A Tale of Two Cities Introduction
In A Nutshell
When you think of the French Revolution, a few things spring immediately to mind. Marie Antoinette. The Bastille. The Guillotine. A Tale of Two Cities.
Yes, in what is a totally weird twist, Charles Dickens, who spent the majority of his literary career penning the exploits of London underdogs, also happened to write a novel that has become crystallized in the public imagination as synonymous with the French Revolution. It's weird, but it's also super-true.
This is basically what's happening here: "Please sir, can I have some more bread?" "Bread?! Let them eat cake!"
Together with Thomas Carlyle’s History of the French Revolution, Charles Dickens’s novel has helped to shape generations of readers’ understanding of one of the most pivotal events in modern history. Charles Darnay and Sydney Carton may not have gone down in the history books, but they’re stamped in our cultural memory as key figures in the French Revolution. Hey, it turns out that good fiction can be as influential as history itself.
Written in 1859, A Tale of Two Cities was published in weekly installments in Dickens’s own journal, All The Year Round. It was an instant hit. Families read it by the firelight; crowds waited for the next edition to be released. Of course, the fact that Dickens was by this time one of the most prominent writers and editors in England didn’t hurt its selling powers.
Because it’s a bit more straight-forward plot-wise than many other Dickens novels, A Tale of Two Cities is also one of the most frequently-taught of Dickens’s novels today. Chances are you’re encountering it for the first time (or the second time, or the twenty-third time) in a classroom.
That’s part of why we here at Shmoop are so taken with this novel: it’s an enduring testimony to Dickens's greatness and a searing critique of the worst of human nature. Dickens set out to make the French Revolution live in the hearts and minds of his readers. Take it from us—he’s done a pretty good job.
Why Should I Care?
Wars and revolutions have a weird way of getting stuck in our collective brainpan. And it's not just that we're fascinated by what actually happened in these wars/revolutions—we're fascinated by the metaphorical heft of 'em.
Just think of WWII. We tend to think of it both as a historical event and as an ultimate expression of Good Guys vs. Bad Guys—our understanding of WWII means that we still have WWII-era superheros like Captain America running around, and why (even today) movies that want a super-easy-to-hate villain think, "Oooh, let's make the baddie a Nazi!"
It may be a little lost in the mists of time now, but the French Revolution had the same kind of supercharged resonance for Charles Dickens that WWII has for us today. Except while WWII is remembered as a really slick Good vs. Evil event, the French Revolution was terrifyingly nuanced—it involved oppressed people fighting the good fight, winning, and becoming pretty twisted themselves.
Dickens wrote A Tale of Two Cities sixty years after the revolution ended—and take it from us: this ain't just a book about the French Revolution. Dickens is also exploring human emotions and reactions that aren’t specific to any one historical event.
As Dickens wrote:
Crush humanity out of shape once more, under similar hammers, and it will twist itself into the same tortured forms. Sow the same seed of rapacious license and oppression over again, and it will surely yield the same fruit according to its kind. (3.15.1)
In other words, human suffering isn’t simply an 18th-century French problem. A Tale of Two Cities, with all of the poverty and injustice it displays, is an exploration of conditions that will persist just as long as violence and inequity continue to flourish.
Although A Tale of Two Cities is a major social critique, it’s also an exploration of the limits of human justice. What is "justice," really? Is it murdering people who murder your family? Is it imprisoning people related to those people? When does justice start becoming… injustice?
These are big questions. And they’re still pretty relevant today. Ask yourself if you can imagine a country in which innocent people are locked up for their political views: South Africa? Nazi Germany?
Or think about the imprisonment of Japanese-Americans during the 1940s, just because they happened to look like the folks the U.S. was fighting overseas. The closer we look, the more the false imprisonment of Dr. Manette or Charles Darnay becomes something that we deal with in the real world, as well as the fictional one.