A Tale of Two Cities

Charles Dickens
Main Ideas

Key Facts

Main Ideas Key Facts

full title  A Tale of Two Cities

author  Charles Dickens

type of work  Novel

genre  Historical fiction

language  English

time and place written  1859, London

date of first publication  Published in weekly serial form between April 20, 1859, and November 26, 1859

publisher  Chapman and Hall

narrator  The narrator is anonymous and can be thought of as Dickens himself. The narrator maintains a clear sympathy for the story’s morally good characters, including Sydney Carton, Charles Darnay, Doctor Manette, and Lucie Manette. Though he criti-cizes ruthless and hateful figures such as Madame Defarge, who cannot appreciate love, he understands that oppression has made these characters the bloodthirsty creatures they have become.

point of view  The narrator speaks in the third person, deftly switching his focus between cities and among several characters. The narrator is also omniscient—not only revealing the thoughts, emotions, and motives of the characters, but also supplying historical context to the events that occur, commenting confidently upon them.

tone  Sentimental, sympathetic, sarcastic, horrified, grotesque, grim

tense  Past

setting (time)  1775–1793

setting (place)  London and its outskirts; Paris and its outskirts

protagonist  Charles Darnay or Sydney Carton

major conflict  Madame Defarge seeks revenge against Darnay for his relation to the odious Marquis Evrémonde; Carton, Manette, Lucie, and Jarvis Lorry strive to protect Darnay from the bloodthirsty revolutionaries’ guillotine.

rising action  The ongoing murder of aristocrats after the storming of the Bastille; Darnay’s decision to go to Paris to save Gabelle; the Defarges’ demand that Darnay be arrested

climax  During a court trial, Defarge reads aloud a letter that he has discovered, which Manette wrote during his imprisonment in the Bastille and which indicts Darnay as a member of the cruel aristocratic lineage of Evrémonde (Book the Third, Chapter 10). In this climactic moment, it becomes clear that Madame Defarge’s overzealous hatred of Darnay can end only in death—either his or hers.

falling action  The jury’s sentencing of Darnay to death; Darnay’s wish that Manette not blame himself; Carton’s decision to sacrifice his life to save Darnay

themes The ever-present possibility of resurrection; the necessity of sacrifice; the tendency toward violence and oppression in revolutionaries

motifs  Doubles; shadows and darkness; imprisonment

symbols  The wine that spills out of the cask in Book the First, Chapter 5, symbolizes the peasants’ hunger and the blood that will be let when the revolution comes into full swing; Madame Defarge’s knitting symbolizes the vengefulness of the common people; the Marquis is a symbol of pure evil—the Gorgon’s head symbolizes his absolute coldness toward the suffering of the poor.

foreshadowing  The wine cask breaking outside Defarge’s wine shop; the echoing footsteps in the Manettes’ sitting room; the resemblance between Carton and Darnay; Carton’s indication of this resemblance in a London court, which results in Darnay’s acquittal; Doctor Manette’s reaction after learning Darnay’s true identity