A Tale of Two Cities

by: Charles Dickens

Book the First: Recalled to Life Chapters 1–4

These descriptions of darkness and secrets also contribute to the gothic atmosphere of the novel’s opening. Gothic literature, a genre that establishes an uneasy, mysterious mood through the use of remote, desolate settings, supernatural or macabre events, and violence, dominated much of fiction from the late eighteenth century through the end of the nineteenth century. Such classics as Frankenstein (1818), by Mary Shelley, and Wuthering Heights (1847), by Emily Brontë, helped establish a strong tradition of gothic themes in British literature of this period. Jerry Cruncher’s mysterious appearance during the treacherous nighttime journey, and Lorry’s macabre visions of disinterring a body, hearken back to the eerie and supernatural feel of A Tale of Two Cities’ gothic predecessors.

The obscurity that permeates these pages points to the “wonderful fact” that Dickens continuously ponders: every person in every room in every house that he passes possesses a secret, unknown to anyone—even closest friends, family, and lover. As the novel progresses, the reader witnesses Dickens digging—much as Lorry anticipates having to “dig” the doctor out of his ruinous prison experience—for the secrets that provide his characters with their essences and motivations.

In typical Dickensian manner, this project of discovery happens bit by bit: secrets emerge only very slowly. Although the horrible effects of Doctor Manette’s incarceration become clear in the next few chapters, the reader doesn’t learn the causes of these effects until the end of the novel. This narrative tactic owes much to the form in which Dickens wrote much of his work. A Tale of Two Cities was published as a serial piece—that is, in weekly installments from April 20 to November 26, 1859. The original serial format provides the reason for the novel’s relatively short chapters and specific chapter subheadings, which, read in sequence, offer a skeletal outline of the plot. For example, the first three chapters of the second book bear the subheadings “Five Years Later,” “A Sight,” and “A Disappointment,” respectively.

In addition to his plentiful literary talents, Dickens also possessed a shrewd businessman’s sense. He remained keenly aware of what his reading public wanted and, unlike most artists of his caliber, unapologetically admitted to aiming for the largest possible readership. As he had done previously, with A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens set his sights on writing a so-called popular novel. One means of hooking readers into the story was to create a climate of suspense. Within the first four chapters, Dickens already leaves the reader with many questions that need to be answered, creating a sense of excitement and anticipation.