A Tale of Two Cities is a work of historical fiction. The novel is set in London and Paris in the years leading up to the French Revolution, and it explores how large-scale historical movements like the Revolution influence (and are influenced by) the lives of individuals. Historical fiction was a relatively new genre in 1859, when Dickens published this novel. This literary mode was first popularized by Sir Walter Scott in his 1814 work Waverly, which is set during the Jacobite uprising in Scotland. Dickens was likely inspired by Waverly, as well as Thomas Carlyle’s history of the French Revolution, when writing A Tale of Two Cities.
A Tale of Two Cities is similar to other novels from the Victorian era. Victorian novels were often quite long, with extensive casts of characters, and were often published serially in magazines or newspapers. Victorian novels became popular as printing got cheaper and England’s expanding middle class searched for ways to occupy its newfound leisure time. But Victorian novels were about more than entertainment—writers, thinkers, and pundits of Victorian England saw novels as a way to instill upper-class values in readers. As a result, these novels tended to emphasize the importance of good manners, the beauty of female domesticity, and the evils of revolutionary politics that could upset the social order. These reformist, liberal humanist tendencies are present in A Tale of Two Cities’ treatment of the French Revolutionaries.
If you rolled your eyes when Sydney Carton recited the words of Christ on his way to the guillotine or if you groaned when you learned that Darnay was a member of the Evrémonde family, you would not be alone. Since its publication, critics have had mixed responses to the over-the-top action and cartoonish characters of A Tale of Two Cities. But the story isn’t supposed to be realistic—it’s a melodrama. Dastardly plots, secret identities, and shocking reveals are all conventions of the genre. The narrative excesses of A Tale of Two Cities don’t mean that Dickens is failing at realism. Instead, he is succeeding at melodrama.