A Tale of Two Cities is one of only two works of historical fiction by Charles Dickens (the second being Barnaby Rudge ). It has fewer characters and sub-plots than a typical Dickens novel. Dickens relies much on The French Revolution: A History by Thomas Carlyle as a historical source. Dickens wrote in his Preface to Tale that "no one can hope to add anything to the philosophy of Mr. Carlyle's wonderful book".
The 45-chapter novel was published in 31 weekly instalments in Dickens's new literary periodical titled All the Year Round. From April 1859 to November 1859, Dickens also republished the chapters as eight monthly sections in green covers. All but three of Dickens's previous novels had appeared only as monthly instalments. The first weekly instalment of A Tale of Two Cities ran in the first issue of All the Year Round on 30 April 1859. The last ran thirty weeks later, on 26 November.
Dickens uses literal translations of French idioms for characters who cannot speak English, such as "What the devil do you do in that galley there?!!" and "Where is my wife? ---Here you see me." The Penguin Classics edition of the novel notes that "Not all readers have regarded the experiment as a success."
A Tale of Two Cities stands out from most of Dickens's other novels as the one containing the least humour. That is not surprising, as the historical context and focus of the novel, the French Reign of Terror, might be too bleak to allow for the more humorous characters Dickens is often known for. Still, Dickens, in his usual manner, manages to find the opportunity to make a number of wry comments about various aspects of the era and of the bleaker side of people's behaviour. If a humorous character is to be found anywhere in the novel, it would likely be Jerry Cruncher; however, his occupation as a "resurrectionist" (grave-robber) and his abuse of his wife casts a more sinister light on his character.