A Tale of Two Cities

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It is a far, far better thing...

A Tale of Two Cities is a novel written by Charles Dickens first published in 1859, dealing with the events of The French Revolution and their impact on the lives of a number of fictional characters living at the time. The two cities of the title are London and Paris: London is seen in the book as a bastion of order, and Paris as a symbol of lawlessness.

Lucie Manette, a young Frenchwoman living in England, is told her father who has been lost for sixteen years, presumed dead, is alive, albeit insane, and she has to come see him to see if her presence can restore his sanity. She later marries Charles Darnay, who, unknown to her family, is the son of a deceased Marquis in France. When he receives a letter from France calling upon him to go save one of his former servants, France draws him in, and attempts to execute him. At the same time, Sydney Carton, a man who looks as if he were Darnay's twin separated at birth, tries to redeem his wasted life.

The novel has one of the most famous opening lines in literature:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

The final scene includes a line that is almost as famous: "It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to, than I have ever known". Context would be a spoiler.

Dickens' novel was largely inspired by his reading of Thomas Carlyle's The French Revolution: A History, and took from it the sense of the Revolution as an elemental eruption of the human spirit when pushed too far. Dickens, however, unlike Carlyle, sympathized with the ends, though not the conduct, of the Revolution, and offers a glimpse of hope that after the Robespierres and Defarges have died off, France itself would rise a free and happy Republic. (Yeah, that didn't work out too well.)

Tropes used in A Tale of Two Cities include:
  • The Alcoholic: Sydney Carton to a T, and Mr. Stryver. While doing paperwork well into the night, Stryver becomes increasingly inebriated, while Sydney seems to become even more efficient.
  • Anti-Hero: Sydney starts off as Type I.
  • Asshole Victim: Darnay's uncle. Unsurprisingly, no one's upset when the pissed off father murders him.
  • Ax Crazy: Most of the violent revolutionaries, such as The Vengeance. In particular, a group who gather around a blade sharpener in preparation for another round of slaughter, all the while wearing women's clothing and having glued pubic hair beards to their faces.
    • Madame Defarge herself takes a break from her knitting to personally chop off the head of a prisoner with her knife and stomp his body into the ground. She is usually armed with more than one weapon, including an actual AXE at one point!
  • Babies Ever After
  • Beauty Equals Goodness: Played straight with Lucie, averted with Jerry Cruncher.
  • Blue Blood
  • Big Fancy House: The Marquis owns a dazzling chateau, which turns out to make great firewood...
  • Bittersweet Ending: And how.
  • Brilliant but Lazy: Subverted with Sydney Carton. He is quite skilled at his job and does it very diligently, but he allows Stryver to take all the credit for the cases they win. Not to mention, of course, that he is the only one able to save Charles Darnay and get the rest of the family out of France at the end of the book. He only pretends to be lazy, as in this exchange:

Sydney: Business! Bless you, I have no business.
Mr. Lorry: If you had, perhaps you would attend to it.
Sydney: Lord love you, no! - I shouldn't.

  • British English: Jerry Cruncher speaks in such a thick cockney accent that it is almost impossible to decipher what he is talking about most of the time.
  • Bullet Holes and Revelations: During the struggle between Miss Pross and Madame Defarge over a gun, it goes off. It takes a few lines to find out where the shot went.
  • Butt Monkey: Sydney Carton, although he admittedly does this to himself.
  • Buy Them Off
  • Casanova Wannabe: Stryver
  • Chekhov's Gun: The Carton/Darnay resemblance, which Sydney uses to take the latter's place on the Guillotine.
    • Also, Cruncher's graverobbing. It gets mentioned in one chapter, but doesn't become relevant until it turns out that Cruncher had tried to rob Cly's grave and found no corpse.
  • Companion Cube: A somber example Played for Drama: The shoemaker's bench and tools are this for Doctor Manette. Manette refers to him as a friend and deplores its destruction. When Lorry and Miss Prost destroy the shoemakers’s bench, they also treat him like something alive:

On the night of the day on which he left the house, Mr. Lorry went into his room with a chopper, saw, chisel, and hammer, attended by Miss Pross carrying a light. There, with closed doors, and in a mysterious and guilty manner, Mr. Lorry hacked the shoemaker's bench to pieces, while Miss Pross held the candle as if she were assisting at a murder -- for which, indeed, in her grimness, she was no unsuitable figure. The burning of the body (previously reduced to pieces convenient for the purpose) was commenced without delay in the kitchen fire; and the tools, shoes, and leather, were buried in the garden. So wicked do destruction and secrecy appear to honest minds, that Mr. Lorry and Miss Pross, while engaged in the commission of their deed and in the removal of its traces, almost felt, and almost looked, like accomplices in a horrible crime.

  • Contrived Coincidence: Darnay just happened to board the same boat that Dr. Manette is on. The same doctor who years earlier, came to treat a dying peasant girl --Mme. Defarge's sister-- at the Evrémonde estate. Dickensian destiny at work.
  • Cool Old Guy: Mr. Lorry
  • The Cynic: Sydney Carton.
  • Dark Action Girl: While this isn't a book defined by action, Mme. Defarge fits the description pretty well.
  • Dark and Troubled Past: Whoo boy. Pretty much everyone has one of these, but to name a few: (beware of major spoilers!)
    • Charles Darnay: is actually a French aristocrat, Charles St. Evrémonde, whose family is infamous for its mistreatment of the poor. He renounces his title and wealth, moves to England and attempts to live a new life.
    • Sydney Carton: His mother died when he was young. He "followed his father to the grave," and otherwise never felt at home anywhere. He always did other people's work at university, and never took credit when it was due to him. The result is his alcoholism and self-deprecatory attitude.
    • Dr. Manette: is wrongly imprisoned in the Bastille for 18 years by Darnay's father and uncle, causing him to write a manifesto that would later sentence his son-in-law to the Guillotine.
    • Madame Defarge: It was her older sister who was raped and ultimately killed by Darnay's uncle. Her brother died defending her honor, and her father died of grief. Thus Defarge swore vengeance against all of the Evrémondes.
  • Dead Guy, Junior: Lucie and Charles' first son gets named for Sydney.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Sydney Carton.

Stryver: Sydney, I rather despair of making myself intelligible to you, because you are such an insensible dog.
Sydney: And you are such a sensitive and poetical spirit.

  • Death by Irony: One of the nobles proclaimed that the starving peasants could just eat grass. The rebels make sure to stuff grass in his mouth as they drag him to his death.
  • Disproportionate Restitution: A nobleman in a speeding carriage crushes a child and flips a coin onto the street for the grieving father.
  • Domestic Abuser: One of the many hints that Cruncher is not a nice guy.
  • Dying Alone: Averted when Sydney Carton talks with a seamstress on the tumbrel, confides the truth, and encourages her in facing death. He succeeds. Similarly, see Stay with Me Until I Die.

"I mind nothing while I hold your hand. I shall mind nothing when I let it go, if they are rapid."
"They will be rapid. Fear not!"

  • Even Evil Has Standards: Even the vicious revolutionary Ernest Defarge has his qualms about executing children
  • Face Death with Dignity
  • Faking the Dead: Cly faked his own death. Cruncher, graverobber that he is, is able to use this as blackmail against his partner.
  • Famous Last Words / Final Speech: Granted, they were more like final thoughts rather than spoken words.
  • A Friend in Need
  • Grave Robbing: Jerry Cruncher's side job.
  • Gun Struggle: Mrs. Pross vs. Madame Defarge
  • Heroic BSOD: Mrs. Pross is an Actual Pacifist, who develops hysterical deafness after accidentally killing Madame Defarge.
    • In addition, Dr. Manette's mind collapses after his "lost" narrative from his imprisonment, in which he denounces the Evrémondes, resurfaces as the clinching testimony against his son-in-law, Darnay.
  • Heroic Sacrifice / It Was His Sled: See Above. Carton and Darnay look like twin brothers if dressed similar.
  • He Who Fights Monsters / Knight Templar: Madame Defarge. After her death, Vengeance wonders where she is, and Dickens mockingly suggests sending messengers after her. "It is questionable whether of their own will they will go far enough to find her!"
  • Hoist by His Own Petard / Karmic Death: Madame Defarge is shot by her own pistol. Many of the revolutionaries were eventually killed by their own guillotine, which is Truth in Television.
  • Honor Before Reason: Darnay rushes back to France to aid a former servant in need. Without telling anyone. During the French Revolution. Silly Charles.
    • Both Madame Defarge's older brother and sister refuse to reveal their family name to Dr. Manette so that they can retain some honor, despite the possibility that he could have alert authorities about the crimes committed against them.
  • I Am Spartacus: The members of La Résistance all refer to each other as Jacques Number (their number).
  • Identical Grandson: Besides looking like Carton (see Identical Stranger) despite having a totally different personality, Darnay also looks a whole lot like his relative The Marquis, and is also totally different from him personality-wise.
  • Identical Stranger
  • I Have This Friend: Played with when Mr. Lorry consults Dr. Manette about the case of a friend’s mental shock. The case is not about Mr. Lorry, is about Dr. Manette himself, who has experienced a Heroic BSOD and in the verge of a Sanity Slippage that only has been avoided by the use of his Companion Cube.

"Doctor Manette," said Mr. Lorry, touching him affectionately on the arm, "the case is the case of a particularly dear friend of mine. Pray give your mind to it, and advise me well for his sake -- and above all, for his daughter's -- his daughter's, my dear Manette."
"If I understand," said the Doctor, in a subdued tone, "some mental shock -- ?"
"Yes!"
"Be explicit," said the Doctor. "Spare no detail."

  • Improbable Hairstyle: Dickens remarks that the world champion at leap-frog would refuse to jump over Cruncher. Hair that spiky would present too much of a risk.
  • Incorruptible Pure Pureness: Lucie Manette. Arguably Charles Darnay.
  • The Ingenue: Lucie Manette.
  • I Want My Beloved to Be Happy: Carton's obsession with Lucie motivates him to take her husband's place at the guillotine.
  • Kangaroo Court: Carton saves Darnay from one in London, but there are plenty more in Paris, and they're even less just.
  • Kick the Dog: Done by both the nobles and the revolting peasants.
  • Knight in Shining Armor: Charles Darnay. He leaves the life of luxury for moral reasons, returns to an unstable country to save a former servant, and gets the girl. What a swell guy.
  • Knight Templar: The Defarges
  • Living Emotional Crutch: Lucie is this for her father for most of the novel. In the beginning, without her presence, Dr. Manette is reduced to his old, solitary prison habits of making shoes.
  • Malicious Slander
  • Missing Mom: Lucie Manette. Charles Darnay. Everyone, really.
  • More Expendable Than You: Carton's self-sacrifice at the end is probably the most famous example of this trope.
  • Names to Run Away From Really Fast: The Vengeance.
  • Nay Theist: Cruncher doesn't really understand religion, and as such mocks it, but he believes in God enough that he's afraid of the consequences if his wife starts praying for his death.
  • Ninja Maid: Miss Pross is a bit like this.
  • Noble Fugitive: Though his exile is self-inflicted, Charles Darnay is, in fact, an aristocrat of a different name.
  • Noble Male, Roguish Male: Darnay (Noble) and Carton (Roguish)
  • Off with His Head: During the French Revolution, and in the book, nobles and "criminals" were (supposedly) publicly executed each day by the guillotine.
  • Orphan's Ordeal: This is largely the plot of Book I: Recalled to Life, in which Lucie is reunited with her thought-to-be-dead father.
  • Politically-Correct History: Credit to Mr. Dickens though, he didn't make the French Revolutionaries out to be as Ax Crazy and unjustified as most of his contemporaries did.
  • The Power of Love: Not literally power, but the book outright states that Miss Pross is able to overcome Defarge through the power of love.
  • Psycho for Hire: Madame Defarge.
  • Psycho Supporter: The Vengeance - who has no other name than that.
  • Rebel Relaxation: Try to find a scene where Sydney isn't leaning on a wall, a window, or some other piece of furniture.
  • Reign of Terror: Well, duh.
  • Revenge by Proxy / Sins of Our Fathers: Madam Defarge towards Darnay's entire family.
  • The Revolution Will Not Be Civilized: France is (in the typical British style) portrayed as being absolutely insane at the time period. Dickens actually takes a third option--neither side is justified, and there are good and bad people among the rich and the poor. However, he declares that the actions of the nobles led directly to the atrocities committed against them. (Postscripts by modern editors often compare his description of the process to the later rise of a certain Austrian "reformer.")
  • Roaring Rampage of Revenge: Arguably the majority of the Revolutionaries.
  • Tender Tears: Lucie Manette, meant to showcase her sensitivity and compassion. In her favor, she very rarely cries for herself.
  • Token Evil Teammate: Cruncher, though he (presumably) reforms at the end.
  • Too Dumb to Live: Darnay.
  • Twin Switch: Although not twins, Sydney Carton switches places with Charles Darnay to avoid Darnay's execution.
    • Used from the start to get Charles out of prison. Sydney forces Charles' accusors to admit they can't identify him since he looks identical to Sydney.
  • Stay with Me Until I Die: Sydney Carton promises to hold the hand of the innocent Seamstress until the end. He even talks with her during the entire ride to the guillotine, taking special care to distract her from it.

"O you will let me hold your brave hand, stranger?"
"Hush! Yes, my poor sister; to the last."

  • Suspiciously Specific Denial: Lorry remarks at one point that a night is one to raise the dead to refer the thunderstorm. Cruncher says that he's never seen such a thing.
  • What Beautiful Eyes!: Lucie's pretty blue eyes get mentioned quite a few times.
  • Your Princess Is in Another Castle: Dr. Manette is able to get Charles off the hook at his trial in France, despite the latter being an aristocrat. Now everyone can live happily ever after, right? Wrong. Madam Defarge uncovers some papers Manette wrote over 18 years prior denouncing Charles's family, thereby sentencing him to death.