A Tale of Two Cities Summary

1-Sentence-Summary: A Tale of Two Cities tells the stories of two connected families in 18th-century London and Paris, exploring everything from love and loss to murder and family intrigue, thus teaching us about history, ethics, and the complexity of human relationships.

Read in: 4 minutes

Favorite quote from the author:

A Tale of Two Cities Summary

“I see a beautiful city and a brilliant people rising from this abyss,” Commissioner Gordon reads. “I see the lives for which I lay down my life, peaceful, useful, prosperous and happy.” The tomb stone next to which he stands is simple. Grey. Plain. “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,” Gordon closes. Batman is dead.

Little did I know that the brilliant funeral scene in The Dark Knight Rises is not in the script. It’s based on the ending lines of Charles Dickens‘ novel, A Tale of Two Cities. Published in 1859, the book is Dickens’ most famous work of fiction. It is also one of the best-selling books of all time. The alleged number of 200 million copies is disputed, but it’s up there. Following two connected families from London and Paris in the 18th century, the novel is about love, loss, inequality, justice, and morals.

Here are 3 lessons that will help you understand its core message:

  1. You can always be “recalled to life;” it’s never too late to turn your life around.
  2. There are always parallels to the past in any life situation, and we can use them to master our struggles.
  3. Sacrificing for other people is, ironically, a good way to achieve purpose and fulfillment.

Let’s discover A Tale of Two Cities!

If you want to save this summary for later, download the free PDF and read it whenever you want.

Download PDF

Lesson 1: It is never too late to “be reborn,” to change ourselves and make something of our lives. 

The first act of the book is called “Recalled to Life,” a key phrase that repeats throughout the book. Initially, it is used to describe the release of Dr. Alexandre Manette from the Bastille prison after 18 years. Lorry carries this news to Lucie, Manette’s daughter. Together, they travel to France and bring a clearly traumatized and mentally unstable Dr. Manette home to London.

Besides Manette’s release from prison, his daughter eventually managing to bring him back to a normal state is another rebirth. Later in the book, Charles Darnay, a French nobleman and Lucie’s love interest, is saved repeatedly from being sentenced to death. Meanwhile, Sydney Carton, a brilliant but cynical lawyer who also loves Lucie, is slowly “recalled to life” from his dark and egotistic ways. In the end, he even sacrifices himself for Darnay and Lucie, alluding to a more literal “rebirth” in the Christian sense of the word.

The point Dickens makes is that no matter our circumstances or past failures, it is never too late to be reborn. Any day could be the day we decide to change, to demand better, and to make something of our lives. Whether we’re stuck in prison or bad habits, it’s never too late to break out and be “recalled to life.”

Lesson 2: Everything in life resembles something else, and there are always parallels to learn from if we look for them.

“There is nothing new under the sun,” they say. In the second act, “The Golden Thread,” more and more parallels between Lucie’s and Darnay’s families unfold. When Lucie and her father are witnesses at Darnay’s trial for treason, she falls in love with him. Since present lawyer Sydney Carton resembles Darnay, all evidence against him is dismissed.

Later in London, Carton vows to be a great friend to Lucie after she rejects him romantically. Lucie and Darnay get married and start a family, but Darnay’s past is about to catch up with him. After his trial, Darnay, the sole heir to the unscrupulous Marquis St. Evrémonde, renounced his noble roots. But the Marquis was soon murdered by the father of a child he ran over with his carriage. Suddenly, Darnay is — wanted or unwanted — the new Marquis.

Two people who are disconnected from their fathers. Two cities facing civil unrest and deep-seated inequality. Carton looks like Darnay, both love Lucie, and both Manette and Darnay end up in prison. Everything in A Tale of Two Cities comes in pairs — because so does everything in life. Consider the book’s opening lines:

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 belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…

The lesson? No matter what situation you are currently facing, if you look around, research, and consult history, you will find that someone had a similar challenge once before — and you can learn from them to keep moving forward. History doesn’t repeat, but it sure as hell rhymes, and that’s one of the best things about it.

Lesson 3: One of the most meaningful things we can do is to sacrifice for others which, ironically, will make us happy and fulfilled.

In the last act, “The Track of a Storm,” Darnay is promptly thrown into prison after his arrival in France for being “an old aristocrat.” The Manettes arrive and get him acquitted at his trial, but he is rearrested instantly — and sentenced to death.

Selflessly, Carton manages to trade places with an unknowing Darnay in his cell, choosing to be executed in his stead. Remember Commissioner Gordon’s speech? It is the book’s closing monologue. Carton stares at the guillotine about to chop off his head. Despite impending death, Carton is at peace, having done the right thing. That’s why, “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,” he concludes.

Of course, in our everyday lives, sacrifice doesn’t mean dying to save someone else. Giving up something to help others, however, is one of the best ways to achieve meaning and happiness — as long as we choose the right people and do it for the right reasons. Don’t get lost inside your head. Doing a little bit of good for others every day is the best way to do a great deal of good for yourself.

A Tale of Two Cities Review

What a whopper of a story! A Tale of Two Cities truly has everything you could ask for. It is also a literary classic full of important themes, metaphors, and symbols. You might want to dive in slowly with some summaries and analyses of the book, like I did, but I think this book is one most of us won’t regret reading at least once in our lifetime.

Who would I recommend our A Tale of Two Cities summary to?

The 15-year-old high school student who needs to read the book for class but doesn’t quite see the point, the 27-year-old stay-at-home mom who feels alone in her situation, and anyone who wants to better understand the great classics of literature.

Rate this book!
This book has an average rating of 4.5 based on 10 votes.

Niklas Göke

Niklas Göke is an author and writer whose work has attracted tens of millions of readers to date. He is also the founder and CEO of Four Minute Books, a collection of over 1,000 free book summaries teaching readers 3 valuable lessons in just 4 minutes each. Born and raised in Germany, Nik also holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Business Administration & Engineering from KIT Karlsruhe and a Master’s Degree in Management & Technology from the Technical University of Munich. He lives in Munich and enjoys a great slice of salami pizza almost as much as reading — or writing — the next book — or book summary, of course!