Study Guide

A Tale of Two Cities Analysis

  • Tone

    Satirical; Journalistic; Moralistic

    Fanboy-ing out on Thomas Carlyle’s History of the French Revolution, Dickens decided to try his hand at historical fiction. It wasn’t something that he often did. In fact, A Tale of Two Cities is one of two historical novels that Dickens wrote... and he wrote a lot of novels. His style in A Tale of Two Cities is actually pretty remarkable, if only because it’s so different from most of his other works.

    Dickens has gone down in history as a writer whose skill with humor and satire allowed him to make all sorts of social critiques. A phrase from Mary Poppins might just describe Dickens’s method best: "A spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down." Because his books were funny social critiques, audiences ate them up.

    On Fire With Satire

    The first volume of A Tale of Two Cities does contain some of this satire: see, for example, Dickens’s description of the court case in England. It’s so over-the-top that it begins to be ridiculous (and ridiculously funny). Here’s an example of the lawyer’s argument in favor of executing Charles Darnay:

    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. That, they never could lay their heads upon their pillows; that, they never could tolerate the idea of their wives laying their heads upon their pillows; that, they never could endure the notion of their children laying their heads upon their pillows; in short, that there never more could be, for them or theirs, any laying of heads upon pillows at all, unless the prisoner's head was taken off. (2.3.1)

    It’s a serious subject, sure, but it’s also good for a laugh. More important, spinning out court procedures to ridiculous lengths allows Dickens to demonstrate how, well, ridiculous the judicial system actually is.

    Once Dickens moves into describing the events leading up to the French Revolution, however, his tone takes a 180º turn. He’s building up the work of Carlyle, who tried to make the French Revolution into something of a family drama. For Dickens, this means that there aren’t too many funny characters whom he can satirize (like, for example, the Crunchers) in France.

    We know that spousal abuse isn’t actually funny. For Dickens’s readers, however, it was. It’s sort of like a Punch-and-Judy show. Everyone thought it was hi-larious. 

    France Ain't No Laughing Matter

    But in France, there's no Crunchers. No laughs. Instead, we get a pretty journalistic approach to the oncoming violence. Here’s an example of his language in the last volume:

    One year and three months. […] Every day, through the stony streets, the tumbrils now jolted heavily, filled with Condemned. Lovely girls; bright women, brown-haired, black-haired, and grey; youths; stalwart men and old; gentle born and peasant born; all red wine for La Guillotine, all daily brought into light from the dark cellars of the loathsome prisons, and carried to her through the streets to slake her devouring thirst. Liberty, equality, fraternity, or death;—the last, much the easiest to bestow, O Guillotine! (3.5.1)

    Perhaps the most startling aspect of Dickens’s depiction of the revolution is his insistence on recounting the violence just as it occurred. There are rarely any moments of comedic relief in the last sections of the novel.

    What we do get, however, are some bird’s-eye (or God’s-eye) views of the scenes playing out below us. See our analysis of the "Narrator Point of View" for more details about that. Briefly, though, we’ll just say that Dickens can’t seem to resist throwing in a few moral opinions every now and then. Since he can’t satirize mass violence and death, he chooses to offer us a few short lessons on the subjects instead.

  • Genre

    Historical Fiction; Family Drama

    Well, A Tale of Two Cities is largely a tale of the French Revolution. That’s about as historical as you can get. Here’s the difference between "history" and "historical fiction," though: history will tell you how many people stormed the Bastille or how many folks got executed by the guillotine. Historical fiction can delve into the minds of characters like The Vengeance or Madame Defarge and try to piece together reasons for what might otherwise seem like senseless bloodshed.

    Interestingly, however, the only reasons that Dickens can come up with don’t have anything to do with the revolution, precisely. Madame Defarge reacts so violently against the Evrémonde family because she’s re-enacting her own family revenge story. Her father and brother were killed; her sister was raped. Let’s face it: the woman has reasons to be angry.

    They’re not, however, reasons that the history books would ever cite as the impetus for the French Revolution. Using fiction allows Dickens to construct a world that blurs the line between real events (like the Storming of the Bastille and the Tribunals of the New Republic) and ones that are, well, fictional. Madame Defarge’s history is a weird overlap of personal and public dramas. That’s why it’s so disturbing… and so convincing.

    Keeping It In The Family

    Talking about Madame Defarge brings us to our next point: A Tale of Two Cities is about history. It’s full of political intrigue, governmental scandals, and well-documented violence. It’s also, however, a tale of families. The Evrémondes, the Manettes, and the Defarges become woven together through marriages, family alliances, and friendships. The bonds that exist between Lucie and Charles allow Doctor Manette to move past the burden of his own history.

    We could even say that the failure of Madame Defarge lies in her inability to look beyond the shattering consequences of history. As she says, "In a word, my husband has not my reason for pursuing this family annihilation, and I have not his reason for regarding this Doctor with any sensibility" (3.14.12). In other words, her relationship with her husband means next to nothing compared to the need she has to avenge the past.

    When it comes right down to it, for Dickens, people matter more than the past. Characters who are able to form relationships despite the burdens of their histories are those who become the most heroic.

    Think about Sydney Carton, for example: although he’s not able to change his own masochism, he is able to channel that self-destructive impulse into a form of action that helps those he cares about most. He recognizes this, saying, "It is a far, far better thing I do, than I have ever done […]" (3.15. 50). Sure, death isn’t a great solution. But it’s better than living a life that’s locked in the past.

  • What’s Up With the Title?

    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.) 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!

    You Say You Want A Revolution?

    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, a revolution 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 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.

  • What’s Up With the Ending?

    Spoiler: Sydney Carton dies. In fact, Sydney Carton and fifty-one other people die. In our first up-close encounter with the guillotine, we get front-row seats as hoards of "patriots" flock to the executions. It’s as lively as a county fair.

    Bloodthirsty. No, Scratch That. Blooddrunk.

    Of course, Dickens makes it pretty clear that none of these executions are justified. Intoxicated by the power that violence can bestow on its perpetrators, the citizens of the new French Republic have taken that power to extremes: Charles Evrémonde, son of a bad aristocrat, is slated to die. Along with him, however, is a poor seamstress, a woman of no social importance and no real consequence.

    Her death, perhaps even more than the death of Sydney Carton, exemplifies the tragic excess of the revolutionary fervor. Her brave attempts to justify the senseless news of her execution as a possible good for the future of the new Republic are guaranteed to tug on your heart-strings. (Go ahead! Read her speech. It’s in Chapter 15 of Volume III.)

    The real show-stopper, however, is Sydney Carton. He goes to his death murmuring the words of Christ, "I am the Resurrection and the Life" (3.15.43). The ending of A Tale of Two Cities seems charted on the road to tragedy. There’s really no way to pull a few smiles out of this one—or is there?

    Way More Uplifting Than Your Typical Beheading

    Dickens makes a rather strange and fascinating move in the last paragraphs of his novel. He spends some time dwelling on what Sydney Carton would have said if he could have expressed his last thoughts on paper. (Of course, true to the journalistic style of this novel in general, Dickens is careful to point out that this could have happened: there are documented accounts of other people’s thoughts being transcribed before their beheadings.) It’s a funny move for several reasons:

    1. Carton isn’t really given to spouting his feelings publicly.
    2. Carton’s musings reflect a complete change of heart (and even a complete change of character) when compared to his earlier views.

    Bravely declaring that his death is a "far, far better thing" than he’s ever done, Carton imagines a happy future rising out of the ashes of his present strife (3.15.50). In other words, Dickens can’t think of a way to bring about a realistic happy ending in the present. The French Revolution has become too chaotic, its goals too compromised to imagine any good can immediately come from them.

    Instead, Carton envisions future generations—much like the generations who read and are reading A Tale of Two Cities today. His legacy becomes our heritage, Dickens suggests. It’s a neat trick—and an effective one.

  • Setting

    London, England; Paris, France; 1775-1790

    Okay, this is a huge one. You can probably guess from the title of this novel (that’s A Tale of Two Cities, in case you’ve forgotten) that the actual events occurring in the cities are pretty important. If you guessed that, you’d be right. In fact, it’s so important that Dickens spends the first chapter of his novel laying out the broad-brush strokes of the similarities and differences between the two places:

    There was a king with a large jaw and a queen with a plain face on the throne of England; there was a king with a large jaw and a queen with a fair face on the throne of France. (1.1.2)

    And believe us, he’s just warming up.

    Dickens, you see, places his novel smack-dab in the middle of a nifty little event called the French Revolution. You might have read about it in your middle school social studies classes. (We’ll get back to the French Revolution in a minute. We promise.)

    London Calling

    For now, however, we’ll start with the first city on our list: London. It’s a safe haven in this novel, all things considered. That doesn’t mean that it’s all that great, but at least folks aren’t chopping off other folks’ heads every Saturday morning. Then again, Dickens makes it pretty clear that Londoners would really like to see some heads rolling… or at least a good drawing and quartering on occasion.

    Take Charles Darnay’s first trial in London, for example: a whole crowd of drunken ruffians gathers to see the "condemned" man sentenced to death. As that scene demonstrates, there’s not that much difference between Londoners and Parisians. Given the situation that’s about to unfold in France, this is a pretty scary thought.

    Actually, the courtroom in London is one of the three major sites that we get to know in the city. The other two, of course, are the Manettes’s house in Soho and the infamous Tellson’s Bank. In many ways, the court starts to stand in for the British government as a whole: it’s got lots of official-looking people scurrying about and important-sounding words like "law" and "justice" get discussed there every day.

    Sadly, however, not too many laws are followed… and not that much justice is served. Dickens gets pretty explicit about just how crummy the court system is when Charles Darnay gets charged with treason. Everyone thinks he’s guilty before he even goes to trial, so the lawyers just spend a lot of time listening to the sounds of their own voices. The court is nothing more that a hall of mirrors. In fact, it’s literally a hall of mirrors: they hang big mirrors in front of the accused so the folks in the audience can watch him squirm.

    Fortunately, of course, Charles gets acquitted—but it’s really not because justice works so well in England.

    Would You Like a Spot of Tea, Gov'ner?

    If the court is an extension of British government, then Tellson’s Bank is representative of British culture and economics. Tellson’s lives up to just about every stereotype of stodgy, tweed-wearing British businessmen that you’ve ever gotten from watching the BBC. Here’s a sample of how Dickens describes it:

    Tellson's Bank by Temple Bar was an old-fashioned place, even in the year one thousand seven hundred and eighty. It was very small, very dark, very ugly, very incommodious. It was an old-fashioned place, moreover, in the moral attribute that the partners in the House were proud of its smallness, proud of its darkness, proud of its ugliness, proud of its incommodiousness. They were even boastful of its eminence in those particulars, and were fired by an express conviction that, if it were less objectionable, it would be less respectable. This was no passive belief, but an active weapon which they flashed at more convenient places of business. (2.1.1)

    Respectability, inconvenience, and a fierce pride in both the respectability and the inconvenience of Tellson’s makes it sound rather like… a stodgy old butler. Or a crotchety old aunt. Either way, it’s very old, very fussy, and probably not a very fun place to hang out for an evening.

    Fortunately, Dickens allows Tellson’s to redeem itself through Mr. Lorry. (Check out his "Character Analysis" for further details on this fascinating chap.) For now, we’ll just say that Tellson’s may be old and stodgy, but Mr. Lorry also makes it kind of lovable.

    That brings us to our last stop in this whirlwind tour of London: the Manettes’s house in Soho. It’s a perfect haven from the noise and bustle of the city. It’s even perfect-er because Lucie makes it such a very homey home. Everyone’s happy there. Even Sydney Carton is happy there. And believe us, that’s saying something.

    When we stop to think about it, we realize that Dickens has actually been pretty crafty in choosing these three settings: we’ve got good descriptions of the British home, the British business, and the British government.

    Paris When It Sizzles

    Funnily enough, we get exactly the same sorts of settings in France. This time, however, things aren’t quite so pleasant. There’s the French chateau, where a young girl as raped, her brother murdered, and her husband worked to death. There’s the Defarges’s wine shop (a.k.a. the French business), which actually doesn’t function as much of a business at all: it’s a front for revolutionary activities.

    And then, of course, there’s the Tribunals of the Republic. If the courts of England were bad, the French Tribunals are hell. Hundreds are brought to trial and sentenced to execution every day. Dickens makes it quite clear that the jurors are often drunk or otherwise not paying attention to the trials. There are no mirrors, but there sure are lots and lots of blood-thirsty audience members.

    Which brings us to the one major missing puzzle-piece in this whirlwind tour of life in the 1700s: the French Revolution. Here are the basics:

    1. Poor people were very, very poor.
    2. Rich people were very, very rich.
    3. Rich people were often very rich because they exploited the very, very poor.
    4. Eventually, the poor got tired of being beaten, starved, raped, and killed.
    5. The King, Louis XVI, wasn’t doing too much to help alleviate the suffering of the poor.
    6. On July 14, 1789, mobs stormed the Bastille, the prison where political prisoners were held.
    7. Several factions (the aristocrats, the middle class, and the peasants) vied for power. Dickens tends to blur these transitions in A Tale of Two Cities.
    8. The new French Republic formed.
    9. It also quickly dissolved—but that’s beyond the scope of our story.

    This may sound like a pretty simplistic rendition of a very, very complicated history. That’s because Dickens himself tended to focus on simple, heart-string-tugging images instead of detailing the political intrigues of the time. For example, one reading of A Tale of Two Cities could be that Defarge and his wife were patriots who opposed a regime that suppressed the poor. Another reading, however, could be that Madame Defarge simply wanted revenge for the ruin of her family.

    Don’t worry—they’re both true statements. One, however, is political; the other is personal. In blending the two, Dickens allows us to feel the emotional impact of a revolution as a family drama. It’s a fairly tricky thing to pull off. When it works, though, we feel like the French Revolution is as close to us (and as emotionally taxing) as our own family feuds.

  • What’s Up With the Epigraph?

    Hmm…let’s talk about the author’s note instead, shall we?

    Good ol’ Charles Dickens. He always tries to make his readers feel like his pals. Maybe that’s why he remained such a popular figure for most of his life. This time, he starts his novel with a short little note to his readers (that’s us, folks) explaining just how he got started writing the fabulous story that we’re about to read… or, er… talk about.

    Xoxo, Charlie

    His note is dated November, 1859. Writing from Tavistock House (his home in London), Dickens explains to us that he got the idea to write this nifty little number while he was putting on a play with his family. Aww, isn’t that sweet? It’s our very own personal look into the secret life of the author. We feel like Dickens is our own best friend. The sort of guy we’d like to have a beer with sometime.

    But we’re getting off-track. The play, in case you were wondering, was Wilkie Collins’s The Frozen Deep. Why is this important? Well, it’s not, really. If you’re a history buff, you’ll be excited to know that Collins and Dickens were BFF. Dickens was a writer. Collins was a writer. They had a lot in common. In fact, Wilkie Collins often contributed to Dickens’s magazine, Household Words. And they obviously got together in each other’s dining rooms to put on amateur theatrical productions.

    Taking A Tip From His Writer Buddy

    So what does this have to do with our novel? Well, here’s our hunch: Collins was a master of imitating journalistic styles. Check out The Woman in White or The Moonstone for an example of this. OKhe wasn’t exactly writing history. But because he knew that he was writing creepy mystery stories with a good dose of the supernatural, he tried to make it sound as real as possible. He was sort of producing the Ghost Hunters of his time.

    Dickens, when he wrote this novel, knew that he was setting out to do something a wee bit different than his typical works. See, everyone knew about the French Revolution. How in the world was he going to write a novel that could re-create its effect on the French (and British) people? Taking a hint from his good friend Wilkie, Dickens experimented with the sort of journalistic styles that made Collins so famous. We’ll talk more about this in our "Writing Style" section.

  • Writing Style

    Master Puppeteer (and Major Chameleon)

    Charles Dickens is the King of Style. We’ll say that again: when it comes to style, Charles Dickens is the King. He’s the grand-daddy of all great fiction writers. The best stylist you’ll probably ever read.

    Here’s why:

    Dickens is the master of manipulating language to make scenes come alive. Not only does he describe scenes in vivid detail, but the very sentences he writes mimic the way the scenes themselves come to life.

    For example, when he wants to emphasize how long-winded and boring the court system can be, he spends five pages recounting a lawyer’s argument. Every single sentence of the lawyer’s speech begins with the word "that." "That, his position and attitude were, on the whole, sublime. That, he had been […]" (2.1.1). Get the picture? By the time we’re halfway through reading the speech, we wish the whole thing were over and done with. We’re almost bored out of our minds.

    And that, friends, is exactly what Dickens wants us to be.

    When things heat up, however, his style becomes as choppy and chaotic as the violence that rolls through the streets of Paris. The Storming of the Bastille is described like this:

    Deep ditches, double drawbridge, massive stone walls, eight great towers, cannon, muskets, fire and smoke. Through the fire and through the smoke—in the fire and in the smoke, for the sea cast him up against a cannon, and on the instant he became a cannonier. (2.21.40)

    Short phrases emphasize the movement that’s going on all around Defarge. Repeated phrases emphasize the way that fire and smoke seem to take over the entire world. For Defarge, there’s nothing outside of the present moment of battle. As we get drawn into the sped-up rhythm of Dickens’s sentences, there’s nothing outside of Defarge’s battle for us, either.

    Oh, and since we’re talking about repetition, we should mention that Dickens is a big fan of it. Remember "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times […]" and "It is a far, far better thing I do […]; it is a far, far better rest I go to […]"?

    The novel begins and ends with phrases that would have made Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., proud. Repetition forces us to realize just how important the phrases we’re reading are. After all, we read them again and again.

  • Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory


    Dickens isn’t exactly placing this metaphor delicately into his readers’ hands. He’s shoving it down our throats. If you missed the part where he warns us that blood will soon spill in the streets like wine, check out most of Volume One again. We promise you, it’s easy to find.

    Using the wine that spills into the streets early in the novel as a metaphor for the blood spilled in the revolution serves a practical purpose: the Defarges run a wine shop. The Defarges are the hub of revolutionary activity. It all fits together neatly.

    More important, however, allowing wine to stand in for blood allows Dickens to hint at the fatal flaws in the revolutionaries’ plans: too much wine makes people drunk and often more than a little crazy. A few glasses too many, and suddenly you’re not thinking nearly as well as you probably should be.

    Similarly, spilling a little blood makes people hunger for more. Suddenly, it’s not enough to kill the people who’ve wronged the poor. It’s also pretty fun to kill their wives, their sons, their daughters, and that guy that people once saw standing next to them. See how things can get out of control? La Guillotine becomes a glutton, demanding more and more wine to satiate her ever-growing thirst. Revolution may be a great idea theoretically. According to Dickens, however, it just gets you too drunk too fast. Violence, folks, is not the answer.

    Golden thread

    Lucie is the "golden-haired doll" who charms just about everyone she meets with her beauty. She’s got yellow hair, as you’ve probably guessed. More interestingly, however, Dickens uses her hair color as an image that binds her family together. She becomes the "golden thread" that unites her father with his present, not allowing him to dwell too much in the horrors of the past.

    A golden thread almost sounds like some sort of magical power; in fact, the Manettes lead a "charmed" life in Soho. Lucie may not be the character that gets the most screen time in this novel, but Dickens makes sure that we all know she’s its heart. Lucie unites Carton to Darnay, Dr. Manette to Darnay, and Mr. Lorry to the family in general. Lucie becomes the reason that Charles escapes the grasp of the Republic’s "justice."

    In one terrifying moment of the novel, Jacques Three speculates about how wonderful it would be to see her golden hair on the chopping block of La Guillotine. The charm of Lucie’s influence, however, makes this an impossibility. Mr. Lorry and Sydney are determined to save her at any cost. Guess being a blonde has some good points, after all.


    Monseigneur is a character. He’s also an allegory.

    Wait, how can a character be both a character and an allegory? Well, Dickens describes Monseigneur as a member of the aristocracy. It becomes pretty clear, however, that "Monseigneur" also becomes a shorthand way for Dickens to refer to the aristocracy as a class.

    For example, when the narrator spends a good portion of a chapter describing how Monseigneur takes his hot chocolate, we could be reading about one man. When we read, however, that "Monseigneur, as a class, had dissociated himself from the phenomenon of his not being appreciated," it seems fairly self-evident that we’re reading about more than one individual. In fact, we’re reading about an entire class of people (2.24.3).

    Why the blurring between individual and class? Well, for one thing, it allows Dickens to describe an entire group of people rather quickly. Once we know how picky and self-satisfied Monseigneur is when he drinks his chocolate in the morning, we’re probably pretty ready to hate on him for the rest of the novel.

    In some ways, that’s not a fair analysis. Charles Darnay is a monseigneur, if we get right down to it. But maybe the allegory becomes as important for the ways that it doesn’t fit as for the ways that it does. We’re ready to hate all aristocrats. They’re all bad. But that makes us…rather like Madame Defarge. Scary, huh?

  • Narrator Point of View

    Third Person Omniscient

    Dickens likes to play the Voice of God. His narrator tends to know it all. Not in a bad way—it’s more like the voice of your favorite high school teacher and Oprah all rolled into one.

    See, for example, the sweeping statements of the first chapter of the book:

    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 [...]. (1.1.1)

    As you can probably tell from his opening foray, Dickens’s narrator is a big-picture sort of guy. We’re going to get the whole world packed into one novel, which is why it’s lucky that our narrator seems to know exactly what’s going on. All the time.

    This, friends, is no modernist text. There’s a clear (if complicated) plot. It develops in exactly the way that our narrator expects it to. And believe us, we’re going to need all the help we can get to navigate through the complicated web of historical social uprisings, long-kept family secrets, and unspoken allegiances. Luckily, Dickens’s narrator knows exactly where he’s taking us. He lets us into the minds of characters whenever it seems prudent for him to do so.

    Why So Serious?

    Having said that, though, we’ve got to wonder: why do we get to hear so much about what’s going on in Carton’s head and so little about what's in Darnay's? We understand why it’s important to be inside the doctor’s head (if only because it shows us just how crippling a long prison stay can be), but why do we hear almost nothing at all about Lucie’s thoughts? Dickens seems to be strategically making some characters more accessible to us than others, and we’re pretty sure that he has reasons for his choices.

    These are all good—and big—questions. Unfortunately, we don't have Dickens around to give us the answers. We do think, however, that our narrator is playing with our emotions just a little bit. That letter from Doctor Manette? It’s like when Oprah pulls out that big, tear-jerking surprise at the end of a family reunion episode. How can we know so much about Doctor Manette and still not know this?

    It’s almost as if Dickens is playing a big game of "Gotcha." Just when we think we know it all, his narrator manages to pull a few tricks out of his bag. That’s why we’re saying he does a pretty decent job of playing God. It’s his world. Make sure you remember that.

    • Booker's Seven Basic Plots Analysis

      Anticipation Stage

      We see the consequences of injustice through the character of Doctor. Manette. The poor are treated horribly in France.

      Okay, here’s the deal: this novel has no actual monsters. There's no Godzilla, or even a Tarzan. What it has instead are symbolic monsters. We could call one "Injustice." We could even call one "Revolution." Heck, maybe they’re twins… that’d actually fit quite nicely into the storyline of A Tale of Two Cities. Two cities, two men who look alike, two monsters.

      The beginning of the novel foreshadows the bad stuff that we all know is coming later. Doctor Manette’s unfair imprisonment becomes a test case for all the unfair imprisonments and murders that the French Revolution will bring about. Of course, he’s also the reason for the revolution. Or one of them, at any rate.

      Dream Stage

      The Manettes have a charmed life in London.

      Once they’ve crossed the Channel, things start looking up for Doctor Manette and his daughter. They get a nice house, make some nice friends, and have a generally nice life. Lucie even manages to marry a really nice guy, Charles Darnay. Oh—and she befriends the not-so-nice look-alike of the nice guy, Sydney Carton. Things are almost too good to be true. And it’s far, far too early in the novel to have a happy ending…

      In France, of course, things aren’t so bright. There are no happy endings anywhere; there are just lots of endings. People die of starvation, a little kid is run over by a callous aristocrat, and the whole country is going down the tubes.

      Frustration Stage

      Charles gets arrested when he returns to France.

      Charles Darnay seemed like a really nice guy. In fact, he is a really nice guy. He also happens to be a French aristocrat. He descends from a whole line of French aristocrats, really, but none of them are nice at all. Once he gets to France, however, he finds himself on the wrong side of the revolution. Don’t get us wrong—he didn’t intend to be on any side of the revolution. He just happened to be traveling in the wrong place at the wrong time.

      Here’s where the monster-metaphor comes into play. See, the revolution begins to be described as a voracious beast out to devour just about everyone. The mob of "patriots" becomes faceless, nameless, and terrifying in its need to exact vengeance. Sure, righting the wrongs of the past is a good thing. As Dickens makes clear, however, they’ve gone waaaay too far. There’s no justice—only violence. Charles gets snatched up in the jaws of the monstrous revolution, and no one can shake him loose.

      Nightmare Stage

      Charles is condemned to death by a vengeance-crazed mob.

      In a startling turn of events, the history of Doctor Manette’s past comes back to haunt his future. Charles' father once sent Doctor. Manette to prison. Once this information is made public at Charles' trial, no one can save him. The "patriots," dressed in their bloody costumes of death, roar for his execution.

      The Thrilling Escape From Death

      Sydney Carton gives his own life to save Charles'.

      Hmm, this isn’t exactly an escape from death, is it? It’s more of a swap. Sydney rescues Charles, and the entire Manette family flees across the border, back into England. Dickens makes it pretty clear that there’s no stopping the jaws of the guillotine once it gets started. This is one monster that has to die on its own.

      Instead of a thrilling escape, then, we get a heroic self-sacrifice. Sydney Carton recognizes that, at this particular moment, injustice will prevail. His choice to save others is nothing less than heroic.

    • Plot Analysis

      Initial Situation

      Released from prison in France, Doctor Manette starts a new life in England.

      Falsely imprisoned for almost two decades, the good doctor emerges from prison a broken man. With the help of his old servant, Defarge, and his good friend, Mr. Lorry, however, he’s reunited with his daughter. They begin to reconstruct a fragile happiness out of the wreckage of the doctor’s ruined life.


      Lucie marries a French aristocrat.

      Of course, she doesn’t know that she’s doing it at the time. Charles Darnay has given up his lands and his title. He’s disgusted by the way that the aristocracy has been handling (or mishandling) affairs in France. He earns his living as a tutor; the Manettes continue to have a carefree, happy life. Or do they?


      Charles decides to return to France to save an old steward of his family’s lands.

      Revolutionary fever is building in France. The house of Charles' family is burned, which is just fine. In fact, just about everybody thinks it’s a good idea. Unfortunately, however, a steward of the land gets caught in the crossfire. He’s imprisoned for helping the aristocracy. When Charles hears about this, he realizes that he has to return to France to help free his old servant.


      Charles is arrested as an emigrant and an aristocrat; Doctor Manette frees him.

      As the French Republic emerges, chaos rules the land. Charles picks the wrong time to head back to France. He’s immediately arrested. Luckily, Doctor Manette has some sway in France because he was once wrongly imprisoned by the aristocracy. He manages to get Charles released.


      Charles is re-arrested.

      Wait; can’t you only get tried once? Well, there are new laws in France now. In fact, some might say that there are no laws in France now. In court, the jury reads a letter written by Doctor Manette during his imprisonment. In it, he reveals that Charles' father was the one who put him in prison in the first place. Charles is immediately sentenced to death.


      Sydney Carton comes up with a plan to save Charles.

      Sydney Carton, the ne’er-do-well who miraculously saved Charles years earlier, comes back to repeat his heroics. Sydney’s in love with Lucie, see, so this is his way of demonstrating his love for her. He switches places with Charles in prison.


      Sydney Carton sacrifices his own life for the happiness of Lucie’s family.

      La Guillotine isn’t stopping anytime soon. Today, in fact, it whacks off fifty-two heads. There’s no real positive way to account for the present moment. Instead, Dickens does something pretty amazing: he uses the thoughts of a dying man to predict a happy ending in the future. Any happiness that is to come, of course, takes place off-stage. That’s why the carriage containing all our other favorite characters has rolled away.

      Left to himself, Sydney has the chance to become the hero that he’s never let himself be. It’s tragic, sure, but there’s also something sublime and wonderful in his sacrifice.

    • Three Act Plot Analysis

      Act I

      Dickens makes this easy for us. He divides the novel into three sections. The first is "Recalled to Life." In it, Dr. Manette is… recalled to life. He’s released from prison and is cared for by his daughter.

      Act II

      Act II is otherwise known as "The Golden Thread." Its title refers to Lucie, who holds the entire family together. She marries Charles Darnay, a French aristocrat. Meanwhile, revolutionary activities are building in France.

      Act III

      In "The Track of a Storm," Charles is captured in France. The family rushes to save him, but in the anarchy of the new Republic any attempts to seek justice fail. Doctor Manette briefly rises to importance in the new regime; his power, however, isn’t enough to save Charles. Finally, Sydney Carton switches places with Charles on the morning of the latter's execution.

    • Allusions

      Literary and Philosophical References

      • The Bible (3.9.89)
      • Thomas Carlyle, The French Revolution (note to the reader)
      • Wilkie Collins, The Frozen Deep (note to the reader)

      Historical References

      • French Revolution
      • The Storming of the Bastille

      Pop Culture References

      • None. Sorry, guys. This is a good ol’ tale from the 1780s. There wasn’t much pop back then. According to Dickens, there wasn’t much culture, either—at least, as far as the French were concerned.