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It’s 1775. Trouble is a-brewin’ in the French countryside. Apparently, the folks out there don’t like to be starved and taxed to death. Who'd have guessed it, eh?
As our novel starts, a very businessman-like British gentleman makes his way into the heart of Paris. He’s on a very unsettling mission. In fact, it’s almost enough to make a businessman cry. You see, eighteen years ago, a French doctor was imprisoned without any warning (or any trial). He’s been locked up in the worst prison of all prisons, the Bastille. After almost two decades, he was released—again without any explanation—and he’s currently staying with an old servant of his, Ernst Defarge. Today, Mr. Lorry (he’s our British businessman) is on a mission to take the French doctor back to England, where he can live in peace with his daughter.
Dr. Manette may be free, but he’s still a broken man. He spends most of his time cobbling shoes and pacing up and down in his dark room. Too accustomed to the space of a prison to understand that he can actually leave his room, Dr. Manette seems doomed to live a pitiful life.
Fortunately for Dr. Manette (and for Mr. Lorry, now that we think about it), he happens to have the World’s Most Perfect Daughter. Lucie, the child he left eighteen years ago, has grown up and is a smiling, blond, perfect ray of sunshine. Everything she touches seems to turn to gold. Vomit if you’d like, but Lucie is indeed perfect. And she’ll need every ounce of that perfection to restore her father back to health.
Of course, she does manage to bring Dr. Manette back into the everyday world. We never doubted her for a second. Within the space of five years (that’s 1780, for those of you who are counting), Dr. Manette is a new man. He’s a practicing doctor again; he and Lucie live in a small house in Soho. They don’t have much money (Dr. Manette’s cash was all seized in France), but Lucie manages to shine her rays of wonderfulness over their lives. In other words, they’re pretty happy. And they’ve adopted Mr. Lorry as a sort of drop-in uncle.
As we pick up the story in 1780, Dr. Manette and Lucie have been called as witnesses in a treason case. Apparently, a young man named Charles Darnay is accused of providing classified information to the French government. English trials at the time resembled smoke-and-mirror tricks, and Dickens takes great delight in mocking the "esteemed" members of the court. Thanks to Lucie’s compassionate testimony and some quick work by a man who looks strangely like Charles Darnay, however, our man Darnay is off the hook.
A free man, Darnay immediately realizes just how perfect our perfect Lucie actually is. He sets up shop in the Manette house, coming to visit almost every day. The Darnay look-alike, a disreputable (but, let’s face it, really likable) guy called Sydney Carton, also takes a liking to Lucie. If Darnay is shiny and good and perfect, Carton is…not any of those things. He also likes to beat himself up a lot. (In fact, we’re thinking that he could really use one of those twelve-step esteem-boosting programs.)
Carton loves Lucie with all his heart, but he’s convinced that he could never deserve her. What does he do? Well, he tells her precisely why she could never love him. Surprise, surprise: she agrees. She’d like to help him be a better person, but he would rather wallow in his misery. After all, wallowing sounds like so much fun, doesn’t it? Wallow, wallow, wallow. That’s Carton in a nutshell.
Darnay, meanwhile, fares a little bit better: he marries Lucie. On the day of his wedding, he tells Dr. Manette a secret: he’s actually a French nobleman in disguise. A very particular French nobleman, as a matter of fact: the Marquis Evrémonde. Because everything in a Dickens novel has to fit into a neat pattern, it’s no real surprise that the Evrémondes were the evil brothers who locked Dr. Manette up in the first place. The good doctor is a bit shocked, of course, but he eventually realizes that Darnay is nothing like his father or his uncle (the evil Evrémondes brothers). Dr. Manette is willing to love Darnay for the man he is, not the family he left behind.
Things are going swimmingly in England. Darnay moves in with the Manettes, he makes a decent wage as a tutor, and Dr. Manette seems to be as happy as ever. But wait, wasn’t this a tale of two cities? What happened to the other city?
Okay, you got us. While everything’s coming up roses in London, everything’s coming up dead in Paris. We only wish we were kidding. People are starving, the noblemen run over little children with their carriages, and everyone is pretty unhappy. In fact, they’re so unhappy that they’re beginning to band together as "citizens" of a new republic. Right now, Ernst Defarge and his wife are at the center of a revolutionary group. We can tell that they’re revolutionary because they’re super-secret. And they also call each other "Jacques." That’s "Jack" in French.
In the village of the Evrémondes, the Marquis has been stabbed during the night. Gasp! The government hangs the killer, but tensions don’t ever really settle down. Finally, the steward of the Evrémonde estate sends a desperate letter to the new Marquis: because folks hated the old Marquis so much, they’re now throwing the steward into prison.
A bunch of fluke accidents conspire to make sure that Charles Darnay gets the letter. He’s the Marquis, remember? Even though he’s thrown off his old title and his old lands entirely, he can’t help but feel responsible for the fate of this steward. Without telling his wife or his father-in-law anything about what’s been going on, he secretly sets off for France.
Unfortunately for Darnay, he picked a bad time for a summer vacation. By the time he arrives on the shores of France, the revolutionaries have overturned the country. The King is about to be beheaded. The Queen soon follows suit. Murder and vengeance and mob mentality rule the day. Immediately detained, Darnay soon realizes that he’s made a big, big mistake. By the time he reaches Paris, he’s become a prisoner. New laws dictate that he’s going to be executed by La Guillotine.
Fortunately, Dr. Manette hears about his fate. With Lucie in tow, he rushes to Paris. It turns out that he’s something of a celebrity there: anybody who was falsely arrested under the aristocratic rules of old is now revered as one of the heroes of the new Republic. The doctor shows up at Darnay's trial and wows the judges with his heroic plea to save his son-in-law.
Everything seems happy again. Sure, it’s the middle of the French Revolution, but the Manettes and Darnay are in the clear. Or at least, that’s how it seems for a few hours. All too quickly, however, Darnay is arrested again. This time, the Defarges have accused him of being a member of the nobility and a stain on the country’s name.
Frantic, Dr. Manette tries to intervene. The court case for Darnay’s second trial goes very differently from the first one, though. Ernst Defarge produces a letter, written by Dr. Manette himself, which condemns Darnay to death.
Wait a second! Dr. Manette? Impossible! Well, not exactly. Long ago, Dr. Manette scribbled down the history of his own imprisonment and secreted it in a wall of the Bastille. The history tells a sordid tale of rape and murder—crimes committed by Darnay’s father and brother. Incensed, the jury of French revolutionary "citizens" decides that Darnay should pay for the crimes of his father.
Before he can be executed, however, Sydney Carton comes to the rescue. A few good tricks and a couple of disguises later, Darnay is a free man. He and his family head back to England in (relative) safety. Carton, however, doesn’t fare so well. He takes Darnay’s place in prison and dies on the guillotine.
Crazy, huh? The novel, however, thinks that his sacrifice is pretty heroic. And we have to say, we agree.