Book the First: Recalled to Life
Dickens's famous opening sentence introduces the universal approach of the book, the French Revolution, and the drama depicted within:
"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.
As a result of his long imprisonment, Dr. Manette suffers a form of psychosis, an obsession with making shoes, a skill he learned in prison to distract himself from his thoughts. At first, he does not recognise his daughter, whose existence he was unaware of; but he eventually recognises her similarity to her mother, through her blue eyes and long golden hair (a strand of which he found on his sleeve when he was incarcerated). Mr. Lorry and Miss Manette take Dr. Manette back with them to England.
Book the Second: The Golden Thread
Five years later, two British spies, John Barsad (later determined to be Solomon Pross) and Roger Cly, are trying to frame French émigré Charles Darnay for their own gain; and Darnay is on trial for treason at the Old Bailey. They claim, falsely, that Darnay gave information about British troops in North America to the French. Darnay is acquitted, however, when Barsad, who claims he would be able to recognise Darnay anywhere, is unable to tell Darnay apart from a barrister present in court, Sydney Carton, who looks almost identical to him.
In Paris, the despised Marquis St. Evrémonde orders his carriage driven recklessly fast through the crowded streets, hitting and killing the child of a peasant, Gaspard. The Marquis throws a coin to Gaspard to compensate him for his loss. Defarge, a witness to the incident, comforts Gaspard. As the Marquis's coach drives off, the coin thrown to Gaspard is thrown back into the coach by an unknown hand, probably that of Madame Defarge, enraging the Marquis.
Arriving at his château, the Marquis meets with his nephew and heir, Darnay. (Out of disgust with his family, Darnay shed his real surname and adopted an Anglicised version of his mother's maiden name, D'Aulnais.) The following scene demonstrates the Marquis's thoughts:
"Repression is the only lasting philosophy. The dark deference of fear and slavery, my friend," observed the Marquis, "will keep the dogs obedient to the whip, as long as this roof," looking up to it, "shuts out the sky."
That night, Gaspard, who followed the Marquis to his château by riding on the underside of the carriage, stabs and kills the Marquis in his sleep. He leaves a note on the knife saying, "Drive him fast to his tomb. This, from JACQUES." After nine months on the run, he is caught, and hanged above the village fountain.
In London, Darnay gets Dr. Manette's permission to wed Lucie; but Carton confesses his love to Lucie as well. Knowing she will not love him in return, Carton promises to "embrace any sacrifice for you and for those dear to you".
On the morning of the marriage, Darnay reveals his real name and who his family is, a detail which Dr. Manette had asked him to withhold. In consequence Dr. Manette reverts to his obsessive shoemaking. His sanity is restored before Lucie returns from her honeymoon and the whole incident kept secret from her. Lorry and Miss Pross destroy the shoemaking bench and tools, which Dr. Manette had brought with him from Paris.
It is 14 July 1789. The Defarges help to lead the storming of the Bastille, a symbol of royal tyranny. Defarge enters Dr. Manette's former cell, "One Hundred and Five, North Tower". The reader does not know what Monsieur Defarge is searching for until Book 3, Chapter 10. It is a statement in which Dr. Manette explains why he was imprisoned.
As time passes in England, Lucie and Charles begin to raise a family, a son (who dies in childhood) and a daughter, little Lucie. Lorry finds a second home and a sort of family with the Darnays. Stryver, who once had intentions to marry Lucie, marries a rich widow with three children and becomes even more insufferable as his ambitions begin to be realised. Carton, even though he seldom visits, is accepted as a close friend of the family and becomes a special favourite of little Lucie.
Book the Third: The Track of a Storm
Darnay, being called by a former servant who has been unjustly imprisoned, decides to come back to France to free him. But shortly after his arrival, he is denounced for being an emigrated aristocrat from France and imprisoned in La Force Prison in Paris. Dr. Manette and Lucie—along with Miss Pross, Jerry Cruncher, and "Little Lucie", the daughter of Charles and Lucie Darnay—come to Paris and meet Mr. Lorry to try to free Darnay. A year and three months pass, and Darnay is finally tried.
Dr. Manette, viewed as a hero for his imprisonment in the hated Bastille, successfully pleads for his release; but Darnay is immediately arrested again. He is put on trial again the following day, under new charges brought by the Defarges and one "unnamed other", soon learned to be Dr. Manette, through the written account of his imprisonment at the hands of Darnay's father. Manette is horrified when his words are used to condemn Darnay.
On an errand, Miss Pross is amazed to see her long-lost brother, Solomon Pross; but Solomon does not want to be recognised. Sydney Carton suddenly steps forward from the shadows and identifies Solomon Pross as John Barsad, one of the men who tried to frame Darnay for treason at the Old Bailey trial. Carton threatens to reveal Solomon's identity as a Briton and an opportunist who spies for the French or the British as it suits him.
Darnay is confronted at the tribunal by Monsieur Defarge, who identifies Darnay as the nephew of Marquis St. Evrémonde and reads the letter Dr. Manette had hidden in his cell in the Bastille. Defarge can identify Darnay as Evrémonde because Barsad told him Darnay's identity when Barsad was fishing for information at the Defarges' wine shop in Book 2, Chapter 16.
The letter describes how Dr. Manette was locked away in the Bastille by Darnay's father and his uncle for trying to report their crimes against a peasant family. Darnay's uncle had become infatuated with a girl, whom he had kidnapped and raped. Despite Dr. Manette's attempts to save her, she died. The uncle then killed her husband by working him to death, and her father died from a heart attack on being informed of what had happened. Before he died defending the family honour, the brother of the raped peasant had hidden the last member of the family, his younger sister. The letter also reveals that Dr. Manette was imprisoned because the Evrémonde brothers discovered that they could not bribe him to keep quiet. The paper concludes by condemning the Evrémondes, "them and their descendants, to the last of their race". Dr. Manette is horrified, but his protests are ignored—he is not allowed to take back his condemnation. Darnay is sent to the Conciergerie and sentenced to be guillotined the next day.
Carton wanders into the Defarges' wine shop, where he overhears Madame Defarge talking about her plans to have the rest of Darnay's family (Lucie and "Little Lucie") condemned. Carton discovers that Madame Defarge was the surviving sister of the peasant family savaged by the Evrémondes. At night, when Dr. Manette returns, shattered after spending the day in many failed attempts to save Charles' life, he has reverted to his obsessive search for his shoemaking implements. Carton urges Lorry to flee Paris with Lucie, her father, and Little Lucie, asking them to leave as soon as he joins them in the coach.
That same morning, Carton visits Darnay in prison. Carton drugs Darnay, and Barsad (whom Carton is blackmailing) has Darnay carried out of the prison. Carton has decided to switch places with Darnay (whom he still greatly resembles) and be executed in his place. Following Carton's earlier instructions, Darnay's family and Lorry flee Paris and France. In their coach is an unconscious Darnay, wearing Carton's clothes and carrying Carton's identification papers.
Meanwhile, Madame Defarge, armed with a pistol, goes to the Manette residence, hoping to catch them illegally mourning Darnay, an enemy of the Republic; however, the family is already gone. To give them time to escape, Miss Pross confronts Madame Defarge and they struggle. In the struggle, Madame Defarge's pistol goes off, killing her; the noise of the shot and the shock of Madame Defarge's death cause Miss Pross to go permanently deaf.
The novel concludes with the guillotining of Sydney Carton. As he is waiting to board the tumbril, he is approached by a seamstress, also condemned to death, who mistakes him for Darnay but, upon getting close, realises the truth. Awed by his unselfish courage and sacrifice, she asks to stay close to him and he agrees. Upon their arrival at the guillotine, Carton comforts her, telling her that their ends will be quick but that there is no Time or Trouble "in the better land where ... [they] will be mercifully sheltered", and she is able to meet her death in peace. Carton's unspoken last thoughts are prophetic:
- I see Barsad, ... Defarge, The Vengeance [a lieutenant of Madame Defarge], ... long ranks of the new oppressors who have risen on the destruction of the old, perishing by this retributive instrument, before it shall cease out of its present use. I see a beautiful city and a brilliant people rising from this abyss, and, in their struggles to be truly free, in their triumphs and defeats, through long years to come, I see the evil of this time and of the previous time of which this is the natural birth, gradually making expiation for itself and wearing out.
- I see the lives for which I lay down my life, peaceful, useful, prosperous and happy, in that England which I shall see no more. I see Her with a child upon her bosom, who bears my name. I see her father, aged and bent, but otherwise restored, and faithful to all men in his healing office, and at peace. I see the good old man [Mr. Lorry], so long their friend, in ten years' time enriching them with all he has, and passing tranquilly to his reward.
- I see that I hold a sanctuary in their hearts, and in the hearts of their descendants, generations hence. I see her, an old woman, weeping for me on the anniversary of this day. I see her and her husband, their course done, lying side by side in their last earthly bed, and I know that each was not more honoured and held sacred in the other's soul, than I was in the souls of both.
- I see that child who lay upon her bosom and who bore my name, a man winning his way up in that path of life which once was mine. I see him winning it so well, that my name is made illustrious there by the light of his. I see the blots I threw upon it, faded away. I see him, fore-most of just judges and honoured men, bringing a boy of my name, with a forehead that I know and golden hair, to this place—then fair to look upon, with not a trace of this day's disfigurement—and I hear him tell the child my story, with a tender and a faltering voice.
- 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.