The novel begins in 1775 concerning the two cities of Paris and London. An employee at Tellson’s bank, Mr. Lorry, reveals to Lucie Manette that her father, whom she’s presumed dead for years, is quite alive. He had been imprisoned for 18 years in the Bastille by the Evrémondes for trying to do the right thing for an abused family. He is now hiding out in the attic of a former servant, Monsieur Defarge. When Lucie and Mr. Lorry arrive in Paris, they find him in the corner making shoes, a pastime that has been his escape from reality for the past few years. They realize that imprisonment has left him mentally unstable, but Lucie helps restore him, and they return to London.
The novel skips forward in time to 1780 in London. A man, Charles Darnay, is on trial for treason. His lawyer, Stryver, only wins the case with help from his colleague, Carton, who points out how much he bears a likeness to Charles. This discredits the prosecution’s identification of Charles as the spy they had seen. After this, we learn that Charles is the blood of wealthy aristocracy in France at the time. His true last name is Evrémonde, but he keeps this a secret and renounces his family name due to how poorly the wealthy and powerful treat the lower class. Meanwhile, in London, Carton professes his love for Lucie and vows that he will do anything for her. She helps him find purpose in life, and he only wants her and Charles to be happy. Charles returns to London and asks for Lucie’s hand in marriage; her and her father accept. On their wedding day, Charles reveals his secret (about his family name) to Dr. Manette, and he returns to shoemaking, but Mr. Lorry helps him recover.
The year is now 1789, the start of the French Revolution, and the peasants have begun to rise up. They begin their revolution by storming the Bastille. They evolve into ruthless, bloodthirsty savages with killing the wealthy as their main desire in life. Madame Defarge knits the names of everyone she wants dead, including the Manettes and Charles. Charles learns of the imprisonment of one of his friends and travels to France. Lucie and Dr. Manette follow. There, Charles is imprisoned and put on trial. Dr. Manette, who has the sympathy and support of the revolutionaries because of his time in prison, helps free him. However, he is arrested again due to a forgotten letter found in Dr. Manette’s old cell detailing the crimes Charles’s family committed against Madame Defarge and her family. Charles is considered guilty by association and is sentenced to death. Carton, who was also in France around this time, hears of Madame Defarge’s plants to execute Lucie and her daughter as well. He springs into action and arranges for the Manettes to travel home immediately. He then sneaks into Charles’s cell and tricks him into changing places with him. Charles returns to London with his family.
On her way to attempt to arrest Lucie, Madame Defarge is killed by her own bullet. As he waits in line for the guillotine, Carton meets a wrongly accused young woman and holds her hand as they wait for the inevitable. Carton dies knowing that he fulfilled his purpose in life: Lucie and her family are safe.
The author, Charles Dickens, was born in England and lived from 1812 to 1870. He was a self-taught writer who began as an actor, but gained fame for his writing in his twenties. His works include A Christmas Carol, A Tale of Two Cities, Great Expectations, and others. Many of which are well-known to this day. He is even credited with “inventing” Christmas books, as his love of Christmas caused him to be the first to write numerous Christmas-themed stories. His writing style for most of his works can be described by a mix of fantasy and realism, and he enjoyed satire. His writing is characterized by his use of creative language, and he was very meticulous in creating his characters, ensuring that they came across exactly as he intended. There is no question why he is considered one of the greatest writers of the Victorian Era (‘History – Charles Dickens (1812 – 1870)’).
A Tale of Two Cities was written in 1859, during the start of the Victorian Era. This era fell between a literary period of romanticism and modernism or realism, so the writing style of the Victorian Era was a combination of the two styles. Novels tended to contain themes of hardships where love, luck, or perseverance won out in the end. They were typically centralized around a religious or moral lesson. A Tale of Two Cities fits this description relatively well as Charles’s trial was a hardship that was resolved through perseverance and a sacrifice fueled by love . The novel, though, was centralized around a period of history about 50 years prior to this era: the French Revolution. The French Revolution began in 1789 and was caused by the mistreatment and neglect of the lower class by the wealthy and powerful French aristocracies and political figures. Discontent of the economic system in place at the time evoked a desire for reform in the peasants. The revolution was distinguished by the extreme violence and executions by guillotine. By 1793, the king and queen had been executed, and France was a bloodbath. Over 17,000 people were tied and executed during a ten-month period known as the Reign of Terror near the end of the revolution. By the end, the French Revolution did not achieve all of its goals, but it definitely proved the power and will of the people (‘History – Charles Dickens (1812 – 1870)’).
Dickens wrote about this period in history during a time when there was tension between France and Great Britain. This brought significance to the ties between the two cities, London and Paris, in the novel, London being a place of security and hope, and Paris being a place of tragedy and civil unrest. His inspiration for the setting was an 1837 Thomas Carlyle book that he loved, The French Revolution because its depictions of the fall of Bastille reminded him of his father’s imprisonment in the Marshalsea debtors’ prison. The hero of the novel, Carton, was inspired by the hero in a play he acted in, Wilkie Collins’s The Frozen Deep. His main purpose, however, in writing this novel was to promote his new weekly journal titled All the Year Round. This was during a time when there was gossip surrounding his personal life and he was trying to begin a career as his own public reader (Griffith).
Sydney Carton: Carton fits the hero archetype. He also shows the most character development throughout the novel. The novel begins with him as an unmotivated assistant to Stryver. However, after meeting Charles and Lucie, he realizes how much love they have for each other. This and his love for Lucie cause him to find a new purpose in life: to ensure the lovers’ happiness. He even states that he would make any sacrifice for her, and he does. He ends up making the ultimate sacrifice, his own life, to save Charles for Lucie.
Madame Defarge: Madame Defarge fits the villain archetype. Her character is flat and does not develop at all throughout the novel. From beginning to end, she only has one purpose and motivation: to kill those who wronged her and caused the abuse and death that plagued her and her family. She shows no remorse and no mercy, even to those, like the Manettes and Charles, who have already suffered or are not directly related to her suffering. She is a prominent figure in the revolution and a human embodiment of the extreme thirst for blood that characterized the French Revolution.
Lucie Manette: Lucie best fits the innocent archetype. She is a relatively flat character, but she serves as an important symbol in the novel. She is naive and kind and the lover of Charles. She also becomes a light for both her father and Carton. She has the ability to “resurrect” Dr. Manette from his instability and hopelessness after escaping prison, and she gives Carton a purpose in life that he was unable to find prior. Throughout the novel, she is a symbol of innocence, hope, and faith in humanity, symbols that were difficult to find during the dark times of the French Revolution.
Charles Darnay (Evrémonde): Charles doesn’t seem to fit perfectly into an archetype. He is heroic in that he gives up his family and financial security for what he believes is right, but he also gets put into positions where others have to come in and save him. He is also a relatively flat character. He is the lover of Lucie and son of the French rulers that tortured Madame Defarge’s family. However, he tries to keep this a secret and denounces his family and their actions. He believes in liberty rather than the revolutionary ideals of the people of France. His loyalty and compassion for others is what draws him back to France and puts him in danger. Similar to Lucie, he is a rare symbol of hope in the novel.
Dr. Alexandre Manette (Prisoner 105 North Tower): Dr. Manette is a father figure, but he also relies on others for strength. He had a decent amount of character development. His imprisonment by the Evrémondes left him unstable and almost lifeless to the point where he is completely disconnected from his past life and does not remember his own name. However, his daughter and Mr. Lorry are able to bring him out of this state and break him of his shoemaking habit to bring him back to reality. By the end of the novel, he is less of the lifeless person he was. He is able to find himself again and some security in his life with Lucie and Charles.
Jarvis Lorry: Mr. Lorry is a foil for Dr. Manette. He is extremely loyal throughout and, along with Lucie, an important figure in Dr. Manette’s life. He is the stability and voice of reason that Dr. Manette is lacking in the beginning and helps him regain his senses.
Love and sacrifice play huge roles in the novel. There are many instances of sacrifice in the novel. Charles sacrifices the wealth and power associated with his name and family to live a life that is guilt-free and moral. The French peasants sacrifice their lives for reform and freedom. Dr. Manette sacrifices is freedom and happiness to maintain his dignity and do what is right. The most notable sacrifice, however, is the sacrifice Carton made for Lucie and her family. This sacrifice was the most selfless and brave act in the novel and served as a major turning point in Carton’s character. This sacrifice was motivated by, not only a love for Lucie, but by her obvious love for Charles. Carton only wanted Lucie to live happily. All of these sacrifices paid off in the end. Charles finds true love, France regains a sense of unity and equality, Dr. Manette finds his daughter and his strength, and Carton feels like his life was meaningful. These theme could relate to an AP FRQ about how love inspires people to act out of character or better themselves.
Resurrection is also an important theme in the novel, both literally and metaphorically. Resurrection takes a more physical form through Jerry, a grave robber or “resurrection man”, who steals and sells the body parts of the deceased. However, he gives this up this to be spiritually resurrected through religion. Lucie Manette is responsible for much of the metaphorical resurrection in the novel. She acts as the resurrector for both Carton and her father. She gives Carton a purpose in his so-called worthless life and is her father’s “golden thread”, bringing him back to reality after his decline into insanity after imprisonment. In addition, Carton has visions of being resurrected in heaven and through Lucie and Charles’s child as he sacrifices his life at the guillotine. This theme of resurrection is tied to the theme of sacrifice in the novel and associates a sort of hopeful and more positive attitude with the gruesome and tragic deaths within the novel. This theme could best relate to an AP FRQ that asks about physical, spiritual, or emotional resurrection or about a positive psychological change that brings them out of a dark period.
Class is a driving force for much of the revolution in the novel. The struggle between the upper and lower class causes unrest in the peasants. They are treated unfairly and neglected, so they demand justice. There was a clear distinction between the upper and lower class of France in the novel. The cruel acts of the Evrémondes and other powerful French figures paint a picture of the cruelty and hardships that the lower class endured. The novel shows how miserable and fed up the French citizens were and how arrogant and selfish the wealthy were. However, the novel doesn’t hold back in its depiction of the violent acts of the peasants either. Dickens seems to censure the cruel acts of the oppressed and the oppressors. This leads the reader to question who they feel sympathy for and how far is too far when it comes to revenge or justice. In addition, whether they truly created an effective revolution by perpetuating the violence. This theme can best relate to an AP FRQ that asks about the effects of a significant class difference.
The novel is relatively focused as well on the idea of fate and destiny. Madame Defarge seemed to have some control over the fate of the characters, or at least she intended to. Her knitted “hit list” implied that she was attempting to control the lives and fates of the characters, even those that her husband did not agree should be punished. There were also a few invisible forces that drew people to places. Charles wanted to leave and forget France to escape his family name and start fresh, but he was pulled back anyway by some force, which lead to him having to face the past that he attempted to escape. Coincidentally, Carton made his way to France just at the right time as well. In addition, the past that Dr. Manette tried so hard to forget, came back in the form of the letter that condemns Charles. This all inevitably lead to Cartons fate. It seemed like as much as these characters wanted to escape something, their destiny was already set in stone. This may suggest that not much can be done to avoid fate, other than extreme acts such as the sacrifice Carton made. This theme could best relate to an AP FRQ about the idea of fate or predetermined destiny.
Symbolism: There were many uses of symbolism in the novel. One of the first was the wine. The wine at the start of the novel symbolized the almost intoxicating power of the revolution and its spirit of violence. In addition, it served as a symbol for blood: “…one tall joker so besmirched, his head more out of a long squalid bag of a nightcap than in it, scrawled upon a wall with his finger dipped in muddy wine-lees—blood” (Dickens 26). Another symbol was the guillotine. This was a symbol, not only in the novel, but in the revolution as well. It was a means of institutionalizing murder. It symbolized the decrease in value that human lives held. Executions were commonplace and no longer conveyed emotion in the audience. This symbol showed how inhuman and disconnected to reality the French citizens were.
Foreshadowing: Foreshadowing was used often throughout the novel. One of the first instances was in Book 1 Chapter 5. Wine is spilled in the streets of Paris and nearby citizens frantically attempted to claim it for themselves. This not only showed the start of a progression of the citizens to a more desperate, savage state, but stood as foreshadowing of the coming revolution. “The time was to come, when that wine too would be spilled on the street-stones, and when the stain of it would be red upon many there.” (Dickens 26). Another example of this can be found in Book 2 Chapter 3 during Charles´s trial. The witness is unable to differentiate between Charles and Carton. This along with Carton´s conversation with Lucie in Chapter 13 and states that he ¨would do anything¨ for her and tells her he wants to be remembered as “a man who would give his life, to keep a life [she loves] beside [her]” (Dickens 134). These events foreshadow the sacrifice Carton will make later, by taking his place in the execution, for Lucie and her happiness. This foreshadowing connected events in the novel and associated significance to the symbols. In addition, it added dramatic suspense which was an important feature of such a theme-rich, impactful novel.
Irony and Satire: The novel opens with contradicting statements. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way…” (Dickens 1). These statements served to show the complexity of the situation in Europe at the time and also to juxtapose the conditions of London and Paris. Another example is when Jerry, a grave-robber, is described as an “honest tradesman” (Dickens 12). His profession is everything but honest but the ironic phrase was used to draw attention to how dishonest his profession is. It is also ironic because, by the end of the novel, he realizes this and vows to stop to live a holier life. In addition, satire is used in the novel to subtly make fun of certain aspects of society and to indirectly interject the author’s opinion. One example of this includes the court case in Book 1 Chapter 3. The scene is exaggerated and the prosecutor’s argument is ridiculous in order to take a jab at the British judicial system. “That, for these reasons, the jury, being a loyal jury (as he knew they were), and being a responsible jury (as they knew they were), must positively find the prisoner Guilty, and make an end of him, whether they liked it or not.” (Dickens 58).
Allusion: Keeping with the religious themes of Victorian literature, Dickens made a few allusions to the Bible in A Tale of Two Cities. Carton’s sacrifice in the novel alludes to the sacrifice Jesus made in the Bible. Both made the ultimate, selfless sacrifice of their lives for others. Carton’s was fueled by how much he cared about the wellbeing of Lucie and her family. His was an altruistic, meaningful sacrifice made for others, similar to the sacrifice in the Bible. He even references the sacrifice of Jesus shortly before his death recalling the verse John 11.25-26 saying, “I am the Resurrection and the Life,…” (Dickens 380). In addition to this, the whole idea and theme of resurrection in the novel correlate with the Bible and its many occurences of resurrection (Miller). This religious allusion was a feature of Victorian novels. In addition, religion was a controversial and dangerous topic during the French Revolution, a time when Christianity was suppressed. The religious allusions also served as somewhat of a contrast to the immoral acts and violent attitudes of the revolutionaries.