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Free Barron's Booknotes-A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens-Summary
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We're in Paris, at a wine shop in the poverty-stricken suburb of Saint Antoine. A large cask of wine has broken and the people rush into the street to gulp any drops they can catch. It's no riot, nothing that would make the evening news these days, but it prefigures major themes and events, including riots, that form Dickens' portrait of the French Revolution.

The spilled wine stains hands, faces, kerchiefs, and the pavement red. Its similarity to another red substance is spelled out by a tall fellow in a nightcap, a "tigerish smear" about his mouth, who dips a finger in the wine and jokingly scrawls "Blood." The joker is Gaspard, a minor character we'll meet again. He's reproached by Monsieur Defarge, the keeper of the wine shop, who asks: "Is there... no other place to write such words in?" In meaningful answer, Defarge places a hand on the tall man's heart. To the well-built, resolute Defarge, blood is no joke.

Try to keep the images and incidents of this chapter in mind. Now, the spilled wine turns into a harmless game, ending in drinking and dancing. Eighteen years ahead, we'll see a much less innocent dance. Saint Antoine residents will be stomping the frenzied Carmagnole, with blood instead of wine staining their hands and faces.

Pay attention, too, to Dickens' way of evoking the poverty and misery of the quarter. Today the poor are "scarecrows," clad in rags and nightcaps, but soon they'll menace the "birds, fine of song and feather"- the oppressing nobles. Again we're faced with gloom-even the lit streetlamps are "a feeble grove of dim wicks." These very lamps are destined to be used to hang men. At first glance you may find Dickens' description a bit long and repetitive, but bear with him. Not a detail is wasted; people and things (note those tools and weapons "in a flourishing condition") are brought in to build atmosphere and prepare us for what is to come.

Entering the wine shop with Defarge, we meet his wife, Madame Defarge. She is a strong-featured woman of iron composure, busy at her trademark activity, knitting. Also present are Jarvis Lorry and Lucie Manette, and three wine drinkers. The drinkers and Defarge exchange the name "Jacques," a kind of password demonstrating that they're against the existing order. Defarge directs the three men to an adjoining building. Then, after a brief conference, Defarge leads Lorry and Lucie up a dark, filthy staircase to Dr. Manette's room. Lucie trembles at meeting her father, who according to Defarge is very confused and changed.

The trio of Jacques are busily peering into Dr. Manette's room. Defarge waves them away, admitting that he shows his charge to those "whom the sight is likely to do good," that is, to fellow revolutionists. Defarge, Lorry, and Lucie step into the dark garret where a white-haired Dr. Manette stoops over a bench, absorbed in making shoes.


Dickens strengthens our sense of the crushing poverty of Saint Antoine by personifying "Hunger" in paragraph 6. Given lifelike attributes, Hunger "pushes," "stares," "starts," and "rattles." By the time Hunger is "shred into atomies," we're hungry.

We've seen personification before (Woodman Fate and Farmer Death in Chapter 1). It crops up elsewhere in this chapter-Saint Antoine is a "he"- and throughout the novel.


Fallen into a black mist of forgetfulness, Dr. Manette can't recall his name. Like a modern political prisoner, he responds only to a number: "One Hundred and Five, North Tower," the location of his prison cell. Shoemaking provided his psychological crutch in prison, and though he's free, the doctor still pursues his trade compulsively.

Dr. Manette's emotional meeting with his daughter Lucie has drawn fire from many readers. They point to Lucie's repetitions of "weep for it, weep for it" as sheer theatrical corniness. This scene does read like a melodramatic play: father and daughter exchange speeches, father tears his hair in a frenzy, daughter rocks him on her breast "like a child." Corny by our standards? You judge. There are readers who suggest that Dickens was lifting from a highly respected source. Shakespeare staged a similar scene in King Lear-the reunion between the old, mad king and his faithful daughter Cordelia.

Lucie, who has inherited her mother's golden hair, looks familiar to Dr. Manette. She doesn't succeed in restoring his memory, but does introduce the light half of Dickens' light-dark theme. Lucie's an "angel," whose "radiant" hair is compared to "the light of freedom." After Defarge and Lorry leave to make traveling arrangements, she watches with her father until "a light gleamed through the chinks in the wall."

Only Madame Defarge, silently knitting, observes Lucie, Dr. Manette, and Lorry leaving Paris. It is a second night journey for Jarvis Lorry, who is reminded of his old inquiry to the spectre: "I hope you care to be recalled to life?" Lorry hears the echo of his old answer, "I can't say," and Book I ends on a note of uncertainty. Lorry wonders, and the reader wonders, too, if the doctor will ever regain his faculties.


By entitling Book I "Recalled to Life," and repeating Jarvis Lorry's dialogue with the spectre, Dickens has made one issue clear: Dr. Manette, the buried man dug out alive, is a symbol of resurrection. This issue raises rather than resolves other points. By now you're probably asking yourself if resurrection is necessarily a good thing. Can the past be blocked out, and a person long buried truly return to life? Dickens wants us to speculate on these matters, which he explores more fully in Books II and III.

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