‘Liberty, equality, fraternity, or death; — the last, much the easiest to bestow, O Guillotine!’
Tucked away in a quiet corner of the Stony Brook University Bookstore is a small section devoted to the Barnes & Noble Classics Series. Among these is one of my favorite pieces of literature, Charles Dickens’ historical fiction novel A Tale of Two Cities. The 1859 bestseller, set in London and Paris during and before the French Revolution, centers around the lives of Charles Darnay, an exiled French aristocrat, and Sydney Carton, a brilliant but controversial English lawyer, and both men’s love for Lucie Manette, daughter of Doctor Manette, a former prisoner in the French royal Bastille fortress in Paris.
The book opens with Doctor Manette having just been released from the Bastille prison. From his eighteen years of imprisonment, he has developed a form of psychosis, being obsessed with making shoes. He initially does not recognize his daughter Lucie, who takes him back to her home in England.
The scene shifts to a raucous trial in the Old Bailey court in London, where the innocent exiled French aristocrat Charles Darnay is on trial for treason, allegedly having passed information on British troop movements to the French during the Seven Years’ (French and Indian) War. Darnay is acquitted when his main accuser cannot tell him apart from a young barrister (lawyer) present in the court, Sydney Carton.
In Paris, the hated Marquis St. Evrémonde recklessly orders his carriage driven through a dense crowd of people, killing the child of a peasant named Gaspard. Symbolizing the indifference and inhumanity of the ancien regime’s aristocracy toward the peasants, the Marquis condescendingly tosses a coin to the horrified Gaspard, thinking this will compensate him for his terrible loss. Monsieur and Madame Defarge, witnesses to the event, comfort Gaspard. As the Marquis orders his coach to drive off, someone from the outraged crowd—possibly Madame Defarge—contemptuously throws his coin back into his carriage, infuriating him. When the Marquis arrives at his chateau, he reveals his utter disgust and contempt for the French peasantry, referring to them as dogs who must be kept obedient to the whip, with repression being “the only lasting philosophy”. Gaspard, who followed the Marquis to his chateau, stabs and kills the Marquis in his sleep, but is later hanged for his crime.
Back in London, Charles Darnay obtains Doctor Manette’s permission to marry his daughter, but Sydney Carton confesses his love for Lucie as well. Aware that she will not return his love, Carton passionately promises to “embrace any sacrifice for you and those dear to you”. Darnay reveals his true identity on the morning of his marriage, which Doctor Manette had asked him not to do. This upsets the doctor, causing him to revert to his obsessive shoemaking.
The scene shifts again to Paris, where in July 1789 the Defarges are among the crowds who assist in the storming of the Bastille, physically dismantling the hated symbol of royal tyranny. Monsieur Defarge enters Dr. Manette’s former cell, 105, north tower. Dickens does not reveal what Defarge is searching for in Manette’s cell until Book Three of the novel, which was written in a series of weekly installments.
Back in England, Lucie and Charles Darnay begin to raise a family, including a son who dies in early childhood and a daughter, Lucie the Younger. Although Carton rarely visits, he is accepted as a close family friend whom little Lucie especially adores.
Ultimately, as the French Revolution unfolds, becoming more and more brutal as the Reign of Terror commences, Darnay returns to Paris to help one of his servants, but he is imprisoned by the revolutionaries and denounced as a hated aristocrat. Dr. Manette and Lucie hasten to Paris to try to free Darnay, who is kept imprisoned for over a year before his trial finally begins. Viewed as a hero by the peasant mob for having endured such a long imprisonment in the Bastille, Dr. Manette successfully pleads for his son-in-law’s release, but Darnay is almost immediately arrested again on charges brought forth by Monsieur and Madame Defarge.
At the revolutionary tribunal, Monsieur Defarge confronts Darnay, who, it is revealed, is the nephew of the hated Marquis St. Evrémonde. Defarge reads a letter written by Dr. Manette, the same letter he had sought when he had entered Manette’s cell during the storming of the Bastille. The letter reveals that the Marquis, Darnay’s uncle, kidnapped and raped a peasant girl, whom Dr. Manette attempted unsuccessfully to save. The Marquis and Darnay’s father then had the doctor imprisoned for attempting to save the girl, and went further, killing the girl’s husband and causing her father to die of shock. It is revealed that Madame Defarge is the sole surviving sister of the peasant girl, whose brother hid his sister away when he realized the Marquis would not rest until the entire peasant family was destroyed. This is why the Defarges seek Darnay’s death; they seek vengeance for the outrages Darnay’s uncle and father perpetrated against Madame Defarge’s family. Dr. Manette is horrified that Darnay is now to be condemned for his uncle’s sins, but his protests are to no avail – Darnay is sentenced to die on the guillotine the next day.
The following morning, Carton visits Darnay in prison, an, realizing he still greatly resembles Darnay, decides to take Darnay’s place and die in his stead on the guillotine, remembering his vow to Lucie to “embrace any sacrifice for you and those dear to you.” Carton shepherds Darnay and his family out of Paris, and prepares himself to die. Meanwhile, the still-vengeful Madame Defarge goes, armed with a pistol, to the Manette residence, hoping to catch the family in mourning for Darnay, a condemned enemy of the Republic, and thereby condemn the entire family. In a struggle with one of the Manette servants, who seeks to protect them from the vengeful woman, Defarge’s pistol goes off, killing her.
As morning dawns, the day of execution arrives. Carton, appearing to all as the condemned Darnay, talks with a fellow condemned, a seamstress, as they wait to board the tumbril that will take them to the guillotine. She recognizes that he is not Darnay, and is awed by his courage and selflessness. He comforts her as they ride to the scaffold, and she is able to meet her death in peace. As he waits his turn to be beheaded, Carton experiences a kind of epiphany, realizing that he is in the right for dying in place of a man who was married, with a family. His last thoughts are that “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”