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Free Barron's Booknotes-A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens-Summary
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Dr. Manette's release from the Bastille after 18 years of solitary confinement sounds the first note in the theme of resurrection, and sets Dickens' plot in motion. The secret papers left in Manette's cell lead directly to A Tale's climax, Charles Darnay's sentence to die.

Does the doctor seem believable, a man of psychological depth? To support a yes answer, look at Dickens' rendering of a white-haired man, just released from his living tomb, whose face reflects "scared, blank wonder." As the story continues, Dr. Manette's spells of amnesia feel authentic. Doesn't it seem natural that Dr. Manette returns to shoemaking-the task that preserved his sanity in the Bastille-whenever he's reminded of that dark period of his life?

Less believable for some readers is the journal Dr. Manette composes in blood and haste, and hides in his cell. These readers find the doctor's journal long and melodramatic, and point to the dying peasant boy, gasping a vengeful monologue, as an instance of realism being sacrificed to drama.

From the point of view of the French Revolutionaries, Dr. Manette is a living reminder of their oppression. They revere him for his sufferings as a Bastille prisoner. During Darnay's imprisonment in Paris, Dr. Manette uses the Revolutionaries' esteem to keep his son-in-law alive. As a result, you watch him grow stronger, regaining the sense of purpose he'd lost in the Bastille.


All through the story Jarvis Lorry protests that he's nothing more or less than a man of business. "Feelings!" he exclaims, "I have no time for them." Mr. Lorry's time belongs to Tellson's bank, "the House," his employer for over 40 years. Yet behind his allegiance to business, Lorry hides a kind heart. When Dr. Manette responds to Lucie's marriage by falling into an amnesiac spell, Lorry deserts Tellson's for nine full days to look after his friend.

How closely does Lorry conform to modern ideas about bankers and businessmen? He admittedly values the bank above himself, an attitude you might consider old fashioned. Readers have described him as the sort of clerk Dickens saw passing in his own day, and mourned. Lorry compares favorably with the two other men of business in the story: Stryver, the pushing lawyer, and Jerry Cruncher, the "honest tradesman" who digs up bodies and sells them to medical science.

During the Revolution Tellson's in London becomes a haven for emigrant French aristocrats, the same aristocrats found guilty, a few chapters earlier, of squeezing their peasants dry. How should you view Tellson's for sheltering an oppressing class? (Dickens has already revealed that the cramped, dark bank resists change of any sort.) More to the point, how should you judge Jarvis Lorry for dedicating his life to such an establishment? Readers have suggested that Dickens, despite his liberal politics, found the solidity of institutions like Tellson's appealing; the old bank and its banker, Jarvis Lorry, represent a kind of bastion against the new, aggressive ways of men like Stryver-and against the frenzied violence of the French mob.


Dickens is famous for tagging his characters with a habit, trait, or turn of phrase. Just as Jarvis Lorry's constant catchword is "business," so Madame Defarge's defining activity is knitting. Madame knits a register of those she's marked for death, come the revolution. This hobby links her closely with the novel's theme of fate. By referring to myth, we may interpret her as one of the Fates-the Greek goddesses who first spin the thread of human life, and then cut it off. But it's not necessary to go beyond the story for other equivalents to Madame Defarge's fast-moving fingers. Dickens implicitly contrasts her ominous craft with Lucie Manette's "golden thread," or blonde hair. Lucie weaves a pattern of love and light, holding her family together, while Madame Defarge never knits a sweater, only death.

Occupying relatively little space in the novel, Madame Defarge has nonetheless been called its most memorable character. She and her husband have a curiously modern air. Perhaps you can imagine the Defarges by picturing today's guerrilla fighters in embattled underdeveloped countries. Madame Defarge is a professional who knows how to use political indoctrination. On a fieldtrip to Versailles with the little mender of roads she identifies the dressed-up nobility as "dolls and birds." She's teaching the mender of roads to recognize his future prey.

As you read, try seeing Madame Defarge as neither political force nor mythic figure, but as a human being. Her malignant sense of being wronged by the St. Evremondes turns her almost-but not quite-into a machine of vengeance. Dickens inserts details to humanize her: she is sensitive to cold; when the spy John Barsad enters her shop, she nods with "a stern kind of coquetry"; at the very end of the book, making tracks for Lucie's apartment, she strides with "the supple freedom" of a woman who has grown up on the beach. Do you think such "personal" touches make Therese Defarge less terrifying, since she's so clearly human? Or does she seem more nightmarish, because, violent and vengeful, she's one of us?


Keeper of the wine shop in Saint Antoine, leader of the attack on the Bastille, Defarge is a man of divided loyalties. He owes allegiance to 1. Dr. Manette, his old master; 2. the ideals of the Revolution; 3. his wife, Therese. A strong, forceful character with natural authority, Defarge can for a time serve three masters.

There's no conflict of interest between taking in Dr. Manette after his release from the Bastille and furthering the Revolution. Defarge actually displays his confused charge to members of the Jacquerie-a group of radical peasants-as an object lesson in government evil.

Only when Revolutionary fervor surges out of bounds are Defarge's triple loyalties tested. He refuses to aid Charles Darnay-Dr. Manette's son-inlaw-when Darnay is seized as an aristocrat; by now the orders are coming from Defarge's bloodthirsty wife. Goaded by Madame, Defarge ends by denouncing Darnay and providing the evidence (ironically, in Dr. Manette's name) needed to condemn him. Defarge stops just short of denouncing Dr. Manette and Lucie, too, but there are hints from Madame and friends that he'd better start toeing the line.

Dickens leaves us with the thought that, finally, Defarge is controlled by a force more powerful than politics, or even his wife. In Sydney Carton's last vision, Defarge and Madame Defarge perish by the guillotine. Is it fate, irony, or historic inevitability that kills them? You decide.


Eccentric, mannish-looking Miss Pross is a type of character familiar to readers of Dickens' novels. Beneath her wild red hair and outrageous bonnet, she's as good as gold, a fiercely loyal servant. Dickens places Miss Pross in the plot by means of her long-lost brother. Solomon Pross is revealed to be John Barsad, Old Bailey spy and "sheep of the prisons."

Miss Pross' two defining characteristics are her devotion to Lucie and Solomon, and her stalwart Britishness. When Madame Defarge marches in, armed, to execute Lucie and her family, Miss Pross understands the Frenchwoman's intent-but not a word she says. Miss Pross has refused to learn French.

Miss Pross' blind patriotism and devotion work to her advantage. She's empowered by love. Mistaking Miss Pross' tears of resolve for weakness, Madame Defarge moves toward a closed door, and in a heated struggle is shot by her own pistol. A Tale of Two Cities isn't markedly anti-France or pro-England, but Miss Pross' victory may strike you as a victory for her country, too.


Dickens dislikes Stryver. You may be hard put to find a single lovable feature in this "shouldering" lawyer, who has been "driving and living" ever since his school days with Sydney Carton. Yet the ambitious Stryver-his name a neat summing up of the man-is making his way in the world. With little talent for law, he pays the doomed but brilliant Carton to do his work for him. For the Stryvers of society, ambition and unscrupulousness count far more than skill. Dickens' Stryver is one of the new men of industrialized Victorian England. Abhorring his progress in real life, Dickens renders him the butt of jokes and scorn in the novel: Stryver's three adopted sons, though not of his flesh and blood, seem tainted by the mere connection.

Dickens' portrayal of Stryver as the man we love to hate seems rather one-sided. Does this make him a more memorable creation, or of limited interest? Notice how sharply Stryver is drawn in individual scenes-during his midnight work sessions with Carton, and in his conferences with Lorry about marrying Lucie. But once Lucie is married, and Darnay returns to France, Stryver drops out of the story. His role as the object of Dickens' satire is at an end.


For some readers, spiky-haired Jerry Cruncher supplies an element of humor in an otherwise serious novel. Other readers claim that the Cockney odd-job man who beats his wife for "flopping" (praying) isn't a particularly funny fellow. Cruncher's after hours work is digging up newly buried bodies and selling them to surgeons, which may not seem a subject for comedy. But it does contribute, in two important ways, to A Tale's development.

Cruncher's grave robbing graphically illustrates the theme of resurrection: he literally raises people from the dead. (Victorian grave robbers were in fact nicknamed "resurrection men.")

One of the plot's biggest surprises hinges on Cruncher's failed attempt to unearth the body of Roger Cly, the spy who testified with John Barsad against Charles Darnay. In France, years after his graveyard expedition, Cruncher discloses that Cly's coffin contained only stones and dirt. This information enables Sydney Carton to force Barsad, Cly's partner, into a plot to save Charles Darnay's life.

As for Cruncher's moral character, a brush with Revolutionary terror reforms him. He promises to make amends for his former "honest trade" by turning undertaker, burying the dead instead of raising them. In the last, tense pages of the novel, Cruncher's vow, "never no more will I interfere with Mrs. Cruncher's flopping," finally strikes a humorous chord. It's darkly comic relief.

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