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Free Barron's Booknotes-A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens-Summary
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Here is Dickens' voice, introducing the story he's about to tell. No action or characters are presented, but the scene is set: England and France, 1775. We encounter important themes-and one of the most unforgettable opening paragraphs in English literature.


"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times...," the opening words, form a good example of parallelism-the repetition, for emphasis, of a grammatical structure. Here and elsewhere Dickens relies on parallelism to balance opposing pairs, to make contrasts and comparisons. Look closely for dual themes and characters, even (in Book the Second) for dual chapter titles. Most elements in the story have, if not an equal, at least an opposing element.

With a description of a brutal punishment carried out on a French boy, Dickens leads in to two major themes: Fate and Death. Each is personified-given human identity-a trick of style Dickens will be using again and again. The "certain moveable framework" for which trees have already sprung up is the guillotine; at the moment, the sinister-sounding "tumbrils of the Revolution" are merely farm carts. The basis for their future employment, carrying the doomed through the streets of Paris, has already been laid by an unjust and ignorant society.

Dickens' tone for describing abuses is ironic, but indignant, too. Clearly, he doesn't believe that a murdering highwayman shoots "gallantly," but he does view the hangman as "ever worse than useless." Few of Dickens' contemporaries despised capital punishment as much as he did; fewer describe it so vividly. What's your reaction to the executions detailed here? Dickens himself was both fascinated and repelled by death, and generations of readers have found his attitude catching.


The two kings with "large jaws" and their queens, one fair, one plain, are the monarchs of England and France: George III and Charlotte Sophia; Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, respectively.

The references to visions, spirits, and spectres mark the beginning of a deliberate pattern. Mrs. Southcott was a religious visionary; the "Cock-lane ghost" was an 18th-century poltergeist. Moving ahead to his own time, Dickens invokes the "spirits of this very year last past," meaning those spirits raised by D. D. Home, a popular Victorian medium.

These historic ghosts will give way to fictional ones. As you read, look for the mist likened to "an evil spirit" (Book I, Chapter 2), and for the "spectre" of Jarvis Lorry's nightmare (I, 3)- the image is of Dr. Manette, raised from the "death" of solitary imprisonment. References to the spirit world span the entire novel. The ghosts are here for a reason.

If you've heard many ghost stories you know that they create a weird, unreal atmosphere-exactly the effect Dickens was aiming for in A Tale. His spirits and spectres hint at the possibility of another world, of life beyond death. They're images that support two of the novel's themes: unreality versus reality, and-more important-resurrection.

Finally, a reference perhaps familiar from your history classes: the "congress of British subjects in America" describes the Continental Congress, which sent a petition of grievances to the British Parliament in January 1775.


We meet Jarvis Lorry, employee of Tellson's Bank in London, traveling by mail coach from London to Dover. This is only the first of many fateful journeys-the story also ends with one. Dark, cold, and mist surround the heavy mail coach. The atmosphere is gloomy, foreshadowing more gloom to come and setting us up for the contrasting theme of dark and light.

The atmosphere among passengers, guard, and coachman matches the weather-all fear an assault by highwaymen, and so mistrust each other. Their apprehension quickens at the sudden arrival of a messenger. The messenger is Jerry Cruncher, sent from Tellson's with instructions for Lorry: "Wait at Dover for Mam'selle." Lorry's prompt reply, RECALLED TO LIFE, surprises Cruncher as much as his fellow travelers.

Left alone in thickening mist and darkness, Cruncher hoarsely exclaims that he'd be "in a Blazing bad way, if recalling to life was to come into fashion...!" Here is Dickens' first mention of resurrection, and first of many strong signals of Cruncher's hidden occupation. Though the action so far seems bathed in secrecy, Dickens doesn't write for the sake of confusing us. He's constantly and skillfully divulging plot, themes, and moral point of view; we have only to look out for them.

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