A Tale of Two Cities – Book the First: Recalled to Life Chapters 1–4

Summary: Chapter 1: The Period
It was the best of times, it was the
worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness.
. . .
(See Important Quotations Explained)

As its title promises, this brief chapter establishes
the era in which the novel takes place: England and France in 1775.
The age is marked by competing and contradictory attitudes—“It was
the best of times, it was the worst of times”—but resembles the
“present period” in which Dickens writes. In England, the public
worries over religious prophecies, popular paranormal phenomena
in the form of “the Cock-lane ghost,” and the messages that a colony
of British subjects in America has sent to King George III. France,
on the other hand, witnesses excessive spending and extreme violence, a
trend that anticipates the erection of the guillotine. Yet in terms
of peace and order, English society cannot “justify much national boasting”
either—crime and capital punishment abound.
Read a translation of
Chapter 1: The Period →
Summary: Chapter 2: The Mail
On a Friday night in late November of 1775,
a mail coach wends its way from London to Dover. The journey proves
so treacherous that the three passengers must dismount from the
carriage and hike alongside it as it climbs a steep hill. From out
of the great mists, a messenger on horseback appears and asks to
speak to Jarvis Lorry of Tellson’s Bank. The travelers react warily,
fearing that they have come upon a highwayman or robber. Mr.
Lorry, however, recognizes the messenger’s voice as that of Jerry
Cruncher, the odd-job man at Tellson’s, and accepts his message.
The note that Jerry passes him reads: “Wait at Dover for Mam’selle.”
Lorry instructs Jerry to return to Tellson’s with this reply: “Recalled
to Life.” Confused and troubled by the “blazing strange
message,” Jerry rides on to deliver it.
Read a translation of
Chapter 2: The Mail →
Summary: Chapter 3: The Night Shadows

A wonderful fact to reflect upon, that
every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery
to every other. . . .
(See Important Quotations Explained)

The narrator ponders the secrets and mysteries that each
human being poses to every other: Lorry, as he rides on in the mail
coach with two strangers, constitutes a case in point. Dozing, he
drifts in and out of dreams, most of which revolve around the workings
of Tellson’s bank. Still, there exists “another current of impression
that never cease[s] to run” through Lorry’s mind—the notion that
he makes his way to dig someone out of a grave. He imagines repetitive conversations
with a specter, who tells Lorry that his body has lain buried nearly
eighteen years. Lorry informs his imaginary companion that he now
has been “recalled to life” and asks him if he cares to live. He
also asks, cryptically, “Shall I show her to you? Will you come
and see her?” The ghost’s reaction to this question varies, as he sometimes
claims that he would die were he to see this woman too soon; at
other times, he weeps and pleads to see her immediately.
Read a translation of
Chapter 3: The Night Shadows →
Summary: Chapter 4: The Preparation
The next morning, Lorry descends from the coach at the
Royal George Hotel in Dover. After shedding his travel clothes,
he emerges as a well-dressed businessman of sixty. That afternoon,
a waiter announces that Lucie Manette has arrived from London. Lorry meets
the “short, slight, pretty figure” who has received word from the
bank that “some intelligence—or discovery” has been made “respecting
the small property of my poor father . . . so long dead.” After
reiterating his duties as a businessman, Lorry relates the real reason
that Tellson’s has summoned Lucie to Paris. Her father, once a reputed
doctor, has been found alive. “Your father,” Lorry reports to her,
“has been taken to the house of an old servant in Paris, and we
are going there: I, to identify him if I can: you, to restore him
to life, love, duty, rest, comfort.” Lucie goes into shock, and
her lively and protective servant, Miss Pross, rushes in to attend
to her.
Read a translation of
Chapter 4: The Preparation →
Analysis: Chapters 1–4
The opening sentence of the novel makes clear, as the
title itself does, the importance of doubles in the text:
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. . . .

Doubles prove essential to the novel’s structure, plot,
and dominant themes. The idea of resurrection, a theme that emerges
in these early pages, would not be possible without some form of
its opposite—death. In order to pave the way for the first such
resurrection—the recalling to life of the long-imprisoned Doctor
Manette—Dickens does much to establish a dark, ominous tone suggestive
of death. From the mist-obscured route of the Dover mail coach to
the darkly paneled room in which Lorry meets Lucie Manette, the
opening chapters brim with gloomy corners and suggestive shadows.