A Tale of Two Cities is set in London and Paris between 1775 and 1793, during the years of the French Revolution. The revolution overthrew the Ancien Régime, which was situated at the opulent Palace of Versailles. While bad harvests and an inequitable tax system decimated the livelihoods of the rural poor and the purchasing power of the urban proletariat, the court at Versailles continued to flaunt its wealth, turning itself into a lightning rod for the people’s anger. Enlightenment philosophy also led the people of France to question the divine rights of the king and envision themselves as enfranchised citizens in a Republic.
Though the revolution began as an effort to assert the rights of the people, it devolved into “the Terror”—a period when tens of thousands of people were executed for counter-revolutionary activity, often on slim charges. Former leaders of the revolution, such as Robespierre, were executed by the very tribunals they had once served on. In Victorian England, when Dickens wrote A Tale of Two Cities, wealth inequality was rampant, trials were short and sensationalized in the press, prisons were expanding, and public executions were common practice. Dickens likely felt that his own government should take caution to prevent a similar armed uprising.
Though the novel is set against the backdrop of the historical Revolution, it also contains many significant fictional settings. Tellson’s Bank represents institutional power. It is wealthy, resistant to change, and aligned with the aristocracy. For example, when wealthy Frenchmen flee to England, Tellson’s becomes “the headquarters and great gathering-place of Monseigneur, in London."
The Defarges’ wine shop, on the other hand, is the center of revolutionary activity in Saint Antoine. The Jacquerie—a group of working-class revolutionaries who all go by the name “Jacques”—visit the shop to make plans and receive news from Madame Defarge.