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Free Study Guide: A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens - Free BookNotes

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A TALE OF TWO CITIES: ONLINE BOOK SUMMARY / BOOK REVIEW

CHAPTER SUMMARIES WITH NOTES / ANALYSIS

BOOK ONE: Recalled to Life

CHAPTER ONE: The Period

Summary

In the opening chapter, the period in which the novel is set is described. The story begins about fifteen years before the French Revolution. It is a time when many people think they live in the best of times, while others condemn it as the worst of times. The kings of England and France are both mediocre rulers, and they believe in their divine rights. People are put to death for the slightest of crimes.

The condition in France is very bad, for there is a total disregard for the common people by the aristocracy; injustice, cruelty, and oppression are rampant. The aristocracy is unaware that the masses are preparing for the revolution by turning timber into guillotines and farm carts into tumbrels to convey people to the guillotine. In England, too, lawlessness and poverty prevail. Even the colonies in America are up in arms against their English rulers, and the attempts of the American colonies to obtain freedom are not taken seriously.

Notes

The opening sentence of the novel is striking, for it is made up of a series of superlatives that are opposite in meaning; therefore, from the opening line, Dickens conveys that this novel is set in the best of times for some and the worst of times for others. He continues by exposing the mediocrity of both the French and English kings and criticizes the doctrine of their divine right. The revolution was fought to negate this right; ironically, similar rights are later seized by the revolutionaries. This is indicated by the mention of both the guillotine and the tumbrel, which become the symbols of the revolution.


Dickens successfully compares authoritarian France with lawless England, showing one as semi-totalitarian and the other as semi-anarchic. In both locations, the conditions cause unhappiness, especially among the common people. Chapter one, therefore, sets the stage for the action of the novel where the common people will rise up against the cruelties that prevail against them. It also sets the troubled tone that is strengthened throughout the novel. Finally, it reveals that the author is more concerned with the plight of the common people living during these troubled times than with the politics of the period.


CHAPTER TWO: The Mail

Summary

The Dover mail coach makes its way laboriously up Shooter's Hill on a wet Friday night in November, 1775. Tired horses are dragging the coach while the passengers trudge alongside. Because of the general state of affairs in England, the passengers are suspicious of the driver, of the guard, and of one another; they are also afraid of ambush from the outside. A messenger arrives with a message for Mr. Jarvis Lorry, who is an agent of Tellson’s Bank and one of the passengers. The message is that Mr. Lorry needs to wait in Dover to meet a young lady. Mr. Lorry sends a return message to the bank that states only, "recalled to life." The messenger thinks the message is very strange, but agrees to deliver it. Mr. Lorry goes back into the coach.

Notes

The second chapter of the book serves several purposes. It introduces Mr. Lorry, who will help the Manettes throughout the novel. It also introduces two of the main characters of the book, although they remain unnamed. The young lady that Lorry is to meet in Dover is Lucie Manette; the man who has been all but buried alive is her father, Dr. Manette.

The chapter also gives a reflection of the times through the isolated passengers who are wary of one another and fearful of ambush from the outside. As a group, they serve as a metaphor for everyone in England who is fearful of the anarchy that is rampant all around them. Through these symbolic passengers, the theme of human alienation is introduced. Since all people suffer some sense of isolation, Dickens philosophically concludes that at a basic level all people are equal, despite differences in class and status.

The chapter also sets the predominant moods of the novel. The times are dark and troubled, and the setting here is in the blackness of night with passengers who are troubled about their safety. The horses pulling the coach and the people travelling alongside are both very tired. There is fog overhead and mud underfoot, causing great discomfort for the travelers. In spite of the predominantly dark and troubled mood, Dickens' inevitable humor finds a place in this chapter. He paints a comic picture of the coachman and the guard as they ponder over the strange message that Lorry receives.

Finally, the chapter introduces an element of suspense. The reader is made to wonder who the young lady in Dover is and why Lorry needs to meet her. There is also curiosity about the man who has been buried away in prison for eighteen years. Finally, there is mystery in the cryptic message that Lorry sends back to the bank; the words “recalled to life” seem to suggest that someone is being resurrected from the dead.


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