Sunday, September 19, 2010

A tale of Two Cities - Detailed Summary Part - 1

Charles Dickens had divided his novel into three parts or three books as he called them: Book the First: Recalled to Life; Book the Second: The Golden Thread and Book the Third: The Track of the Storm. Between them, the three books deal with the tale of the two cities, London and Paris, with the French Revolution as the main backdrop to the story. Here is a detailed summary of the chapters in each part of the book.

Chapter 1: The Period
It is the year 1775 and Dickens describes the political, economic and social conditions of the age:
‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the age of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, We had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.’
In France, as in England, things followed in their usual course and the regular pattern of affairs reflected both wisdom and foolishness, hope and despair, light and darkness. This brief chapter shifts from one side of the English Channel to the other and back again. What Dickens does here is to prepare us for the two stages upon which he is to present his story: France and England. Both countries were corrupt and diseased; and if England was perhaps slightly better off than France, it was just a matter of degree. In a sense this chapter also serves as a prophetic pointer to the tragedy that lies ahead in the novel.
Para 2: ‘There was a king with a large jaw’ etc: This refers to King George III and his wife, Sophia of England and to King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette of France.
Chapter 2: The Mail
On a cold and misty night in November 1775, a mail coach struggles up the hill on the road to Dover. Three passengers, heavily padded up against the cold sat silently in the coach, hoping against hope that they would reach Dover safely because England at the time was threatened with highway robbers. As the coach reached the top of the hill, the driver and passengers heard the sound of distant horses. The horseman was challenged by the guard—apart from the driver, there was always a heavily armed guard seated with him—who stood suspicious and ready to fire. The horseman asked if the coach was the Dover mail and if a passenger, Mr Jarvis Lorry, was travelling on it. The horseman said, if so, he had got a message for Mr Lorry from Tellson’s Bank of London. Mr Lorry got off the coach and read the message: “Wait at Dover for Mam’selle,” and added that his answer to the sender was “Recalled to Life.” The horseman was very puzzled by the reply and said to himself, “That’s a blazing strange answer.”
You will notice that Dickens commences the action of the novel on a note of mystery. The message sent back by Mr Lorry, ‘Recalled to Life’ in the dead of night in the middle of the highway to a mysterious horseman immediately creates a secretive and puzzling atmosphere. But, as the novel develops, the statement proves prophetic. It is characteristic of Dickens that he lets drop a number of innocent statements whose loose ends weave together as the plot of the novel thickens.
Chapter 3: The Night Shadows
As the coach struggles off into the mists, Jerry Cruncher, the messenger, made his way back to London, slopping off for a drink or two at the numerous ale houses on the way. He kept thinking to himself about the curious message he had received from Mr Jarvis Lorry and reminded himself constantly that such a thing as coming back to life would not do as an answer. There must something more to it but he could not figure out what this could be.
Meanwhile, in the coach, Jarvis Lorry who described himself as “a man of business” dozes off with the constant jostling. The bank of Tellson rarely left his thoughts even in his drowsiness and dreams: keys, bank drafts, vaults, and the many inner secret places of the bank. And along with the images of the bank were a multitude of faces, faces that crowded in on him. He dreams that he is going to dig someone from his tomb, but which of the faces before him Was the buried man he could not tell. Each of the faces in the dream were the same, that of men of forty-five or so, all haggard and tired with sunken cheeks and pale skins. Again and again, Lorry enquires: “Buried how long?” And the reply was always the same, “Almost eighteen years.” The emaciated man, with a worn and tired face confessed to having abandoned all hope, to which Lorry inquires if he knew he had been “recalled to life” and wished to live. The dreaming Lorry asked, “Shall I show her to you?” But the replies of the old man were all muddled and confused, the longing giving way to pain and bewilderment. Lorry also dreams that he is digging, sometimes with a spade, sometimes with the keys of a vault and sometimes with bare hands. Finally freed, with his body filled with dust, Lorry is jolted out of his dreams. But the dreams were so real to him that when the sun rose, Lorry gazed out of the coach and remarked: “Gracious Creator of the day! To be buried alive for eighteen years.”
Mr Lorry’s Dream
Mr Jarvis Lorry tells us time and again in the novel that he is “a man of business” who is not interested in idling his time and that his sixty years of life were marked by a practicality and a clear vision of what he wanted to do. He is, in other words, “a man on a mission”, but he is also a haunted man who is about to perform a function not expected from a man of business. Again and again, he says “recalled to life”, “buried alive for eighteen years”, “I hope you care to live?—I can’t say”, and so on. These words are mysterious and suspenseful, the answers to which we will get later in the novel. But as a reader you want to know why he introduces these elements so early in the novel. Part of the reason is of course that suspense and mystery keeps alive a reader’s interest. But, more importantly, you must remember that Dickens wrote the novel in a serialised form in the magazine, All the Year Round from April to November 1859. Dickens successfully created suspense and anticipation: the lonely road to Dover, the mist and the rain, the silent passenger huddled together in the cold, the dream of Jarvis Lorry which shows that there is something very real and dreadful troubling his mind. All these elements combine to draw the reader into the heart of the narrative.
Chapter 4: The Preparation
When the coach arrived at Dover, Jarvis Lorry registered at the King George Hotel. He enquired about the schedule of boats leaving for Calais on the French coast and then went up to his room, cleaned and shaved, and had breakfast. Being a well-disciplined man who had repeatedly described himself as “a man of business”, Lorry had acquired all the appearances of a staid, polished banker who could be relied upon on any urgent matter of business. After breakfast, Jarvis informed the hotel manager that he wanted a room to be reserved for a young lady who was expected to arrive that very day. He also told the manager that the young lady would inquire about him by name or simply ask for a gentleman from Tellson’s. Late in the afternoon, after Lorry had his lunch, ‘Mam’selle’, or the young woman Lorry had been waiting for arrived. She was shown to her rooms and called for Mr Lorry immediately.
The young woman was Lucie Manette, the daughter of Dr Manette and she had been advised to go to Dover to meet a representative of Tellson’s bank. She was also told that she would have to journey to Paris on “some business matters concerning her father.” Tellson’s bank had told her further details about the name of the business would be revealed by the representative in Dover but she should be prepared to find it of “a surprising nature.” Finding it difficult to break the news, Lorry began very gently by telling her how he had brought Lucie Manette to England following her mother’s death, with the girl believing that her father was dead. But, Lorry said, her father was alive, in Paris, and they must now journey there to bring him to England where she could restore him to good health after a long prison confinement. But Lorry said that the whole affair must be carried out in great haste and the utmost secrecy. All the time that Lorry relates the story to Lucie Manette, he does so with the utmost gentleness saying that he was “a man of business”, it was “a business charge”, “there were business relations” that he was merely doing what he was doing as an act of duty.
Lucie Manette knew very little about her father apart from the fact that he disappeared mysteriously when she was a child. Her mother, desiring to keep the curious circumstances of his disappearance from her, had allowed her to believe that her father was dead. But the father had been imprisoned for a long time in the Bastille and was now about to be released in a very poor mental and physical condition.
After her mother’s death, Tellson’s bank had attended to the financial affairs of the Manettes and the entire property and assets had passed on to Lucie. But she knew nothing about her father. Lorry’s main task was to prepare her for the shock and also to tell her that although alive, her father had greatly changed over the years and may not even be able to recognise her. But, Lorry hoped that love and affection would restore the old man to health.
Lucie Manette sat stunned and paralysed. Shocked by her condition, Lorry cried out for help because this “man of business” had not encountered anything like it before. On hearing the cries, “a wild-looking woman...all of a red colour...(and) red hair (who) by laying a brawning hand upon his chest (sent) him flying against the nearest wall.” Addressing Lorry, “you in brown” the woman turned to Lucie and consoled her in the gentlest manner. The woman was Miss Pross who plays a crucial role in the novel towards the end.
“A Man of Business”: Why does Dickens constantly describe Lorry as “a man of business?” He does so to show that Lorry is a man without feeling who repeatedly tells Lucie that the whole matter has to be looked upon as a matter of business, business that must be done calmly and collectedly. But is the real Mr Lorry so hard and businesslike? He is endowed with much feeling and sentiment and is really a tender, thoughtful, sensitive personality because while he tells Lucie that the matter is urgent and grave he does so with great feeling and understanding that completely wins the young girl to his side.
Miss Pross: We are introduced to Miss Pross, who acts as Lucie’s companion as well as cook. Here again, she is shown as a gruff and wild-looking woman but whose rough exterior gives way to warn emotions when her “darling pretty” (as she calls Lucie) is involved. This aspect of her character comes through again and again and especially towards the end.
Chapter 5: The Wine Shop
The scene shifts for the first time to Paris, France.
In front of a wine shop in a very poor district, St Antoine in Paris, a cask of red wine had toppled from a cart, cracked open, and spilled out on the street. From all directions, people run towards the spilled wine, scoop it up and start to drink it. Some scoop it up with their hands, some soak their rags and then squeeze out the wine, while others even pick up the broken pieces of wood from the wine casks. But they all drink frantically and eagerly and just for a brief moment of their lives there is much laughter, gaiety, embracing and dancing. After all the very poor and idle in France before the Revolution had nothing to do and went hungry all the time. And after the wine was over, the poor went back to their hovels and to their miserable existence with nothing to do. One poor soul, drunk and sodden with all the spilled wine had scrawled across the wall: BLOOD.
What Dickens shows in this scene is that dirt, cold, ignorance, hunger and illness was everywhere. Filth and disease bred in the foul streets; the people were in rags, and in some of them burned a deep hatred that waited for a time to express itself. This is what the description of the wild man who had written BLOOD across the wall is meant to convey: the poor may be ignorant and incapable of doing anything constructive, but there were some who could and it was these people who became the leaders of the French Revolution.
The keeper of the wineshop, Monsieur Defarge had seen the whole scene and even scolded the man who had scribbled across the wall. As Defarge enters the shop, his wife, Madame Defarge was sued behind the counter. She was about thirty years old, a little stout, but she had the ability to see everything without appearing to see anything at all. And Madame had the astonishing quality of maintaining her calm all the time, keeping her restless hands busy, knitting something or the other. Dickens has painted the personality of Madame Defarge so well in this novel that she has become a metaphor for any woman who is strict and unforgiving and does not smile at all!
When Monsieur Defarge entered the wineshop, Madame coughed and raised one eyebrow to suggest to her husband that he should look around the shop. In the corner of the room were an elderly gentleman and a young woman, but Defarge seemed to take no notice of them and continued to talk to three customers and discuss the incident of the broken wine cask. They all addressed each other as ‘Jacques’ which is a common French name like Jack in English probably because they did not want to be identified in front of strangers. In the course of the conversation, one of them said that the wretched people of Paris did not know good wine from bad and it was all the same to them. Black bread and death was all they could look forward to in life, and nothing more. The conversation was continuing in this aimless manner when Madame Defarge coughed loudly to draw her husband’s attention. Monsieur Defarge told his customers that the room they wanted was on the fifth floor and then excused himself.
Sitting in the corner of the room were Jarvis Lorry and Lucie Manette. Monsieur Defarge took them into the courtyard and then through a very narrow and dirty staircase to a little room at the top. On the way up, Defarge told his visitors that he had been Dr Manette’s servant and had brought him from the prison and had kept him in the room alone out of ‘necessity’ because the doctor had changed greatly.
When the three of them reached the little room at the top, Defarge took a large key from his pocket. Lorry wondered why he had locked up the old man but Defarge replied that not to do so would be dangerous for Dr Manette, having been imprisoned and kept alone for a long time: “He would be frightened—rave––tear himself to pieces­die—come to I know not what harm—if the door was left open.”
When the three entered the room, they saw a stooped figure of a white-haired man, seated and bent busily over a workbench on which he was making shoes.

Chapter 5 is a crucial chapter in the novel. For the first time, Dickens introduces the reader to the second city, Paris and to the poverty and squalor of the ordinary people. Oppressed by hunger, poverty, disease and idleness, the spilled cask of wine provides a moment of joy to the people. In the poverty of Saint Antoine, there is no comfort, unless it lies in the hope that a time for vengeance is coming.
This is the significance of the tall, thin man who scrawls the word, BLOOD on the wall. In this way, Dickens is able to show that a bloodbath is on its way with the French Revolution. When Monsieur Defarge “perhaps accidentally perhaps not” places his hand on the man’s heart, while enquiring whether there is no other place on which he could write, Blood, Defarge’s concern is not for the defacement of public property but that such a vengeful name should be written, not publicly, but on one’s heart until the time is right to strike. This is the symbolic message of this action in the novel.
The Defarges: This chapter introduces Ernest and Therese Defarge. They represent the spirit, the fierce hate and the longing for vengeance against the aristocracy. In fact, they are more than this. They are leaders of the revolutionary movement and take a significant part in it. But they we different from the rabble in the streets. They are intelligent and cunning, especially Madame Defarge who is shown as the more forceful of the two personalities. Both play a crucial role in the novel and the reader should re-read this chapter, especially to draw a comparison between the husband and wife.
Chapter 6: The Shoemaker
When Ernest Defarge, Jarvis Lorry and Lucie Manette entered the attic rook, Defarge first spoke to the gray-haired figure at the workbench. He asked him why he was still working so hard. For a long time there was silence. Then Dr Manette raised his face and said in a very weak voice, “not the faintness of physical weakness (but that) of solitude and disuse. It was like the last feeble echo of a sound made long and long ago.” Dickens describes Dr Manette’s physical and mental condition closely to show the hell he had gone through in prison. Defarge asked Dr Manette what he was doing and after a great deal of hesitation he said he was making a lady’s shoe, and when he was asked what his name was, he said, “One Hundred and Five, North Tower.” Lorry came and stood close to Dr Manette and was soon joined by Lucie. It now became a story of how the father recognised his long-lost daughter and how the two embraced each other. Lucie, overwhelmed by a mixture of sadness and supreme joy, told her father that they would return to England where he could rest in peace. Arrangements are made to take Dr Manette back to London and Lorry and Lucie take the old man into the coach.
Dickens describes the scene of the departure at some length. When the daughter and father reach the bottom of the staircase, an “unnatural silence” seemed to hang in the air, and the only person to be seen was the expressionless Madame Defarge, knitting and unconcerned with anything about her. As Dr Manette entered the coach, he suddenly asked for his shoemaking tools. Madame Defarge said that she would fetch them, and quickly returned with the articles. She then goes back to the shop and continues her knitting as if nothing had happened.
Throughout the night’s journey, Lorry gazed at the wasted figure of Dr Manette and heard the same words that had haunted him on the recent trip to Dover: “I hope you care to be recalled to life?... I can’t say.”

With Chapter 6, Book 1 of A Tale of Two Cities concludes. Dickens has told the reader of the mystery of the curious messages received on the Dover road and of the union of the father and daughter after eighteen years of separation. But this happiness is only temporary. Ahead lies the French Revolution, an event that will draw these three people and some others too.

Monsieur and Madame Defarge
Both the Defarges were to play a crucial role when the Revolution broke out. Here Dickens is merely preparing the reader to the character of the ordinary French people who were so oppressed by the social and economic conditions that all compassion had been stamped out, leaving only a smouldering hate for the system and the aristocracy. The reader is also made aware that Madme Defarge is too quiet, too observant, too busy with her continuous knitting. She has yet to play her true role in the novel, and when she does it will be a powerful one, terrible and frightening for the Manettes. She is an example of strong characterisation, created gradually rather than by a direct statement Dickens had specialised in creating characters in bits and pieces in all his novels, and the making of Madame Defarge is one of them.

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