A Tale of Two Cities

by: Charles Dickens

Setting

As the title indicates, the novel’s action is split between two geographic settings, London and Paris. The novel’s main action begins in 1775 with Dr. Manette’s return to England and ends around 1793, with Carton’s execution. Key plot events occur even earlier, in 1757, when Manette is first arrested. The presence of two main settings allows for Dickens to incorporate multiple storylines unfolding simultaneously in both places, which then come together in the novel’s final section when all of the English characters find themselves in Paris. The split setting also gives Dickens the chance to contrast both cities. The novel is critical of both cities in different ways: London (and England more generally) is presented as somewhat old-fashioned, conservative, and out of step with the times. Dickens dryly notes that England “did very often disinherit its sons for suggesting improvements in laws and customs.”

In contrast to this stodgy depiction of England, Paris (and other regions of France) is shown to be a place of high tensions, perpetually simmering on the edge of violence. For example, the first description of the Saint Antoine neighborhood highlights “a narrow winding street, full of offence and stench… in the hunted air of the people, there was yet some wild beast thought of turning at bay.” As the violence of the Revolution finds its full expression, the Parisian setting becomes a wild and dangerous place dominated by “cannon, muskets, fire and smoke”, as well as bloodthirsty mobs who behave with animalistic brutality. The novel evokes the setting of a particular time and place for two reasons. First, because the novel is historical fiction, the reader should feel immersed in the past. Second, because the shocking violence of the Revolution serves as a warning to the consequences arising from social injustice, readers should be able to imagine what it would have been like to live through these circumstances.