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The immense popularity of A Tale of Two Cities lies in Dickens' ability to simultaneously and graphically structure the revolution in France with the development of characters like Dr. Manette, Lucie, Darnay, Madame Defarge, Sydney Carton, and Miss Pross. Dickens realistically depicts the revolution and keeps the historic events in the forefront; the major events of the plot are made to coincide with the historical events, such as the fall of the Bastille, the killing of Foulon, and the Reign of Terror.
The fact that this novel was serialized explains the method of narration. Suspense and mystery appear at regular intervals throughout the novel in order to retain the interest of the reader between installments. The novel is divided into three books entitled "Recalled to Life," "The Golden Thread," and "The Track of the Storm." It covers approximately eighteen years from 1775-1793. Dickens must masterfully weave the plot to hold the story together over such a long period of time.
Book One begins in London and has as its starting point the discovery that Dr. Manette is alive. Lucie travels to Paris to meet her father for the first time and bring him back to London. Her plan is to nurse him back to health and happiness. In Paris, Dickens depicts the growing restlessness among the revolutionaries, with scenes such as the broken wine cask. There is also an introduction to most of the main characters, including father, daughter, Mr. Lorry, and Mr. and Mrs. Defarge.
In Book Two the plot is divided between London and Paris. There is hardly any action in the first half of Book Two, for it is largely devoted to vivid descriptions. The trial of Darnay in London is significant because it foreshadows his later trials and brings all the major characters together for the first time in the novel. From Book Two forward, all of them -- Mr. Lorry, Sydney Carton, Dr. Manette, Lucie and Darnay -- are going to find that their destinies are intertwined.
When the scene shifts to Paris later in Book Two, the plot gains momentum. The death of the child in the street and the revelation that Darnay is the nephew of the Marquis are important plot advancements. The murder of the Marquis is the climax of this section of the novel and indicates the inevitability of the revolution. The action then returns to London where Darnay, Mr. Stryver, and Carton are all suitors for Lucie's hand. The incidents of Roger Cly's funeral and Jerry Cruncher's domestic life, though seemingly irrelevant, are vital to the advancement of the plot. Back in Paris, Gaspard's hanging and the storming of the Bastille rush the plot forward.
In Book Three, the plot takes a dramatic turn with Darnay's return to Paris. Though it covers a period of almost one and half years, the momentum and suspense are maintained with Darnay's imprisonment, his release with Dr. Manette's help, and his subsequent re-imprisonment due to the clever machinations of Madame Defarge. The second trial is the turning point of this section, for the letter that Dr. Manette had concealed in his cell is produced as main evidence to condemn Darnay. It looks hopeless for Darnay, until Sydney Carton decides to sacrifice his life to save Lucie's husband and ensure her happiness. The final climax is reached when Madame Defarge meets her untimely death, ensuring the safety and happiness of the Darnays at long last.
In order to hold this long and complex novel, spread over many years, together, Dickens' uses a variety of techniques. He intertwines the lives of all of the characters in an ingenious way.
Defarge was a servant to Dr. Manette, who is Lucie's father. Darnay, who is an Evremonde, falls in love with Lucie and marries her, in spite of the fact that Dr. Manette wants revenge on the Evremondes, who are responsible for his unjust imprisonment. Sydney Carton is also in love with Lucie and pledges to do anything necessary to ensure her happiness. When the revolution breaks out in France, Darnay returns to his homeland to help one of the Evremonde servants. When he is arrested and imprisoned, largely due to the efforts of the revolutionary Defarges, Dr. Manette and Lucie rush to his aid. Dr. Manette uses his influence with the patriots in France to have his son-in-law freed.
Madame Defarge, however, is determined to have all the Evremondes executed, since the family is responsible for the deaths of her brother and sister. She has Darnay re-arrested and plots to kill Lucie and her daughter as well. Dr. Manette is unable to save his sonin-law the second time, so Sydney Carton steps forward to make good his promise. He sacrifices his life to free Darnay and ensure Lucie's happiness. Madame Defarge, hoping to find a reason to arrest Lucie, goes to her lodging and struggles with Miss Pross, Lucie's nurse. In the scuffle, Madame Defarge's gun discharges and kills her instantly. With all loose ends solved, Dickens can allow Lucie and Darnay to return to Paris and live in peace and happiness.
Dickens' also uses repetition to hold the plot together. Darnay must endure three trials during the course of the novel, each more demanding and for increasingly more serious charges against him. Madame Defarge is repeatedly seen throughout the Parisian scenes. She is always knitting, as are many of the other female revolutionaries. The garret room that housed Dr. Manette is repeatedly seen in the book, for Defarge often does his revolutionary plotting and planning there. Dr. Manette suffers relapses throughout the book and returns to his cobbler's bench. Sydney Carton saves Darnay two different times, even though the young nobleman does not value the "worthless" lawyer. Jerry Cruncher and Tellson's Bank weave in and out of the novel, both in London and in Paris. Most importantly, the theme of resurrection is repeatedly seen, with the rescue from death of Dr. Manette, Darnay, and others; even Sydney Carton is resurrected by his noble sacrifice. Such repetitions marvelously stitch the complicated plot into a whole fabric.
Despite the broad space of time, the dual locations, and the many flashbacks, the plot advances in a somewhat bell-shaped curve. The opening book is largely introductory in nature and expository in style, describing the setting, foreshadowing the trouble in France, developing the personalities of the major characters, and introducing the framework of the plot. In Book Two, the plot rushes forward in rapidly rising action, with the revolution reaching the crescendo of the storming of the Bastille. Many sub-plots and minor climaxes occur during the rising action, including Darnay's release from prison on two different occasions and under two divergent circumstances. Even though he is a free man thanks to the noble sacrifice of Sydney Carton, Darnay has still not obtained safety for his wife, his child, and himself; and as long as Madame Defarge is alive, their existence will be endangered.
The plot then reaches its ultimate climax when she is accidentally killed, allow the Darnays to return to London. After Madame Defarge's untimely death, there is brief falling action as Lucie and Darnay resettle their lives in London. To conclude the novel, Dickens reveals that the Darnays have a son who they proudly name after Sydney Carton. In the end, the novel is much like the beginning - in a quiet domestic setting in London; the plot has come full circle.