Plot summary: A Tale of Two Cities
"A tale of two cities" is an elaborate, eighteenth-century plot set in the era of the French revolution.
The two cities that form the basis for the novel are two prominent cities of the Old World – London and Paris.
Charles Dickens’ classic tale uses many themes as he weaves complex fiction from an important historical event.
The novel touches on themes such as clemency, vendettas, class conflict, concealed pasts and French aristocratic indulgence.
Dickens uses a myriad of unique characters to create his story, with a number of subplots that influence the eventual outcome of the story.
The novel commences with Mr Lorry, a representative of London’s Tellson's Bank, on an assignment to reunite Lucie, a young maiden, with her father.
Her father, previously thought dead for 18 years, was found living in France. Mr Lorry’s assignment in Paris leads him to the wine-shop owned by the Defarges – Monsieur and Madame Defarge.
The French couple lead the English duo to an unkempt and emaciated cobbler – Lucie's long-lost father. With the reunited father-daughter couple, Mr Lorry returns to London, where the Parisian cobbler assumes his previous identity as the esteemed Doctor Manette and settles comfortably into a normal life.
A few years pass and the same trio become unwilling witnesses at the trial of Charles Darnay, a young man being tried for treason. Mr Darnay was charged with being a French spy and revealing secrets to England’s archenemy.
However, the defendant is acquitted based on the testimony of one Sydney Carton – a fellow with a notable resemblance to the defendant. The lookalikes become friends after a somewhat indifferent start to their interaction. Mr Lorry becomes re-acquainted and well-acquainted with the Manettes.
Charles Darnay makes a trip to Paris to visit his uncle, although he is cognisant of the mortal danger of this. At this juncture, the seeds of revolution are brewing in France. The class conflict comes to the fore as the peasants become increasingly discontented with the numerous misdeeds of the French aristocrats.
Darnay's uncle is a cold and unpleasant Marquis – a member of the reviled aristocracy.
For his callous deeds against the peasants, he has his name knitted by the queen of the revolution and wine-shop inhabitant, Madame Defarge.
By extension, Charles Darnay is part of the aristocracy, being part of the Evermonde bloodline.
However, Charles resents the misdeeds of his family and cautions his uncle that times are changing. Retribution is soon meted out to the Marquis, as he is murdered by a peasant whose child was killed under the wheels of the Marquis’ carriage. Upon learning of this development, Charles Darnay flees to the relative sanctuary of London.
The plot thickens when Charles befriends the Manettes and begins to court the young maiden Lucie. He approaches Dr Manette to ask for Lucie’s hand in marriage. Although Lucie has other suitors, she prefers Charles’ company and the couple is soon engaged. Charles Darnay wishes to reveal his link to the Evermonde bloodline to Dr Manette, but is advised to wait until he has already married Lucie.
When Dr Manette eventually learns of Charles’ family name, the doctor resumes the disturbed, emaciated appearance of his erstwhile existence as a French cobbler. He retreats for nine days after hearing the devastating news. Mr Lorry is concerned by this and destroys the paraphernalia associated with Dr Manette’s grim past in his absence.
A few more years pass; Charles and Lucie have a nine-year old daughter by now.
The couple’s facile existence is interrupted by Charles’ receipt of a note from the Evermonde family’s loyal servant.
The revolution is at its peak in France and the servant implores Charles’ help.
While Charles is cautious about returning to a France that’s hostile to aristocrats and those who have aristocratic blood, he posits that the peasants bear no ill-will towards him since he never committed any misdeeds against them. Darnay eventually sets off for France, unaware that a recent decree sanctions execution for returning aristocrats who previously migrated from France.
Immediately on his return to his homeland, Charles is arrested. Soon after receiving the news of his arrest, his family, Dr Manette and Mr Lorry arrive in Paris. Dr Manette uses his influence to secure Charles’ release from prison. However, the English visitors are unable to leave France because of the turmoil and pervasive mob activity.
Darnay is rearrested and charged with being denounced by the Defarges. In an ironic twist, Charles Darnay was even denounced by his father-in-law in a letter written decades ago.
This was after Dr Manette was unjustly imprisoned by members of the Evermonde family after witnessing some of their most egregious misdeeds. In the solitude of his confinement, he condemned all members of the Evermonde family, although Charles was only a toddler then.
Charles is denounced on the strength of his father-in-law’s letter and sentenced to death.
However, the vengeful Madame Defarge wishes to get rid of all traces of the Evermonde family, including Lucie and her daughter.
Madame Defarge’s personal vendetta against the Evermonde family is revealed as the older generation of Evermondes were responsible for murdering her family.
The Darnays have Sydney Carton and Mr Lorry working assiduously to ensure the safety of the Darnays and Dr Manette. Carton overhears Madame Defarge’s malicious plan for Lucie and her daughter. Sydney Carton’s former participation in illegal corpse exhumations yields a secret that would bring mortal danger to Charles’ jailer if revealed. He uses this secret to blackmail the jailer into doing his bidding.
Since it would be too dangerous to have Charles released, Sydney Carton reckons that it would be easier to swap places with the condemned man – his lookalike. Ultimately, Carton opts to face the guillotine while Charles assumes Carton’s identity.
At the end of the novel, Madame Defarge meets her death while she was on her way to fulfil her nefarious mission against Lucie and her daughter. To the surprise of fellow revolutionaries, who did not yet receive news of her death, she misses the execution of “Charles Darnay.”
The Darnay family, Dr Manette and Mr Lorry manage to escape to London. When Sydney Carton, in place of Charles, faces the guillotine, no one notices the difference.