It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. In this video lesson, learn about A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens’ classic novel about the French Revolution.
Dickens’ French Revolution Novel
‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times’ – it’s A Tale of Two Cities! You probably know the novel’s opening lines because they were super famous, and now you’re going to know what the rest of the novel is. So let’s get started.It was originally published in 1859. This is a historical novel.
It’s set in London and Paris, which are the two cities – you’re learning stuff already. Before and during the French Revolution is when this is set. There have been over two hundred million copies of the novel that have been sold, which is a ton, and it’s really one of the biggest single-volume novels ever. To compare, there have been four hundred million copies of the Harry Potter series sold, but that’s for all seven books combined, so this is a lot of copies – although Tale of Two Cities has been around quite a bit longer, so I guess you take that into account.
Major characters in this – you’d think that a Dickens novel about the French Revolution would be loaded with characters who are all super-important, but it’s actually not so bad.
There’s only a handful of people who are really, really important that you need to know about. If there are other people who crop up we’ll go into them briefly when they arrive. We’re going to go in the order in which they appear.First we’ve got Jarvis Lorry, who’s really only important in the beginning. He’s kind of an older businessman. He’s a moral person, he’s a good friend and he’s a nice guy.
We’ve got Dr. Manette and Lucie Manette. Dr.
Manette is a noted physician; he’s a doctor and a loving father. Lucy Manette is his daughter.We’ve got Monsieur and Madame Defarge, who are from the French side of things, as you might be able to tell from their names. They’re revolutionaries; they also own a wine shop – they’re kind of French multitaskers. Monsieur Defarge is a leader, kind and a nice guy. His wife is kind of ruthless. She’s also a knitter.
She’s kind of a ruthless knitter – they exist. Throughout the book she’s knitting a list of who should die in the Revolution, which is something you will probably not see on Etsy any time soon.Charles Darnay – we’re just getting to him, but he’s actually one of the main protagonists.
He’s sympathetic to the Revolution, he’s a nice guy, he’s honest, he’s fearless. These two traits get him in trouble.Sydney Carton‘s next; he’s a lawyer and a hot mess.
He’s an alcoholic. He kind of knows that his life has been a waste. He wants to do more with himself but he doesn’t really quite know how.
We’ve got Marquis Evremonde, who is the face of the French aristocracy. He thinks that the French peasants are just awful. He thinks they’re less than human and not worth looking at.
He’s clearly not a good guy in this book.
Book 1: Recalled to Life
Alright, with the main characters out of the way – again, if there are others we’ll introduce them as we go along – let’s get to the story.Tale of Two Cities is split into three books, which are just larger segments of chapters essentially. The first book is called ‘Recalled to Life’ and it opens in England in 1775. Jarvis Lorry – remember that guy I said would only be important in the beginning; this is his star turn – is traveling by train and he meets Lucie Manette, who thinks that her famous doctor father is dead. But Lorry says no, no, he’s not dead; he’s just spent 18 years in the Bastille, which is a famous French prison. He’s out now and is being protected by the Defarges, who are that couple I mentioned in the character list.
The Defarges and their revolutionary friends use the codename Jacques, which is a play on the Jacobins, who were an actual revolutionary group. So Lorry and Lucie go to France, but unfortunately Dr.
Manette has gone mad in prison, and now he just makes shoes all day – that’s how his madness manifests itself. In prison this kind of took his mind off all the torture all around him, but now he’s just a little nuts. He doesn’t recognize his daughter at first, which is sad for her, but then her hair and her eyes remind him of his wife. He realizes what’s going on and they decide to take him back to England with them to get well.
Book 2: The Golden Thread
Book Two is called ‘The Golden Thread,’ and this jumps ahead five years, so now it’s 1780, and Charles Darnay, who we meet, is on trial for treason for allegedly giving info to the French about British troops in North America, because also what’s going on at the same time is the Revolutionary War – it’s that time of the 1700s.
His lawyer is not doing such a great job defending him, so the lawyer’s otherwise pretty indifferent and alcoholic partner Sidney Carton jumps in and says ‘hey, wait a second, I look a lot like Darnay,’ which then compromises the eyewitness testimony and actually ends up getting him off the charges. It’s kind of random but it works great. It’s kind of like when Dr. House sort of swoops in or emerges from a drug-induced haze to diagnose the patient with lupus. It’s always lupus.
So that’s what’s going on in England. Now we go back to France and we learn that the carriage of the Marquis Evremonde – remember that kind of awful upper-class French dude – strikes and kills a peasant’s baby, which is sad. The Marquis just tosses a coin for compensation. Defarge witnesses this and kind of comforts the peasants, and then someone tosses a coin back at the Marquis, which really ticks him off.That night the Marquis is visited by his nephew; it turns out to be Darnay. What? Who saw that coming? I didn’t.
Darnay apparently changed his name to hide his past because he’s renouncing his aristocratic family. Darnay is the guy we saw on trial for treason and Carton got him off. It’s kind of like Darth Vader in reverse – he went from the dark side to the light side I guess. Unlike the Marquis, he actually does care about the peasant class and thinks they’re not terrible people.Later that night the peasant whose child was killed shows up and murders the Marquis, leaving a note signed ‘Jacques’ so we know that it’s that revolutionary group.
So a year later Darnay wants to marry Lucie. Lucie’s an eligible young woman and Darnay is an upstanding young man. He gets permission from Dr.
Manette. The problem is he hasn’t told Dr. Manette that he was from an aristocratic French family, and we can see why this might be a problem – he’d be walking up to Dr. Manette and saying ‘by the way, remember those French aristocrats who locked you up in the Bastille and drove you crazy? I’m one of ’em!’ That wouldn’t really go over that well. Sidney Carton, alcoholic lawyer guy who’s kind of a mess, also loves Lucie, and he pledges that he is going to become a better person and do anything in order to have her, so that kind of sets up a conflict there. Darnay’s past is inevitably revealed on the day of the wedding. Dr.
Manette freaks out and starts making shoes again because that seems to be what he does when he freaks out. No one tells Lucie, so the wedding goes ahead anyway, and Manette gets over it after a while. They take away his shoemaking supplies and that seems to do the trick.
Now we get to the storming of the Bastille, an iconic event from the French Revolution that happens on July 14, 1789. The Defarges are there, and Monsieur Defarge mysteriously heads for Dr. Manette’s old cell. We don’t really know what’s going on here, but he’s looking around in there.Now we jump ahead again to 1792. Darnay gets a letter from a guy who worked for his family’s estate.
The guy’s now in prison and he wants Darnay’s help. Darnay is an honorable man, so he decides to go to Paris and see what he can do. This is a horrible mistake.
Book 3: The Track of a Storm
Now we’re in Book 3. This is called ‘The Track of a Storm.
‘ Big mistake. Darnay is immediately arrested for emigrating. He spends almost a year in prison.
It seems like this whole book is people going to jail. He eventually gets a trial. Dr. Manette shows up and pleads for his son-in-law. ‘No, don’t throw him in jail!’ He manages to get him acquitted, but then Darnay is arrested the same night. Now there are new charges.
What are they?It turns out that when Defarge went to Manette’s cell he got a letter that explained why Manette had been imprisoned in the first place. You might have wondered that – why was he in the Bastille for 18 years? We find out why. Way back in 1757, so a long time back, Darnay’s father and his uncle, who’s that Marquis guy, called on Dr. Manette for medical help because there was a sick peasant woman and her injured brother. Turns out what had happened is that one of them had actually raped the woman, killed her husband, and stabbed the brother, which is not so nice of them. Manette couldn’t save them, and then he couldn’t be bribed to keep quiet, and so they had him arrested and tossed in the Bastille.
Darnay’s family were directly responsible for Manette being imprisoned, and now since Darnay is actually the next in line to be the Marquis – now that the Marquis has been murdered – the crime is determined to now be on his shoulders, even though Darnay has nothing to do with it; he’s totally innocent. This is what’s happening in France; they’re looking for aristocrats to punish because that’s the tenor of the Revolution.So that night Carton is at Defarge’s wine shop and hears Madame Defarge plotting to get Lucie and her and Darnay’s daughter killed. Why? Because it turns out that Madame Defarge is the surviving sibling of the peasants that were raped and killed, so she’s got a personal vendetta against Darnay and anyone associated with him. So Carton doesn’t really know what to do.
He loves Lucie; he doesn’t want her or her daughter to get killed. So what he does is he decides to go to Darnay, who’s in prison; he drugs him and then he swaps places with him because, if you remember from the very beginning, they look alike. That was foreshadowing; that was telling us what might happen at the end.
Darnay and Lucie make it back to England and Carton is killed by the guillotine.
It’s a really selfless act; he’s sacrificing himself for them. If you remember from the beginning, he wanted to give his life meaning; that was something he was really looking to do, because he was an alcoholic and he didn’t really know what he was doing. In this way he does give his life meaning by sacrificing himself for Lucie and her child, and that’s how it ends: kind of sad but hopeful and good.
What are our major themes of this novel? We’ve got resurrection, which is kind of a main theme. Remember the first book is called ‘Recalled to Life,’ and you might notice how it kind of bookends the novel.
Dr. Manette is thought to be dead but then is actually alive, and then Carton’s sacrifice resurrects his life’s purpose and Darnay’s actual life (and Lucie’s life as well, which was not going to be around much longer).Duality is also a real key theme; this is clear from the opening lines of the book – ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.’ Dickens goes on in that speech to list a whole bunch of other opposites. Right from the beginning there’s good, there’s evil, there’s darkness, there’s light.
This is tied up with the resurrection theme. Several of these characters live dual lives. Darnay is the most obvious example, but there’s also Dr. Manette, who kind of alternates between brilliant physician and mad shoemaker. There’s also the fact that Darnay and Carton look alike; there’s a German word for this called ‘doppelganger,’ which literally means ‘double-goer,’ but it just means someone who looks like you.Finally, the theme of social justice is really a big one.
You can’t talk about the French Revolution without talking about social justice, because that’s what it’s all about. Dickens obviously has no love for the French aristocracy; he does not characterize them in a nice light – they are rapists and murderers essentially. But he’s also not purely sympathetic to the revolutionaries either. They brought the Reign of Terror; they executed lots of people, which is symbolized by Darnay’s conviction for something that he really had nothing to do with.
So right and wrong on both sides is what we get out of Tale of Two Cities.Also, it’s worth pointing out that while Dickens is often very funny, this book is not. This is really one of his most serious works. There’s really not a lot of comic relief. But it’s also one of his, at least in my opinion, more emotionally satisfying books and one of his least sentimental, I would say. But again, that’s a matter of opinion.
And that’s Tale of Two Cities.
After watching this lesson, you should be able to summarize the plot, characters and themes of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities.