Acknowledgement: This work has been summarized using the Everyman 1996 edition. Quotations are for the most part taken from that work, as are paraphrases of its commentary.
Overall Impression: This is a less "Dickensian" novel than Bleak House, Great Expectations, etc.-- few colorful characters and less humor, shorter, more melodramatic.
Novel begins in 1775, describing the striking contrasts and abuses extant in France; and crime is rampant in England. "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness..."
Mr. Jarvis Lorry, a 60 y/o banker with Tellson's Bank, is a passenger on the London to Dover mail coach. He receives a message, "Wait at Dover for Mam'selle" from the French branch of the bank, delivered by their odd jobs man Jerry Cruncher, and sends back the message "Recalled to life".
Author considers the mysteries each human harbors. Lorry rides and daydreams, first of the bank, then of the man (Dr. Alexandre Manette) imprisoned for 18 years as if buried, now to be exhumed.
In Dover, the 17 y/o daughter of Dr. Manette, Miss Lucie Manette, joins Lorry. He informs her that her father is not dead after all, but has been imprisoned in France under a lettre de cachet and under another name. She faints and is tended by the robust Miss Pross.
The poor of the St. Antoine area of Paris lap up wine spilled (like blood) in the street-- misery abounds. At the wine-shop, we encounter Mme. Thérèse Defarge knitting and the three "Jacques" (pseudonyms recalling the 14C Jacquerie peasant rebellion). The wine-shop keeper, Ernest Defarge (a former servant of Manette), leads Lorry and Lucie to the garret where he has locked in Dr. Manette for his own safety.
They meet Manette, who is compulsively working as a shoemaker in the garret. He knows himself only as prisoner 105, North Tower. He has a momentary flash of recognition of his old friend Lorry. Lucie tenderly comforts him-- he recognizes her yellow hair (from her mother's?). They get a carriage and Defarge assists them in promptly departing France.
Now 1780. Tellson's bank is like the country of England, old-fashioned and resistant to change or reform. Jerry Cruncher, who runs errands for Tellson's, is prayed for by his wife-- his son emulates him.
Jerry is sent with a message for Lorry at the Old Bailey (criminal court). There Charles Darnay is being tried for treason, accused of being a spy for the French. John Barsad (a hired spy and traitor) and his secret accomplice Roger Cly bear false witness against Charles. Lorry and the Manettes are presented as witnesses but Lucie defends Charles, who made the return voyage with her from France. Darnay's attorney, Mr. Stryver, presents Sydney Carton, who resembles Darnay, helping to impugn the testimony of those who claimed to have seen Darnay. Darnay sends words of comfort to Lucie for the distress her testimony caused her. He is acquitted.
Darnay is congratulated by Stryver, Lorry, & the Manettes. Dr. Manette momentarily frowns in dislike at the apparent recognition of Darnay. Mr. Carton, who has been drinking, invites him to eat nearby and alludes to their mutual interest in Lucie.
Sydney Carton serves as a "jackal" (assistant) to the "lion", Mr. Stryver. They drink heavily as Carton condenses papers for Stryver's review. Carton reflects on his own failures and disappointments with his life.
Four months later, now summer-- the Dr. has resumed his practice. Lorry visits the Manettes. Miss Pross is their housekeeper, very protective and devoted to Lucie-- she refers to her brother Solomon Pross, a scoundrel who stripped her of everything she owned. Lorry is concerned about Manette's mental health and his suppression of the past. Lorry wonders about Manette's imprisoner. Darnay and Carton also visit. Darnay tells a tale of a prisoner whose writing was hidden from his jailer-- this tale makes Manette ill. Lucie envisions a multitude of people who will enter her future life.
The Monseigneur, a great French lord, has allied with a Farmer-General through his sister's marriage, to raise money. He holds court, surrounded by luxury and oblivious to the poor. The Marquis St. Evrémonde (60 y/o) hopes to see him but fails, and angrily rushes away in his carriage, recklessly careening through the city streets. It runs over the townsman Gaspard's child, killing it. The Marquis' expressed contempt is witnessed by the Defarges. A coin is thrown at his carriage and he threatens the crowd. Mme Defarge knits.
The Marquis passes through the country toward his château. A road-mender (later wood-sawyer) stares. He is interrogated, with the assistance of Mr. Gabelle (the postmaster and tax man) . When asked he says he saw a man hanging underneath the Marquis' carriage, a man who has since run away. A poor widow petitions him for a grave marker for her husband but is ignored.
The Marquis meets at his home with his nephew (known in England as Charles Darnay), son of his twin brother, a Marquis St. Evrémonde now deceased. Darnay denounces the abuses and inhumanity of the family, including his own father, and mentions the disgrace on the Marquis at court-- they detest each other-- he renounces any claim on the property. The Marquis asserts his Machiavellian principles-- "Repression is the only lasting philosophy." The Marquis is stabbed to death during the night-- a note is left by "Jacques".
Darnay tells Manette of his love for Lucie and asks him to speak of this to her when the occasion arises. Manette refuses to hear of Darnay's true identity, reserving that for the wedding day. Darnay earns his way as a tutor. Manette resumes shoe hammering that night, apparently responding to the conflict he feels over his daughter's relationship with the nephew of his former imprisoner.
Stryver tells Carton that he intends to seek Lucie as his wife and advises he find one also. Stryver tells Lorry of his plan, and is strongly discouraged, including after Lorry sounds out the Manettes. Stryver feigns indifference.
Carton visits Lucie, tells her he cannot rise up from his degradation, implies his love for her, but says he would drag her down. She inspires in him a desire to do better. He would give his life to keep another she loves beside her.
The spy Roger Cly is "buried" by an unruly mob-- his associate Barsad is threatened by them. That night, the moonlighting Jerry Cruncher goes "fishing" to rob the grave of the body for paid medical use (his wife strongly opposes this occupation). We later learn that he found the grave empty and that the death and burial was a sham to get Cly away safely.
The Defarge's and the 3 Jacques interview the road mender. He has witnessed the public execution of Gaspard, murderer of the Marquis and the father of the child killed by him. Defarge's petition for clemency failed. They decide to "register" the Marquis's chateau and all the race for destruction-- the registration is done by Mme. Defarge, who encodes the info into the shrouds she knits. They view the king's entourage and predict their downfall.
Barsad comes to the wine-shop-- they perceive him to be a spy and the room clears out. The Defarge's craftily refuse to speak in sympathy about the executed man. Barsad tells them that Darnay (a name adopted from his mother's D' Aulnais) plans to marry Lucie and that he is entitled to the title of Marquis.
The evening before her wedding, Lucie's father alludes to his time in prison, viewing the moon, desiring vengeance, wondering about his child (unborn when he was imprisoned), seeing images of his daughter and her children loving her lost father.
The wedding takes place and the Darnays leave for 9 days. Manette reverts to shoemaking and believes himself imprisoned-- Lorry watches over him. Manette recovers and puts aside shoemaking. Lorry obliquely explores with him the cause of the relapse (a "revival of a train of thought..."), and gets Manette to agree to the destruction of his cobbler's bench.
Carton asks Darnay for permission to come and go as a privileged guest, which he agrees to. Lucie asks her husband to be lenient and compassionate toward Carton.
Now July 1789. The Darnays have daughter Lucie, 6 y/o-- an older son has died. The Bastille is stormed. Marquis de Launay and others are killed by the mob (Mme. Defarge decapitates him afterwards). Defarge visits Manette's old cell-- does he find anything? (Yes!)
Foulon, counselor to Louis XVI, is found hiding and is killed and beheaded by the mob. The Defarges have become leaders. The Marquis' chateau is burned down.
Now August 1792. Many French have emigrated and sent their possession out of the country. Lorry prepares to go to France with Cruncher. He has a letter for the Marquis, which Charles volunteers to give to him. It is a plea from Gabelle, an old servant, who is in jail for treason for aiding an emigrant (Darnay) and appeals for his life. Darnay decides to go to France on his behalf, without informing his wife or Manette.
Darnay travels to Paris and is immediately arrested as a detested emigrant and placed in solitary confinement in La Force prison. Defarge refuses to help him.
Lorry is at Tellson's Paris branch, located in a nobleman's house but now partly used as an armoury and place where patriots sharpen their knives etc. Lucie and her father arrive-- he is honored as a former prisoner of the Bastille. The mob plans to murder the prisoners at La Force and Manette rushes off to save Charles.
Lorry seeks separate lodgings for Manette and the 2 Lucies. The Defarges arrive accompanied by the woman "Vengeance", bearing a note from Manette. Charles is safe. But Mme. Defarge is bent on identifying Lucie and daughter (for later extermination) and responds to her pleas menacingly.
1100 of the prisoners are massacred at La Force. By Manette's intervention, Charles is not killed but remains there. Manette becomes physician to the prisoners. Executions are widespread (the Reign of Terror).
15 months later (1793?), Lucie stands every day outside La Force prison so Charles can see her, though she cannot see him. The wood-sawyer (former road mender) sees her, and expresses a frightening enthusiasm for La Guillotine. Charles is to be tried.
Darnay is tried and acquitted on the testimony of Lorry, Gabelle, and particularly Manette, and is carried triumphantly home.
3 men arrive to rearrest Charles-- he has been denounced by the Defarges.
Miss Pross encounters her brother Solomon Pross (aka John Barsad), now serving as a spy for the Republican govt but formerly for the English aristocracy. Carton threatens to expose him and proposes a deal. Cruncher astounds them by announcing that he knows that Cly did not die as claimed (the coffin was empty) and Carton has seen him in the area.
Carton contemplates with Lorry his longevity and the admiration of others. He acquires chemicals at the druggist and thinks of death. At court, it is claimed that Darnay is denounced by Manette as well as the Defarges.
Manette's letter, found by Defarge at the Bastille, tells of the cruelty and callous attitude of Darnay's father (E1), the rape and death at 20 y/o of a peasant woman by E1's brother E2 (the late Marquis), the slaying of her 17 y/o brother by E2, her father's broken heart, her husband's dying in a harness at noon, and her younger sister being taken to safety (later we learn it is Mme. Defarge). Manette was called to attend the woman and her brother and was troubled by these actions-- -- he wrote a letter which is shown to the Marquis. They have him abducted and thrown in prison without trial. Manette's letter ends with a denunciation of all the St. Evrémondes, thus implicitly including Charles, though he was only 2-3 at the time, and despite the attempt of E1's wife to make restitution to the injured family. Charles is sentenced to death.
Charles and Lucie tearfully part. She faints. Carton comforts her and her daughter and suggests Manette try to appeal the sentence.
Carton overhears the Defarges debating the extermination of the 2 Lucies and Dr. Manette and warns them of the danger-- Mme. Defarge has rehearsed the wood-sawyer to accuse Lucie of making signs and signals to the prisoners. Dr. Manette has decompensated and wants his bench. They plan to flee the next day for England.
Charles writes to his wife and forgivingly to Dr. Manette. Carton comes to his cell, arranged through Barsad, and anesthetizes Charles, changing clothes and places with him. The unconscious Charles, the 2 Lucies, and Manette flee by carriage. Carton comforts a young seamstress, also condemned to die.
Mme. Defarge conspires with others (excluding her husband, who is opposed) for the extermination of the 2 Lucies and Manette. She comes to their quarters but encounters Miss Pross (the others have already fled). They fight, Mme. Defarge draws her pistol, and is shot dead in the scuffle.
Carton aids the condemned woman before they are each executed. The other knitters are concerned that Mme. Defarge does not take up her usual chair at the execution. If Carton had spoken prophetically, he might have described better times to come. Someday Lucie and Charles will have a Sydney, an illustrious man, who will have a Sydney of his own. He will bring this son back to the Place de la Concorde and tell the story of his heroic grandfather. "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.