"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..."
Beginning and ending with some of English literature's most famous lines, Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities thrives on tension and conflict, all set against a bloody backdrop of the French Revolution.

It is late in the year of 1775. After 18 years as a political prisoner in the Bastille in France, the aging Doctor Manette is finally released and reunited with his daughter, the beautiful and kind Lucie Manette, in England. There, the lives of two very different men—Charles Darnay, an exiled French aristocrat, and Sydney Carton, a disreputable but brilliant English lawyer—become enmeshed through their love for the lovely Lucie. From the tranquil roads of London, they are drawn against their will to the treacherous streets of Paris at the height of the Reign of Terror and soon fall under the shadow of the guillotine. More about these characters.

Through the senses, Dickens transports us deeper and deeper into another era with each turn of the page. Smell the acidity of red wine as it spills on the streets and ominously stains the faces, hands and feet of peasants who lap it up in desperation; feel the competing emotions of heartache and hope as one of Lucie's suitors stands trial; hear the cries of the raging mob and the clangs of their weapons as they storm the Bastille; see the glint of the guillotine as it falls swiftly to its victim below. The novel's sense of urgency and intimacy will draw you in and propel you through one of the most tumultuous times in history.

History with Heart

Dickens doesn't sugarcoat the signs of the times—images of death, burials, graves and ghosts are everywhere, yet the theme of resurrection and redemption is strong. As the characters struggle with their own personal demons, events unfold to reveal how intertwined and essential (for better or worse) they are to each other. Will a surprise confession cause Doctor Manette to relapse into an incoherent mental state? Is it really too late for the miserable Sydney Carton to turn his life around? Can the discovery of a mysterious letter lead to someone's death? What secret drives a family to be so vengeful?

Even today—150 years after being published and more than two centuries after the French Revolution—Dickens' novel speaks to us. Its dramatic and moving story portrays the complexities of human nature and how we are shaped by our desires, politics and loyalties. Despite its historical backdrop, it is actually one of Dickens' shorter novels, filled with tensely polarized urges that are even more complicated than those infamous opening lines imply.

More on Charles Dickens
Reading questions for A Tale of Two Cities
Dickens' biography
Print your exclusive bookmark
Penguin Books and Penguin Classics wish to thank and credit the following writers and books for information used in creating this Reading Group Guide:

Janice Carlisle (editor), Charles Dickens, Great Expectations: Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism, New York, Bedford Books of St. Martin's Press, 1996

Edmond Jabes, The Book of Questions (Volume 1), Middletown, CT., Wesleyan University Press, 1976

Fred Kaplan, Dickens: A Biography, New York, William Morrow & Co., Inc., 1988

Norman Page, A Dickens Chronology, Boston, MA., G.K. Hall & Co., 1988


Next Story