A Tale of Two Cities in a Nutshell

Charles Dickens is arguably the finest writer in the English language after Shakespeare, and his "Tale of Two Cities" is by far his most popular work.

It could be argued—and has been argued—that, after Shakespeare, Charles Dickens is the finest writer in the English language. His works have forged their way into the canon to such a degree that it is much more difficult to know which of his novels to leave off the recommended reading list than it is to choose which to include. Each of us has our favorites, and each invariably begs to differ with his neighbor’s choice. 

Does David Copperfield deserve pride of place, or Nicholas Nickleby, Oliver Twist, Great Expectations or Bleak House? Who can possibly know which is Dickens’ greatest work? It’s a mystery as insoluble as that surrounding Edwin Drood in Dickens’ last, unfinished work. Irrespective of such differences in opinion, A Tale of Two Cities wins the accolade as the most popular in terms of sales because, alongside Don Quixote, it is usually listed as the best-selling novel of all time, with sales exceeding 200 million.

Published in 1858 and set in the two cities of London and Paris, the novel covers the years from 1757 to 1794, against the backdrop of the revolutionary fervor in France. Dickens’ principal historical source was The French Revolution: A History by Thomas Carlyle, the revised edition of which was published in 1857. Much of the action is centered on some of the most horrific moments of the Revolution, such as the storming of the Bastille in July 1789, the September Massacres of 1792, and the Reign of Terror in 1793 and 1794.

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The symbolic scene is set in Saint-Antoine, a poor suburb of Paris, when a wine cask drops to the street and smashes open, emptying its contents and spilling the blood-red liquid on the streets. This causes a frenzied scene of debauchery as men and women rush to drink and scoop up the pools of wine. As if to make the metaphor more obvious and inescapable, a solitary figure dips his finger in the spilled wine and writes the word “blood” on a nearby wall, prophesying the coming of revolution. The bloodthirsty image also serves to introduce the sadistically vengeful figures of Monsieur and Madame Defarge, who epitomize the bloodlustful hatred of the revolutionaries.

At the other end of the sociopolitical spectrum is the haughty and superciliously arrogant aristocrat the Marquis St. Evrémonde. At his order, his carriage is driven recklessly through a poor neighborhood, where it strikes and kills a child. With his customary arrogance and contempt for the poor, the Marquis tosses a few coins to the child’s bereft father and orders the carriage to drive on. When one of his coins is thrown back into the carriage, he curses the vulgarity of the common people, showing no sign of remorse for the life he has just taken. As the scene unfolds, the figure of Madame Defarge sits quietly, knitting patiently, biding her time. It’s as though she represents in her very malevolence the silent presence of the diabolical vengeance that waits to be unleashed.

At the broken heart of the novel is the pathetic presence of Sydney Carton, drunk and dejected, moody and melancholy, who falls hopelessly in love with Lucie Manette. His love is literally hopeless and doomed to be unrequited because Lucie loves and marries the mysterious Frenchman, Charles Darnay. The two men bear a remarkable physical likeness to each other, so that Carton is almost his rival’s doppelgänger. 

Carton confesses his love for Lucie, simultaneously confessing his own dissolute listlessness and unworthiness. He promises to leave her in peace, thanking her for the joy she has given him. Then he makes a prophetic promise, which introduces the Christian theme of self-sacrificial love as the antidote to the world’s arrogance, hatred, and spirit of vengeance: “I would embrace any sacrifice for you and for those dear to you.”      

Against this spirit of Christlike love is the vengeful and malevolent spirit of Madame Defarge who has been tirelessly knitting the names of those who must die when the revolution comes, an act which serves metaphorically as the weaving of her murderous web. It’s as though she were a spider, a black widow, awaiting the time when she can enmesh those she hates, devouring them to assuage her insatiable appetite for blood. Her moment arrives with the storming of the Bastille, when the mob unleashes its pent-up hatred. The streets of Saint-Antoine, which had previously run red with spilled wine, now run red with blood, an infernal transubstantiation. 

Charles Darnay is arrested for being the aristocratic nephew of the hated Marquis St. Evrémonde but is acquitted when it is revealed that he had renounced his title because of his uncle’s cruelty toward the poor. He is, however, rearrested and sentenced to death. Meanwhile, the hapless Carton walks the streets of Paris, haunted by his love of Lucie but also by the words spoken at his own father’s funeral: “I am the resurrection and the life, saith the Lord: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: and whosoever liveth and believeth in me, shall never die.”

Intent on saving Darnay, the man who had married the woman he loves, Carton contrives a way of taking Darnay’s place, using his striking resemblance to the condemned man to fool the jailers. As he goes to his death the following morning, he is recognized by a poor woman, who is also condemned to die. “Are you dying for him?” she asks. “And his wife and child,” he replies. 

The woman, overcome by his self-sacrificial love, asks to hold his “brave hand.” As he approaches the guillotine, Carton is encouraged by the thought of Lucie and Darnay raising a family. He then utters the concluding words of the novel: “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.”

Ironically, but also divinely symmetrically, the book ends as it had begun: with the imagery of resurrection from the dead. The first part of the book is entitled “Recalled to Life,” an allusion to the fact that Lucie’s father, who was thought to be dead, had been discovered to be alive. At the novel’s conclusion, the dissolutely desolate Carton, the miserable good-for-nothing, is also “recalled to life.” This time, however, it is not merely a resurrection from death to life, like Lazarus, but a resurrection from death to everlasting life, like Christ. Seldom has a novel had a happier ending.

Editor’s Note: This is the thirty-first in an ongoing series of articles explaining the great works of literature “in a nutshell.”

[Image: Sydney Carton by Frederick Barnard (1895)]


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