Top 10 Facts about Charles Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities

Top 10 Facts about Charles Dickens' Tale of Two Cities
Top 10 Facts about Charles Dickens' Tale of Two Cities

Top 10 Things You Should Know About Charles Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities

We all know that A Tale of Two Cities is Charles Dickens’ novel of the French Revolution, a story of a family caught between London and Paris and the struggles of the Terror that followed the Revolution.  It is packed with some of the most famous imagery in fiction such as the people soaking rags in wine from a broken cask and the cobbles of the road running red with win as they will later run with blood.

Dr Manette is recalled to life from an 18 year imprisonment in the Bastille and brought to England where he is nursed to health by his young daughter.  She later marries Charles Darnay, a man on trial for his life but saved by his similarity to barrister Sidney Carton.  They have a child but Darnay has to return to Paris where he is arrested as the heir to the Marquis St Evremonde.  Dr Manette secures his release but he is rearrested on the testimony of the revolutionary leaders Monsieur and Madame Defarge who had suffered at the hand of the Marquis and a letter written by Dr Manette at the time of his imprisonment when he condemned all Evremondes to death for their causally cruel treatment of the poor and his own imprisonment.

Darnay is saved once again by his resemblance to Sidney Carton who switches places with him before sacrificing himself to the guillotine.

There is much more, however, to this tale of horror, revenge and sacrifice so we have listed the 10 things everyone should know about this famous book.

10. The opening and closing lines are some of the most famous ever written

Where did Charles Dickens get his inspiration for such beautiful prose.
Where did Charles Dickens get his inspiration for such beautiful prose.

The book starts with the well known lines: ‘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, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.’.

The final lines of the book, where Sydney Carton is on his way to sacrifice himself at the guillotine are similarly 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.’.

These lines are so famous that they are well known by millions of people worldwide, even those who have not read the book.  The opening lines have become famous precisely because they are so broad in their sweep and because they are applicable to any and every age.  The final lines are so well known and loved because the encapsulate, perfectly, what it means for one man to willingly sacrifice himself or others and evoke the true meaning of the word ‘love’.

9. The second part of the book is ‘The Golden Thread’ gave its name to a famous English Legal Judgement

Lucie's golden thread
Lucie’s golden thread

Book The Second: The Golden Thread deals with a number of very important social issues in England and in France at the time of the revolution.  This section of the book also deals with the coming together of all the threads and aspects that are important in the life of Lucie Manette.  She has beautiful long golden hair that is in itself pivotal in the story.  When Dr Manette is released from prison he has no memory of his daughter, little more than a toddler when he was imprisoned and whom he has not seen for the last 18 years.  He starts to recognize her because she has a look of her mother and because he recalls a strand of her long gold hair being left on his clothing.  Her hair is literally the Ariadne’s thread that brings him safe home through the maze of his torment.

Lucie is fundamental to the story as the character who brings all the others together.  She is responsible for uniting her father and her husband Charles Darnay, a member of the evil Evremonde family whom Dr Manette condemned many years before.  Through her father Lucie is connected to Madame Defarge, the sister of a girl raped and killed by Lucie’s father and uncle in law and who later condemns Lucie, her husband and her daughter to death to answer for Evremonde’s crimes.  Lucie is also responsible for maintaining the continued relationship with Sidney Carson who is, of course, later responsible for saving the life of her husband for the second time.

The book gave its name to the famous judgment in the English case of  Woolmington v DPP delivered by Viscount Sankey in which he said ‘one golden thread is always to be seen – that is the duty of the prosecution to prove the prisoner’s guilt’ ie the Common Law concept of the presumption of innocence common in the English speaking world.  Justice and innocence are important themes in A Tale of Two Cities so the connection between the book and the judgment is apposite.

8. The book contains some of the most powerful descriptions of the causes and effects of the French Revolution

The French Revolution is front and center in Charles Dickens' the Tale of Two Cities
The French Revolution is front and center in Charles Dickens’ the Tale of Two Cities

Charles Dickens’ novel has formed, for many, their understanding of what the Revolution was like.  Many people when asked to describe the every day sights and happenings would picture prisoners incarcerated like Darnay and Dr Manette, taken to the guillotine in tumbrils like Sidney Carson and the seamstress and their deaths watched with glee by knitting women like Madame Defarge and her companion ‘vengeance’.  These ‘pictures’ are relatively accurate; Dickens relied heavily on the seminal work on the French Revolution at the time, The French Revolution: A History by Thomas Carlyle.  His descriptions of the causes and the effects of the revolution are therefore grounded in history.

The book does not, however, just serve to bring the Reign of Terror to life but to explain how and why it started.  As readers we sympathize with the bereaved father murdering his child’s killer and we pity Dr Manette locked in the Bastille for having the courage of his convictions and we can empathize with Madame Defarge’s desire to wipe out the family that scoured hers from the face of the earth.

We also, however, see how these justifiable desires are perverted and how, inexorably, the honorable Revolution gives way to the chaos of the Terror.  This is typified by the Defarges, originally decent people who were brutalized by the Evremonde family they are, at the start the book, allies of Dr Manette and his friends, helping him from prison and rehabilitating him back to his family.  Their all-consuming desire for revenge, however, brutalizes and destroys them.  Madame Defarge’s hatred for the Evermonde’s knows no bounds.  She calls for the death of Charles Darnay, the only decent Evermonde who condemned the excesses of his father and uncle.  So rampant is her hatred that she is even willing to kill the daughter and granddaughter of Dr Manette.

7. A Tale of Two Cities is an atypical Dickens’ work

Olde English Workhouse
Olde English Workhouse

A Tale of Two Cities is not a ‘feel good’ book, it is not a comedy and it lacks the wit and humor that pervade most of Dickens work.  While all of his books deal with a variety of social issues and act as a commentary on problems faced by many at the time (debtor’s prison, courts of chancery, workhouses etc) they often clothe themselves in a cloak of fun and light reading.  A Tale of Two Cities is very different.

As mentioned above it contains perhaps the best description of the societal causes and effects of the French Revolution.  Despite his prolific writing A Tale of Two Cities is one of only two historical novels written by Dickens and is far less complex than his normal offerings in terms of the numbers of characters and the plots covered by the novel.  The novel lacks the humorous passages or the unique characters that tend to characterize Dickens’ work, even the ‘light relief’ character of Jerry Cruncher is disturbingly macabre; he works as a grave robber and routinely abuses his wife.

6. Dickens uses water as a symbol of chaos and the unconscious

Dickens uses water continuously throughout a Tale of Two Cities to convey chaos
Dickens uses water continuously throughout a Tale of Two Cities to convey chaos

Dickens frequently expresses the chaos of the times through the use of water as a metaphor.  This is particularly apt because like revolution water is capable of bringing great good (sanitation, hydration, change through erosion and deposition) but is also capable of great destruction.  Dickens uses phrases such as ‘The sea [ie the mob] did what it liked, and what it liked was destruction’.

Gapsard, the bereaved father of the child killed by the Marquis St. Evremonde’s negligent driving is hanged for the murder of the Marquis.  The punishment does not, however end there as the hanging is done over the well of the local village in order to poison it and make all the peasants suffer.  It also serves as a metaphor for the poisonous hatred the villagers have for the aristocrats who care so little for them.

The crowd that storms the Bastille was a ‘whirlpool of boiling waters’ and moved as ‘the living sea rose, wave upon wave, depth upon depth and overflowed the city’.   The metaphors do not end there, Darnay’s jailer, a man at the heart of and complicit in the Reign of Terror looked like a man ‘who had been drowned and filled with water’.