The story covers the period in English and French history from 1757 to 1793, that is, from the Seven Years War (1756-1763) between France and England to the middle of the French Revolution. Book I consisting of six chapters, is set in 1775; Book II, of twenty four chapters, is set between 1780 and 1789; the events of the fifteen chapters of Book III take place between 1792 and 1793.

The expository book reveals political corruption and social discontent in both countries. Mr. Jarvis Lorry of Tellson's Bank (which has offices in both capitals) travels to France with Miss Lucie Manette, whose father, Dr. Alexandre Manette, is to be released from the Bastille after eighteen years' imprisonment.

In Book II, the wasted Manette has been somewhat restored by his daughter's care. Charles Darnay, a French emigre, is acquitted of a treason charge because the likeness between himself and the dissolute attorney, Sydney Carton, discredits testimony that he has been seen passing information to the French, with whom the English are currently at war. The similarity between the two is further enhanced by their both being in love with Lucie. Meantime, back in France, Darnay's aristocratic uncle, the ruthless and cruel Marquis St. Evremonde, under the wheels of his speeding carriage kills the child of Gaspard, a peasant in the Saint Antoine district of Paris. The next morning the Marquis is found murdered in his bed; a year later, Gaspard is himself found and executed for the murder. Madame Defarge, wife of Dr. Manette's former servant (who had befriended his old master upon his release from the Bastille), registers in her knitting the whole St. Evremonde family as marked for destruction — including the late Marquis' democratically-minded nephew, Charles Darnay.

After the storming of the Bastille on July 14, 1789, Darnay unwisely returns to France to assist an old family servant in distress. Imprisoned for a year, Darnay is retried. A document written by Manette reveals that the late Marquis and his brother (Charles' father) were responsible for both the deaths of Madame Defarge's entire family. Charles is unexpectedly saved by the second intervention of Carton, who, out of unrequited love for Lucie, is prepared to sacrifice his life for the man she loves.

Publication History

The book consists of forty-five chapters published originally in serial form (note the cliff-hangers) in Dickens' new magazine venture All the Year Round, from April 30 to November 26, 1859, in thirty-one weekly numbers. It was also published in monthly parts with accompanying illustrations by Phiz (Hablot Knight Browne).

General Features of the Narrative

  1. The London-Dover, Calais-Paris road connects not only the two locations but also all the characters.
  2. Parallels are offered by the two Tellson's banks and the French-speaking Englishman, Sydney Carton, and the English-speaking Frenchman, Charles Darnay.
  3. Red, particularly the colour of fire and of blood, evokes sympathy.
  4. Footsteps are an ominous foreshadowing.
  5. The river here, as in Our Mutual Friend, is a symbol of life.
  6. The guillotine and time (note the fifty-two victims) dominate Book III.

Reading Questions and a Quiz


Victorian Web Overview Charles Dickens A Tale of Two Cities

Last Modified 16 September 2004.
Thanks to S. Jane Stephan for catching an error.