A Tale of Two Cities (1859) is a novel by Charles Dickens, set in London and Paris before and during the French Revolution. With 200 million copies sold, it is the most printed original English book, the most printed and among the most famous works of fiction.
It depicts the plight of the French peasantry under the oppression of the French aristocracy in the years leading up to the revolution, the corresponding brutality demonstrated by the revolutionaries toward the former aristocrats in the early years of the revolution, and a number of unflattering social parallels with life in London during the same time period (hence the work's title). It follows the lives of several protagonists through these events, most notably Charles Darnay, a French once-aristocrat who falls victim to the indiscriminate wrath of the revolution despite his virtuous nature, and Sydney Carton, a dissipated British barrister who endeavours to redeem his ill-spent life out of love for Darnay's wife, Lucie Manette.
The novel was published in weekly instalments (not monthly, as with most of his other novels). The first instalment ran in the first issue of Dickens' literary periodical All the Year Round appearing April 30, 1859; the thirty-first and final ran on November 25 of the same year.
Book the First: Recalled to Life
“ It was the best of times, it was the worst of times… ”
—Opening line of A Tale of Two Cities
It is 1775. Jarvis Lorry, an employee of Tellson's Bank, is travelling from England to France to bring Dr. Alexandre Manette to London. At Dover, before crossing to France, he meets seventeen-year-old Lucie Manette and reveals to her that her father, Dr. Manette, is not really dead (as she had been told) but has been a prisoner in the Bastille for the last 18 years.
Lorry and Lucie travel to Saint Antoine, a suburb of Paris, where they meet the Defarges. Monsieur Ernest and Madame Therese Defarge own a wine shop. They also (secretly) lead a band of revolutionaries, who refer to each other by the codename "Jacques" (drawn from the name of an actual French revolutionary group, the Jacquerie).
Monsieur Defarge (who was Dr. Manette's servant before Manette's imprisonment, and now has care of him) takes them to see Dr. Manette. Manette has withdrawn from reality due to the horror of his imprisonment. He sits in a dark room all day making shoes, a trade he had learned whilst imprisoned. At first he does not know his daughter, but eventually recognizes her by her long golden hair which resembles her mother's. Dr. Manette had long kept a strand of his wife's hair which was found on his sleeve at the time of his imprisonment. Lucie's eyes are blue also just like his. Lorry and Lucie take him back to England.
It is now 1780. French emigrant Charles Darnay is being tried at the Old Bailey for treason. Two British spies, John Barsad and Roger Cly, are trying to frame the innocent Darnay for their own gain. They claim that Darnay, a Frenchman, gave information about British troops in North America to the French. Darnay is acquitted when a witness who claims he would be able to recognise Darnay anywhere is unable to tell Darnay apart from a barrister present in court (not one of those defending Darnay), Sydney Carton, who just happens to look almost identical to him.
In Paris, the Marquis St. Evrémonde (Monseigneur), Darnay's uncle, runs over and kills the son of the peasant Gaspard; he throws a coin to Gaspard to compensate him for his loss. Monsieur Defarge comforts Gaspard. As the Marquis's coach drives off, Defarge throws the coin back into the coach, enraging the Marquis.
Arriving at his château, the Marquis meets with his nephew: Charles Darnay. (Darnay's real surname, therefore, is Evrémonde; out of disgust with his family, Darnay has adopted a version of his mother's maiden name, D'Aulnais.) They argue: Darnay has sympathy for the peasantry, but the Marquis is cruel and heartless:
"Repression is the only lasting philosophy. The dark deference of fear and slavery, my friend," observed the Marquis, "will keep the dogs obedient to the whip, as long as this roof," looking up to it, "shuts out the sky."
That night, Gaspard (who has followed the Marquis to his château, hanging under his coach) murders the Marquis in his sleep. He leaves a note saying, "Drive him fast to his tomb. This, from JACQUES."
In London, Darnay gets Dr. Manette's permission to wed Lucie. But Carton confesses his love to Lucie as well. Knowing she will not love him in return, Carton promises to "embrace any sacrifice for you and for those dear to you".
On the morning of the marriage, Darnay, at Dr. Manette's request, reveals who his family is, a detail which Dr. Manette had asked him to withhold until then. This unhinges Dr. Manette, who reverts to his obsessive shoemaking. His sanity is restored before Lucie returns from her honeymoon; to prevent a further relapse, Lorry destroys the shoemaking bench, which Dr. Manette had brought with him from Paris.
It is July 14, 1789. The Defarges help to lead the storming of the Bastille. Defarge enters Dr. Manette's former cell, "One Hundred and Five, North Tower". The reader does not know what Monsieur Defarge is searching for until Book 3, Chapter 9. (It is a statement in which Dr. Manette explains why he was imprisoned.)
In the summer of 1792, a letter reaches Tellson's bank. Mr. Lorry, who is planning to go to Paris to save the French branch of Tellson's, announces that the letter is addressed to Evrémonde. The letter turns out to be from Gabelle, a servant of the former Marquis. Gabelle has been imprisoned, and begs the new Marquis to come to his aid. Darnay, who feels guilty, leaves for Paris to help Gabelle without disclosing his true identity.
Book the Third: The Track of a Storm
"The Sea Rises", an illustration for Book 2, Chapter 21 by "Phiz"In France, Darnay is denounced for emigrating from France, and imprisoned in La Force Prison in Paris. Dr. Manette and Lucie—along with Miss Pross, Jerry Cruncher, and "Little Lucie", the daughter of Charles and Lucie Darnay—come to Paris and meet Mr. Lorry to try to free Darnay. A year and three months pass, and Darnay is finally tried.
Dr. Manette, who is seen as a hero for his imprisonment in the hated Bastille, is able to get him released. But that very same evening Darnay is again arrested, and is put on trial again the next day, under new charges brought by the Defarges and one "unnamed other". We soon discover that this other is Dr. Manette, through the testimony of his statement (his own account of his imprisonment, written in the Bastille in the "last month of the tenth year of [his] captivity"); Manette does not know that his statement has been found, and is horrified when his words are used to condemn Darnay.
On an errand, Miss Pross is amazed to see her long-lost brother, Solomon Pross, but Pross does not want to be recognised. Sydney Carton suddenly appears (stepping forward from the shadows much as he had done after Darnay's first trial in London) and identifies Solomon Pross as John Barsad, one of the men who tried to frame Darnay for treason at his first trial in London. Carton threatens to reveal Solomon's identity as a Briton and an opportunist who spies for the French or the British as it suits him. If this were revealed, Solomon would surely be executed, so Carton's hand is strong.
Darnay is confronted at the tribunal by Monsieur Defarge, who identifies Darnay as the Marquis St. Evrémonde and reads the letter Dr. Manette had hidden in his cell in the Bastille. Defarge can identify Darnay as Evrémonde because Barsad told him Darnay's identity when Barsad was fishing for information at the Defarges' wine shop in Book 2, Chapter 16. The letter describes how Dr. Manette was locked away in the Bastille by the deceased Marquis Evrémonde (Darnay's father) and his twin brother (who held the title of Marquis when we met him earlier in the book, and is the Marquis who was killed by Gaspard; Darnay's uncle) for trying to report their crimes against a peasant family. The younger brother had become infatuated with a girl. He had kidnapped and raped her and killed her husband, the knowledge of which killed her father, and her brother died in the act of fighting to protect her honor. Prior to his death, the brother of the raped peasant had hidden the last member of the family, his younger sister, "somewhere safe". The paper concludes by condemning the Evrémondes, "them and their descendants, to the last of their race". Dr. Manette is horrified, but his protests are ignored—he is not allowed to take back his condemnation. Darnay is sent to the Conciergerie and sentenced to be guillotined the next day.
Carton wanders into the Defarges' wine shop, where he overhears Madame Defarge talking about her plans to have the rest of Darnay's family (Lucie and "Little Lucie") condemned. Carton discovers that Madame Defarge was the surviving sister of the peasant family savaged by the Evrémondes. The only plot detail that might give one any sympathy for Madame Defarge is the loss of her family and that she has no (family) name. "Defarge" is her married name, and Dr. Manette is unable to learn her family name though he asks her dying sister for it. See Dickens 2003, p. 340 (Book 3, Chapter 10). The next morning, when Dr. Manette returns shattered after having spent the previous night in numerous failed attempts to save Charles' life, he reverts to his obsessive shoemaking. Carton urges Lorry to flee Paris with Lucie, her father and "Little Lucie".
That same morning Carton visits Darnay in prison. Carton drugs Darnay, and Barsad (whom Carton is blackmailing) has Darnay carried out of the prison. Carton—who looks so similar to Darnay that a witness at Darnay's trial in England could not tell them apart—has decided to pretend to be Darnay, and to be executed in his place. He does this out of love for Lucie, recalling his earlier promise to her. Following Carton's earlier instructions, Darnay's family and Lorry flee Paris and France with an unconscious man in their coach who carries Carton's identification papers, but is actually Darnay.
Meanwhile Madame Defarge, armed with a pistol, goes to the residence of Lucie's family, hoping to catch them mourning for Darnay (since it was illegal to sympathise with or mourn for an enemy of the Republic); however, Lucie, her child, Dr. Manette and Mr. Lorry are already gone. To give them time to escape, Miss Pross confronts Madame Defarge and they struggle. In the fight, Madame Defarge's pistol goes off, killing her; the noise of the shot and the shock of Madame Defarge's death cause Miss Pross to go permanently deaf.
The novel concludes with the guillotining of Sydney Carton. Carton's unspoken last thoughts are "prophetic" (that is, they come to pass): Carton foresees that many of the revolutionaries, including Defarge, Barsad and The Vengeance will be sent to the guillotine themselves, and that Darnay and Lucie will have a son whom they will name after Carton: a son who will fulfill all the promise that Carton wasted. Lucie and Darnay have a first son earlier in the book who is born and dies within a single paragraph. It seems likely that this first son appears in the novel so that their later son, named after Carton, can represent another way in which Carton restores Lucie and Darnay through his sacrifice. Dickens 2003, p. 219 (Book 2, Chapter 21)
“ 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. ” —Final sentence of A Tale of Two Cities