A Tale of Two Cities
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- For the article about the episode of Lost, please see A Tale of Two Cities (Lost)
A Tale of Two Cities (1859) is a historical novel by Charles Dickens. The plot centers on the years leading up to French Revolution and culminates in the Jacobin Reign of Terror. It tells the story of two men, Charles Darnay and Sydney Carton, who look similar but are very different in personality. Darnay is a romantic French aristocrat, while Carton is a cynical English barrister. However, the two are in love with the same woman, Lucie Manette.
Other major characters in the book include Dr. Alexandre Manette (Lucie's father) who was unjustly imprisoned in the infamous Bastille for many years under a lettre de cachet and Madame Defarge, a female revolutionary with a grudge against the Darnay family.
Book the First: Recalled to Life
Mr. Lorry travels to Dover to meet a young woman, Lucie Manette. When she arrives, Mr. Lorry introduces himself and tells her that her father, Doctor Manette, a prisoner in Paris for the past eighteen years, has been recently released by the French government. Tellson’s Bank is sending Mr. Lorry to identify the doctor (who had been one of Tellson’s clients) and bring him to England. The news shocks Lucie; when Mr. Lorry tries to comfort her, then calls for help. A large, red-haired woman, Miss Pross (Lucie's caretaker and the servant of the Manettes) takes charge of her.
The story then cuts abruptly to the town of Saint Antoine, a suburb of Paris, France, where a cask of wine accidentally splits open and spills on the ground. The starved working-class French seize the opportunity to drink free wine. They jubilantly suck as much wine off the street as they can. Watching is M. Defarge, the owner of the wineshop and leader of a band of revolutionaries. Afterwards, he goes back into his shop, confers briefly with his wife, and talks to a group of fellow revolutionaries, who call each other (for anonymity) "Jacques".
Mr. Lorry and Lucie Manette arrive and Defarge takes them to his apartment to see Dr. Manette. The doctor is, to all appearances, completely mad. He sits in a dark room all day making shoes, still believing he is in prison. Lucie takes him to England.
Book the Second: The Golden Thread
Five years later, Dr. Manette has recovered from his ordeal. French emigre Charles Darnay is tried at the Old Bailey for spying. Those testifying against him are a John Barsad and a Roger Cly, who claim that he had been reporting on English troops in North America to the French. Dr. Manette and his daughter vouch for Darnay because he had sailed with them on their voyage to England. In the end, Darnay is released because the prosecution witnesses are unable to tell him apart from Sydney Carton, the junior defense counsel. Carton is depicted unflatteringly as a drunkard; conversely Darnay is set out as a handsome and gallant victim of a deficient British legal process. After seeing Lucie's sympathy for Darnay during his trial, Carton becomes enamoured with her and jealous of Darnay.
In Paris, the Marquis St. Evrémonde, the uncle of Charles Darnay, is returning from an audience with one of the 'greatest lords in France' (Monseigneur) when his coach runs over and kills the son of the peasant Gaspard; he throws a coin to Gaspard to compensate him for his loss; in the assembled crowd is the implacable tricoteuse, Madame Defarge. She throws the money back, enraging the Marquis and leading him to exclaim that he would willingly kill any of the peasants of France.
On his way back to his château, the Marquis passes through a village, where a road mender tells him that he saw a man clinging to the bottom of his carriage. The Marquis has his servant investigate, but discovers nothing and continues on his way.
Charles Darnay returns to France to meet his uncle. Their political positions are diametrically opposed: Darnay is a democrat, while the Marquis is an adherent of the ancient regime. The Marquis is portrayed as a cruel, heartless nobleman:
- "Repression is the only lasting philosophy. The dark deference of fear and slavery, my friend," observed the Marquis, "will keep the dogs obedient to the whip, as long as this roof," looking up to it, "shuts out the sky."
That night, Gaspard, the man who had ridden beneath the Marquis' carriage, murders the Marquis in his sleep. He leaves a note upon the dagger he drove through the Marquis' heart, saying "Drive him fast to his tomb. This, from Jacques." Later, he is captured and hung for his crime.
Returning to England, Darnay asks Dr. Manette for his consent to marry Lucie. He is not the only suitor however. Both Stryver, Carton's patron (by way of comic relief) and more seriously, Carton himself, are captivated by her. Carton is the only one of the three to reveal his feelings directly to Lucie--Stryver is convinced of the futility of his matrimonial aspirations by Mr. Lorry, and Darnay proposes the marriage to Dr. Manette. When Carton confesses his love to Lucie, he tells her that he will not act on it because he knows he is incapable of making her happy. He confesses that she has inspired him to lead a better life, but he has no energy to act. He promises her that he will "embrace any sacrifice" for her or one that she loves. Meanwhile, Darnay agrees to reveal his true surname to Dr. Manette on the morning of his marriage to Lucie.
In Paris, Monsieur and Madame Defarge foment Jacobin sympathies; in her knitting, she enciphers lists of those to be killed when the revolution succeeds. They learn, from an informant within the police that a spy is to be quartered in Saint Antoine, John Barsad, one of those who gave false testimony against Charles Darnay. Madame Defarge takes the long view as opposed to her husband, who is impatient to bring on the revolution. The following morning, Barsad enters the Defarges' wine shop, but Madame Defarge recognises him from the description which she had been given. Barsad acts as an agent provocateur and strives to lure Madame Defarge into discussing the impending execution of the unfortunate Gaspard. In the course of the conversation, he mentions that Darnay is to be married to Lucie Manette.
On the morning of the marriage, Darnay, at Dr. Manette's request, reveals who his family is, a detail which Dr. Manette had asked him to withhold until such time. Unfortunately, this unhinges Dr. Manette who again reverts to his obsessional shoemaking. After some time, Jarvis Lorry is able to bring him around and he is restored to his right mind before Lucie returns from her honeymoon, and, to prevent his further relapse, destroys the shoemaking bench which Dr. Manette had brought with him from his captivity in France.
Later, in mid-July 1789, Jarvis Lorry visits Lucie and Charles and tells them of the curious and inexplicable uneasiness in Paris. The scene cuts to the Saint Antoine fauborg, for the storming of the Bastille, with Monsieur and Madame Defarge in the lead. With the Bastille in their hands, Monsieur Defarge heads for the cell which contained Dr. Manette. He finds his initials inscribed in the wall and digs down beneath them and uncovers a manuscript which Dr. Manette had written in his confinement, condemning the Evremondes, pere et fils, for the wrongful imprisonment he had endured and the destruction of his family. Dickens' depiction of the seizure of the Bastille is balanced; he portrays the joy of the released prisoners, but does not shirk from detailing the punishment exacted upon their jailers.
In the summer of 1792, a letter is delivered to Tellson's bank, addressed to the heir of the Marquis of Evremonde. The letter is addressed from the Prison of the Abbaye, Paris, and recounts the tale of the imprisonment of one of the Marquis' retainers, Gabelle, and beseeches the new Marquis to come to his aid. By chance, though the bank is unaware of his identity, Darney receives the letter. He makes plans to travel to a revolutionary Paris, where the Terror is running its bloody course, blithely indifferent to the danger. Lorry is sent on ahead with a (cryptic) message to the imprisoned Gabelle that he is on his way.
Book the Third: The Track of a Storm
In Beauvais, erstwhile home of Dr. Manette, Darnay is denounced by the revolutionaries as an emigrant, an aristocrat, and a traitor. His military escort takes him to Paris, where he is imprisoned. Dr. Manette and Lucie along with Miss Pross, Jerry Cruncher, and the daughter of Charles and Lucie Darnay, "Little Lucie", leave London for Paris and meet with Mr. Lorry. Dr. Manette tries to use his influence as a former prisoner of the Bastille to have his son-in-law freed. He manages to protect Darnay from being murdered on the night mobs kill thousands of prisoners. After a year and three months, Dr. Manette successfully defends Darnay in the trial. However, that evening, Darnay is put on trial again, under new charges brought by the Defarges and one unnamed other.
While Miss Pross and Mr. Cruncher are on their way to the market, they stop at a tavern to buy wine. There, Miss Pross finds her long-lost brother, Solomon Pross, now a revolutionary official. Niether are happy with the meeting. Jerry Cruncher then recognizes him as John Barsad. Sydney Carton, who, to their surprise, joins the party and confirms this identification. He then blackmails Solomon Pross, telling him that he knows that he is a spy, as he had overheard his conversation inside the tavern, and a double agent, working for both the French and British governments at different times. Pross reluctantly gives in to Carton's demands.
When Darnay is brought back before the revolutionary tribunal, he is confronted by Defarge, who identifies Darnay as the Marquis St. Evremonde and reads from the paper found in Dr. Manette's cell. The paper describes how he had been locked away in the Bastille by the deceased Marquis Evremonde and his twin brother for trying to report their cruelty to a peasant girl, with whom the younger brother had become infatuated, and her family. The younger man had kidnapped and raped the girl and killed her husband, brother, and father. The brother had moved the last remaining member of the family, the youngest daughter, to "somewhere safe." The paper concludes by condemning the Evremondes and all of their descendants, therefore adding Dr. Manette's condemnation to those of the Defarges. Darnay is consigned to the prison La Force, and is sentenced to be guillotined within twenty-four hours.
Carton, while wandering the streets at night, stops at the wine shop of Monsieur Defarge, where he overhears Madame Defarge talking about her plans to have Darnay's entire family condemned. Carton discovers that Madame Defarge was the youngest daughter mentioned in Dr. Manette's letter. He quickly reports what he has learned to Mr. Lorry and urges him and the others to leave France as soon as possible.
On the day of his execution, Darnay is visited by Carton, who, because of his love for Lucie, offers to trade places with him. As Darnay is unwilling, Carton drugs him, and has him carried out to a waiting carriage. The spy, Barsad, tells Carton to remain true to their promise and Darnay, Dr. Manette, Mr. Lorry, Lucie, and her child then flee France. Darnay uses Carton's papers to pass inspection and presumably escape to England.
Miss Pross and Mr. Cruncher, who had not left with the others, now prepare to depart. Meanwhile, Madame Defarge goes to the residence of Lucie and her family, believing that if she can catch them in the act of mourning for Darnay, that they could be held accountable for sympathizing with an enemy of the Republic. Miss Pross sends Mr. Cruncher out to fetch a carriage and, while he is away, is confronted by Madame Defarge. Knowing that if Madame Defarge knows that they are departing, she can have Lucie and the others stopped and brought back to Paris, Miss Pross pretends they are in a certain room by closing the door to it and placing herself in front of it. Madame Defarge orders her to move away from the door, but she refuses. A struggle then breaks out, which ends with Madame Defarge being shot and killed by her own pistol. Miss Pross and Cruncher then quickly leave.
The novel concludes with the death of Sydney Carton. It is stated that if Carton had expressed his thoughts and if they had been prophetic, they would have included Monsieur Defarge being himself sent to the guillotine, and a future child of Charles and Lucie Darnay being named after Carton. His last thoughts are:
"It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done. It is a far, far better rest that I go to, than I have ever known."
A Tale of Two Cities is a moral novel strongly concerned with themes of guilt, shame, redemption and patriotism. Dickens' primary source was Thomas Carlyle's The French Revolution. The narrative is extraordinarily dependent upon correspondence as a medium for ensuring the flow of events, and while not an epistolary novel in the way that Pierre Choderlos de Laclos' Les Liaisons Dangereuses is, nevertheless, it is immediately apparent that the flow of letters forms a driving center to much of the narrative development. The novel covers a period between 1775 and 1793, up to the middle period of the French Revolution.
The twists and turns in the work are sinuous. Originally written as a serial novel for publication in newspapers, its chapters open and close with great drama and mystery. Dickens' take on the French Revolution is balanced - he describes the horrors and atrocities committed by both sides.
The two cities referred to in the title are London and Paris. Throughout the novel, pairs of people, places, etc. are compared and contrasted.
The opening sentence, beginning with the line, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times," [sic] is one of the most famous in all literature. The final lines are almost as well-known, "It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known."
Characters in "A Tale of Two Cities"
- Charles Darnay – respectable young Frenchman who detests aristocracy; a main protagonist
- Sydney Carton – quickminded but depressed English barrister and alcoholic; a main protagonist
- Lucie Manette – young Frenchwoman whom Darnay and Carton both love; can be seen as a protagonist
- Master Darnay – young, unamed son of Charles and Lucie Darnay (Manette), who died at an early age
- Miss Darnay – daughter of Charles and Lucie Darnay (Manette), also named Lucie, she is six years old at the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789.
- Dr. Alexandre Manette – Lucie's father
- Ernest Defarge – owner of a French wine shop and member of the Jacquerie; husband of Madame Defarge; servant to Dr. Manette as a youth; appears to have more of a conscience
- Madame Therese Defarge – a cruel and vengeful female revolutionary; arguably the antagonist
- The Vengeance – a companion of Madame Defarge referred to as her "shadow," a member of the sisterhood of women revolutionaries in Saint Antoine, and revolutionary zealot.
- Jarvis Lorry – a banker and friend of Dr. Manette
- Miss Pross – Lucie's caretaker
- Monseignor Marquis St. Evrémonde – cruel uncle of Charles Darnay
- John Barsad – spy who works for both the French and English governments, and who Carton cleverly blackmails.
- Roger Cly – spy who works collaboratively with John Barsad.
- Jerry Cruncher – messenger for Tellson's Bank and secretly a body snatcher; also seen to beat his wife.
- C.J. Stryver – Rash, arrogant, and ambitious colleague who feeds off Sydney Carton
- The Seamstress – a brief but significant young character, one of the most moving of the entire book. She died with Sydney Carton.
There have been at least 3 feature films made based on the book:
- A Tale of Two Cities (1912 film), a silent film
- A Tale of Two Cities (1935 film), was Academy-award nominated
- A Tale of Two Cities (1958 film)