It was the best of books, it was the worst of books… sure, Dickens' opening phrase is completely overused, but, in this case, it works. Why? Because no other Dickens' novel creates such extreme oppositions. Although A Tale of Two Cities is one of the more famous Dickens' novels (if not the most famous, along with Great Expectations), it's also the least Dickensian book. It lacks a lot of the droll, quirky humor that you can find in his other novels and characters; it also lacks well-developed protagonists. In fact, if you're looking for characters to sink your teeth into, this book might not be for you (or for your students). However, if you're looking to think deeply about history and its turbulent complications, read on.
You might think this is an easy question to answer, but it's not. Superficially, yes, the book is about the French Revolution. In reality, though, it's about the French Revolution as seen through the eyes of an English narrator, who, though somewhat sympathetic to the plight of French peasants under the rule of the tyrannical Sun King, just lived through England's loss to America in the American Revolution. See? Things are already more complicated.
Moreover, the book features a cast of characters whose personal issues often interrupt or collide ungracefully with that huge historical event called "The Reign of Terror." For instance, how should one take Madame Defarge's story about the Marquis's rape of her sister – a family trauma that serves to justify Madame Defarge's central role in the organization of the Revolution? Her story is more like a soap opera than a realistic depiction of a true revolutionary's political motivations. So what's the point of making this novel mostly about the French Revolution if the story is told from such unexpected perspectives?