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Free Barron's Booknotes-A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens-Summary
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Darnay travels slowly across France with a government-imposed escort. On arriving in Paris, he's promptly arrested under the terms of a recent, antiemigrant decree. Darnay's guard, Ernest Defarge, recognizes him as Lucie's husband, but he resolutely withholds aid.

On the way to his cell in La Force prison, Darnay encounters a group of imprisoned aristocrats. Their refinement and good manners amid filth and squalor make them seem ghostlike: "the crowning unreality of his long unreal ride." Here, finally, is a touch of sympathy in Dickens' treatment of the French aristocracy, now on its way out. Dickens seems genuinely to mourn the passing of aristocratic beauty, stateliness, elegance, and wit. Yet do you see a change in his essential characterization of the ruling classes? In power or out, the aristocrats are a picture of unreality. They don't mesh with life's true conditions.

Placed in solitary confinement ("in secret"), Darnay paces off the measurements of his cell. His mind is full of disturbing thought fragments-about Lucie, Dr. Manette, and his recent strange journey.


France guillotined its first victim, a highwayman, in 1792, but similar killing devices had been used elsewhere since the late Middle Ages. Though named for a French doctor, J. I. Guillotin-who advocated their use on the grounds that death by guillotine was virtually painless-the early guillotines in France were actually built by a German.

Go forward a moment to Dickens' description of the guillotine at the end of III, 4: "It was the sign of the regeneration of the human race. It superseded the Cross." Here Dickens ironically invokes his theme of resurrection, while pointing out that the Revolutionaries strove to reduce the power of the church. One radical even introduced the worship of a Goddess of Reason. In due course, he was guillotined.


Lucie and Dr. Manette follow Darnay to Paris. They burst in on a surprised Jarvis Lorry, who knows nothing of Darnay's presence or difficulties.

We're in the midst of the September Massacres (September 2-6, 1792) when over a thousand prisoners in Paris were slaughtered. The murderers sharpen their weapons in the courtyard of Tellson's Paris office, at a whirring grindstone. Try comparing these blood-soaked "ruffians" with the wine-soaked citizens in front of Defarge's wine shop 17 years ago. Don't the smears of blood resemble those earlier smears of wine? Dickens has set up a deliberate correspondence between blood and wine. It's one way he evokes the spirit of Revolution.

Lucie, little Lucie, and Miss Pross spend the long, bloody night with Jarvis Lorry, in his rooms above Tellson's headquarters. Dr. Manette leaves with a cheering crowd. As a former Bastille prisoner, the doctor has automatic prestige and influence with the masses. He's confident that his authority will save Charles Darnay.


In the morning Jarvis Lorry finds lodgings for Lucie and Miss Pross, leaving them Jerry Cruncher as a bodyguard. Dr. Manette doesn't return, but sends a note via Defarge that Darnay is safe. Dr. Manette, Defarge, his wife, and The Vengeance go together to deliver a second note to Lucie, from Darnay himself.

The Defarges and The Vengeance cast a figurative shadow over Lucie and her child. The description is an alert that the Defarge trio constitutes a threat. As you should be coming to expect, Dickens again divides his world into light and darkness. Lucie, "the golden thread," is falling into the power of her dark opposite, Madame Defarge.


The personal fortunes of Dr. Manette and his family are contrasted with the increasing agitation in France. Though unable to free his son-in-law, the doctor displays unforeseen strength. His past sufferings, previously the source of his weakness, now guarantee his safety and give him endurance for supporting his dependents as violence sweeps the country. Dr. Manette becomes inspecting physician at three prisons, visiting Darnay weekly and becoming one of the best-known men in Paris. Any signs of past imprisonment that now cling to him are positive; he's "a Spirit moving among mortals."


This phase of the Revolution began in September 1793. In the course of power struggles between various factions, Marie Antoinette and thousands of others of high rank and low were executed. The "law of the Suspected," which Dickens mentions, allowed for the denunciation of a broad range of people. This law eventually brought down the extremists who framed it, ending the Terror.

The "strong man of Old Scripture" is Samson, the name of the chief executioner at the guillotine.


The chapter's centerpiece is the wild Carmagnole, a street dance done to a popular tune of the same name. Pay attention to Dickens' treatment of the Carmagnole. If you've ever seen films or reenactments of war dances, you may pick up similarities.

Charles Darnay's imprisonment has stretched to 15 months. Each afternoon Lucie stands across from La Force, hoping her husband may catch a glimpse of her. A little wood-sawyer, whom we knew formerly as the little mender of roads, takes suspicious notice of Lucie's comings and goings. On a December afternoon, standing at her usual post, Lucie first spots the Carmagnole and is terrified.


Look closely at these dancers, "delivered over to all devilry," and again compare them with the innocents of years ago, dancing in the spilled wine at Defarge's shop. Dickens' use of mob action and violence has led readers to claim that his gore is laid on with a trowel. In their view the book is dominated by jolting tumbrils-the carts carrying victims to the guillotine-and dropping heads. As a result the French Revolution becomes a lunatic bloodbath. Its complex causes and far-reaching consequences never appear.

These doubting readers raise an interesting question. What does the Revolution mean to Dickens, and for his novel? Let's look at the different possibilities.

1. The events of 1789 and after provide a colorful historic canvas for a story of individual courage and redemption. According to this view, Sydney Carton's final sacrifice is more significant than its backdrop.

2. Writing about violence is Dickens' method for exorcising personal frustrations-he imagines himself participating in the slaughter.

3. Revolutionary events conveniently fit the larger theme of fate. As we know, Dickens drew many incidents from Thomas Carlyle's account (see Sources). Dickens also relied on Carlyle's philosophy that the French nobility was doomed to fall, given its excesses. In A Tale of Two Cities Dickens adapts Carlyle's determinism-or belief in prior causes-to fiction. "All things run their course," he comments, implying that upheaval can't be avoided.

4. History provides ample opportunities for moralizing. Dickens upbraids the nobility for their evil ways, perhaps more strongly than he does the mob. Jump to Chapter 13 where the Terror is labeled a "moral disorder," and to Chapter 15 where Dickens delivers his ultimate moral message: "Crush humanity out of shape once more,... and it will twist itself into the same tortured forms." In other words, cruelty begets cruelty. There's the suggestion, too, that the aristocracy got what it deserved.

5. What better subject than a Revolution for preaching social change? Some readers have regarded A Tale as Dickens' manifesto for a new order in England. Others point out that it contains not one concrete suggestion for reform. Dickens advises that rulers and ruled behave morally, without necessarily changing the established order. This second argument seems to be supported by Miss Pross. She's an undeniably good woman, yet a loyal follower of the British monarchy.

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