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Free Barron's Booknotes-A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens-Summary
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The year is 1780. Dickens gives us a view of Tellson's Bank and reintroduces the Bank's odd-job man, Jerry Cruncher, whose first appearance was on horseback, delivering a message to Jarvis Lorry.

Tellson's is small, dark, and ugly. It has always been so and, Dickens satirically suggests, its partners would disinherit their sons before renovating. A description of the bank's inconvenience and location-beside Temple Bar, where the heads of executed traitors are displayed-leads to a denunciation of the death penalty, "a recipe much in vogue."

We watch Jerry Cruncher waking up in his small apartment. Already bad humored, Cruncher catches his wife praying-or "flopping," as he calls itand heaves a muddy boot at her. Cruncher believes Mrs. Cruncher's continual flopping is interfering with his profits as an honest tradesman. This "trade," yet unnamed, occupies Cruncher late at night. It has given him a permanent chest cold, and deposits iron rust on his fingers.

Cruncher and his son, young Jerry-a spiky-haired miniature of his father-proceed to Tellson's, where Cruncher is at once called on to deliver a message. Young Jerry holds down the fort, a backless chair outside the bank, wondering why his father's fingers are always rusty.


Dickens describes Jerry Cruncher's baptism as "the youthful occasion of his renouncing by proxy the works of darkness." This description may stop you a moment, since the Jerry portrayed so far seems markedly antireligious. He hounds his wife for "flopping," and by night engages in a secret, possibly disreputable, trade. In truth, Cruncher seems quite comfortable with "the works of darkness," a tip-off that Dickens' metaphor is ironic-it implies the opposite of what is said.


Jerry Cruncher is sent to the Old Bailey (the court) to be on hand in case Jarvis Lorry, there attending a trial, needs a messenger.

The morning's case is treason, a crime carrying the awful punishment of quartering, that is, being tortured and then literally chopped into quarters. Fascinated by the almost certain doom of the defendant, spectators jam the courtroom. Cruncher squeezes through them in order to signal Lorry, seated among "gentlemen in wigs"- judges and lawyers. Near Lorry sits the prisoner's lawyer, and "one wigged gentleman who looked at the ceiling." This mysterious fellow with his studiedly casual air is Sydney Carton, who plays a decisive role in the next chapter's action.

The jailers lead in the accused, Charles Darnay. Young, handsome, gentlemanly looking, Darnay attracts all eyes; the ghoulish crowd mentally hangs, beheads, and quarters him. Darnay is charged with traveling between England and France for the purpose of informing Louis XVI ("the French Lewis") about the strength of British troops earmarked for North America. (Remember, it's 1780. The American Revolution against England is in full swing, aided by the French. If Darnay was in fact reporting British troop movements to the French, wouldn't he indeed qualify as a spy?)

Darnay faces the judge bravely, flinching only when he catches his reflection in the mirror above his head. In the midst of a nervous gesture he notices Dr. Manette and Lucie sitting on the judge's bench. His stare sets the spectators whispering about this white-haired man and lovely young lady. "Who are they?"

An answering whisper seems to contradict Lucie Manette's look of "engrossing terror and compassion." She and her father are identified as witnesses against the handsome prisoner.

By now you'll have noticed that Dickens ends each chapter with a hook or teaser, something to pull readers in. A Tale of Two Cities was published in weekly installments, and Dickens' sales depended on his ability to sustain suspense.

At the end of this chapter, when the prosecutor rises to "hammer the nails into the scaffold," we realize that it's Charles Darnay's scaffold. Most readers, both fearing and fascinated by the prospect of death, will keep turning the pages.


The account of Charles Darnay's trial is written in several styles, reflecting Dickens' attitude toward each character and toward legal proceedings in general. A one-time law clerk, he loved to deflate puffed-up terminology and traditions.

The opening speech made by the Attorney-General (the prosecutor) is pompous and long winded, typically bureaucratic. According to the Attorney-General, his two leading witnesses are men of shining character and patriotism. Are we to believe this? The Attorney-General's exaggerated tone tells us to take his speech with a grain of salt.

John Barsad, the first witness, is called. He releases "his noble bosom of its burden" but can't escape a cross-examination from Darnay's lawyer. Dickens' masterly use of satire raises serious doubts about the nobility of Barsad's bosom. A few sharp questions from Darnay's lawyer (soon introduced as Stryver) do the trick.

Barsad soon emerges as a debtor and card cheat who has forced his friendship on Charles Darnay. Though he vigorously denies it, Barsad appears to be a government spy, paid to entrap others. Given Dickens' unfavorable portrait of Barsad, how do you think the author felt about government spying?

Stryver also damages the credibility of Roger Cly, the state's second witness. Cly, Darnay's servant, is shown to be a thief and a pal of Barsad. Stryver suggests that the two men conspired to plant incriminating papers on the defendant.

Next on the witness stand is Jarvis Lorry, who admits to meeting Darnay in November 1775 on a packet-ship returning from France. On board with Lorry were Dr. Manette and Lucie, who are both called as witnesses.

Lucie's testimony betrays her affection for Charles Darnay but doesn't help his cause. She reveals that he was traveling under an assumed name, and engaged in "delicate" business with two Frenchmen who got off the ship before it left shore.

As for Dr. Manette, he remembers nothing of the journey. We see him now as a vigorous man, restored to his faculties. Yet the doctor's mind remains blank from the time he was making shoes in prison to the moment he recovered and found himself living in London.

A "singular circumstance" arises as the state tries to prove that Charles Darnay rode in the same mail coach as Jarvis Lorry, sharing the journey that opened the novel. The state claims that Darnay disembarked before Dover and backtracked to a military garrison to gather information on the British army. Just as a witness identifies Darnay as the right man, a note passes between the seemingly nonchalant Carton and Stryver, shivering this part of the case "to useless timber." Carton has noticed that he and Darnay are doubles, almost perfect look-alikes. Faced with two such similar men in the same courtroom, the witness can't make a positive identification.

In his final argument Stryver again emphasizes how Darnay was framed by Barsad and Cly. The lawyer points out that Darnay often crosses to France on family matters he can't disclose. Notice the skillful way that Dickens, while unraveling the mystery of Charles Darnay's imprisonment, spins yet another thread of suspense. What are Darnay's family matters? Why is he forbidden "even for his life" to reveal them? In a novel as meticulously plotted as this one, you can look forward to learning the secret of Darnay's family.

The Attorney-General finishes his closing argument and the jury begins deliberations. Sydney Carton gazes carelessly at the ceiling, but, somehow, the sight of Lucie Manette fainting doesn't escape him. He orders an officer to carry her out, and assures Darnay, awaiting his verdict in the prisoners' dock, that Lucie feels better. This first encounter between Carton and Darnay, men so alike they could be twins, isn't exactly brotherly. What do you make of Carton's manner, "so careless as to be almost insolent"? On the one hand, Carton looks so disrespectable that even Jerry Cruncher-who's no gentleman-distrusts him. On the other hand, Carton's quick action at spotting the mutual likeness and alerting Stryver has just ruined the strongest part of the state's case. Carton is a man of contrasts, well-suited to a story of contrasts; you'll have many more opportunities to judge his character.

The verdict comes back: acquitted! Lorry scrawls the single word on a piece of paper and hands it, for swift delivery, to Jerry Cruncher.

"If you had sent the message, 'Recalled to life,' again," mutters Cruncher, "I should have known what you meant, this time." Cruncher's response ties Charles Darnay into the theme of resurrection, first stated by Dr. Manette's release from the Bastille. Darnay, too, has been "recalled to life," largely through the agency of Sydney Carton.

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