A Tale of Two Cities – Plot Overview

The year is 1775, and
social ills plague both France and England. Jerry Cruncher, an odd-job man
who works for Tellson’s Bank, stops the Dover mail-coach with an urgent
message for Jarvis Lorry. The message instructs Lorry to wait at
Dover for a young woman, and Lorry responds with the cryptic words,
“Recalled to Life.” At Dover, Lorry is met by Lucie Manette, a young
orphan whose father, a once-eminent doctor whom she supposed dead,
has been discovered in France. Lorry escorts Lucie to Paris, where
they meet Defarge, a former servant of Doctor Manette, who has kept
Manette safe in a garret. Driven mad by eighteen years in the Bastille,
Manette spends all of his time making shoes, a hobby he learned
while in prison. Lorry assures Lucie that her love and devotion
can recall her father to life, and indeed they do.
The year is now 1780.
Charles Darnay stands accused of treason against the English crown.
A bombastic lawyer named Stryver pleads Darnay’s case, but it is
not until his drunk, good-for-nothing colleague, Sydney Carton,
assists him that the court acquits Darnay. Carton clinches his argument
by pointing out that he himself bears an uncanny resemblance to
the defendant, which undermines the prosecution’s case for unmistakably
identifying Darnay as the spy the authorities spotted. Lucie and
Doctor Manette watched the court proceedings, and that night, Carton
escorts Darnay to a tavern and asks how it feels to receive the
sympathy of a woman like Lucie. Carton despises and resents Darnay
because he reminds him of all that he himself has given up and might
have been.
In France, the cruel Marquis Evrémonde runs down a plebian child
with his carriage. Manifesting an attitude typical of the aristocracy
in regard to the poor at that time, the Marquis shows no regret,
but instead curses the peasantry and hurries home to his chateau,
where he awaits the arrival of his nephew, Darnay, from England.
Arriving later that night, Darnay curses his uncle and the French
aristocracy for its abominable treatment of the people. He renounces
his identity as an Evrémonde and announces his intention to return
to England. That night, the Marquis is murdered; the murderer has
left a note signed with the nickname adopted by French revolutionaries:
“Jacques.”
A year passes, and Darnay asks Manette for permission
to marry Lucie. He says that, if Lucie accepts, he will reveal his
true identity to Manette. Carton, meanwhile, also pledges his love
to Lucie, admitting that, though his life is worthless, she has
helped him dream of a better, more valuable existence. On the streets
of London, Jerry Cruncher gets swept up in the funeral procession
for a spy named Roger Cly. Later that night, he demonstrates his
talents as a “Resurrection-Man,” sneaking into the cemetery to steal
and sell Cly’s body. In Paris, meanwhile, another English spy known
as John Barsad drops into Defarge’s wine shop. Barsad hopes to turn
up evidence concerning the mounting revolution, which is still in
its covert stages. Madame Defarge sits in the shop knitting a secret
registry of those whom the revolution seeks to execute. Back in
London, Darnay, on the morning of his wedding, keeps his promise
to Manette; he reveals his true identity and, that night, Manette
relapses into his old prison habit of making shoes. After nine days,
Manette regains his presence of mind, and soon joins the newlyweds
on their honeymoon. Upon Darnay’s return, Carton pays him a visit
and asks for his friendship. Darnay assures Carton that he is always
welcome in their home.
The year is now 1789.
The peasants in Paris storm the Bastille and the French Revolution
begins. The revolutionaries murder aristocrats in the streets, and
Gabelle, a man charged with the maintenance of the Evrémonde estate,
is imprisoned. Three years later, he writes to Darnay, asking to
be rescued. Despite the threat of great danger to his person, Darnay
departs immediately for France.
As soon as Darnay arrives in Paris, the French revolutionaries arrest
him as an emigrant. Lucie and Manette make their way to Paris in
hopes of saving him. Darnay remains in prison for a year and three
months before receiving a trial. In order to help free him, Manette
uses his considerable influence with the revolutionaries, who sympathize
with him for having served time in the Bastille. Darnay receives
an acquittal, but that same night he is arrested again. The charges,
this time, come from Defarge and his vengeful wife. Carton arrives
in Paris with a plan to rescue Darnay and obtains the help of John
Barsad, who turns out to be Solomon Pross, the long-lost brother
of Miss Pross, Lucie’s loyal servant.
At Darnay’s trial, Defarge produces a letter that he discovered
in Manette’s old jail cell in the Bastille. The letter explains
the cause of Manette’s imprisonment. Years ago, the brothers Evrémonde
(Darnay’s father and uncle) enlisted Manette’s medical assistance.
They asked him to tend to a woman, whom one of the brothers had
raped, and her brother, whom the same brother had stabbed fatally.
Fearing that Manette might report their misdeeds, the Evrémondes
had him arrested. Upon hearing this story, the jury condemns Darnay for
the crimes of his ancestors and sentences him to die within twenty-four
hours. That night, at the Defarge’s wine shop, Carton overhears
Madame Defarge plotting to have Lucie and her daughter (also Darnay’s
daughter) executed as well; Madame Defarge, it turns out, is the
surviving sibling of the man and woman killed by the Evrémondes.
Carton arranges for the Manettes’ immediate departure from France.
He then visits Darnay in prison, tricks him into changing clothes
with him, and, after dictating a letter of explanation, drugs his
friend unconscious. Barsad carries Darnay, now disguised as Carton,
to an awaiting coach, while Carton, disguised as Darnay, awaits
execution. As Darnay, Lucie, their child, and Dr. Manette speed
away from Paris, Madame Defarge arrives at Lucie’s apartment, hoping
to arrest her. There she finds the supremely protective Miss Pross.
A scuffle ensues, and Madame Defarge dies by the bullet of her own
gun. Sydney Carton meets his death at the guillotine, and the narrator
confidently asserts that Carton dies with the knowledge that he
has finally imbued his life with meaning.