Famously beginning with the line “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” Charles Dickens’ classic novel A Tale of Two Cities, first published in 1859, begins a story which spans several years and two countries, covering the lives, fates, and deaths of many characters. Some characters are innocent and worthy of pity; some characters are despicable and worthy of their fates; and some characters find redemption in the course of the book, even when their ends are not happy. While the title of Dickens’ novel apparently refers to London and Paris where most of the story occurs, it could also refer to Charles Darnay and Sydney Carton, as well as many other pairs of characters in the book that seem to be opposites of one another.
The story opens in 1775 on a road outside of London, where a carriage carrying Jarvis Lorry is headed for Dover. Jerry Cruncher, an employee of Tellson’s Bank, for which Lorry also works, has a message for Lorry; Lorry responds to the message by sending Cruncher back to the Bank with the message “Recalled to life,” which the first book of the novel is titled. This message refers to Dr. Alexandre Manette, who has been released from the Bastille in Paris after an 18-year imprisonment and has been found. Once in Dover, Lorry meets with Dr. Manette’s daughter Lucie, who thought her father was dead, and Lucie’s governess Miss Pross. Upon finding out that her father is actually alive, Lucie faints, but recovers, and she, Miss Pross, and Lorry travel to France to meet with Dr. Manette and return him to England.
The group finds that Manette has been living in an attic garret owned by his former servant Defarge and Defarge’s wife. At first, Manette recognizes none of his family or friends; 18 years in the Bastille have made him crazy, and he is obsessed with making shoes. After some time however, Manette sees Lucie’s golden hair (the thread referred to in the title of the second book of the novel), and recognizes his dead wife’s face and eyes in his daughter. Restored to sanity, Manette returns to England with Lucie, Miss Pross, and Lorry.
The second book begins in 1780 and opens with the trial of Charles Darnay, a French expatriate who is on trial for being a spy. Testifying against him are two British spies named John Barsad and Roger Cly who insist that Darnay passed on information about American-based British troops to the French; Barsad claims that he would recognize Darnay anywhere. This inspires Stryver, Darnay’s defense attorney, to point to Sydney Carton, another lawyer present in the courtroom, who is almost identical to Darnay. Given that Carton looks so much like Darnay, Barsad’s testimony becomes shaky, causing the court to acquit Darnay of all charges. The similarity in the appearances of Darnay and Carton will become very important later in the story.
At this point the story shifts back to France and focuses on the Marquis St. Evrémonde. As his carriage is being driven wildly and carelessly through the streets of Paris at the Marquis’ direction, the carriage strikes and kills a child belonging to Gaspard, a peasant. The Marquis tosses a coin at Gaspard to “make up” for the death of Gaspard’s child while Defarge, Manette’s former servant, attempts to comfort the man. As the Marquis’ carriage departs the scene of the crime, the coin is thrown back, though it is not clear who throws it, which makes the Marquis angry. Unknown to the Marquis, Gaspard rode back to the Marquis’ home by clinging to the underside of the carriage; that night, Gaspard murders the Marquis while the Marquis is sleeping. Gaspard leaves a note basically confessing to the crime; he is later caught and hung.
But before his death, the reader discovers that Charles Darnay is actually Charles St. Evrémonde, the Marquis’ heir. Disgusted by the actions of his aristocratic family, Darnay has changed his name and attempted to distance himself from the Marquis. Unfortunately his relationship with the Marquis will come back to haunt him later, just as Defarge’s witnessing of the death of the peasant child will later prompt him to help start the Revolution.
Darnay returns to London where he asks Manette if he can marry Lucie, with whom Darnay has fallen in love. Carton and Stryver also have fallen in love with her, with Carton confessing that love, but neither pursues her, and Darnay and Lucie are wed. On the morning of the wedding, Darnay confesses to Manette his real name and his relationship to the Marquis; this prompts Manette to have a minor breakdown and return to shoemaking, but he recovers before the couple return from their honeymoon. As time passes, the Darnays have two children, a son who dies as a child and a daughter they call little Lucie. The family is close with Lorry, who becomes like family, as well as Carton, who becomes very close with little Lucie.
In July of 1789, the Defarges participate in the storming of the Bastille, where Defarge uncovers Manette’s secret: it was the Marquis who was responsible for Manette’s imprisonment. He also discovers that his wife was a victim in the crime committed by the Marquis that Manette refused to hide, resulting in Manette’s imprisonment and denouncement of all St. Evrémondes and their descendants. This later leads to Darnay’s arrest and trial. Darnay, who was in France secretly in his capacity as the new Marquis, is sentenced to death. While attempting to help his friends, Carton uncovers Madam Defarge’s plot to have Lucie and her daughter killed. Carton, with the help of Barsad, now going by his real name Solomon who is the brother of Miss Pross, manages to get into the prison and switch places with Darnay, giving Lorry his, Carton’s, papers for Darnay. In the meantime, Madam Defarge, attempting to harm Lucie and her daughter, only finds Miss Pross; in a struggle between them, Madam Defarge’s gun goes off, killing her and permanently deafening Miss Pross. Darnay and his family (including Lorry) escape to London. Carton goes to the guillotine, imaging the futures of the people he cares for, at peace.