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Literature / A Tale of Two Cities

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It is a far, far better thing...

"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."

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: Paris as a symbol of lawlessness, while London represents Order, albeit containing problems that could, in time, lead to a situation as bad as Paris.

Lucie Manette, a young Frenchwoman living in England, receives news that her father, who has been lost for sixteen years and was presumed dead, is actually alive, albeit insane, and would she please come see him to see if her presence can help 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 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, and the final scene includes a line that is almost as famous, (although context would be a spoiler):

"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."

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. Thomas Carlyle's book was itself a highly romantic and melodramatic work rather than historical so the novel does suffer from Dated History to some extent despite being broadly accurate to the circumstances and events of the French Revolution. Unlike Carlyle, Dickens sympathized with the ends, though not the conduct, of the Revolution, and offers a glimpse of hope that after the extremists meet their end, France itself would rise a free and happy Republic, eventually.


As one of Dickens' most famous works and indeed one of the most famous novels of 19th century English literature, it has been adapted several times. There were no fewer than four silent film adaptations. The most famous adaptation is a 1935 film directed by Jack Conway and starring Ronald Colman as Carton. There was also a 1958 film that featured Christopher Lee and Donald Pleasence in supporting roles, and a well-regarded 1980 BBC series produced under Barry Letts.

If you're looking for the story of Bob Trimbolie and Terry Clark, it's right over here.

Can be read here.

This book provides examples of:

  • 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: Syndey can't be bothered to care about anything, but he finds a cause by the end.
  • Aristocrats Are Evil: Make no mistake, they definitely are. Indeed Darnay feels so guilty that he decides to Shed the Family Name but his family is way more evil than even he suspected and it nearly gets him killed as well.
  • Asshole Victim:
    • Darnay's uncle. He caused the death of Madame's Defarge's entire family, ran over a peasant child and coldly tosses Gaspard a coin to pay for his son's death. Unsurprisingly, no one's upset when the pissed off Gaspard murders him.
    • Most of the early victims of the Revolution are regarded as this, being corrupt nobility in the main.
  • Athens and Sparta: The title invokes this: with London being Athens (a refined classy restrained society) and Paris being Sparta (a city in the middle of a warzone filled with violence and anarchy). Now Dickens does qualify this by insisting that London isn't perfect, noting the class inequality and tensions there, and he presents Paris as merely an instance of what could happen to London if it became as complacent as the French nobility did.
  • Ax-Crazy: At the beginning of the Revolution, the lower classes are described as going kill-crazy on the upper classes, massacring even those they'd already taken prisoner. This is most vividly depicted by 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.
  • Babies Ever After
  • Bang Bang BANG: Miss Pross gets permanently deafened when Madame Defarge's gun goes off during the struggle with her.
  • Beauty = Goodness: Zig-zagged. The Manettes and Darnays are all beautiful people of impeccable morals. However, the trope is inverted just before the final confrontation. Madame Defarge is said to be quite a handsome woman, while Miss Pross is wiry, unattractive and so peculiar-looking that it's hard to notice when she's been beaten up. Also played with in the case of John Barsad, who is described as looking quite handsome but a bit shifty due to an aquiline nose. Turns out that he's really Miss Pross' long lost brother Solomon, who is a scoundrel of the highest order.
  • Best Served Cold: Madame Defarge will silently knit and continue knitting as she watches the aristocrats run roughshod over the people, fully waiting for the day of reckoning when she will remorselessly and pitilessly unleash her vengeance upon them.
  • Big Bad Slippage: Madame Defarge starts out as an ordinary woman with extremist views and eventually becomes a strong leader in the revolution.
  • Big Fancy House: The Marquis owns a dazzling chateau, which turns out to make great firewood...
  • Bilingual Dialogue: Happens In-Universe when Madame Defarge barges into Lucie's house, intending to have her Revenge by Proxy, but is stopped by Miss Pross. The narrator tells us that both women spoke in their native language, but their facial expressions and body language makes their intentions perfectly clear to each other.
  • Bittersweet Ending: And how.
  • Blue Blood: Spilt by the gallon. It is The French Revolution, after all.
  • 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.
  • 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: The Marquis tosses a coin to the father whose child his carriage runs over. He is really offended when that gold coin gets tossed back in to the carriage, rightly seeing it as an action of contempt.
  • 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 this equipment 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: Dickensian destiny at work: Dr. Manette's daughter marries the last heir of the Evremondes, who imprisoned him. His former serving boy Defarge marries the sister of the woman that the Evremondes raped and Manette treated.
  • Cool Old Guy: Mr. Lorry.
  • The Cynic: Sydney Carton.
  • Dark Action Girl: Madame Defarge wields weapons and is one of the most bloodthirsty revolutionaries.
  • Dark and Troubled Past:
    • 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. The sister's husband was worked to death by the Evremonde brothers, their brother died defending her honor, and their father died of grief. Thus Defarge swore vengeance against all of the Evrémondes.
  • Darker and Edgier: There have always been a great many scenes of violence, gritty and dark moments in Dickens' earlier novels but those were always balanced by Dickens' gift for caricature, satire, and humour. A Tale of Two Cities doesn't have the countervailing elements and as such is among Dickens' most serious and darkest books.
  • 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.
  • Designated Girl Fight: Miss Pross and Madame Defarge.
  • The Determinator:
    • Madame Defarge will stop at nothing to have her vengeance, saying, "Ask the wind and the fire to stop, not me."
    • The Mender of Roads meets an agent of the Revolution who is set to burn down the Evremondes' chateau and notes how implacable his expression is, even in sleep. He imagines he sees more of these types of men at work for the Republic.
  • Disproportionate Restitution: A nobleman in a speeding carriage crushes a child and flips a coin onto the street for the grieving father.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: The Revolution quickly gives way to the Reign of Terror, where the most tenuous links to the aristocracy, the most minor of infractions or the slightest hint of disloyalty will earn you an appointment with the National Razor. Madame Defarge is the living embodiment of this trope and would gladly murder the entire family of Charles Darnay for what his uncle did to her family. Even the child. The innocent seamstress girl who dies just before Sydney Carton on the Guillotine is the living embodiment of the victims of such rage and hatred.
  • Droit du Seigneur: Cited by Dr. Manette in his Letter as to the crimes of the Evremondes towards Defarge's sister.
  • Domestic Abuse: Cruncher's introduction reveals that he gets into violent rows with his wife, which is more or less played for comedy. It helps establish him as a dumb, working-class cockney.
  • Dying Alone: Averted when Sydney Carton talks with the 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!"
  • Dying Moment of Awesome: It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done...
  • Entitled to Have You: Stryver first tries to offer himself to Lucie, believing that his position is more than enough for her; he is aghast when Mr. Lorry tries to talk him out of it.
  • Even Evil Has Standards: Even the vicious revolutionary Ernest Defarge has his qualms about executing children.
  • Everyone Calls Him "Barkeep": The Mender of Roads is always referred to as such, until he takes a new job and is called the Wood Sawyer. It's not even clear that the two names refer to the same person until the narration mentions that the Wood Sawyer recently mended roads.
  • Face Death with Dignity
  • Family Extermination: Madam Defarge wants to wipe out the House St. Evremonde, including children.
  • 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: The narrator in the book provides the Final Speech that Sydney would have given had he the opportunity.
  • Final Speech: A hypothetical one is given for Sydney.
  • Grave Robbing: Jerry Cruncher's side job.
  • Gun Struggle: Miss Pross vs. Madame Defarge.
  • Hate Sink: While the Defarges are certainly brutal and bloodthirsty, they're not completely unsympathetic. Ernest has lines he'll at least hesitate to cross, while Thérèse has a tragic backstory and one of her main motivations is avenging her dead relatives. The St. Evrémonde brothers, however, are evil aristocrats of the worst kind. During the events of the story proper, the surviving brother shows no remorse when his carriage runs over a child, and treats giving the dead boy's father a gold coin as if it's enough to make up for what happened. Then he insists that subjugating and oppressing the "vulgar" commoners under his rule is his family obligation. And it's made clear that his late brother was no better. Is it any wonder Charles wanted nothing to do with his family? Later on, it turns out they were even worse than Charles thought. In the backstory, they abducted a pregnant peasant girl — fatally wounding her brother when he tried to protect her — and abused and raped her horribly until she died. They're also responsible for the deaths of her husband and, indirectly, her father; who knows what they would have done to her younger sister if she hadn't been spirited away to safety; and they had Dr. Manette imprisoned in the Bastille when he tried to report them to the authorities.
  • The Hecate Sisters: Played with in the characters of Madame Defarge and the other knitting female revolutionaries.
    "Is that his child?" said Madame Defarge, stopping in her work for the first time, and pointing her knitting-needle at little Lucie as if it were the finger of Fate.
  • Heroic BSoD:
    • Miss Pross is an Actual Pacifist, who develops hysterical deafness after accidentally killing Madame Defarge. (Given that she just had a gun go off next to her ear, this may not have been so hysterical, but she's more likely to have tinnitus.)
    • 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: Sydney Carton takes Darnay's place in prison and is executed in his stead.
  • He Who Fights Monsters: 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: 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. Turns out that the servant he was trying to rescue wasn't in as tight a spot as Darnay believed, which makes it even worse.
    • 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 alerted 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: Darnay looks a whole lot like his uncle the Marquis. We find out much later that Darnay's father and uncle were identical twins.
  • Identical Stranger: Carton and Darnay.
  • 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. Dr. Manette catches on quickly, but continues the conversation in this style.
    "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 — ?"
    "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 and 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.
  • It Was a Dark and Stormy Night: A chapter begins "The night was so very sultry."
  • Kangaroo Court: Carton saves Darnay from one in London, but there are plenty more in Paris, and they're even less just. Though the first trial of Darnay actually frees him thanks to excellent character witnesses. The second trial though is a textbook example.
  • 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.
  • Laser-Guided Karma: As critical as Dickens is of the excessive violence of the Revolution, he argues that the French nobility fully brought this on themselves, and that any society built on this injustice will eventually face drastic consequences such as the events of the book.
  • 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.
  • Mama Bear: Miss Pross is very protective of Lucy.
  • Meaningful Name: Stryver is ambitious and is said to always be shouldering his way through life.
  • Missing Mom: Lucie Manette. Charles Darnay.
  • 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 pacifist, but she's large, strong, and headstrong enough to come to her employer's aid.
  • Noble Fugitive: Though his exile is self-inflicted, Charles Darnay is, in fact, an aristocrat of a different name.
  • Noble Male, Roguish Male: Darnay is Noble, Carton is slightly more roguish while Stryver is a total cad.
  • Off with His Head!: The guillotine is a central part of the story, due to taking place during the French Revolution.
  • 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. Other orphans include Madame Defarge and Sydney Carton, to name just a few.
  • Pinball Protagonist: Darnay.
  • 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. Though like most of his contemporaries, for all kinds of understandable reasons, don't give the Revolution any credit for its positive achievements either.
  • 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 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, often while staring at the ceiling.
  • Reign of Terror: One of literature's most famous depictions. Though it largely conflates the Terror with the earlier September Massacres.
  • Revenge by Proxy: Madame 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.
  • Roaring Rampage of Revenge: The majority of the Revolutionaries, but particularly Madame Defarge against the Evremondes. She is utterly obsessed with this goal, intending to destroy the entire family root and branch - even if one of them is an innocent little girl.
  • Sins of Our Fathers: The Defarges want Revenge by Proxy for the crimes of Darnay's father and uncle. Madame Defarge wants not only Darnay's life — even though he was a young child at the time the crimes were committed and obviously had nothing to do with them — but also his daughter, who was born several decades after the fact.
  • 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."
  • A Storm Is Coming: Madame Defarge at one point tells her husband that a great earthquake is coming to France, ready to open the ground and swallow everything into it. She leads a woman battalion during the Storming of the Bastille.
  • Survivor's Guilt: The brief moment when Darnay is initially freed from the Revolutionary Tribunal has Darnay reflect that he might have gotten off, but some of his fellow inmates, some of whom are innocent, would not get justice.
  • Suspiciously Specific Denial: Lorry remarks that a thunderstorm is one to raise the dead. Graverobber Cruncher hastily says that he's never seen such a thing.
  • Tender Tears: Lucie Manette, meant to showcase her sensitivity and compassion. In her favor, she very rarely cries for herself.
  • Textile Work Is Feminine: Madame Defarge knits revolutionary code into her work. She and her fellow female revolutionaries knit at the base of the guillotine and count the heads. They are based on the famous Tricoteuses.
  • Token Evil Teammate: Cruncher is the only sympathetic character who is in any way immoral, being a wife-beater and a moonlighting graverobber. He is always helpful to the heroes of the story, however, and vows to improve himself after a stern tongue-lashing from Mr. Lorry.
  • Too Dumb to Live: Darnay.
  • Translation Convention: All dialogue is rendered as English for the reader's benefit.
  • Twin Switch: Although not twins, Sydney Carton switches places with Charles Darnay to avoid Darnay's execution.
  • Underside Ride: How Gaspard is able to follow the Marquis to his chateau in order to kill him. This is ominously hinted at when the narrative describes the carriage as being heavier than usual.
  • What Beautiful Eyes!: Lucie's pretty blue eyes get mentioned quite a few times.
  • Woobie, Destroyer of Worlds: Madame Defarge, which seems very believable considering all the justifiable hatred that stewed in her for all those years.
  • Would Hurt a Child: When Madame Defarge says she wants to completely destroy House St. Evrémonde, she includes any children Charles might have.
  • 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.

Tropes found in the 1935 film:

  • ...And That Little Girl Was Me: The story of Dr. Manette's fatal manuscript is told in court by Madame Defarge herself. Shakespearean actress Blanche Yurka nails it with disheveled, half-crazed fury, styled rather for the stage than screen.
  • Everything's Better with Monkeys: How do you show that you are a really really decadent French aristocrat? Get a pet monkey and feed him grapes.
  • Fainting: Lucile does when she finds out that her father is actually alive in France.
  • I Was Never Here: "No one saw a coach leave here, understand?", as the coach bearing Dr. Manette trundles away.
  • Match Cut: From the Marquis St. Evremonde's crest on Madame Defarge's little blanket hit list, to his crest on his coach as he barrels through the Paris slums.
  • "Pan Up to the Sky" Ending: The camera pans up to the clouds over Paris as Carton's voiceover delivers the "It is a far, far better thing I do" ending.
  • Repeat After Me: Carton's considerably less competent boss Stryker rises to question Barsad in court. Carton scribbles a note saying "No questions now. Later on if you're not too silly we'll land him." Stryver then blurts out "No questions now, later on if you're not too silly—" before catching himself.


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