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A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens

A Tale of Two Cities: Spoiler-Free Synopsis

In Paris, about a decade before the French Revolution, a traumatized and physically broken Dr. Manette is released from the Bastille after being unjustly imprisoned for eighteen years. He is reunited with his daughter, Lucie, who was born in France but grew up in England believing she was an orphan. While taking her father back to England to live with her, Lucie meets the young French émigré Charles Darnay.

In London, Darnay, who has rejected his aristocratic family’s heritage and changed his name, is arrested and put on trial for his life, accused of being a spy. One of the attorneys defending him, Sydney Carton, who is brilliant but cynical and disreputable, so physically resembles Darnay that it is remarked upon in court. Darnay and Carton become friends, and both men fall deeply in love with Lucie Manette. Lucie comes to love both men in return, but she cares for Carton maternally rather than as a potential spouse.

After the French Revolution breaks out and the Reign of Terror begins, a former family servant begs Darnay for help. After returning to France, Darnay is arrested, imprisoned, and sentenced to death despite his rejection of his family’s abusive exploitation of peasants. One of the most vengeful revolutionaries, Madame Defarge, who hates all French noblemen and who also knows the reason for Dr. Manette’s 18-year imprisonment, is insistent that Darnay be executed. Further, Madame Defarge plans to denounce both Dr. Manette and Lucie as “traitors” so that they will also be executed.

Can Carton, spurred by his love of Lucie and his friendship with Darnay, save them all from the guillotine?


Dickens at his desk, 1858. Photo by Watkins.

Author Charles Dickens

Dickens’ father John, who constantly lived beyond his means, was confined in Marshalsea, a  debtors’ prison, and 12-year-old Charles, a voracious reader who was enjoying a private school education, was forced to quit school and go to work. At that time, there were no Child Labor laws nor even laws limiting any adult’s working hours. Dickens worked 10 hours a day at a blacking factory while paying for his own keep at a boarding house. Dickens later wrote (to his 1892 biographer) that he “wondered how I could have been so easily cast away at such an age.”  After his father received funds upon his own mother’s death and was released from debtors’ prison, Charles’  mother wanted him to remain at work, and Dickens later wrote of this: “I never afterwards forgot, I never shall forget, I never can forget.”

This early family grief, overwhelming adult responsibility at the age of 12, dreadful factory experience, and being forced to work to help support his mother and siblings because of his father’s profligate living were repeatedly portrayed in Dickens’ literary work.  His grim portrayals of crime, poverty, and unjust but all-powerful social institutions deftly revealed some of the horrors of life for the working class in Victorian England.

1859 cover of A Tale of Two Cities. Photo © Christie’s Auction House

Critical Reception of  A Tale of Two Cities

Beginning with the famous lines, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” A Tale of Two Cities is Dickens’ best-known historical novel, about the period before and after the French Revolution.  Many writers, like Tolstoy and George Orwell, praise Dickens’ writing as well as his social commentary, but some writers, such as Virginia Woolf and Henry James, bemoan the “lack of psychological depth and loose writing” in Dickens’ novels. Contemporaneous lawyer, judge, and critic James Fitzjames Stephen called the novel a “dish of puppy pie and stewed cat which is not disguised by the cooking.” Author Jorge Louis Borges quipped that Dickens was so much a British resident that, despite its title, A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens’ novel is really only about one city: London.

Despite the wide-ranging critical reactions, A Tale of Two Cities is considered the bestselling novel of all time, with an estimated 200 million copies sold worldwide. The novel has been adapted for film, television, stage, musicals, radio, and opera. The book was the acknowledged inspiration for the screenplay of the 2012 Batman story The Dark Knight Rises.

A Tale of Two Cities has become a classic, not only because of its complex characters but because the novel deals honestly and critically with social issues, especially those arising during times of great political upheaval and change.

Free Public Domain Versions of A Tale of Two Cities 

A Tale of Two Cities is available in its entirety free online because it is in the public domain (the work was not originally copyrighted, the registered copyright has expired, or the author has been dead for more than 100 years; like the Bible and the works of Shakespeare, the book is considered to belong to the public). Since it is not possible to copyright a work already in the public domain, some publishers provide a short author BIO, an Introduction, or footnotes to the work; publishers can then copyright that particular edition of the public domain work.

Gutenberg, Standard Ebooks, WikiSource, and the University of Adelaide (where you can search by author or title) are all dedicated to keeping public domain books completely free of charge and available to all readers: you can search these sites by author or title of the book.

You can read A Tale of Two Cities online or download a copy from the following sites:

• Standard Ebooks provides a quality edited version with an artwork cover, available in ePub, Kindle, Nook, Kobo, and Sony editions. Detailed instructions for which version to download and how to put the book on your portable e-reader are included.

• The University of Adelaide provides a short biography of Dickens and has the complete book available to download, read online,  or as ePub and Kindle books.

• Gutenberg.org provides HTML version  (which can be read online) as well as PDF, plain text, ePub, and Kindle versions, all of which can be downloaded.

• WikiSource provides the 1898 edition, also called the Gadshill Edition, with the original illustrations, available 0nline, for any device, while Wikipedia’s Tale of Two Cities has several of the book’s original illustrations along with the plot summary and character list.

• Amazon currently has a free Kindle ebook, but before clicking Buy, make sure the price is still $0.00 as Amazon, which is not a non-profit organization, has a tendency to charge for any public domain books that are being frequently downloaded.

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• Photo of Charles Dickens at desk, 1858, by Watkins. Photo @ Wikipedia

• Cover of 1859 edition of A Tale of Two Cities, published by Chapman & Hall.
Photo ©  Christie’s Auction House; Reproduction of Photo @ Wikipedia

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