It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness . . .”
Dickens begins A Tale of Two Cities with this famous sentence. It describes the spirit of the era in which this novel takes place. This era is the latter part of the 1700s – a time when relations between Britain and France were strained, America declared its independence, and the peasants of France began one of the bloodiest revolutions in history. In short, it was a time of liberation and a time of terrible violence. Dickens describes the two cities at the center of the novel: Paris, a city of extravagance, aristocratic abuses, and other evils that lead to revolution and London, a city rife with crime, capital punishment, and disorder. In both cities, the capabilities of an angry mob were a dangerous thing, to be feared by all.
The tale begins on a road between London and Dover (in southern England) in 1775. Three strangers in a carriage are traveling along this dangerous road. The carriage encounters a messenger on a horse who asks for one of the passengers, Jarvis Lorry of Tellson’s Bank. They are wary, because the messenger could be a highwayman, robber, or other undesirable. However, Mr. Lorry ventures out into the rain to receive the message. He recognizes the messenger as a man named Jerry, who works for Tellson’s Bank, as well. Jerry tells him to wait at Dover for the young lady. Lorry tells Jerry to relay to the people at the Bank this message: Recalled to Life. Jerry has no idea what it means and rides off into the rain.
Dickens then ponders how the heart of a person is a true mystery. Lorry can tell who or at least of what class the two other passengers are. Traveling on, Lorry dozes in and out of dreams. His dreams reveal to the reader that his mission is to metaphorically dig a man out of the grave. He dreams of imaginary conversations with this man he is to recall to life. “Buried how long?” Lorry always asks. “Almost eighteen years,” replies the man. Lorry brings the man in his dreams to see a woman (the young woman of which Jerry the messenger spoke). But the man does not know if he still wishes to live or if he can bear to see the young lady after having been “buried” for eighteen long years. Upon arriving at an inn in Dover, Lorry waits for the young lady.
Here the reader learns that the sixty-year-old Lorry is a well-dressed businessman who works for Tellson’s Bank. Tellson’s has an office in London, and an office in Paris. Lorry is above all a man of business, and tries to reduce everything to business terms. When the young lady arrives, Lorry goes to see her. She is Lucie Manette, a seventeen-year-old orphan. Lucie believes that she must go to Paris with Lorry because Tellson’s Bank has discovered something regarding her dead father’s small bit of property. However, Lorry nervously tells her the truth: Her father was a well known scientist in France, whom Lorry knew while working at Tellson’s French office. Lucie vaguely recognizes Lorry because he brought her to London many years ago when she was orphaned and Tellson’s Bank was put in charge of her.
Lucie is shocked when she learns that Tellson’s has found her father alive in Paris. He was imprisoned in the Bastille (a famous French prison) for eighteen years, but no one knows why. Lorry calls in the servants, and a strong, brusque woman (who we later discover is Lucie’s servant and who essentially raised her) comes in to take care of the young lady.
The two cities are very important to the development of this novel. Both are violent cities rife with injustice. The characters travel between them throughout the novel. The cities provide two distinct settings, each with its own secrets and perils. The major themes of this novel are resurrection and revolution. The first of the two themes is introduced in this section. Resurrection is the literal action of bringing the dead back to life. However, Dickens uses it metaphorically. Lorry likens his mission to digging up a man who has been buried for eighteen years, in short, “recalling him to life.” Resurrection in this novel appears as many things: a second chance at life, an escape of a death sentence, release from imprisonment, the digging up of graves, and memories of the dead.