A Tale of Two Cities

A Tale of Two Cities

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A Tale of Two Cities Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Charles Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Charles Dickens
Born to a naval clerk, Dickens moved with his family to London at age 10. When his father was briefly imprisoned for debt, Charles worked long days at a warehouse. He left school at age 15, but read voraciously and acquired extensive knowledge through jobs as a law clerk, court reporter, and journalist. As a novelist, Dickens was successful from the start and quickly became the most famous writer in Victorian England for his unforgettable characters, comic ingenuity, and biting social critique. He also enjoyed huge popularity in America where he made several reading tours. He worked tirelessly, producing a magazine Household Words (later All the Year Round) and cranking out still-famous novels including Oliver Twist, Bleak House, Great Expectations, and David Copperfield. Dickens had ten children with his wife Catherine Hogarth, but their marriage was never happy and Catherine left him after Dickens had an affair with the actress Ellen Ternan. Dickens died in 1870 and is buried in Poets' Corner of Westminster Abbey.
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Historical Context of A Tale of Two Cities
Like the American Revolution, the French Revolution was launched in the spirit of rational thought and political liberty. But these ideals of the 18th-century Enlightenment period were soon compromised when the French Revolution devolved into the "Terror"—a violent period of beheadings by the very citizens who overthrew the tyrannous French monarchy. The French Revolution cast a long shadow into 19th-century Britain, as industrialization seemed to divide the English population into the rich and poor. Many people feared the oppressed working class would start an English Revolution, but a series of political compromises and wake-up calls like Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities helped to avert the potential crisis.
Other Books Related to A Tale of Two Cities
Sir Walter Scott pioneered the genre of historical fiction. In novels like Waverley, Scott places fictionalized characters against a war-time historical tableau. Scott also uses a narrator who alternately explains, editorializes, preaches, and jokes, like Dickens's own characteristic narrative voice. Historical fiction evolved with works like George Eliot's Middlemarch with its multiple plot lines and realistic psychological detail. Scott, Dickens, and Eliot all use historical fiction to examine contemporary problems. They use the past to reflect the present in hopes of resolving its crises. Their novels explore how political history is shaped by individuals or how it shapes them in turn.
Key Facts about A Tale of Two Cities
  • Full Title: A Tale of Two Cities
  • When Written: 1859
  • Where Written: Rochester and London
  • When Published: 1859
  • Literary Period: Victorian era
  • Genre: Historical novel
  • Setting: London and Paris
  • Climax: Sydney Carton's rescue of Charles Darnay from prison
  • Antagonist: French revolutionaries; Madame Defarge
  • Point of View: Third person omniscient
Extra Credit for A Tale of Two Cities

Serial fiction: Like many of Dickens's novels, A Tale of Two Cities was first published in installments in his magazine All the Year Round. Many Victorian novels were first published in serial parts and then later collected into books.

American favorite: Since its publication, A Tale of Two Cities has always been Dickens's most popular work in America.