A Tale of Two Cities

Charles John Huffam Dickens - Published 1859

Charles John Huffam Dickens was born February 7, 1812, in Portsmouth, on England's southern coast. John Dickens, Charles's father, was a respectable, middle-class naval pay clerk. His family moved several times during Charles's youth, and the boy attended several schools, received instruction from his mother, and read voraciously. John Dickens received a reasonable salary, but he always spent more than he made. In 1824 he was imprisoned for debt. Two weeks before his father's imprisonment, young Charles was sent to work in a blacking warehouse, pasting labels on bottles of boot polish. He lived alone in poverty in rented lodgings while the rest of his family moved into prison with his father—a common practice at that time. John Dickens was released after three months, and Charles returned to school. Dickens always remembered and hated this period of his life and the degradation it seemed to entail. Yet here he first became familiar with the lower-class people who appear throughout his novels. Dickens also returns again and again in his books to prison scenes.

In 1827 Dickens left school for good and became an apprentice for an attorney's firm. He took a strong dislike to the law—a dislike that shows up in many of his novels, especially Bleak House (1852-1853). He studied legal shorthand after work and became a very successful court and parliamentary reporter, eventually working for several newspapers. In 1836 Dickens published his first book, Sketches by Boz, a successful collection of short sketches on London life previously published in a London newspaper. He married Catherine Hogarth that year, and the couple, though increasingly unhappy, had ten children. His first novel, The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, appeared in monthly installments in 1836 and 1837. It became an immensely popular best seller, making Dickens extremely famous at age twenty-four.

From this time on, Dickens worked full-time as a writer. He published fourteen major novels, several plays, numerous short stories, and many other books and articles. At times he was involved in writing as many as three novels simultaneously. A man of incredible energy and vitality, Dickens acted, edited a number of periodicals, and worked with various charitable organizations. He also gave impressive public readings from his own works. He twice toured America, giving readings to packed houses. Severe shocks and exhaustion from overwork contributed to the stroke that ended his life on June 9, 1870, in Rochester, England.

Dickens's novels dominated the Victorian literary scene throughout his life. He was arguably the most popular novelist ever to write in English. In addition to his books appropriate for young adults, Dickens's important works include Bleak House (1852-1853), Little Dorrit (1855-1857), and Our Mutual Friend (1864-1865). He left a final novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, unfinished at the time of his death.


Many critics consider Dickens the greatest novelist of the English-speaking world. Historically he is probably the most popular. Dickens is one of those rare writers—like Shakespeare—who has always appealed to a wide variety of readers. When each installment of a new Dickens novel appeared, people of all social and economic classes rushed out to discover what had happened to their favorite characters. Scholars estimate that for every copy sold, ten people read or heard the story. Often while the rich laughed over a Dickens novel upstairs, the servants were downstairs in the kitchen hearing the same story read with equal enjoyment. In America herds of people would wait on the docks for the boats carrying a new installment of Dickens's latest book.

Dickens's novels are still amazingly popular among a wide range of readers. Scholars publish articles and books on Dickens at a rate second only to that of Shakespeare criticism. Yet his stories and characters still delight readers of vastly different ages, backgrounds, and experience.

A Tale of Two Cities is probably the least typically Dickensian of all Dickens's novels. This is probably why many critics have called it either his best work or his worst. Shorter than most of his greatest achievements, A Tale of Two Cities lacks what Dickens called 'elbow room.' It includes few of the grotesque comic characters that populate his longer works, and it does not pause in its rapid pace to fill pages with humorous situations, pleasing descriptions, and hilarious details.

On the other hand, A Tale of Two Cities is certainly more direct and unified than many other Dickens novels. Its plot moves quickly toward climax, it contains few extraneous details, and everything serves a clear thematic purpose. Many passages create considerable suspense, and Dickens's language in this novel, written at the peak of his powers, amazes the sensitive reader with its aptness and power to make one seem to see and feel the events and people it describes. A Tale of Two Cities also provides particularly good opportunities to study such novelistic tools as allusion, foreshadowing, symbol, characterization, plot structure, repetition, tone and irony, and point of view.


Dickens sets A Tale of Two Cities primarily in Paris and London during one of the most turbulent periods of European history, the French Revolution. The novel covers events between 1775 and 1793, referring also to incidents occurring before that time. The French Revolution began in 1789 and continued in various forms through at least 1795. Dickens takes most of his historical perspective from The French Revolution (1837), a three-volume description and philosophical discussion by his friend Thomas Carlyle. Carlyle's view was not objective or well documented; his intention was argumentative and dramatic. He portrays vividly the suffering of the poor and especially the Reign of Terror, best symbolized by the guillotine. Dickens greatly admired Carlyle and his work, and he read The French Revolution many times. Like Carlyle, Dickens cared less for accurate history and factual presentation than for vivid descriptions and the meanings he found behind the events. He did not concern himself with the revolution's immediate political or economic causes but focused on the human suffering that he believed warped the very humanity of individuals on both sides of the battle lines.

On the eve of the French Revolution, national debts and aristocratic unwillingness to sacrifice forced heavy tax increases on a populace already living at near-subsistence levels. Bickering between King Louis XVI and leading aristocrats revealed that the king could not effectively enforce his will through the military. In 1787 and 1788 excessive exports of already-scarce food caused near starvation among the poorer classes, and a bumper grape harvest depressed prices and further reduced the buying power of poor agricultural workers. Then came the winter of 1788-1789, probably the worst of the entire century. Inspired by political philosophers and the recent success of the American Revolution, many members of the middle and lower classes became increasingly hostile to the system that seemed to cause their suffering. During these years members of the poorer classes working toward revolutionary action referred to themselves as 'Jacques,' as do the patrons of the Defarges' shop in Dickens's novel. On July 14, 1789, a large group of Parisian citizens attacked the Bastille, the large central prison that symbolized to the populace the worst aristocratic offenses. Dickens describes this event in part 2, chapter 21 of A Tale of Two Cities. Chapter 22, in which Foulon, an aristocrat, is captured by a mob and cruelly executed, illustrates what happened in France during the months that followed, as local bastilles were attacked and aristocrats murdered. In chapter 23 Dickens shows peasants burning the chateau of Charles Darnay's uncle. Power struggles for control of the country—both political and philosophical—dominated the next few years. In August 1792, when Darnay leaves England for France, the dominant political group passed a series of laws renouncing monarchy and proclaiming death for any returning aristocrats. During the months that followed, this political group used the infamous guillotine to behead aristocrats and others who opposed their policies. As Dickens shows, it became very dangerous even to voice opinions contrary to the prevailing ideas. During this period approximately 300,000 people were jailed, and about 17,000 of these were executed.


Just before writing A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens acted the leading role in a play called The Frozen Deep written by his friend Wilkie Collins. Dickens played a man in love with a woman who rejects him in favor of a rival. The character Dickens played sacrifices his own life to save the rival he despises—all because of his love for the woman who rejected him. A Tale of Two Cities works out a similar theme of self-sacrifice. Sydney Carton, a brilliant young lawyer, wastes his talents in drink and cynicism. Carton helps another lawyer, the self-centered and unintelligent Stryver, to win cases and 'shoulder' his way up in the world, but he will not work for himself. 'I am incapable of all the higher and better flights of men,' Carton says. He describes himself as 'a dissolute dog who has never done any good and never will.' Yet, rejected by Lucie Manette in favor of the handsome Frenchman Charles Darnay, Carton tells her, 'For you, and for any dear to you, I would do anything.... There is a man who would give his life, to keep a life you love beside you!' At the novel's end, Carton does exactly that, exchanging places with Darnay, who looks remarkably like Carton, just before his execution by guillotine. In willingly giving his life for Lucie—even to save the rival he dislikes—Carton performs a sort of Christlike sacrifice; he saves Darnay through his own death, and at the same time he redeems himself from his own sins. Carton dies with the famous last words: '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.'

Part of this self-sacrifice theme depends on a recurring pattern of resurrection imagery. The novel opens with Dr. Manette, Lucie's supposedly dead father, being released from a French prison in which he was unjustly held in solitary confinement for eighteen years. Dickens's characters repeatedly describe Dr. Manette as being 'recalled to life.' Similarly, Carton twice rescues Darnay from prison and death. In London, where Darnay is tried as a French spy, Carton's legal brilliance discredits the prosecution's false witnesses and brings about an acquittal. Darnay is thus 'recalled to life' after facing a death sentence if found guilty. In Paris, Carton drugs Darnay and again recalls him to life by taking his place at the guillotine. Before he dies, Carton repeatedly hears in his mind the words of Jesus, 'I am the Resurrection and the Life.' Dickens also includes several humorous or false resurrections. The comic Jerry Cruncher moonlights as a 'resurrection-man,' illegally digging up bodies to sell to medical researchers. The Old Bailey spy Roger Cly apparently dies and is buried, but as it turns out he has faked his own funeral to escape vengeful prisoners. Similarly, the French nobleman Foulon stages a funeral for himself to escape the French mob during the revolution, but he is eventually discovered, 'recalled to life,' and then cruelly executed.

Dickens portrays the French mob's violence in order to illustrate aspects of the relationship between rich and poor. The first half of A Tale of Two Cities shows examples of the French aristocracy's cruelty and insensitivity to the overtaxed, impoverished, starving lower classes. Following Carlyle's ideas, Dickens tries to show that when the rich and powerful of any country act as these French aristocrats did, the people will inevitably revolt. The French Revolution was the natural result of prolonged cruelty. Although he sympathizes with the sufferings of the French poor, Dickens disapproves of their violence and cruelty. But he primarily blames the corrupt aristocrats whose cruelty caused the poor to become inhuman. 'Crush humanity out of shape once more, under similar hammers,' Dickens writes, 'and it will twist itself into the same tortured forms. Sow the same seed of rapacious license and oppression over again, and it will surely yield the same fruit according to its kind.'

For Dickens, here as elsewhere in his writings, problems of human suffering will not be solved by changes in political or economic systems. Like Carlyle, Dickens believed that enough different systems had been tried over many centuries to prove that none would eradicate the suffering of the poor. Rather, he sought the kind of unselfish benevolence and self-sacrifice he illustrates in Lucie Manette, Charles Darnay, and Sydney Carton. Only when individuals—especially leaders—adopt these virtues and really care about the poor will suffering and injustice end. Dickens contends that the important changes occur in individuals, not systems. So Carton goes to heaven, while the French revolutionary system only finds new ways to commit the same atrocities that spawned it.

Ironically, despite its emphasis on individuals, A Tale of Two Cities may include fewer individualized, believable characters than any other Dickens novel. Indeed, many of its characters seem to exist primarily to illustrate points or exemplify aspects of human nature. In a departure from his normal characterization techniques, Dickens writes that he intends in A Tale of Two Cities to create characters 'whom the story shall express, more than they should express themselves by dialogue.'

As often happens in Dickens's novels, the hero and heroine are among the book's least believable characters. Lucie Manette has almost no real depth of character: meek, pure, loving, inspiring to men, she represents Dickens's ideal Victorian woman. Her husband, Charles Darnay, fares little better. Noble, honest, brave, and cultured, Darnay personifies the Victorian male virtues. He renounces his French aristocratic inheritance because of his relatives' cruelty and works in England teaching French. His ideas and actions command admiration and respect, yet he lacks real individuality and psychological depth. Sydney Carton is Darnay's double, both literally and figuratively. Carton sees in Darnay what he could have been, and this recognition contributes to his dislike of the Frenchman. Most readers find Carton believable and interesting through most of the book. Critics disagree, however, on whether his final sacrifice is convincing. Certainly Carton's character throughout the novel is essential to Dickens's purpose, and several incidents foreshadow Carton's final noble act.

Lucie's father, Dr. Alexandre Manette, seems at least somewhat more real than his daughter. As a prisoner in the Bastille, he fought despair by making shoes. For some time after his release, Dr. Manette cannot rediscover his old identity and finds it difficult to live without shoemaking materials and a locked door. His occasional relapses into his prison mode seem psychologically accurate and insightful.

The novel's most memorable characters are probably the French revolutionaries. Madame Defarge knits a coded history of aristocratic atrocities, storing up the wrongs committed against her class. As leader of the revolutionary women, Madame Defarge loses her best instincts and becomes thoroughly vengeful, unmerciful, and violent. The other women, too, show fascinating contrasts. They help storm the Bastille, destroying everything and killing everyone there, then return to home to nurse babies, prepare scanty meals, or play with their children. Despite her contradictions—or because of them—Madame Defarge stands out as a realistic, psychologically deep character. Her husband and the male revolutionaries have some depth as well. Lacking his wife's secret motives for hatred, Monsieur Defarge vacillates in his vengefulness. Yet he remains loyal to his revolutionary cause, refusing to help Darnay despite his sympathy.

Dickens does include a number of English characters who are more traditionally 'Dickensian.' These characters, usually comic and distinguishable by a repeated peculiarity of speech or humorous quirk, add a lighter touch to an otherwise dark and serious novel. Mr. Jarvis Lorry is an aging bachelor who represents Tellson's bank first and himself only afterward, if at all. Lorry pretends to consider everything from a purely business perspective, but he does this partly to modestly deny credit for his many acts of kindness. Jerry Cruncher, a low-level employee at Tellson's, steals bodies from new graves at night to sell to surgeons doing medical research. Jerry's pious wife prays that he will stop doing such awful things, which Jerry interprets as praying against him and his financial success. In a darkly funny tone, Dickens shows Jerry berating his wife for her prayers ('flopping' he calls it). He calls her, in his uneducated English, 'Aggerawayter' (Aggravator). Stryver is a disgustingly egoistic and ambitious lawyer whose success depends entirely on Carton's behind-the-scenes instructions. Stryver's whole life has been an attempt to 'shoulder' his way in front of others on his path to success. Finally, Miss Pross, the Manettes' loyal English servant, has her strange quirks. But she stands up to Madame Defarge in a climactic scene in which the two converse at high volume, each in a language the other cannot understand.


A Tale of Two Cities, though not typical of Dickens's writing in many ways, is a very strong novel. First, its remarkable use of language astounds the careful reader. The opening passage, beginning 'It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,' has become justly famous. Throughout the novel Dickens creates powerful moods, manipulates tone brilliantly, and portrays characters with unusual but precise descriptions (such as Miss Pross, whose hat looks like 'a great Stilton cheese'). He satirizes pomposity, as in his account of the legal document accusing Darnay of spying 'wickedly, falsely, traitorously, and otherwise evil-adverbiously.' Dickens often describes characters metaphorically, then refers to them primarily by their metaphorical identifications thereafter. For example, he calls Carton the jackal for the lion Stryver, then refers to the two characters as jackal and lion for several chapters.

A Tale of Two Cities also provides excellent examples of literary devices. The novel abounds with symbols: spilled wine as blood, the knitting Madame Defarge as the classical Fates, the sunset making everything red and foreshadowing the aristocracy's bloody end. Especially powerful are Dickens's repeated references to water and storm imagery that foreshadows the approaching violence in France. Indeed, Dickens foreshadows events to come throughout the novel, and many students enjoy working out some of these patterns.

This novel also provides many examples of literary repetition. Numerous parallels ask readers to compare various characters and events. Such parallels include the trials, prisoners, and similarities between London and Paris or between English and French characters. Also, Dickens often juxtaposes chapters in such a way that he offers observant readers interesting contrasts or divergent treatments of similar subjects in consecutive chapters.

To fully appreciate Dickens's achievement, readers should keep in mind that, as with all his novels, he published A Tale of Two Cities serially in a magazine, in this case, one or two chapters each week. This means that once an installment had been published, he could not go back and revise it. By this point in his career, however, Dickens had learned to plan his novels out in detail before he began writing. Given the constraints of serial publication, A Tale of Two Cities is remarkably coherent and unified.


It is difficult to imagine anyone objecting to A Tale of Two Cities. The novel does contain explicit scriptural references, especially near the conclusion. But these can easily be viewed as a means of making historically relevant comparisons.

Some have criticized Dickens's works for emphasizing grave social injustices but not offering any solutions. But such criticism misses Dickens's point: believing history has proved economic systems to be incapable of relieving poverty, Dickens stresses the importance of individual responsibility and compassion for the plight of the poor and disfranchised. Indeed, A Tale of Two Cities teaches the important lesson that individual efforts are worthwhile, even if they make but a small difference in an often violent and unjust world.

Although Dickens does not hesitate to portray the violence inherent in his subject matter, he in no way glorifies it. He depicts the mistreatment of the lower classes that spurred the French Revolution, but he clearly condemns atrocities committed in the name of revolution. For Dickens, no cause is great enough to justify abandoning all vestiges of sympathy for one's fellow human beings.


1. How is Lucie Manette the 'golden thread' in the novel?

2. Why does Monsieur Defarge keep the door to Dr. Manette's room locked?

3. What causes the French mob to revolt? Do you think their actions are justified? How does Dickens feel about the revolutionary mob? How do you know?

4. How does Dickens use foreshadowing to prepare the reader for what will happen later in the novel? How does he foreshadow such important events as the revolution, Carton's final sacrifice, or the reemergence of Roger Cly?

5. In what way does Dr. Manette unintentionally testify against his son-in-law during Darnay's second French trial?

6. Why is Madame Defarge so intent on vengeance against Darnay and his family? What events lead up to her particular concern with him?

7. Contrast Miss Pross and Madame Defarge.

8. How does Carton persuade John Barsad to let him into Darnay's cell? What is Barsad's real name?

9. What coincidences do you find in the novel? Do they detract from the book's success?

10. Dickens is often described as a humorous writer. What humor do you find in A Tale of Two Cities? What does it add?

11. What symbols can you find in this novel? How do they help Dickens establish his themes?

12. Do you see any parallels between London and Paris? Why a tale of two cities?


1. The idea of resurrection or rebirth pervades this novel. How does Dickens use this theme? What does Dickens seem to be saying with it?

2. Dickens seems to show that the French Revolution was inevitable, given the cruelty and greed of the upper classes at that time. But how does Dickens feel about the actions of the revolutionaries once they took power? What did the revolution accomplish? Does Dickens approve of the guillotine? How do you know?

3. Why does Sydney Carton change places with Darnay? What makes him sacrifice his life in this way? Does Carton's character change here, or has he always had within him the potential for such noble action? Do you find his act believable?

4. Carton and Darnay look remarkably alike. They also have many other things in common, yet in some ways they are complete opposites. Can they be seen as different sides of the same human personality? In what ways are they doubles?

5. Do the themes of resurrection and self-sacrifice, and the setting of the French Revolution have anything to do with one another? Why would Dickens set his story in this particular time and place?

6. How does Dickens use parallel situations and characters in the novel? What examples can you find, and what do they contribute?


A Tale of Two Cities has been adapted to film seven times. The most popular and enduring productions were released in 1917, 1935, 1958, and 1980. The well produced 1917 silent version was released by Twentieth Century Fox, directed by Frank Lloyd, and starred William Farnum, Jewel Carmen, Joseph Swickard, Herschell Mayall, and Rosita Marstini. The 1935 black-and-white film released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer was a huge commercial and critical success. Produced by David O. Selznick and directed by Jack Conway, the film's fine cast included Ronald Colman, Elizabeth Allan, Edna May Oliver, Reginald Owen, Basil Rathbone, Blanche Yurka, Isabel Jewell, Walter Catlett, Henry B. Wathall, H. B. Warner, and Donald Woods. A 1958 British production remained true to Dickens's story. Directed by Ralph Thomas, it starred Dirk Bogarde, Dorothy Tutin, Cecil Parker, Stephen Murray, Athene Seyler, Christopher Lee, Donald Pleasance, and Ian Bannen. A 1980 made-for-television movie starred Chris Sarandon, Peter Cushing, Kenneth More, Barry Morse, Flora Robson, Billie Whitlaw, and Alice Krige. Directed by Jim Goddard and produced by Norman Rosemont, this version seldom departed from the events in the novel.

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