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General Overview of Tale of Two Cities: Critical Analysis

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A Tale of Two Cities, a novel by Charles Dickens, takes place in the late eighteenth century against the backdrop of the French Revolution. This piece of historical fiction recounts the journey of the French Dr. Manette, his eighteen-year-long imprisonment in the Bastille, and his eventual release, in which he meets his daughter Lucie for the first time. Most readers today will encounter A Tale of Two Cities as a single, bound paperback book replete with an introduction, footnotes, appendices, and other useful information. Increasingly, some readers will first experience the story in electronic format, reading the classic tale on their computer screens or e-book readers. Victorian readers, however, encountered A Tale of Two Cities in an array of different formats, with the three-part novel being chopped up and published in a weekly journal and monthly supplements before it was finally released in the single volume format that is so ubiquitous today. Each format sought to maximize the distribution and profit of the novel through the usage of ominous chapter titles, eerie foreshadowings, and suspenseful cliffhangers that left readers at the edge of their seats.

A Tale of Two Cities has long been renowned among English fanatics for its complex plot and eccentric writing style. One of the cardinal literary elements that Dickens uses in the novel to increase reader interest as well as reveal underlying symbolism, irony, and foreshadowing that would otherwise be missed, is the title of each chapter. One of the most notable is that of Book II, Chapter Five: “The Jackal.” The “jackal” being the illustrative nickname given to lawyer Sydney Carton. A jackal is a loner, scavenger, and low-life in the jungle hierarchy. In this sense, Sydney Carton fits his given moniker perfectly. When we first meet Carton, he is in the courtroom of the Old Bailey, staring idly at the ceiling. He is completely detached from reality, so much so that his manner appears “so careless as to be almost insolent” (Dickens, 81). Carton is continually a man set apart from society, just like the lonesome jackal. The “lion”, Mr. Stryver, though he lacks “that faculty of extracting the essence from a heap of statement” (Dickens, 90), is a successful man in the highest echelons of his profession. His seeming prowess in the field of law gives the impression that Mr. Stryver is just like the all-powerful king of the forest. However, in another very real sense, the pair are absolutely nothing like their animal counterparts. The jackal, although a low-life, is an incredibly adept scavenger. In their professional domain, Carton plays the role of hunter, spearheading the pairs’ paperwork, and spoon feeding this information to Stryver. Stryver takes the backseat and scavenges through light paperwork each night while heavily intoxicated. This lengthy analogy piques reader interest in the sense that it provides greater insight into the dynamic of Stryver and Carton’s relationship. Dickens’ clever wit and use of irony intrigues readers and leaves them wanting to know how the lawyers’ partnership will play out over the course of the novel.

In Book II, Chapter Three: “A Disappointment”, Dickens clever and concise epithet foreshadows the outcome of a highly anticipated trial. In this chapter, Charles Darnay is being prosecuted for aiding the French and American troops during the American Revolution, an offense punishable by “quartering”, or dismembering the body into four parts. At this time in history, villagers pack into the courthouse as if it is a theater, “swarming … in anticipation of what” they hope to be a gruesome execution (Dickens, 69). During the trial, Mr. Lorry, Lucie, and Dr. Manette’s testimonies all seem to allude to Darnay’s conviction. However, in a surprising twist, Mr. Stryver questions the witnesses’ ability to identify the prisoner due to his incredible resemblance to Sydney Carton. This resemblance is so striking that the jury cannot, in good conscience, convict Darnay of treason. His unforeseen release disappoints those in the crowd who came to the Old Bailey to see a man tortured and vilified. This makes the chapter title an acute allusion to future events that grabs the reader’s attention instantly. Furthermore, it leaves readers wondering what “disappointment” will reveal itself in the following pages.

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Apparent foreshadowing in the tale provides a suspenseful and dynamic plot, as well as a sense of impending doom. One of the most blatant examples takes place in Book I, Chapter Five: “The Wine-Shop”, when a wine cask spills in the streets of France. Men rush to scoop the pooled drink in their hands, while women run to sop up the liquid with their handkerchiefs. The French citizens’ frantic attempts to claim the wine is not only a clear symbol of the desperation of the middle class, but it is also Dickens’ way of foreshadowing the imminent revolution. The wine cask that stains Paris’ streets is symbolic of blood that “too [will spill] on the street-stones, and … stain … red upon many there” (Dickens, 28). Later in the novel, revolution becomes a reality for France, with the French infamously killing hundreds of the imprisoned aristocracy at the grindstone. Dickens uses what would otherwise be an unimportant scene of Saint Antoine to whet the audience’s appetite for the violence and gore to come. He once again uses foreshadowing when describing the Manette house in Book II, Chapter Six: “Hundreds of People.” While lounging together on a Sunday afternoon, Darnay comments that outside the Manette home he can hear the footsteps of seemingly hundreds of people, footsteps which are “incessant, … and [slowly become] more and more rapid” (Dickens, 99). Lucie echoes that she too hears the footsteps, and has “‘imagined them [to be] the footsteps of … people who are to come into [her] life, and [her] father’s’” (Dickens, 103). These footsteps are not only symbolic of the rebellion yet to occur, but of the direct involvement that these people will have in the lives of Lucie and Dr. Manette as well. Darnay’s premonition suggests that the strength of France’s morality will be challenged in the future, an allusion which arouses reader suspicions, and leaves audiences wondering as to how deep the French will sink in violence and brutality.

A Tale of Two Cities was produced in serial form, making it in Dickens’ best interest to end each installment with a cliffhanger. One presented cliffhanger in Book I, Chapter Two: “The Mail”, alludes to Jerry Cruncher’s illegal graveyard activity. At the end of this chapter, after receiving Mr. Lorry’s message, ‘recalled to life’, Cruncher remarks to himself that he would be in a great amount of trouble should the dead start returning. His suspicious behavior also alludes to something more sinister in his endeavors, as he only unmuffles himself to pour liquor into his mouth, and then quickly covers his face again. When unmuffled, his beady eyes appear “much too near together, as if they were afraid of being found out in something singly if they kept too far apart” (Dickens, 14). Furthermore, later in the novel, Cruncher’s son notices clay on his father’s boots and rust on his fingers that he is not acquiring during his time as a messenger outside of Tellson’s Bank. This ongoing cliffhanger develops the reader’s interest in the strange, abrasive character that is Jerry Cruncher. His suspicious behavior intensifies an already suspenseful story and has the reader questioning what his next move will be. Another cliffhanger presents itself in Book I, Chapter Five: “The Wine-Shop.” In this chapter, Mr. Lorry and Lucie Manette have come to the wine-shop of a young revolutionary named Defarge. There, the three have a brief conversation, before Defarge is soon leading the gentleman and lady up a dangerous, filthy set of stairs. They eventually come to a landing, barely visible underneath surrounding trash, where there lies a locked cell door. Defarge opens the door to Mr. Lorry and Lucie to reveal an old, white-haired man making shoes. This man is Dr. Manette. A few pages prior, Lucie had believed that her father was long gone, and had no knowledge of his imprisonment. Now, she is face to face with the man responsible for her being. This climactic moment presents the reader with a greater desire to know about the inner workings of Doctor Manette’s life, and what events will follow now that he is being freed from isolation. However, Dickens denied this experience to Victorian readers, who would have to wait until the next installment to uncover the secrets of Dr. Manette.

As a writer of serialized popular novels, Dickens not only utilized chapter titles, but compelling cliffhangers and foreshadowings to create further suspense. Reading in the nineteenth century was a more social activity than it is in modern times, and it was not uncommon for installments to be read out loud for the benefit of members of the family that may be illiterate. Heavy foreshadowings, allusive chapter titles, and suspenseful cliffhangers complemented this social reception of novels, allowing the family to argue over the implications of what was written and what might happen next. Dickens used several phrases and events in A Tale of Two Cities to draw the reader in and increase their interest in what he had to say. In his novels, Dickens left readers desperate to turn the next page. His use of serial publication drew the tension out longer than some could bear, increasing the circulation and monetary success of this now-classic novel.

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General Overview of Tale of Two Cities: Critical Analysis. (2022, March 18). Edubirdie. Retrieved December 6, 2023, from
“General Overview of Tale of Two Cities: Critical Analysis.” Edubirdie, 18 Mar. 2022,
General Overview of Tale of Two Cities: Critical Analysis. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 6 Dec. 2023].
General Overview of Tale of Two Cities: Critical Analysis [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Mar 18 [cited 2023 Dec 6]. Available from:
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