Dickens is a master of self-descriptive titles. David Copperfield is about a little boy named David Copperfield. Oliver Twist is about a little boy named Oliver Twist. Little Dorrit is about a little woman named Little Dorrit. Noticing a pattern? Even Bleak House is about…well, we’ll let you fill in the blanks.
So, now that you’ve gotten a crash course in Dickensian titles (and believe us, that has to be worth at least three college credits), here’s a pop quiz: A Tale of Two Cities is about ________.
If you guessed "two cities," congratulations. (If you didn’t guess "two cities," we’re a little bit worried for you. We’ve got to be honest.) But which two cities? Ah, that’s the tricky part. Dickens gives us a few clues in the first chapter, though: they’re the big cities in England and France.
Perhaps Paris and...um…London? Bingo!
So here’s the real question: if most of Dickens’s other novels are about one thing (one person, one house, etc.), then why write A Tale of Two Cities? After all, it’s obviously about two things. It even says so in the title.
Here’s our best Shmoop expert opinion: Dickens was, above all, a chronicler of life in England. Most of his novels are set in British cities like, well, London. Recounting daily life in England is sort of Dickens’s stock-in-trade. His signature move, if you will. His audiences expected to read about daily life in a country that they could understand.
More important, however, Dickens decided to write about the French Revolution as a sort of comparative study. (Check out our analysis of the opening scenes of the novel in "Writing Style" for a more detailed explanation of this.) See, the violence that broke out in the French Revolution was something that terrified countries across Europe. England, in particular, remembered a nasty revolution of their own in the not-so-distant past (that’d be the American Revolution, in case you were wondering). So, revolutions broke out in France. France isn’t that far from England. In fact, conditions in France aren’t that different from conditions in England. Should the English royalty have been scared? Well, yes. And, in fact, they were.
When Dickens wrote his novel in 1859, the violence of the French Revolution had officially ended. It ended almost sixty years before the novel was written, in fact. But that doesn’t mean that it was completely out of the English cultural memory. Dickens had a pretty tricky line to walk, then. He wanted to explore the ways that England was similar to France, but he had to be careful to point out the ways that England wasn’t ever like France at all. He wouldn’t, you see, want to incite mass hysteria by implying that a revolution could have easily broken out in England, as well.
What we get, then, is an exploration of London and Paris as a weird comparative case study. It’s sort of like a lab experiment. London is the control case (the one that’s the basis for all comparison). Paris is the variable case (the one where all the interesting stuff happens). What we get is A Tale of Two Cities.