Book Summary: A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

Are you looking for a book summary of A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens? You have come to the right place.

I jotted down a few key points from Charles Dickens’s book after reading it.

You do not have to read the entire book if you don’t have time. This book summary provides an overview of everything you can learn from it.

Let’s get started without further ado.

In this A Tale of Two Cities book summary, I’m going to cover the following topics:

Who is The Author of A Tale of Two Cities?

Charles John Huffam Dickens FRSA was an English writer and social critic. He created some of the most famous novel characters in the world and is considered by many to be the greatest novelist of the Victorian era.

A Tale of Two Cities Book Summary

(In the year 1775, King George III sat on the throne of England, preoccupied with his rebellious colonies in America. Across a narrow neck of water to the east, Louis XVI reigned in France, not very much bothered by anything except seeing to his own comforts.)

On a cold and foggy night in late November, Mr Jarvis Lorry was headed out of London bound for Paris, via Dover, on a matter of business. In the darkness of the coach, as he and the other passengers waked and drowsed by turns, Lorry was confronted by a gaunt and ghostly apparition, who engaged him in a silent and macabre conversation.

The figure haunting him through the night was Dr Manette, a French physician and the father of Mr Lorry’s young ward. When the doctor had disappeared from his home eighteen years before, his young English wife had diligently and sorrowfully searched for him, until she died two years later, leaving her small daughter Lucie, who was placed in the care of Mr Lorry. Lorry had brought the child to England, where she was turned over to Lorry’s servant, Miss Pross, a wild-looking, wonderful woman who adored her.

At Dover, Lorry was joined by Lucie – now a young woman – and Miss Pross. Lorry informed Lucie that her father had been found alive after years as a political prisoner, and that he, Mr Lorry, was making this trip to Paris in order to identify him.

Lucie, it was hoped, could then help “restore him to life.” The sudden reality of finally meeting her father was so great that Lucie could only mutter in an awestricken, doubting voice, “I am going to see his Ghost! It will be his Ghost – not him!”

In Paris, Mr Lorry proceeded directly to the wine-shop of Monsieur Defarge, a former attendant to Dr Manette, who was now looking after him. The company ascended to the attic. Lucie had been prophetic; indeed, Manette seemed but the ghost of a man, bending over his little shoemaker’s bench, unaware of anything around him.

Still, together with the free and bewildered Manette, the little group journeyed back to England. Lucie already showed a love and understanding for her long-isolated father, and her companions felt sure she would accomplish the miracle of calling him back to his former self.

Five years later, Lucie and her father were called as witnesses in an English court, where a Frenchman, Charles Darnay, was on trial for treason. In the courtroom sat another young man, a lawyer’s clerk named Sydney Carton.

Carton was immediately struck by the resemblance he and Darnay bore to one another, and when a key witness identified the prisoner as the man he had seen gathering information at a dockyard, Carton managed to discredit the witness by calling attention to the fact that in that very courtroom sat another – himself – who could easily be mistaken for the prisoner. The jury was swayed, and Darnay was acquitted.

During the trial, both Carton and Darnay became acquainted with the Manettes. From that time on, they often visited the Manette’s comfortable little house on Soho Square. Both men enjoyed the company of the good doctor, whose health of mind and body had been restored through Lucie’s patient ministrations – and they also came to see Lucie.

As suitors, their physical resemblance was never remarked upon because they were so different in attitude and demeanor. While Darnay, who had turned his back on his ancestral name and title, showed his refined upbringing in his confidence and courtliness, Carton seemed to be his own worst enemy.

He was only confident of continued failure, and assured himself of it through drink, slovenliness and a morose character. Though Lucie welcomed them both, she was most drawn to Darnay. Being of a sympathetic and loving nature, she listened and wept one day as Carton, in uncharacteristic openness, confessed his love for her. He asked from her nothing in return, believing even her love would not be enough to redeem him. The conversation ended with Carton’s strange statement and promise:

It is useless to say it, I know, but … for you, and for any dear to you, I would do anything; think, now and then, that there is a man who would give his life, to keep a life you love beside you!

Lucie and Charles Darnay were eventually married and began their family. They were happy; but always in the background of their lives lurked a cloud, which seemed to draw menacingly closer year by year.

Finally, in 1789, the French Revolution exploded into being. Centuries of aristocrat indifference to the plight of the starving peasants, and the years of cruelty and selfishness, had at last brought on a bitter rebellion that turned Paris into a cauldron of chaos.

Madame Defarge, the wife of Dr Manette’s former servant, became a leader in the Revolution. Through the long years from girlhood on, Madame Defarge had always kept her knitting in hand, recording with each stitch a death-list of the names of all those whose injustices she witnessed.

Now her denunciations came forth as if they had been coiled inside the knitting; out came the hatred, vengeance and lust for blood that only a woman who had seen all her family killed by the aristocracy could feel. When Madame Defarge and her husband and cohorts, armed with knives and axes, stormed the Bastille, they opened a floodgate of mob violence that would inundate the country.

Three years of tumult elapsed. At last, both Mr Lorry and Charles Darnay felt they must go to Paris. Lorry, true and loyal businessman that he was, looked after the affairs of the Paris branch of Tellson & Co., while Darnay visited a family retainer who had written, begging for his help and presence. But upon his arrival, Darnay was immediately taken into custody and imprisoned, along with many aristocrats and political victims.

When Lucie and her father discovered what had happened, Dr Manette was convinced that, as a former prisoner of the Bastille, he alone could rescue his son-in-law. He hurried to Paris with his daughter and grandchild.

There he was quickly accepted by the revolutionaries and allowed access to civil authorities who could perhaps help. But Charles, now identified under his true name as heir to the notorious house of Evremond, had become a certain target of Madame Defarge. She would not allow his release.

When, after fifteen months in prison, Charles was acquitted of his alleged crimes through the quiet, confident and moving defense of Dr Manette, the family’s rejoicing was short-lived. Four men came to arrest the young husband again that very afternoon, declaring that he had been denounced by three other accusers – the Defarges and one other. It was only at the second trial that the identity of the third accuser was discovered – Dr Manette himself!

Now, at last, unfolded the complete story of Manette’s imprisonment. It was presented in the form of a letter written by the doctor after he had spent ten years in prison and was fearing for his sanity. He had hidden the letter behind a stone wall in his cell, where Defarge had encountered it the day the Bastille was stormed.

The letter gave the names of those responsible for Manette’s abduction and imprisonment – two brothers of the House of Evremond, Charles’ father and his uncle – and ended with a condemnation of that house and its descendants. Thus, Dr Manette, in a tragic and ironic turn of events, was named as his son-in- law’s third accuser. And Charles, for his ancestor’s crimes, was pronounced guilty and sentenced to death by guillotine.

Sydney Carton, who had by now come to Paris, appeared singly calm and purposeful in the face of such terrible news. With a disciplined courage quite foreign to himself, he gained entrance to Charles’ cell as his final visitor. There he drugged Darnay, rendering him unconscious, exchanged clothes with him, and had him carried from the cell as “Sydney Carton,” a friend of the prisoner totally overcome with grief. Carton remained in Darnay’s stead.

Hours later, as the coach bearing the Manettes, Mr Lorry and a still unconscious Darnay thundered toward the Channel and refuge in England, Sydney Carton was making his own escape – from his self-imposed prison of constant failure. Riding along at an unhurried pace in the third tumbrel of six bound that day for La Guillotine, Carton’s face and demeanor were those of a man who had found his way.

And he was unafraid of his destination. “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far better rest that I go to, than I have ever known,” he whispered to himself. He was now about to offer up his life for his friends.

A Tale of Two Cities Characters

Dr Manette, a French physician, wrongfully imprisoned for 18 years

Lucie Manette, his daughter

Charles Darnay, a former French aristocrat who has repudiated his title and left France to live in England

Jarvis Lorry, the able representative of Tellson & Co, a banking house

Sydney Carton, a law clerk

Madame Defarge, a French peasant and long-time revolutionary

A Tale of Two Cities Review

Dickens conceived the idea for this complicated plot while acting in a play. Every event penned in A Tale of Two Cities draws toward one great climax, set against the backdrop of the greater drama: history. Master of detailed settings and characterizations, Dickens gave himself the challenge of stripping details down to the bone and letting the many intertwining characters be swept along with the action and violence of the times.

Fortunately for the reader, the novelist couldn’t resist the temptation of fleshing out his minor characters, who provide some relief in an otherwise grim account of the French Revolution.

Dickens takes the least time with Lucie and Darnay, supposing, perhaps, that we would see them clearly enough; Sydney Carton’s inner reform is more fully drawn; and Dr Manette’s brief lapses back into insanity are an early study of the psychological effects of extended inhumane treatment. Jarvis Lorry shows the most character development, evolving from a man of strict business and propriety to one of feeling and warmth.

The vindictive Madame Defarge, at first glance, seems to be the main villain in the piece; but, on reflection, La Guillotine, a symbol of revenge run amok, seems to vie for the honor. A Tale of Two Cities is a sad account of man’s inhumanity to man, for even though Darnay escapes, the reader is left haunted by the many innocent who did not.

Further Reading

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