Hannibal Free Public Library

A Tale of Two Cities

Charles Dickens

September 29, 2008

 Written as a weekly serial in All the Year Round, from April 1859 to November 1859, A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens, covers 1757 through 1793.  These were the years before and during the French Revolution, and the novel depicts the plight of the French proletariat under the brutal oppression of the French aristocracy and the corresponding truculence demonstrated by the revolutionaries toward the former aristocrats.  Following the lives of several protagonists, it is the story of Charles Darnay, a French once-aristocrat who falls victim to the indiscriminate wrath of the revolution despite his virtuous nature, and Sydney Carton, a dissipated English barrister who endeavors to redeem his ill-spent life out of love for Darnay's wife, Lucie Manette.

Charles Dickens emerged on the literary scene in the 1830s at the beginning of the Victorian era, a time when the novel became the leading literary form in English literature.  Writing for serial publications, Dickens wrote vividly about the struggles of the poor, but in a good-humoured fashion which was acceptable to readers of all classes. His early works are masterpieces of comedy. Later his works became darker, without losing his genius for caricature.  Information about the book may be found at http://victorianweb.org/authors/dickens/2citiesov.html 

Additional discussion is available through a blog at http://www.asolo.org/Education/BeyondtheBook/BookClubCentral/tabid/283/Default.aspx#top 

Historical Note:  The French Revolution (1789–1799) was a period of political and social upheaval during which the French governmental structure underwent radical change, based on Enlightenment principles of nationalism, citizenship, and inalienable rights.  These changes were accompanied by violent turmoil, including the trial and execution of the king, vast bloodshed and repression during the Reign of Terror, and warfare involving every other major European power.  


  1. Literary critics describe A Tale of Two Cities as a stark, moody novel.  What makes the novel so dark and disturbing?
  1. Discuss the role of comedy in the novel. Are there any instances of humor in the novel? Why are they humorous?
  1. Discuss Dickens' portrayal of the kings of England and France at the beginning of the novel. Do the physical descriptions of these two men represent their mental qualities? What do Dickens' descriptions say about the countries that they ruled? 
  1. In Dickens’ viewpoint, is public violence ever justified?  Does he agree with the uprising against the French aristocracy?  If you had been in Paris during the French Revolution, would you have participated as a member of the mob?
  1. Lucie Manette Darnay and Madame Defarge are the two major female characters in the novel. Compare and contrast these two women.  Do each of them have thematic significance?
  1. Much is made in the novel about the physical similarity between Charles Darnay and Sydney Carton. Does this likeness simply further the novel's plot, or is it thematic as well? 
  1. Is Sydney Carton’s sacrifice believable?   If you had been one of the Evrèmondes, would you have accepted Sydney Carton’s taking Charles Darnay’s place?
  1. Throughout the novel, Dickens describes the guillotine in almost human terms.   Why did Dickens spend so much time writing about this mechanism of death?
  1. What statements does Dickens make about social and economic classes?  Contrast Dickens' characterization of Tellson's Bank in London and the Bastille in France. Think about prison life as Dickens portrays it in the novel.  Think about the seamstress who comforts Carton on his way to the guillotine.
  1. Does Dickens ever portray his characters as real-life figures?  Or, does he create only passive, suffering protagonists who, when given a dramatic scene, become dreadfully sentimental and unrealistic?
  1. Was A Tale of Two Cities written as a cautionary novel, warning about social and economic similarities existing in London of 1859?  Can it be understood as a cautionary tale for America in 2008 or 2009?

Adapted from information found in the e-Book version of Cliffs Notes on Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, c1988, available for on-line use at http://hafl.sirsi.net/uhtbin/cgisirsi/ETN7bmyzIH/0/324340017/9; and from information found at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Tale_of_Two_Cities