'A Tale of Two Cities' Study Guide

"A Tale of Two Cities," Charles Dickens' 16th novel, is a perfect example of why the English author was so popular. The book is a tale of chaos, espionage and adventure set in London and Paris before and during the French Revolution. The social upheaval of the period serves as a backdrop for the drama that unfolds in the lives of the novel's main characters: Charles Darney, Sydney Carton, and Lucie Manette, the woman they love.

Just over 400 pages long and supported by a motley cast of characters –a puppet lawyer,  a banker with a heart of gold, and more than one gravedigger – A Tale of Two Cities moves at a pace that modern readers of John Grisham or Michael Crichton would appreciate. It has the emotional appeal of a John Irving novel, plot twists to rival Jeffery Deaver and enough violence, suspense, ghosts and good humor to sate any of Stephen King’s constant readers.

Dickens sprinkles his good-natured humor lightly over the novels working-class characters, as in his description of the ‘honest tradesman’ Jerry Cruncher’s striking head of hair: "so like a smith’s work, so much more like the top of a strongly spiked wall than a head of hair..."

Satire by Charles Dickens

Dickens' satirical treatment of the powers that be, however, is more barbed. In the London court of law, where admission prices for spectators are higher even than at Bedlam, and where death is the sentence for such crimes as housebreaking, petty robbery, forgery, the uttering of bad notes and the unlawful opening of a letter, advocates use incomprehensible legalese to present their cases. When evidence is clearly stated it is irrelevant to the case at hand, and witness testimonies are admissible so long as they cannot be proven theoretically impossible.

France’s royal court, as represented in the reception of Monseigneur, is similarly treated. Guests at the reception include “Military officers destitute of military knowledge; naval officers with no idea of a ship; civil officers without a notion of affairs;” alchemists; convulsionists and doctors with dainty remedies for imaginary illnesses, the comfort being that each of these guests comes perfectly dressed. Monseigneur himself needs “four strong men besides the cook” to take his morning chocolate: “Deep would have been the blot upon his escutcheon if his chocolate had been ignobly waited on by only three men; he must have died of two.” This pomp and excess are highlighted by circumstances outside the royal court, where thousands of men, women, and children are taxed into starvation.

The result of bad leadership is bad behavior on a grand scale. In England, where the masses at least are fed, Dickens describes the behaviors of unruly mobs with a trace of mirth, as with the ragtag London mob set out to disrupt the funeral procession of a maligned man.

In France, the mob is an animal too frightening to make a jest of. The storming of the Bastille and the long days and nights of violence to follow are describes in terrible, visceral terms. While much has been made of whether Dickens was a revolutionary, a reformer, a socialist or a Christian moralist, it can be safely assumed that the viciousness with which the red-capped mob of carried out its revolution in A Tale of Two Cities was so described, at least in part, for its entertainment value. Readers of popular fiction were as bloodthirsty in the Victorian era as they are now.