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Setting in the Charles Dickens Novel, A Tale of Two Cities

Updated on April 18, 2009

NOTE: This is my paper before it was corrected. I do not have the corrections to fix the problems and I know there are mistakes. Thank you.

A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens, starts in 1775, approximately 20 years before the French Revolution begins in England and France. The French Revolution was a dark time in European history, and the French people were not happy with King Louis XVI and his government. Charles Dickens accurately describes the locations and buildings he is talking about in the story. Dickens paid extremely close attention to the details when writing the novel and creating pictures in the readers head. There are a ton of details about the setting of the novel given through Dickens’ vivid mental images.

There was quite a bit of conflict in France with other countries in the late 1700’s. One internet source says that Dickens has A Tale of Two Cities cover the time of 1775 to 1793 (Phillips, Par.1). Some of the events referred to in the earlier part of the book actually take place before 1775. Because the novel takes place over eighteen years, time moves a little fast in the beginning. The French Revolution actually lasted from 1789 to 1795, states the same source (Phillips, Par.1). So the years in the novel from 1775 to 1788 are a lot of background on what will happen during the French Revolution. This is when the characters are introduced into the story and developed. The years before the French Revolution also go by fast because not many eventful things happen.

Multiple locations and events in A Tale of Two Cities were actually real, popular places during the time of the French Revolution. Tellson’s Bank for example is an actual bank in England. Tellson’s Bank took great pride in its old “run-down appearance.” It was a highly respected bank, and Jarvis Lorry works there too. Charles Dickens himself writes, “It behoved him to present himself in Soho and there to declare his noble mind” (Dickens 147-148). The reason the French nobles and aristocrats went to Soho is because they were scared and embarrassed by their ancestors. The ancestors of these people caused the French Revolution to a degree because they were so greedy and took everything from the poor people. The poor people did not live happily during these times.

King Louis XVI was not a good king for the most part during the time of the revolution and the government bankruptcy. King Louis XVI’s command was not enough to handle everything the French Revolution threw at him (Events in History, Par. 9). He did not make good decisions according to what people thought of him. He made foolish choices financially and morally. King Louis XVI did foolish things like spend government money on festivals and other events that were to no benefit of the common people or the nobles (Events in History, Par. 9). Instead of spending the government money to replenish food supplies and hospitals, it was spent on parties and other worthless things. Things like this happening during times like these are extremely bad, because it makes the commoners mad that the money was not spent to help them. It seems that all of the events taking place are piling up on top of each other just making matters worse for France.

The Reign of Terror was the most deadly part of the French Revolution by a long shot. The Reign of Terror lasted from 1793 to 1794, after King Louis XVI and his wife, Marie Antoinette, were executed, said Gale Research, (Events in History, Par.9). During the Reign of Terror, at least 14,000 people were executed using a decapitation device called the guillotine. The guillotine was the main was cause of death from 1793 to 1794. Also during the Reign of Terror, the French government went miles deep into debt causing extremely poor living conditions for the common people in France (Events in History, Par. 9). Because the living conditions were so terrible, many poor people started uprisings and fights rebelling against the government. Food prices soared with the supply becoming smaller and smaller and the government plummeted into bankruptcy. Still, the Reign of Terror lasted for two years filled with death, depression, and drama. “Civil unrest and dramatic upheavals in the French Revolution era set the stage for Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities” (Phillips, Par. 1). Crimes rates soared in the novel, obviously, by all of the deaths by the guillotine. Prisoners were lined up all day waiting for their execution time, just like in the end of the book when Sydney Carton is waiting to pay the death sentence of Charles Darnay. So after the Reign of Terror, France was in pretty bad shape.

After the Reign of Terror, Nobles felt that they had complete and total power over almost everything. The nobles actually acted like they had supreme power in France (Events in History, Par. 2). The aristocrats and nobles had so much power, in fact, that if the commoners could afford it, they would sometimes purchase freedom from them. It was rare, however, to see this because most people spent their money on food and shelter. Gale research states that, “Nobles used to provide the king with free military service, which made them exempt from paying the taille, which was a tax on land and estimated income” (Events in History, Par. 3). Eventually, the nobles stopped providing the king with the military services, they were still exempt from the taxes. It seemed a little weird because the nobles could actually afford to pay their taxes, but that is the way the law was. Nobles continue to have many privileges that commoners do not have throughout the coming years.

Charles Dickens recognized the nobles, and commoners as two separate classes of people, made the characters accordingly, and were interested in social and economic problems in England when he was alive. Dickens created one of the main characters in his image, Charles Darnay, “acknowledging the existence of such aristocrats,” (Events in History, Par. 9). The two main characters have different backgrounds, yet they fall in love with the same lady. The characters live as if they were actually living in the late 1700’s, dealing with all of the economic troubles that France was going through during the French Revolution, and Dickens makes it extremely convincing. Kiran-Raw stated, “In the 1850’s, Charles Dickens was concerned that social problems in England, particularly those relating to the condition of the poor, might provoke a mass reaction on the scale of the French Revolution,” (Kiran-Raw, Meltem, Par. 1). Dickens loved England and the last thing he wanted to see was England being thrown to pieces like France was during the French Revolution. Charles Dickens was obviously worried that terrible things would happen to England or other countries, like what happened to France. So Charles Dickens knew that the classes of people were dramatically different. “The “old noble-commoner social structure” had deteriorated quite largely by the late 1700’s, however some rules and regulations stayed strong through time, (Events in History, Par. 8). With all of the chaos in France the different classes of citizens became more melted into a bigger, more equal single class. No, the rich and poor class separation was not totally abolished, but the line was gradually blurred and harder to define. Dickens was concerned with problems in England and what happened to the people who lived there.

England was an ideal place for nobles and aristocrats to flee to if they got scared for their lives. Several characters in A Tale of Two Cities abandon their noble lifestyles and kin to go settle in London, England, (Events in History, Par. 8). When fleeing o London, England, the most popular neighborhood for French nobles and aristocrats was called Soho. As it turns out, running away to other countries or neighborhoods was extensively common. Gale says, “The London neighborhood of Soho, a setting in the novel, was in fact a popular neighborhood among foreigners at the time,” (Events in History, Par. 8). Soho, in London was more than likely filled to the brim with French noble immigrants. A person who leaves their home land “for political reasons” is called an émigré, (Events in History, Par. 8). Dickens hit the nail on the head with the nobles moving their lives to Soho to start living again from scratch.

Overall, Dickens used what would have been real life situations and locations during the time of the French Revolution to recreate a convincing storyline. Dickens was an expert at using brilliant, colorful, and even picturesque details in his writing to make the reader more interested in all of the novels he wrote, especially A Tale of Two Cities. The setting is amazingly clear and understandable with the plot if the story. When describing places or buildings in A Tale of Two Cities, like Tellson’s Bank, the reader receives a strong visual image that has a lot of detail. In addition to Charles Dickens’s image that he put into writing, each and every reader gets their own image of what they personally think the object or building would have looked like. The places that are described in the book are almost exact to what they are in real life. So after it is all said and done, the setting in the A Tale of Two Cities and the setting of the actual French Revolution are almost the same, showing once again the skills that Charles Dickens had in creating a realistic picture through only words. Today when people read A Tale of Two Cities, a strong mental picture is put in their head, giving them a visual image combining what Dickens wrote and what they as an individual reader sees the setting of the novel, enhancing the readers experience as a whole.


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    • parkerk393 profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago from Arlington, Texas


    • profile image


      9 years ago

      A Tale of Two Cities is the best book I've ever read by far. Dickens did an wonderful job relating the state of France during the French Revolution as well as bringing to life an amazing story. You have very good taste :)Well done.

    • parkerk393 profile imageAUTHOR


      10 years ago from Arlington, Texas

      I might try Bleak House one of these days. Thanks.

    • Pam Roberson profile image

      Pam Roberson 

      10 years ago from Virginia

      Very nice! Dickens is one of my favorites, and Bleak House is probably the novel I've enjoyed most by him. You've done a great job of detailing the setting of this novel and describing Dickens' brilliant style of bringing life into his work.

    • parkerk393 profile imageAUTHOR


      10 years ago from Arlington, Texas

      Thanks goldentoad. Not everyone likes Texas as much as I do... Haha!

      Thanks AEvans! I really appreciate that! :)

    • AEvans profile image


      10 years ago from SomeWhere Out There

      I give it an A+ the "Tale of Two Cities" is a wonderful story and Charles Dickens has always been a favorite. You explained who Charles Dickens was and how the story came about and of course so much more , but then my comment would be lengthy!!:)

    • goldentoad profile image


      10 years ago from Free and running....

      I'd agree with Mrs. Hoyer but you're from Texas, so I have to deduct some points just for that

    • profile image

      Mrs. Hoyer 

      10 years ago

      Not bad at all. I give it a 3-, actually.... a 3+


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