Power, passion, love, hatred, fear, hope, and so much more dazzle in Charles Dickens's masterpiece about revolution and reality.
TALE OF TWO CITIES, A, published in 1859, was the second of Dickens' historical novels and is to-day more popular than the author's earlier novel of the same kind, ‘Barnaby Rudge’ (1841). The reason lies partly in the fact that the French Revolution is a more permanently interesting historical event than the anti-Catholic agitation and the Gordon riots in London. The chief purpose of the novel is to give an impression, — in this case a very English impression with its roots in the anti-Napoleonic tradition, — of the days of the old Régime and the French Revolution, in which cynicism, arrogance and cruelty, on the one hand, and uncouthness, violence and guillotining, on the other hand, were the prominent features.
No account is suggested of the intellectual causes of the Revolution. It is a picture of action. The turbulence of Paris compared with the dignified and law-abiding ways of London give the book its title. The story is the account of the escape from France of the emigré, Saint Evremonde, or Charles Darnay, of his return to France, his arrest, condemnation through the unwitting evidence of his own father-in-law, Dr. Manette, and his final escape through the self-sacrifice of Sidney Carton. This last is the most famous part of the book, both ethically and episodically. Sidney Carton, the real hero, takes advantage of his resemblance to Charles Darnay to mount the scaffold in place of the latter, who is meanwhile hurrying disguised to England with his family.
The story is a moving one and is almost wholly lacking in the usual humorous scenes and characters of the author. It has been successfully dramatized. Certain of the scenes, as notably the flight from Paris, the death of Carton, and the women knitting indifferently at the executions, have become famous.
Encyclopedia Americana, 1920