It has been a long time since I read A Tale of Two Cities, and I did not remember anything except its broadest outlines. The novel is unusual for Dickens in two respects. It is his only historical novel, and it is probably the grimmest. Although he handles some weighty subjects in other novels—the poor laws, the civil justice system, mistreatment of children, abusive schools—this novel about the French revolution shows little of his celebrated sense of humor.
The novel centers around a much smaller cast of characters than usual for Dickens. It begins with Dr. Alexandre Manette, long a resident in a French prison for reasons we do not learn until the end of the novel. When the book begins, he is free but severely disturbed from trauma. His daughter Lucie travels with his banker Jarvis Lorry from England to bring him back to London.
Five years later, he is living contentedly with his daughter in England. Their friend French émigré Charles Darnay is tried for treason on bogus charges, but he is released when his defense proves that the principal witness cannot tell him apart from Sidney Carton, a barrister. These characters will soon become well acquainted.
When the novel returns to France, it shows us the extreme poverty of the poor as well as grim depictions of their mistreatment by aristocrats. Darnay returns to France to meet his uncle, the Marquis St. Evrémonde, and renounce his inheritance. St. Evrémonde’s careless slaughter of a young child when he runs over him in his carriage and his disdainful treatment of his nephew are all we see of him before his murder.
Secretly, a revolutionary society is growing and taking note of atrocities such as those committed by Evrémonde. Wine shop owners Monsieur and Madame Defarge are involved, and at first we have sympathy with their cause.
Charles Darnay marries Lucie Manette in London, but Sidney Carton has fallen in love with her as well. Although he considers himself unworthy of her, he pledges to do anything he can for her or for anyone she loves.
Meanwhile, France falls into revolution and brutal chaos. It becomes a place where revenge is more important than justice.
The fates of the main characters reach a climax when Charles returns to Paris to help an old retainer and is denounced by the revolution. Although he has committed no crime, his relationship to St. Evrémonde puts him in peril. Dr. Manette’s sanity is also threatened when he, Lucie, and Jarvis Lorry travel to Paris to try to help Charles.
The novel is a little more melodramatic than I prefer, unleavened as it is by Dickens’ usual antics. Only a couple of major characters provide momentary relief, and Madame Defarge is like a heavy dark cloud hovering over everything. The novel is also a bit disjointed through moving back and forth between the two cities. Still, Dickens always manages to bring tears to my eyes.