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
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
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
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
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 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’.
5. Darkness and light are used to symbolize good and evil
Light, and its opposite, darkness, are a vital theme within the novel. A Tale of Two Cities is never anything but a truly dark story but moments of dark and light do shine through.
The book opens to the story of a coach journey in the dark as Mr Lorry travels to Paris to rescue Dr Manette from the long dark years of his imprisonment; even Mr Lorry’s first meeting with Lucie Manette (the true light of the novel) takes place in darkness.
Lucie with her golden hair and good, kind, nurturing character represents light. She nurtures Dr Manette out of the depths of despair and darkness and shows him that there is still hope in the world and something to live for. She welcomes Sidney Carton into her home and family and, when her husband is imprisoned, brings him a welcome ray of hope by standing on the street outside the prison every day so that he can see her and know that he is loved.
While Lucie represents light the darkness of the novel and the time in which it is set is typified by the terrifying character of Madame Defarge. Brutalized as a young girl by seeing her sister and the rest of her family killed by the Evremondes she becomes a bloodthirsty leader of the revolution and typifies all that is wrong with the excesses of revolutionary fervor. Lucie even feels that Madame Defarge is ‘a shadow on me’
4. The book is a searing commentary on social justice
Dickens experienced true hardship in his life as a child when he had to work as a boot black to support his family while his father was in debtor’s prison. As such his books can often be read as, and indeed are designed to be, commentaries on the faults in society. A Tale of Two Cities is no different.
The book is brutally honest about the problems in France. The chapters that deal with the Marquis St. Evremonde, in particular with the death of the child and the rape and murder of the young woman (Madame Defarge’s sister) and her family paint a very thorough picture of a society in which the poor are no more than animals to the rich, oppressed and exploited for the gain of a small elite in society. As the reader starts to understand the nature of the life endured by the poor they sympathize with the revolutionary aims of the new order. It becomes clear through the commentary that Dickens feels that the situation in Britain is only marginally better than that in France with the executioner being kept busy punishing people for misdemeanors. The book is a warning to the aristocracy of the UK that they beware not to sow the same seeds of discontent as their French cousins did or they will surely reap the same rewards.
Dickens’ sympathy is, however, limited and erodes quickly once the excesses of the revolution come to light. This is typified by his descriptions of the actions of the mob, likening them to the relentless action of water (see 6 above) or the grisly scene in the third book where the mob dance the carmagnole to the grisly lyrics of the revolution and sharpen their weapons on the grindstones. Towards the end of the book Dickens notes that if you ‘sow the same seed of rapacious license and oppression over again and it will surely yield the same fruit according to its kind’. Noting that it is inevitable that power will corrupt and that no real change is truly possible. However, there is hope for redemption as seen in Sidney Carton’s vision for a new France reborn out of the ashes of the revolution, one where the guillotine exacts retribution on those ‘new oppressors who have risen on the destruction of the old’ before it is put out of use forever.
3. Sidney Carton and Charles Darnay are both aspects of Charles Dickens’ persona
Shortly before writing A Tale of Two Cities Dickens starred in The Frozen Deep a play by Wilkie Collins where Dickens’ character ends up as one of two men in love with the same woman. He sacrifices himself for his rival – a direct inspiration for the love triangle between Lucie Manette, Sidney Carton and Charles Darnay.
Carton and Darnay are so similar as to be doppelgangers, two halves of the same coin. Sidney Carton is a man of great promise who has become dissolute and lazy through drink. He sees in Charles Darnay all that he could have been in a different life; Carton is bad but fascinating, Darnay is good but dull. It is only together that Carton and Darnay make a complete and rounded character not dissimilar to that of Charles Dickens himself. It is interesting that, when the two names are put together they form Dickens’ initials.
2. The book takes Death and Resurrection as its main themes
The England in which Dickens lived and worked was a devoutly Christian country and a Christian morality and preoccupation with death and resurrection pervades the novel.
At the start of the story we meet Dr Manette who has been ‘recalled to life’ after 18 years ‘buried’ in the Bastille. Jerry Cruncher (the ‘Resurrection Man’ who robs graves) is the one entrusted with the message of Dr Manette’s revival. The end of the novel also heralds resurrection as Sidney Carton sacrifices himself to the guillotine in place of his doppelganger Charles Darnay who he resurrects from certain death. Sidney Carton may be giving up his mortal life but he is certain that he will be going to a ‘far far better rest’. As he goes to his death and resurrection Sidney Carton has a vision of a new France rising out of the ‘abyss’ of the Revolution with the evil of the times ‘making expiation for itself’.
Resurrection is an important theme but it is mirrored by the importance of references to death in the novel. Some of the key events of the book surround death and destruction, prior to the Revolution we learn that life is cheap and death easy for the poor while the tables are subsequently turned in the Terror.
The Marquis St. Evremonde kills a peasant child with his carriage, an event the Marquis considers so unimportant that he carelessly compensates the grieving father by throwing a gold coin out of the carriage and on to the street. Casks of wine, broken in the accident, cause the streets to run red, presaging the latter reign of terror of the French Revolution. The Marquis is subsequently killed in his bed by the father of the little child who is himself later caught and killed.
Charles Darnay is condemned to death for the crimes of his father and uncle (Marquis St. Evremonde) who raped a young girl to death and subsequently destroyed her whole family bar one to hide their guilt. It was his refusal to be complicit in the cover up of this death that resulted in Dr Manette being sent to the Bastile by St. Evremonde.
Even Dr Manette’s cobbler’s bench (to which he has an unhealthy obsessive compulsive attachment as a result of his 18 years in prison) is ‘killed’. Seeing that the bench allows Dr Manette to retreat into himself when he is worried or stressed his close friend Mr. Lorry and Lucie Manette’s companion Miss Pross destroy it in a process called rather grimly ‘burning the body’. This death of the symbol of his imprisonment allows Dr Manette to experience a second resurrection and enjoy life as a parent to a happily married woman and, in time, as a grandparent.
1. Sidney Carton’s sacrifice, at the end of the book is reminiscent of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross.
Sidney Carton feels himself to be a dissolute nobody, worth little even to those people that he loves. So worthless does he believe himself to be that he does not even take the credit for the cases that he wins in court, preferring to allow his colleague Stryver to be seen to take the credit while Carton does the work behind the scenes.
So deep, however, is his love for Lucie Manette and his regard for her family that he willingly sacrifices himself to save Charles Darnay and allow him to enjoy a long and happy life with Lucie and his children. Not only does he sacrifice himself for others he faces his death with such courage that he provides solace and comfort to another in the same situation, a poor seamstress unjustly accused of plotting against the Republic. His courage gives her the strength to face her death.
It is this willing and loving sacrifice and courage in the face of horror that makes Sidney Carton a true Christ like figure.
A Tale of Two Cities is a book that has it all. An instant classic that had readers waiting on the edge of their seats for the next installment (Dickens’ works were published in installments) it is a book about love and hate, war and peace, romance and revenge. It shows us all that is good in the human spirit and all that is profane. It is a book that gives more of itself every time you read it. We hope that this list has inspired you to pick it up and read it once again.