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A Tale of Two Cities

Charles Dickens
Summary Book the Third: The Track of a Storm Chapters 6–10
Summary Book the Third: The Track of a Storm Chapters 6–10
Read a translation of Chapter 9: The Game Made →

Summary: Chapter 10: The Substance of the Shadow

Defarge claims that Manette wrote the letter while imprisoned in the Bastille, and he reads it aloud. It tells the story of Manette’s imprisonment. In 1757, a pair of brothers, one the Marquis Evrémonde (Darnay’s father) and the other the next in line to be Marquis (Darnay’s uncle, the man who ran over the child with his carriage in Book the Second, Chapter 7), ordered Doctor Manette to care for a young peasant woman, who was dying of a fever, and her brother, who was dying of a stab wound. The Marquis’ brother had raped the young woman, killed her husband, and stabbed her brother, who died quickly. Although the woman was still alive, Manette failed to save her life. The next day a kind woman—the Marquis’ wife and Darnay’s mother—came to Manette’s door. Having heard about the horrible things done to the peasant girl and her family, she offers to help the girl’s sister, who was hidden away so the Marquis could not find her. Unfortunately, Manette does not know the sister’s whereabouts. The next day, Manette was taken away and imprisoned in the Bastille on the orders of the Marquis Evrémonde. After hearing this story, the jury sentences Darnay to death, to pay for the sins of his father and uncle.

Read a translation of Chapter 10: The Substance of the Shadow →

Analysis: Chapters 6–10

The echoing footsteps that Lucie hears in Chapter 21 of Book the Second now manifest themselves again, but this time they signify the immediate presence of pressing danger. No longer distant, dim, or scarcely audible, the footfalls in Chapter 7 announce the four soldiers come to take Darnay back to prison. Whereas the revolution only vaguely stirs Lucie when she sits in her comfortable parlor in England, it encroaches, physically and emotionally, upon her most intimate relationships now that she has come to Paris. This transformation of the revolution from an abstract notion into a direct presence in the lives of Lucie and Manette finds a parallel in the soldiers’ words to them. In answering Manette’s question as to the identity of Darnay’s accusers, the soldiers first tell him that they are acting on the orders of Saint Antoine, the personified suburb of Paris at the heart of the revolution. However, Manette soon learns that Defarge and his wife have in fact occasioned the arrest. With the news of this betrayal by his former allies, the revolution reaches new heights of personal significance for Manette.

As the novel approaches its close, the reader encounters an ever-increasing number of coincidences, such as Miss Pross’s discovery of her long-lost brother; Carton’s timely arrival in the wine shop to identify Barsad; and Defarge’s discovery of Manette’s letter denouncing the Evrémonde family. Moments such as these, endemic to Victorian fiction, constitute a device called deus ex machina (literally: “god out of the machine”), a term that refers to improbable contrivances used by the author to resolve the plot. Modern readers, more accustomed to realistic narratives, usually consider such unlikely developments to reflect a weakness in the plot’s conception. Even in Dickens’s time, certain readers objected to the contrived feeling created by these coincidences. Wilkie Collins, for instance—the author of The Frozen Deep, the play that inspired A Tale of Two Cities—found the discovery of Manette’s letter in Dickens’s work highly unlikely. But defenders of this style of writing believe that Dickens conceived a world in which everything is so interconnected to everything else that coincidence—no matter how unlikely—is inevitable. Dickens’s biographer, John Forster, defended the author thus:

On the coincidences, resemblances, and surprises of life, Dickens liked especially to dwell, and few things moved his fancy so pleasantly. The world, he would say, was so much smaller than we thought it; we were all so connected by fate without knowing it; people supposed to be far apart were so constantly elbowing each other; and to-morrow bore so close a resemblance to nothing half so much as to yesterday.

The coincidences Dickens presents may seem excessive in number, but many critics have come to see these plot devices as yet another example of Dickens’s talent for exaggeration. Just as his many caricatured figures serve to emphasize and comment on real human foibles, his coincidences and sudden surprising connections serve merely to exaggerate the frequency of what Dickens believed to be very real phenomena in our own world.

Regardless of how one feels about Carton’s sudden appearance, one must acknowledge the transformation of his character as one of the novel’s foremost achievements. Indeed, Carton proves the most psychologically complex and emotionally rich character that A Tale of Two Cities has to offer. By the time of his appearance in Paris, he has shed the skin of “the jackal.” No longer insolent, lazy, and directionless, he emerges determined to save Darnay’s life for the sake of the woman that he himself loves. He now has a purpose, and a purpose that he cherishes. In Chapter 9, the reader witnesses him preparing to make the ultimate sacrifice as he recites a passage from the Book of John (11.25–26). In the Christian tradition, worshippers speak these lines at the opening of the Burial Service in the Book of Common Prayer. Carton’s utterance of these words has a dual significance. First, his words confirm that he has made a conscious decision to give of himself for Lucie’s sake. (The reader might argue that Carton already has sacrificed himself to Lucie’s benefit. However, although Carton has saved Darnay once before, in Book the Second, Chapter 3, this first occasion—his observation of the physical likeness that he and Darnay share—seemed more serendipitous than an act of valor performed deliberately to help Lucie.) Second, Carton’s recitation of the biblical passage speaks beyond his personal psychology to the fates of the other characters in the novel, promising a final and satisfying resurrection.