A Tale of Two Cities

A Tale of Two Cities Summary and Analysis of Book I, Chapters 1-4

Chapter 1: The Period

The year is 1775 and the settings are London and Paris, two lands ruled by monarchs. England is on the brink of the American Revolution. The French Revolution seems inevitable, with trees waiting to be converted to guillotines and the spirit of rebellion silently infecting the countryside. Similar disturbances are common across England, with highway robberies on the increase and thievery reaching all the way into high society. Executions are common for both minor and major offenses.

Chapter 2: The Mail

Mr. Jarvis Lorry, a confidential clerk at Tellson's Bank of London, is on his way to Dover in a mail-coach. It is a cold night and he is wrapped up to the ears, so his physical appearance is concealed from his fellow-passengers, all of whom are strangers. The coachman fears his passengers just as they fear one another, since highway robberies are exceedingly common and any of them could be in league with robbers. So when he hears a horse galloping towards the coach on the road, he becomes fearful.

Jerry Cruncher, the rider of the horse, asks for Mr. Lorry, giving him a paper message to wait at Dover for a young lady. Mr. Lorry's cryptic reply is, "recalled to life." After this exchange, Mr. Lorry gets back in the coach, which continues to Dover. Jerry pauses and reflects on the long, hard gallop he had from London and muses to himself that he has been given a very strange message.

Chapter 3: The Night Shadows

The chapter opens with a reflection on the fact that all humans are mysteries to one another, despite the availability of their outer appearances. The three passengers remain a mystery to one another as they advance upon Dover. Jerry Cruncher returns to Temple Bar remaining uneasy about the cryptic message.

Mr. Lorry dozes off and begins to dream in the coach, imagining the comforting environment of Tellson's Bank. He is then confronted by what he calls a spectre: a man who has been buried for eighteen years and has dug his way out. A conversation that Mr. Lorry's brain repeats three times with this spectre confirms that he has been buried for eighteen years. As the sun rises, Mr. Lorry wakes up from his dream and surveys the vivid countryside, pitying a man who would be locked away from nature for eighteen years.

Chapter 4: The Preparation

Mr. Lorry arrives in Dover in the mail coach, settles in, and takes his breakfast alone in the coffee-room. A conversation with a waiter establishes that Tellson's Bank operates both in London and Paris, but Mr. Lorry has not traveled to Paris for fifteen years. Mr. Lorry finishes his breakfast, strolls by the ocean, and then returns for a bottle of claret. His peace is disrupted by a lady referred to as Mam'selle (Miss Manette), who requests to see him immediately.

He sees her in her room and expresses emotion at the sight of her, recalling that he carried her as a babe in arms across the Channel. Miss Manette is an orphan whose financial affairs are managed by Tellson's Bank, and she was informed that Mr. Lorry would accompany her on a journey to France--and that he would have some surprising news for her. After a few false starts, Mr. Lorry manages to compose himself and tell Miss Manette that her French father (who had married an Englishwoman, who was Miss Manette's mother) was still alive in France. He was recovered after years of imprisonment and is now living in the house of an old servant in Paris.

Miss Manette understands what a wreck her father must be, and she is distressed to imagine that she is being carried to see her father's ghost, rather than her real father. Mr. Lorry describes their mission as one to spirit him away from France to England--and that they should avoid naming the matter, explaining the rescue as the enigmatic experience of being "recalled to life." Miss Manette is overcome, and she swoons. Her servant comes to her rescue, pushing Mr. Lorry out of the way to administer smelling-salts.


In what is one of the most famous opening lines in modern literature ("It was the best of times, it was the worst of times..."), Dickens captures the extremes of idealism and terror of the revolutionary period of the late 18th century. With the exception of figures of historical significance, in particular the monarchs, no characters directly related to the plot are introduced in this opening, reflecting Dickens's choice to focus on the setting rather than the characterization of individuals in this historical novel.

Dickens refers obliquely, rather than directly, to the historical figures and events of the period, giving his introduction a fable-like quality. Rather than naming the monarchs and openly discussing the American Revolution, he refers to the "king with a large jaw and queen with a plain face" in England, the "king with a large jaw and queen with a fair face" in France, and a "congress of British subjects in America." Death is personified as a Farmer and Fate as a Woodman, powers who silently work their way through the French countryside. The distance provided by the tone of a fable was desirable for Dickens since his novel followed the historical events so closely in time. A Tale of Two Cities was published just 67 years after the events it describes. While the horrors of the French Revolution have been eclipsed for modern readers by the world wars and genocides of the twentieth century, the terrors of the French Revolution were the horror story of Dickens's time. His indirect tone helps his readers gain distance from an event that they would have contemplated and debated many times before.

Dickens postulates the historical inevitability of the French Revolution, illustrating that despite the monarchs' complacency in their divine right, discontentment was growing in the countryside. He does not describe the same inevitability of rebellion in England, however, just the widespread feeling of lawlessness exemplified in the second chapter. Knowing that there was no comparable rebellion or even labor unrest in England at the end of the eighteenth century, Dickens portrays English society as dangerous but not lethal. Even so, there is a lack of proportion in England as demonstrated by executions for offenders ranging from murderers to "wretched pilferers." The injustice of equal treatment for unequal crimes reflects Dickens' ever-present concern with social justice, but it hardly compares with the unrest and injustices in France.

With this contrast in the direness of social and criminal situations in the two countries, Dickens sets up a dichotomy that is to dominate the rest of the novel. With likeable but somewhat undeveloped individuals, the focus of the text is ever on the setting and the communities, the historical period as much as the plot itself. The title of A Tale of Two Cities is crucial for interpretation of the novel, suggesting that the opposing cities of Paris and London constitute the true protagonists of the novel, transcending the importance of the main characters.

The first chapter only acknowledges in the last sentence that the narrative is to be a "chronicle" rather than pure history, when the narrator recognizes that the year 1775 included profound changes not only for the monarchs of France and England, but also for the "myriad of small creatures-the creatures of this chronicle among the rest-along the roads that lay before them." The historical novelist's role will humanize the great historical events of the day by narrating them through the lives of individuals. He links the inevitability of the Revolution to the inevitability of smaller events in individual lives, and the heavy hand of Fate will remain highly visible throughout the rest of the novel.

The real story begins in Chapter 2, introducing the setting of misty fear that permeates the rest of the novel. This gloom links Dickens's work with the earlier Gothic movement in literature. The sense of fear and uncertainty that the characters feel on the road is picked up later in the plot line of Charles Darnay's accusation. A highway was one of the most fearful places that a gentleman could travel, because they were plagued by highway robbers who would hold up and raid the coaches. Dickens evokes this sense of fear by projecting it onto the natural characteristics of the road, using figures of speech: the mist is "like an evil spirit" and "as the waves of an unwholesome sea." Such dangerous or supernatural imagery helps build up the horror of the arrival of Jerry Cruncher on horseback, making his entrance quite dramatic.

Chapter 2 is not all ominous darkness, however. Dickens undercuts the dramatic scene with his characteristic wit. He ironically describes the condition of the passengers' fear for one another and the guard, and the guard's fear of everyone but his horses, as the Dover coaches' "usual genial position." This idea suggests that the state of fear is so commonplace that it has become expected, even verging on pleasant. Dickens also comically describes the animalistic behavior of the other passengers of the coach when they feel that their physical safety is threatened. They "more swiftly than politely" help Mr. Lorry out of the coach, and they only reluctantly allow him back in--after they have stored away their valuables in their boots.

Chapter 2 also is filled with auditory details; not much visual information is available on a dark road. The horses snorting and the audible beating hearts of the passengers highlight the drama of a dark road more even than a description of darkness could do. Dialogue dominates, and Dickens uses the Shakespearean device of distinguishing the various social classes in a text by their accents and elevation of their speech. The coachman's oaths ("My blood!") and noises ("Tst! Yah!") as well as the guard's ungrammatical language ("If so be as you're quick, sir") are faithfully and phonetically transcribed. Mr. Lorry's membership in a different class altogether is made obvious in his first sentence ("There is nothing to apprehend"), and he continues to speak in grammatical sentences without the use of slang.

A Tale of Two Cities was produced in serial form, so it was in Dickens's interest to end each chapter with a cliffhanger so that his readers would purchase the next installment. The cliffhanger in "The Mail" is the suggestion that Jerry Cruncher is a killer because he is haunted by the great amount of trouble he would be in, should the dead come back to life. His mannerisms reveal this guilt, as he unmuffles himself only to pour liquor into his mouth, and then quickly covers his face again. His eyes betray his inner guilt, "being...much too near together-as if they were afraid of being found out in something singly if they kept too far apart."

In Chapter 3, an unidentified first-person narrator elaborates the theme of disjunction between people's appearance and their nature, giving it a political gloss. The fear caused by the unknown seems to be justified, because the multiplicity of people's secret hearts is associated with an "awfulness" akin to "Death itself." Urban settings, which Dickens criticized greatly, exacerbate this horror by putting many dark secrets in close proximity. The narrator bemoans the fact that he will never get to know a person thoroughly--a part will always remain secret. Still, these secrets are equally available to all men, in that the messenger has "the same possessions as the King, the first Minister of State, or the richest merchant in London."

Despite people's secrets, the facades of Dickensian characters usually reflects their inner lives quite fairly. For example, in Oliver Twist, the great scene of betrayal occurs when Nancy uses her attractive and honest appearance to attract Oliver into a group of bandits. That her outer beauty echoes an inner beauty is vindicated by the fact that she later repents and deceives Sikes to assist Oliver.

Mr. Lorry's first dream identifies the motif of money and business that characterizes him for the rest of the novel. Mr. Lorry uses business as a watchword of comfort when he gets into situations that make him nervous. He is rattled by the business that he must undertake when he arrives in Dover, so he comforts himself by imagining the sound of the harness as the "chink of money" and the carriage as a strong-room where he could check that his customers' valuables are safe. That business is a safety net for Mr. Lorry, a neutral place that no one should fear, is illustrated later in the text when he is confronted with emotionally charged situations. At such times, Mr. Lorry mutters the word "business" repeatedly to brace himself for a challenge or to try to reassure others.

The dominant theme of Chapter 4 is that of disorder overcoming order. Mr. Lorry's actions upon his arrival in Dover reinforce the reader's previous impression of him as a man who can be trusted to act according to convention and pattern. He turns down the head drawer's suggestion that he rest, saying that he won't go to bed until night. But the orderliness of his person is opposed by outside forces, as manifest in the small detail of the regular ticking of his watch, "as though it pitted its gravity and longevity against the levity and evanescence of the fire."

In the beginning of Chapter 4, everything is ordered according to Mr. Lorry's expectations. When he drops off to sleep, this "completes his resemblance to a man who was sitting for his portrait." The waiter watches Mr. Lorry comfortably, "according to the immemorial usage of waiters in all ages." This orderliness is disturbed when the ritual of his meal is interrupted by Miss Mannette's request to see him immediately. The extent to which he relies on familiar patterns is hyperbolized in the description of his reaction to this too early summons as "stolid desperation." Though he is at first pleased with her, recognizing the meaning of her social conventions ("she curtseyed to him...with a pretty desire to convey to him that she felt how much older and wiser he was than she"), he becomes rapidly distressed when recognizable social conventions break down. When she becomes distraught and kneels as she hears the truth, he gets quite upset with the breach of convention, asking, "In heaven's name why should you kneel to me?"

This triumph of disorder is associated with the novel's geographic movement toward France. The dichotomy described in the first chapter between England the dangerous and France the truly lethal is again evident; the details associated with disorder are particularly French. The closeness of location to France is evident in that the weather occasionally clears up enough to allow a view of the French coast. The wild sea, a symbol of disorder, rages at the cliffs "madly," seemingly sent from France. Corruption, evidenced by the fact that men who did no trade would suddenly become wealthy, is connected to the sea trade--and thus also with France. Mr. Lorry highlights corruption as particularly French, insinuating that the horror of Dr. Manette's predicament was only possible "across the water."

The atmosphere that Dickens creates is revealed in smaller details first. Dickens wants to emphasize the death and burial themes. Darkness represents death; hence, the room in which Lorry and Miss Manette meet is a very dark room, ill lit and filled with dark trimmings. Any light that shines in the rooms in absorbed, or "buried" by the mahogany table. The cupids in the room are made of dark materials, and they are in varying states of "death" (or disrepair), from maimed to decapitated. The beheaded cupids also hint at the final source of death within the novel: the terror of the guillotine.

As a writer of serialized popular novels, Dickens uses not only cliffhangers, but also extensive foreshadowing, which creates further suspense. Reading in the nineteenth century was a more social activity than it is in modern times, and it was not uncommon for installments to be read out loud for the benefit of members of the family who were illiterate. Heavy foreshadowing complemented this social reception of the novels, allowing the group to argue over the implications of what was written and what might happen next. Dickens foreshadows the fact that the "recalled to life" message is related to Miss Manette in the description of her room. Her connection with the once "buried" man is evident in the dark "funereal" furnishings of her room, and the candles on the burnished dark table are "gloomily reflected on every leaf as if they were buried."