Charles Dickens’ (1812-1870) historical fiction, A Tale of Two Cities, is about the French Revolution, a great social upheaval that he describes as both a comprehensible response to obvious injustice and also as a dark triumph of vengeance and bloodlust. To set it in its historical context from the point of view of modern American readers, the novel opens in England in 1775, the year before the American Revolution. The key historical event around which the story swirls is the storming of the Bastille in France in 1789. The book itself was published in London in 1859, two years before the beginning of the American Civil War.
Though set amid these imposing times, the narrative mostly plays out through the lives of ordinary folk, who would rather repent of oppression and avoid collective vengeance than lead or take part in them. In place of a plot summary, then, here are the main characters.
First, a man not quite a real human character, but more a symbol: The Marquis St. Evrémonde represents the crushing wheel of the French aristocracy that grinds the children of the poor. He gives voice to the elite superstition that noble blood bestows his position as a natural destiny. Dickens associates him in life and death with the image of heavy, cold stone, and he stands for the (one might dare to say) systemically oppressive old order against which the violence of the revolution erupts.
Opposite the Marquis, this eruption is embodied in Madame DeFarge. Though her portrayal is more human than that of the Marquis, DeFarge is also a personification of the sweeping tide of hatred which goes far beyond holding the guilty accountable, but aims at exterminating even the children of the complicit. She and the movement of the Revolution are presented under the names and images of beasts and blood, and also inexorable fate. Yet, in a masterful way, just as the climax of the story is approaching, Dickens reveals the genuinely traumatic connection between the family of DeFarge and that of the Marquis. This has the moving effect of making her motivations most humanly relatable at the same time that her actions become most animalistically insane.
The principal characters who make the novel a human tale are the family and friends of Charles Darnay and his wife, Lucie. Together with their daughter, Lucie’s father Dr. Manette, and their devoted servant Miss Pross, this pair is sucked into the rising tide of the Revolution. They are pulled, however, by the weight of their own history. Both Manette and Darnay, Frenchmen, have secret connections to the Marquis, and neither can escape the sins of the past.
The single character whose complicated humanity is most thoroughly developed in the novel, and whose development is most critical for the resolution of the narrative, is Sydney Carton. He enters the story as an alcoholic assistant to an English lawyer, at first connected to Darnay’s family only by a striking physical resemblance to Darnay himself. Carton wears his apathy like a badge of honor— “I care for no man on earth, and no man cares for me” —yet, he is secretly haunted by the possibilities he has wasted. He harbors deep feelings for Lucie, a woman of whom he knows only a much better version of himself (Darnay) could be worthy. Though requited only platonically, this devotion proves a powerful lever against the resentment of his heart and the doorway by which redemption enters the dark world.
Speaking of lawyers and their assistants, a key motif in the novel is the frailty and folly of the systems of justice, including the traditional English courts, the traditional French courts, and the kangaroo courts of the revolutionary French peasants. Dickens insists that the reader confront the full atrocity of injustice perpetrated by the French aristocracy upon the peasantry. At the same time, he refuses to romanticize the bloodletting and chaos by which the revolutionaries seek redress. Transformative righteousness, it seems, cannot be brought down to earth in long-standing institutions or resistance movements.
The shadow of death pervades the tale, both as the weight of the present and the threat of the future. The great forces unleashed are foreshadowed as rising tides, approaching footsteps, flowing water, and spilled wine. Images of personal and collective resurrection abound as well, images that range from the sublime to the touching to the ironically grotesque. This interplay of death and resurrection motifs serves a critical question of true and false atonement, genuine and counterfeit expiation, sacrifice that is truly redemptive versus bloodshed that is merely the mutation of the oppressed into the oppressors. What force on earth can be found that answers for the sins of the past, recalls the dead to life, and promises a better future?
Dickens seems skeptical of the naïve virtue of the repentantly-privileged, like Darnay; at a crucial moment, he dives into the maelstrom with a “glorious vision of doing good,” only to bring the weight of his own past down upon those he loves. It is rather into the spiritual transformation of men like Sydney Carton, together with the simple loyalty and courageous love of people like Miss Pross, that the author pours the better part of his hope for the crumbling cities of the world.
Despite its grandeur, the reader should also be ready for a story that is held together at certain points by coincidences that seem, to anyone un-Victorian, absurd. At the same time, the classically Victorian ending of the novel is deeply satisfying, in that nearly all tensions are resolved. This is both strength and weakness; the reader should ask about the truths that the author is pointing to, truths necessary to redemption of nation and culture, as well as consider whether or not Dickens is idealizing an imaginary cycle of civilizational decay, death, and rebirth.