It is now 1780. Tellson’s Bank in London prides itself on being “very small, very dark, very ugly, very incommodious.” Were it more welcoming, the bank’s partners believe, it would lose its status as a respectable business. It is located by Temple Bar, the spot where, until recently, the government displayed the heads of executed criminals. The narrator explains that at this time, “death was a recipe much in vogue,” used against all manner of criminals, from forgers to horse thieves to counterfeiters.
Jerry Cruncher, employed by Tellson’s as a runner and messenger, wakes up in his small apartment, located in an unsavory London neighborhood. He begins the day by yelling at his wife for “praying against” him; he throws his muddy boot at her. Around nine o’clock, Cruncher and his young son camp outside Tellson’s Bank, where they await the bankers’ instructions. When an indoor messenger calls for a porter, Cruncher takes off to do the job. As young Jerry sits alone, he wonders why his father’s fingers always have rust on them.
The bank clerk instructs Cruncher to go to the Old Bailey Courthouse and await orders from Jarvis Lorry. Cruncher arrives at the court, where Charles Darnay, a handsome, well-bred young man, stands trial for treason. Cruncher understands little of the legal jargon, but he gleans that Darnay has been charged with divulging secret information to the king of France (Louis XVI): namely, that England plans to send armed forces to fight in the American colonies. As Darnay looks to a young lady and her distinguished father, a whisper rushes through the courtroom, speculating on the identity of the two. Eventually, Cruncher discovers that they will serve as witnesses against the prisoner.
The Attorney-General prosecutes the case, demanding that the jury find Darnay guilty of passing English secrets into French hands. The Solicitor-General examines John Barsad, whose testimony supports the Attorney-General’s case. The cross-examination, however, tarnishes Barsad’s pure and righteous character. It reveals that he has served time in debtor’s prison and has been involved in brawls over gambling. The prosecution calls its next witness, Roger Cly, whom the defense attorney, Mr. Stryver, also exposes as a dubious, untrustworthy witness. Mr. Lorry then takes the stand, and the prosecution asks him if, five years ago, he shared a Dover mail coach with the accused. Lorry contends that his fellow passengers sat so bundled up that their identities remained hidden. The prosecutors then ask similar questions of Lucie, the young woman Darnay had noticed earlier. She admits to meeting the prisoner on the ship back to England. When she recounts how he helped her to care for her sick father, however, she seems to help his case—yet she then inadvertently turns the court against Darnay by reporting his statement that George Washington’s fame might one day match that of George III. Doctor Manette is also called to the stand, but he claims that he remembers nothing of the trip due to his illness.
Mr. Stryver is in the middle of cross-examining another witness “with no result” when his insolent young colleague, Sydney Carton, passes him a note. Stryver begins arguing the contents of the note, which draws the court’s attention to Carton’s own uncanny resemblance to the prisoner. The undeniable likeness foils the court’s ability to identify Darnay as a spy beyond reasonable doubt. The jury retires to deliberate and eventually returns with an acquittal for Darnay.
Doctor Manette, Lucie, Mr. Lorry, Mr. Stryver, and Darnay exit the courtroom. The narrator relates that Manette has established himself as an upright and distinguished citizen, though the gloom of his terrible past descends on him from time to time. These clouds descend only rarely, however, and Lucie feels confident in her power as the “golden thread” that unites him to a past and present “beyond his misery.” Darnay kisses Lucie’s hand and then turns to Stryver to thank him for his work. Lucie, Manette, and Stryver depart, and a drunk Sydney Carton emerges from the shadows to join the men. Lorry chastises him for not being a serious man of business. Darnay and Carton make their way to a tavern, where Carton smugly asks, “Is it worth being tried for one’s life, to be the object of [Lucie’s] sympathy and compassion . . . ?” When Darnay comments that Carton has been drinking, Carton gives his reason for indulging himself so: “I am a disappointed drudge, sir. I care for no man on earth, and no man on earth cares for me.” After Darnay leaves, Carton curses his own image in the mirror, as well as his look-alike, who reminds him of what he has “fallen away from.”
The courtroom scenes that open the second book of the novel allow Dickens to use a wonderful range of language. He employs a technique known as free indirect style, which fuses third-person narration with an interior point of view. He reveals the charges for which Darnay is being tried while rooting the reader in the uneducated mind (and ear) of the spectators: “Charles Darnay had yesterday pleaded Not Guilty to an indictment denouncing him (with infinite jingle and jangle) for that he was a false traitor to our serene, illustrious, excellent, and so forth, prince. . . .” The juxtaposition of formal (“our serene, illustrious, excellent”) and informal (“and so forth”) speech produces a comical effect by highlighting the unrefined crowd’s zealous craving for the juicy details of the case, even as they recognize the decorum of their setting.
Dickens also uses these scenes to implement another of his favorite literary devices, parody. The Attorney-General’s long, self-important, and bombastic speech at the opening of Chapter 3 offers a highly comical imitation of legalese and serves indirectly to ridicule the Attorney-General, as well as the entire legal system. Thus the Attorney-General’s informs the jury:
[I]f statues were decreed in Britain, as in ancient Greece and Rome, to public benefactors, this shining citizen [his witness] would assuredly have one. That, as they were not so decreed, he probably would not have one.
The Attorney-General melodramatically touts the virtues of his witness, John Barsad, and absurdly deifies him, as though Barsad were a great figure from antiquity. When he explains that Barsad would not in fact have such a statue erected in his honor, as no such practice exists in England, his words again produce a comical effect. They draw attention to the fact that the attorney’s first sentence glorified Barsad to the point of irrelevant hypotheticals. Moreover, the redundant nature of the Attorney-General’s statement highlights his obliviousness to the emptiness of his words.
The passage makes clear how Dickens’s comical characterizations have won him the admiration of generations of readers. A Tale of Two Cities, however, is far from a comic novel; and perhaps in withholding humor from the book, Dickens sacrificed some opportunity to put his greatest talents to work. Dickens’s most “Dickensian” novels abound with hilariously grotesque characters, whose speech (usually vulgar) and appearance (usually freakish) are rendered with extreme exaggeration. With his impeded speech, violent temper, mysteriously rusty fingers, and muddy boots, Jerry Cruncher comes as close as any other character to this sort of caricature. But with A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens was making a conscious decision to steer away from his trademark characters, in order to write a novel in shorter and more frequent installments than usual. He determined to strip the story of dialogue, upon which he often relied to flesh out his characters and further his narration, in favor of describing the story’s action. By shifting his attention from character to plot, Dickens crafted A Tale of Two Cities into a rather un-Dickensian novel. His biographer, John Forster, doubted the benefits of such a move:
To rely less upon character than upon incident, and to resolve that his actors should be expressed by the story more than they should express themselves by dialogue, was for him a hazardous, and can hardly be called an entirely successful, experiment.
As Charles Darnay and Sydney Carton take the stage in this section, Forster’s comment becomes particularly pertinent. Darnay makes as uninteresting a hero as Lucie does a heroine. Both characters prove rather one-dimensional in their goodness and virtue. Only the supposedly loveless Carton promises more depth. He descends into the darkness of alcoholism while others bask in the glow of Darnay’s acquittal. Reading of this, one cannot help but suspect that elaborate secrets dim his past.