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Free Barron's Booknotes-A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens-Summary
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Keep in mind that Dickens was experimenting in A Tale of Two Cities. He hoped to reveal character through events in the story, rather than by dialogue. He attempted to comment on French history by creating not only individuals but characters who seem to stand for entire social classes. The little mender of roads, a common man thrust into Revolutionary excesses, is one example; Monseigneur, whose chocolate-drinking requires the services of four strong men, is another.

One of the great caricaturists of his age, Dickens often found his talent hard to suppress. Remember Dickens' penchant for exaggeration when you meet Miss Pross (with her phenomenal bonnet like a Stilton cheese) and spiky-haired Jerry Cruncher. These characters may not strike you as conventionally realistic, but think again. Are they meant to be just like you and me? Some readers feel that the simpler characters, set in the framework of a dense plot, express Dickens' sense of the complexity of life.


One way you may approach Lucie Manette is as the central figure of the novel. Think about the many ways she affects her fellow characters. Although she is not responsible for liberating her father, Dr. Manette, from the Bastille, Lucie is the agent who restores his damaged psyche through unselfish love and devotion. She maintains a calm, restful atmosphere in their Soho lodgings, attracting suitors (Charles Darnay, Stryver, Sydney Carton) and brightening the life of family friend Jarvis Lorry.

Home is Lucie's chosen territory, where she displays her fireside virtues of tranquility, fidelity, and motherhood. It's as a symbol of home that her centrality and influence are greatest. Even her physical attributes promote domestic happiness: her blonde hair is a "golden thread" binding her father to health and sanity, weaving a fulfilling life for her eventual husband, Charles Darnay, and their daughter.

Lucie is central, too, in the sense that she's caught in several triangles-the most obvious one involving Carton and Darnay. Lucie marries Darnay (he's upcoming and handsome, the romantic lead) and exerts great influence on Carton.

A second, subtler triangle involves Lucie, her father, and Charles Darnay. The two men share an ambiguous relationship. Because Lucie loves Darnay, Dr. Manette must love him, too. Yet Darnay belongs to the St. Evremonde family, cause of the doctor's long imprisonment, and is thus subject to his undying curse. Apart from his ancestry, Darnay poses the threat, by marrying Lucie, of replacing Dr. Manette in her affections.

At the very end of the novel you'll find Lucie caught in a third triangle-the struggle between Miss Pross and Madame Defarge. Miss Pross, fighting for Lucie, is fighting above all for love. Her triumph over Madame Defarge is a triumph over chaos and vengeance.

Let's move now from Lucie's influence on other characters to Lucie herself. Sydney Carton, who loves Lucie devotedly, labels her a "little golden doll." Carton means this ironically-he's hiding his true feelings from Stryver-but some readers have taken his words at face value. They see Lucie as a cardboard creation, and her prettiness and family devotion as general traits, fitting Dickens' notions of the ideal woman.

Readers fascinated with Dickens' life have traced Lucie's origins to Ellen Ternan, the 18-year-old actress Dickens was infatuated with while writing A Tale. Ellen was blonde, and she shared Lucie's habit of worriedly knitting her brows. Of course, the artist who draws on real life nearly always transforms it into something else, something original.

Finally, consider viewing Lucie allegorically-as a character acting on a level beyond the actual events of the story. Dickens frequently mentions Lucie's golden hair. The theme of light versus dark is one that runs all through A Tale, and Lucie's fair hair seems to ally her with the forces of light. The force of dark seems to come from Lucie's opposite in most respects, the brunette Madame Defarge.


Sydney Carton dies on the guillotine to spare Charles Darnay. How you interpret Carton's sacrifice-positively or negatively-will affect your judgment of his character, and of Dickens' entire work.

Some readers take the positive view that Carton's act is a triumph of individual love over the mob hatred of the Revolution. Carton and the seamstress he comforts meet their deaths with great dignity. In fulfilling his old promise to Lucie, Carton attains peace; those watching see "the peacefullest man's face ever beheld" at the guillotine. In a prophetic vision, the former "jackal" glimpses a better world rising out of the ashes of revolution, and long life for Lucie and her family-made possible by his sacrifice.

This argument also links Carton's death with Christian sacrifice and love. When Carton makes his decision to die, the New Testament verse beginning "I am the Resurrection and the Life" nearly becomes his theme song. The words are repeated a last time at the moment Carton dies. In what sense may we see Carton's dying in Darnay's place as Christ-like? It wipes away his sin, just as Christ's death washed clean man's accumulated sins.

For readers who choose the negative view, Carton's death seems an act of giving up. These readers point out that Stryver's jackal has little to lose. Never useful or happy, Carton has already succumbed to the depression eating away at him. In the midst of a promising youth, Carton had "followed his father to the grave"- that is, he's already dead in spirit. For such a man, physical death would seem no sacrifice, but a welcome relief.

Some readers even go so far as to claim that Carton's happy vision of the future at the novel's close is out of place with his overall gloominess. According to this interpretation, the bright prophecies of better times ahead are basically Dickens' way of copping out, of pleasing his audience with a hopeful ending.

If Sydney Carton's motives seem complicated to you, try stepping back and viewing him as a man, rather than an influence on the story. He's a complex, realistic character. We see him so clearly, working early morning hours on Stryver's business, padding between table and punch bowl in his headdress of sopping towels, that we're able to feel for him. Have you ever known someone who's thrown away his talent or potential, yet retains a spark of achievement, as well as people's sympathy? That's one way of looking at Sydney Carton.

Dickens adds an extra dimension to Carton's portrait by giving him a "double," Charles Darnay. For some readers, Carton is the more memorable half of the Carton/Darnay pair. They argue that Dickens found it easier to create a sympathetic bad character than an interesting good one. Carton's own feelings toward his look-alike waver between admiration and hostility. But see this for yourself, by noticing Carton's rudeness to Darnay after the Old Bailey trial. When Darnay has gone, Carton studies his image in a mirror, realizing that the young Frenchman is everything he might have been-and therefore a worthy object of hatred.

It's interesting that both Carton and Darnay can function in two cultures, English and French. Darnay, miserable in France, becomes a happy French teacher in England. In a kind of reversal, Carton, a lowly jackal in London, immortalizes himself in Paris.

Carton and Darnay have one further similarity-the doubles may represent separate aspects of Dickens. If we see Darnay as Dickens' light side, then Carton corresponds to an inner darkness. The unhappy lawyer is a man of prodigious intelligence gone to waste, a man who fears he'll never find happiness. These concerns mirror Dickens' own worries about the direction his career was taking in the late 1850s, and about his disintegrating marriage. It's been suggested that Dickens, though a spectacularly successful writer, had no set place in the rigid English class system. Regarded from this perspective, Dickens, like Carton, was a social outsider.


Charles Darnay has many functions: he holds a place in the story, in Dickens' scheme of history, and in Dickens' life. We can view him on the surface as A Tale of Two Cities ' romantic lead. We can also look for depth, starting at Darnay's name.

St. Evremonde is Darnay's real name. He is French by birth, and English by preference, and emerges as a bicultural Everyman. He's a common, decent person, caught in circumstances beyond his control. Darnay isn't merely caught in the Revolution, he's pulled by it, as if by a magnet. He's at the mercy of fate.

Besides fate, a leading theme, Darnay illustrates a second concern of the novel: renunciation or sacrifice. He gives up his estate in France, substituting for his old privileges the very unaristocratic ideal of work. Darnay's political liberalism and decision to earn his own living (tutoring young Englishmen in French language and literature) put him in conflict with his uncle, the Marquis St. Evremonde. If you've ever disagreed with a member of your own family, multiply your differences by ten and you'll understand the relationship between Charles Darnay and his uncle. The two men live in different philosophical worlds. Young Darnay signals the new, progressive order (though you'll see that he's never tagged a revolutionary); the older Marquis sticks to the old, wicked ways.

The resemblance between Darnay and Sydney Carton is so marked that it saves Darnay's life at two critical junctures. As we've seen, the two men are doubles. For many readers, they form halves of a whole personality. Darnay is sunny and hopeful, representing the chance for happiness in life; Carton is depressed and despairing. Both characters compete for Lucie Manette, and both enact the novel's all-important theme of resurrection. If we think of Darnay, saved twice by Carton's intervention, as the resurrectee, then Carton becomes the resurrector. (As you'll recall, Carton in fact dies imagining himself "the Resurrection and the Life.")

Many readers have noted that "Charles Dickens" and "Charles Darnay" are similar names, and they view Darnay as the bright, forward-looking side of Dickens, the hero. Though he undergoes trial and imprisonment, Darnay ultimately gets the girl and leads a long, blissful life. He has a pronounced capacity for domestic happiness, something Dickens yearned for.

There's also been debate over whether Darnay is a fully realized character or just a handsome puppet. You'll have to reach your own conclusions about Darnay, of course. In doing so, take into account that Dickens intended his plot to define character, and was working in a limited space-A Tale of Two Cities is one of his shortest novels.

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