor, is certainly real, and the grim Paris slums are the genuine article. For its part, unreality is the haunt of ghosts and spirits. Dickens tells us plainly that unreality pervades Monseigneur's court, symbol of the old, wicked regime. Dreams, fog, and sleep- closely related to unreality- are the conditions most like death. The doomed aristocrats Darnay meets in La Force are described as "Ghosts all!"
6. DOUBLES: The doubles you're most likely to spot at once are Charles Darnay and Sydney Carton. Yet the novel is filled with pairs: the St. Evremonde twins; the little mender of roads/the wood sawyer; Jerry Cruncher and young Jerry. If you contrast Darnay's generally hopeful outlook with Carton's pessimism, the two men appear to represent the light and dark aspects of life. Not all of the pairs, however, are opposites. Young Jerry seems a perfect miniature of his father, spiky hair and all. Dickens uses repeated images of mirrors to support the theme of doubles. When you look in a mirror, you are in a sense seeing your double. For instance, watch Sydney Carton studying his own face in a mirror. The image he sees is Darnay's.
7. LOVE/HATE: Several of A Tale's characters are endowed with the force of love. Observe Lucie Manette, whose "golden thread" of love symbolically encircles her family. And notice Miss Pross, aided by love in her struggle with Madame Defarge. Finally, think about the motivation for Sydney Carton's great sacrifice. In order to give up his life, he first had to love someone- Lucie- more than himself. Love may be said to triumph in the end: Lucie and her party escape, and Sydney Carton has a vision of a better world to come. But consider the costs- Miss Pross loses her hearing, and Carton gives up his life. Hate and its byproduct, vengeance, control the actions of Madame Defarge, The Vengeance, Jacques Three, and the faceless, slaughtering mob. To a lesser extent, Ernest Defarge also seems ruled by hate. On one hand, Carton's dying vision indicates that hate and vengeance have lost a round. On the other hand, Dickens uses his last chapter to point to the lessons of history. Crush humanity out of its natural shape, he says, and hate, evil, and violence result.
8. DEATH: Death seems to go hand in hand with resurrection. Carton has to die in order for Darnay to live. Some readers believe that Dickens displays an obsession with death. As evidence, these readers cite Dickens' vivid description of capital punishment and scenes of Revolutionary violence. These readers also single out Sydney Carton to support their argument. They suggest that Carton has a secret yearning for death and oblivion, reflecting similar feelings held by Dickens.
9. PRISONS: A looming presence in the book, prisons in England and France are linked with darkness, death, and unreality. Think about the fact that every major character either spends time in or grows familiar with a prison.


Dickens wrote A Tale of Two Cities in brief, weekly installments. Not surprisingly, the limitations of time and space affected his usual style. Because the action is so compressed, and the subject matter so serious, A Tale contains less dialogue, humor, and detailed characterization than the typical Dickens novel. Even so, it has stylistic qualities we think of as "Dickensian," and it makes some stylistic breakthroughs.
1. USE OF DETAIL: Dickens' details have sometimes been labeled "unnecessary." Note that Miss Pross' bonnet is not only like a "Grenadier wooden measure," but like a "great Stilton cheese." Dickens also inserts extended description in the very midst of an action: recall the "gaunt pier glass" standing behind Lucie Manette in the Dover inn. One effect of these techniques is the creation of texture. After reading Dickens' descriptions, it's easy to imagine just how a person or landscape looks.
2. REPETITION/PARALLELISM: Frequent repetition of detail, dialogue, and bits of description creates a strong atmosphere. Often the repetition comes in the form of a parallel construction: remember the "best of times, worst of times" paragraph? One way Dickens establishes character is by means of repeated traits. Nine times out of ten, Stryver is depicted "shouldering." As for Madame Defarge, her sinister style with knitting needles may change your entire conception of the hobby.
3. THEATRICAL/MELODRAMATIC QUALITY: Dickens was an avid theatergoer, and at the time of writing A Tale had begun giving public readings. Some of the novel's best and worst stylistic aspects- vivid imagery, heavy melodrama- reflect the fact that Dickens had performance in mind. Consider Lucie's first meeting with her father, and read the journal Dr. Manette hid in his Bastille cell. You'll notice repetitive speeches, unconvincing dialogue, and supercharged emotions. Though unlikely to show up on a modern stage, these elements show the influence of sentimental Victorian drama.
4. PATTERNS OF IMAGERY: The novel is marked by patterns of imagery that create its special atmosphere and combine with the major themes: the equation of blood with wine, the use of mirrors, and the depiction of water are among the best-developed examples. All are discussed fully in the Story section.
5. MOTION PICTURE TECHNIQUE: Dickens' extensive use of images makes his style a visual one. If you're a movie buff, you may notice some points in common with film technique. The storming of the Bastille is described by means of rapid images, suggesting associated ideas: "flashing weapons, blazing torches, smoking wagonloads of wet straw... shrieks, volleys, execrations...." Filmmakers call this technique montage.
6. PERSONIFICATION:Throughout his story Dickens lends human qualities to inanimate objects or concepts: Hunger, Saint Antoine, and The Vengeance are a few examples. As you read, consider how personification helps illustrate moral points, and contributes to the atmosphere.
7. LANGUAGE OF THE FRENCH PEOPLE: Writing in English, Dickens must put convincing dialogue into the mouths of native French speakers. How does he solve the problem? By literally translating French expressions and sentence structure. Depending on your tastes, the result may seem a bit stilted, or provide just the right "foreign" accent.


The story is told nearly entirely in the third person, by a narrator who has French history and the layout of 18th-century London at his fingertips. He tells us what each character is feeling and thinking, and shifts from the consciousness of one person to another almost at will. Technically speaking, he's an omniscient and intrusive narrator. This means he's ever-present, leading us into moral judgments about history, people, and social practices. In a few instances the narrator takes a first-person point of view. As "I" or "we," he comments in a personal, introspective way on human nature. One result is to draw us into the fear and excitement of the Darnay party's escape from France.


Dickens' own ideas about content, plus exterior requirements, dictated the form of his novel.
1. A TALE AS EXPERIMENT: Departing from his usual leisurely approach to storytelling, Dickens tries to develop character through a fast-moving plot. The actions are meant to speak louder than the dialogue. As a result, the novel is tied to its complex plot, and much space is needed simply to tell the story.
2. LONDON AND PARIS: Hoping to contrast two great cities, Dickens shifts the action between London and Paris. For many readers the Paris sections are more memorable. Perhaps, having expertly evoked London in other novels, Dickens wanted to concentrate on new territory.
3. WEEKLY INSTALLMENTS: Dickens had to publish A Tale in weekly serial form. He sought to attract and hold a large audience. Reflecting these requirements, nearly all of A Tale's chapters contain action or plot information, and end unresolved, or with a "hook." How do you react to being left dangling at the end of each chapter? Some readers enjoy being drawn in by Dickens' skillfully applied suspense. Others, while recognizing the artistry involved, may feel their emotions are being manipulated.
4. COINCIDENCE: As you read, count the number of major coincidences in the plot. Your response to the novel may depend on whether or not you can accept, for example, Ernest Defarge turning up whenever a Revolutionary leader is needed. Your hardest task may be swallowing the several coincidences that occur in III, 8. Dickens defended his use of this device. He felt, given a properly developed atmosphere, that coincidences were natural, even inevitable.