A Tale of Two Cities

Charles Dickens
Main Ideas

Plot Analysis

Main Ideas Plot Analysis

A Tale of Two Cities is structured around a central conflict between Charles Darnay’s desire to break free of his family legacy, and Madame Defarge’s desire to hold him accountable for the violent actions of his father and uncle. This conflict embodies conflicting aspects of the French Revolution in general: on one hand, the Revolution led to the deaths of many people who hadn’t done anything wrong, and were likely good people on a personal level. On the other hand, the Revolution was a response to generations of well-documented injustices. Like Darnay, many French aristocrats could be considered guilty by association, or as a result of profiting from systems of exploitation. The plot is set in motion years before the action of the novel begins, when the Evremonde brothers participate in a series of violent and cruel actions toward members of Madame Defarge’s family, and then unjustly imprison young Dr. Manette in order to conceal their crimes.

Readers don’t find out about these incidents until late in the novel, but the fact that they have been propelling the plot mirrors how history unfolds. The violence of the Revolution doesn’t just come out of nowhere: it breaks out because of the accumulation of decades of unjust treatment and abuses of power. Similarly, crimes committed generations earlier continue to haunt and threaten Darnay, Lucie, and Dr. Manette. Key events like Darnay building a career for himself in England, getting married, and starting his own family seem to be taking him closer to his desire of living a good and honest life without exploiting or hurting anyone. However, as Darnay eventually realizes, he hasn’t actually resolved the conflict because he has never taken responsibility for the suffering his family has caused: he has only run away from it. As Darnay admits, “He knew very well that in his love for Lucie, his renunciation of his social place… had been hurried and incomplete.” In order to fully obtain his desire and break all bonds with a system he despises, Darnay returns to France.

Darnay’s return moves the action quickly toward its climax. When Darnay gets arrested, freed, and then arrested a second time, the conflict intensifies between Darnay’s freedom, and Madame Defarge’s desire to see him and all of his family punished. The novel resolves this conflict with twin climaxes: Sidney Carton smuggles Darnay out of prison and takes his place on the execution block, while Madame Dafarge becomes a victim of her own desire for violence after she is killed while struggling with Miss Pross. These climaxes allow Darnay to achieve his goal of being fully liberated from his family burden: after another man dies for his sins, he goes on to live a happy and peaceful life. The falling action is largely revealed in Carton’s hypothetical final vision, showing the Manette-Darnay family living happily together, and faithfully remembering the man who gave up his life for them.