Remembering Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities”

  • Review: A Tale of Two Cities by Dickens
  • Genre: A Historiographic MetaFiction
  • Age: The Victorian Era-19th century
  • Setting: The French Revolution 1789

Charles John Huffam Dickens, commonly known as a humorist, is the most widely read of the Victorian novelists. Despite having an uproarious married life, he keeps many masterpieces on his credit including novels, short-stories, essays and travelogues. Set at the turbulent times of a great world event, the French Revolution, A Tale of Two Cities was written during the period of great crisis in Dickens’ own life, when he suffered failures in love, when he had confrontations with the publishers, and when after having nine children, he realized at last and said: “Catherine and I are not made for each other and there is no help for it.” The writing of this stirring tale provided an outlet for his pent up soul.

Spanning over the three phases i.e. Pre-Revolution in 1775, the fall of the Bastille in 1789, and the Reign of Terror in 1792, the book opens with the arresting lines in the era of the Absolutist France in 1775: It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair… All these antithetical images suggest the two cities: London and Paris, showing what revolutions are, how they happen, what they do. The awareness of fictiveness and reality becomes evident from the very title itself where the devices of doubling, parallelism and anti-thesis play a vital role. A ‘tale’ is a fictitious narrative but here it is presented in combination of a real gory phase in human history which brought the new dawns of liberty and equality for the common man. In order to make it a Historiographic MetaFiction, Dickens made the best use of three source books: The French Revolution by Thomas Carlyle; Zanoni by Bulwer Lytton; and The Frozen Deep by Wilkie Collins.

The novel comprises three sections: Book the First: Recalled to Life; Book the Second: The Golden Thread; and Book the Third: The Track of a Storm. Controlled by the third person omniscient and prophetic narrator, the narrative description goes side by side with the dialogues among the characters. We can get to navigate through the complicated web of historical social uprisings, long-kept family secrets, and unspoken allegiances. Luckily, Dickens’ narrator knows exactly where he’s taking us. He lets us into the minds of characters whenever it seems prudent for him to do so. Just when we think we have known the situation, his all-knowing narrator manages to pull a few tricks out of his bag.

Dickens is a literary craftsman in the use of symbolism, imagery and allegory. In the hunger-worn streets of Paris, he prophetically warns us that blood will soon spill in the streets like wine. The time was to come, when that wine too would be spilled on the street-stones, and when the stain of it would be red upon many there. (1.5.5). Using the wine that spills into the streets early in the novel as a metaphor for the blood spilled in the revolution serves a practical purpose: the Defarges run a wine shop. The Defarges are the hub of revolutionary activity. It all fits together neatly. People are shown as not only the suffering unprivileged ones but they are blood-thirsty too. We find the excesses committed on both the sides, of rich as well as poor. Spilling a little blood makes people hunger for more. Suddenly, it’s not enough to kill the people who’ve wronged the poor. It’s also pretty fun to denounce, to kill their wives, their sons, their daughters, and that guy that people once saw standing next to them.

La Guillotine personified on the revolutionaries’ side is the counterpart of the aristocratic Bastille, the symbol of oppression of the old times. Dickens introduces it as: Above all, one hideous figure grew as familiar as if it had been before the general gaze from the foundations of the world – the figure of the sharp female called La Guillotine. It was the popular theme for jests; it was the best cure for headache, it infallibly prevented hair from turning gray, it imparted a peculiar delicacy to the complexion, it was the National Razor which shaved close: who kissed La Guillotine looked through the little window and sneezed into the sack. Another example is of Lucie being the golden-haired doll, who charms just about everyone she meets with her beauty. She’s got flaxen hair. Interestingly, however, Dickens uses her hair color as an image that binds her family together. She becomes the “golden thread” that unites her father with his present, not allowing him to dwell too much on the horrors of his past: She was the golden thread that united him to a Past beyond his misery, and to a Present beyond his misery: and the sound of her voice, the light of her face, the touch of her hand, had a strong beneficial influence with him almost always. (2.4.3). In one soul-stirring moment, Jacques Three speculates about how wonderful it would be to see her golden hair on the chopping block of La Guillotine.

The Monseigneur typifies the whole aristocracy as a class. His taking of hot chocolate is analogous to devouring the just rights of all. It serves as the mockery against people suffering from even the Salt tax. Yes. It took four men, all four ablaze with gorgeous decoration, and the Chief of them unable to exist with fewer than two gold watches in his pocket, emulative of the noble and chaste fashion set by Monseigneur, to conduct the happy chocolate to Monseigneur’s lips. (2.7.2). We see the consequences of injustice through the character of Doctor Manette. The poor are treated horribly in France.

On the plot canvas, as we know that history serves as the backdrop of various picturesque scenes and episodes relating to the gory scenes, while the main story concerns with a group of certain conceived characters like Dr. Alexander Manette, Lucie -his daughter, Charles Darnay-the son of his enemies, the Evremonde brothers, and Sydney Carton-the alcoholic, but the hero of the piece. Darnay, a born aristocrat, leaves France after getting fed up of the tyranny of his own family, with his absolute realization: We have done wrong and are reaping the fruits of wrong. He gets settled in London, becomes a teacher of the French Language, loves Lucie and wins her hand in marriage without knowing the fact that Dr. Manette has been suffering an 18 years long incarceration on the letter de catchet filed by his own father and uncle, the Evremonde brothers. Darnay’s compassion draws him into the main currents of the revolution gone mad as the Reign of Terror. Now the reins of Time are in the hungry and work-worn hands once suppressed. One cannot resist the images of the terror, the revolt, the outrage.

Sydney Carton, shown as a jackal symbolically who in his childhood would work for other fellows neglecting his own; in the professional life, he prepared law-cases for Stryver, turning up the Lucie-Darnay affair into love-triangle, claims an everlasting dwelling in readers’ hearts when he expresses his love for Lucie: “I wish you to know that you have been the last dream of my soul. Think now and then that there’s a man who would give his life to keep a life you love beside you.” Leading the life of profligacy, he, being a jackal, works for others, lives for others and even dies for others. The fabric of his love-sick, unfulfilled aspirations is embroidered as if by the oriental thread. By infusing life to his being, Dickens makes us feel his pains on our pulse. When the tribunal announces death sentence for Darnay within four and twenty hours, Sydney uses his trumps including the physical resemblance he bears to his rival in love, substitutes himself in the prison-cell and ascends the scaffold fulfilling his word to his love, and the echo of these lines give a sensational feel: I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die.

Among the art-gallery of this book, Doctor Manette symbolizes sufferings, Mr. Lorry the faithfulness, Miss Pross the all affection to her lady-bird, Defarges spread hatred and revolt, Evremonde Brothers represent tyranny, and Sydney Carton is the love-incarnate. Dickens’ idea about the revolution can be seen in these lines:  Crush humanity out of shape once more, under similar hammers, and it will twist itself into the same tortured forms. Sow the same seed of rapacious license and oppression over again, and it will surely yield the same fruit according to its kind. (3.15.1). This moving story is written in figurative prose with an alive art of characterization. The novel  presents the sensational episodes, guillotine-the killing engine, the burning of chateaux, the fall of the Bastille, all these give a new thrill at every page making it a desperate story of the terrible times. Dickens himself remarked for it: “what is done and suffered in these pages, I have certainly done and suffered it all myself.” If you love literature, and the love stories, this book will offer an irresistible reading to you and that too quite unforgettable.


Shazia Batool is an M.Phil. Literature and Linguistics Scholar from Lahore, Pakistan.


15 thoughts on “Remembering Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities””

  1. This analysis is not only for literature lovers also good for those who have little knowledge of literature..great job

    1. I felt bad for the parts I couldn’t include in this review. Thank you Kabir bhai for the valued comment. Rgds 🙂

  2. Such a healthy and comprehensive review, learnt more than year’s learning. At least can discuss openly about the novel.

  3. A scholarly review that reflects Shazia’s knowledge and devotion towards her study, learning and writings.

  4. Such a riveting review. I am bound to revisit the book now. For someone as me, this is a mine of knowledge and insight.

  5. Such a riveting review. I am bound to revisit the book now. For someone as me, this is a mine of knowledge and scholarly insight.

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