What Happens in A Tale of Two Cities?

In A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Darnay tries to escape his heritage as a French aristocrat in the years leading up to the French Revolution. During the Revolution, he's captured, but Sydney Carton, a man who looks like Darnay, takes his place and dies on the guillotine.

A Tale of Two Cities summary key points:

  • A Tale of Two Cities takes before and during the French Revolution. Jarvis Lorry is traveling to Paris to reunite Dr. Manette with his long-lost daughter Lucie.

  • Dr. Manette has been living in hiding in Paris, awaiting his rescuers who will return him to England.

  • Five years later, Lucie marries Charles Darnay who confesses to Dr. Manette that he is a member of the French ruling class. Charles is hoping to bury his past and begin a new life in England.

  • When Darnay returns to Paris to save a former servant, he is arrested by the revolutionaries and sentenced to death.

  • Sydney Carton, who resembles Darnay, trades places with him in prison and dies on the guillotine in his stead while Darnay returns to London.


A Tale of Two Cities contrasts the social and political events taking place in Paris and London during (and prior to) the French Revolution in the mid-to-late eighteenth century. Dickens draws unsettling parallels between the two cities, describing abject poverty, appalling starvation, rampant crime, ruthless capital punishment, and aristocratic greed. The novel, which was published in three books during the mid-nineteenth century, retrospectively questions the degree to which the French revolutionaries of the late eighteenth century upheld Enlightenment-era ideals of rational thought, tolerance, constitutional government, and liberty.

Book the First: Recalled to Life

Book One opens in 1775 and focuses on the symbolic resurrection of Dr. Alexandre Manette, who has finally been released after an eighteen-year imprisonment in the Bastille. Lucie Manette (his dutiful seventeen-year-old daughter) and Jarvis Lorry (a business-minded bank clerk) retrieve him from a garret at the top of a wine shop in Paris. Dr. Manette cannot remember who he is, but he begins to recall his past life after seeing Lucie for the first time.

Book the Second: The Golden Thread

Book Two takes place five years after the events of Book One. It focuses on Charles Darnay, a French emigrant who denounces his aristocratic heritage for a new life in England. Darnay, whose real surname is Evrémonde, is on trial for treason—but is spared by the intervention of Sydney Carton, a young, alcoholic attorney who happens to be nearly identical to Darnay. Dr. Manette, who made a full recovery from his trauma-induced memory loss, builds a successful medical practice in his home near Soho. Darnay, unaware that his father and uncle were responsible for Dr. Manette’s long imprisonment, falls in love with Lucie Manette, and the two marry. The novel’s preoccupation with revolutionary sentiment deepens as the French peasantry buckles under increasing oppression from the aristocracy. The French Revolution begins, and Darnay decides to rescue his uncle’s longtime servant, Monsieur Gabette, from Paris.

Book the Third: The Track of a Storm

Book Three highlights the brutality of the French Revolution, particularly during the Reign of Terror in Paris between 1793 and 1794. Darnay, who cannot hide his aristocratic heritage, is imprisoned for the crimes of the Evrémondes. He is initially released (with the help of Dr. Manette, who rushed to Paris with Lucie after they learned about Darnay’s imprisonment) but is rearrested and sentenced to death. Ultimately, Sydney Carton, the irredeemable drunk, selflessly switches places with Darnay—sacrificing himself so Lucie, whom he loves, can return to London with her husband and daughter.


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

The early rumblings of the French Revolution are echoing across the English Channel when, in Paris, an old man waits in an attic for his first meeting with a daughter whom he has not seen since she was a baby. With the aid of Mr. Jarvis Lorry, an agent for the Franco-British banking house of Tellson & Co., the lovely Lucie Manette is brought to Paris to be reunited with her father, who was imprisoned for eighteen years in the Bastille. Above the wineshop of Madame and Monsieur Defarge, Dr. Manette is kept secretly until his rescuers can take him safely back to England. Day after day, Madame Defarge sits outside her wineshop, knitting into a long scarf strange symbols that will later spell out a death list of hated aristocrats and enemies of the Revolution.

Five years later, Lucie sits beside her father in the courtroom of the Old Bailey, where Charles Darnay, a teacher of languages, is on trial for treasonable activities that involve his passing between France and England on secret business. A man named John Barsad brings charges against him. Lucie and her father testify that they met Darnay on the boat when they traveled from France five years earlier. The prisoner was saved when Mr. Stryver, the prisoner’s counsel, pointed across the courtroom to another man, Sydney Carton, who so resembled the prisoner that legal identification of Darnay was shaken and Mr. Stryver was able to secure an acquittal for the prisoner. Carton’s relationship to Stryver is that of the jackal to the lion; the alcoholic, aimless Carton writes the cases that Stryver pleads in court.

Lucie and her father live in a small tenement under the care of their maid, Miss Pross, and their kindly friend, Mr. Lorry. Jerry Cruncher, the porter at Tellson & Co. and a secret resurrectionist, is often helpful. Darnay and Carton become frequent callers in the Manette household, after the trial that brought them together.

In France, the fury of the people grows. Monseigneur the Marquis St. Evrémonde is driving in his carriage through the countryside when he carelessly kills a child of a peasant named Gaspard. The nobleman returns to his castle to meet his nephew, Charles Darnay, who is visiting from England. Darnay’s views differ from those of his uncle. Darnay knows that his family committed grave injustices, and he begs his uncle to make amends. Monseigneur the Marquis haughtily refuses. That night, the marquis is murdered in his bed.

Darnay returns to England to seek Dr. Manette’s permission to court Lucie. In order to construct a bond of complete honesty, Darnay attempts to tell the doctor his true French name, but Manette fearfully asks him to wait until the morning of his marriage before revealing it. Carton also approaches Lucie with a proposal of marriage. When Lucie refuses, Carton asks her always to remember that there is a man who will give his own life to keep a life she loves beside her.

In France, Madame Defarge knits the story of the hated St. Evrémondes into her scarf. Gaspard was hanged for the assassination of the marquis; Monseigneur’s house must be destroyed. Barsad, the spy, brings news that Lucie will marry Darnay, the nephew of the marquis. This news disturbs Defarge, for Dr. Manette, a former prisoner of the Bastille, holds a special honor in the eyes of the revolutionists.

Lucie and Darnay are married. Carton becomes a loyal friend of the family. Time passes, and tiny Lucie arrives. When the child is six years old, in the year 1789, the French people storm the Bastille. At the Bastille, Defarge goes to the cell where Dr. Manette was a prisoner and extracts some papers hidden behind a stone in the wall.

One day, while Darnay is talking to Mr. Lorry at Tellson & Co., a letter addressed to the Marquis St. Evrémonde is placed on Mr. Lorry’s desk. Darnay offers to deliver it to the proper person. When he is alone, he reads the letter. It is from an old family servant who is imprisoned by the revolutionists. He begs the Marquis St. Evrémonde to save his life. Darnay realizes that he must go to Paris. Only Dr. Manette knows of Darnay’s family name, and the doctor is sworn to secrecy.

Darnay and Mr. Lorry go to Paris, the latter to look after the French branch of Tellson & Co. Shortly after his arrival, Darnay is seized as an undesirable immigrant after Defarge orders his arrest. Mr. Lorry is considerably upset when Lucie and Dr. Manette suddenly arrive in Paris. Some of the doctor’s friends inform him of Darnay’s arrest. The old man feels that his own imprisonment in the Bastille will win the sympathy of the revolutionists and enable him to save his son-in-law.

After fifteen months of waiting, Darnay is brought to trial. Because he is able to prove himself innocent of harming the French people, he is freed but forbidden to leave France. A short time later, he is again arrested, denounced by Defarge and one other person whose name the officer refuses to disclose.

While shopping one day in the Paris market, Miss Pross and Jerry Cruncher, who are in Paris with Lucie and Mr. Lorry, meet a man who causes Miss Pross to scream in amazement and Jerry to stare in silent astonishment. The man is Solomon, Miss Pross’s lost brother. Jerry remembers him as Barsad, the man who was a spy-witness at the Old Bailey. Carton arrives on the scene at that moment, and he is able to force Barsad to come with him to the office of Tellson & Co. for a private conference. Barsad fears detection of his duplicity, for he is now an employee of the Republican French Government. Carton and Jerry threaten to expose him as a former spy for the English government, the enemy of France. Carton makes a deal with Barsad.

When Darnay is once more brought before the tribunal, Defarge testifies against him and names Dr. Manette as the other accuser. Defarge produces the papers that he found in Dr. Manette’s cell in the Bastille. Therein the doctor wrote the story of his arrest and imprisonment because he learned of a secret crime committed by a St. Evrémonde against a woman of humble birth and her young brother. His account is enough to convict Darnay. Sentenced for the crimes of his ancestors, Darnay, the young St. Evrémonde, is condemned by the tribunal to the guillotine.

Carton now begins to visit the Defarge wineshop, where he learns that Madame Defarge is the sister of the woman ruined by St. Evrémonde years before. With the help of the false Barsad, he gains admittance to the prison where Darnay was taken. There he drugs the prisoner and, still aided by the cowed Barsad, has him carried from the cell, himself remaining behind. The resemblance between the two will allow him to pass as Darnay and prevent discovery of the aristocrat’s escape.

Madame Defarge goes to the lodgings of Lucie and Dr. Manette to denounce them. Only Miss Pross is there; the others, including Darnay, are already on their way to safety. To keep Madame Defarge from learning of their escape, Miss Pross struggles with the furious woman when she demands admittance to Lucie’s apartment. Madame Defarge is killed when her pistol goes off. Miss Pross is deaf for the rest of her life. Lucie and Darnay return safely to England. Carton dies at the guillotine, giving his own life for the happiness of those he loved.