Famous for its iconic first and last lines, A Tale of Two Cities is Dickens's best-known work of historical fiction. The novel is set against the backdrop of the French Revolution, so it is important to provide historical context on the political and economic issues that led up to the revolution, on the storming of the Bastille, and on executions of the aristocracy during the Reign of Terror. Students should also be aware that the revolutionaries identify themselves to one another by using the code name "Jacques." This background information will help your class understand Dickens's portrayal of this historic period and foster class discussion on social transformation and on the hazards of mob mentality.

Since the novel contains many characters and takes place over more than a decade, having students keep character charts that identify character qualities, their relations to other characters, and significant plot points concerning each character will help students keep track of what is going on in the book. The class can also discuss what specific characters represent. Further class discussion can involve the symbols of knitting, the golden thread, shoes and footsteps, and how these symbols relate to fate.


Key Facts:

  • Length: 368 pages
  • Lexile Measure: 990
  • Publication Date: 1859
  • Recommended Grade Band: 10 – 11

Combining two stories that take place in London and Paris, Dickens examines the political and economic unrest that led to the American and French Revolutions. Through the interwoven lives of Charles Darnay, Lucie Manette, and her father, Dr. Alexandre Manette, this historical novel explores the aftermath of these revolutions from false accusations of treason, to imprisonment, to executions.

Your students will love:

  • Learning about the French Revolution in an interesting way
  • The dynamic cast of characters and interwoven storylines

Students may have problems with:

  • Keeping track of plot and characters
  • The advanced or archaic vocabulary
  • Understanding all the historical references

Objectives for Teaching A Tale of Two Cities

  • Cite incidents from the novel to support that Dickens believes in fate, and show that the events in Darnay's life are inevitable consequences caused by the tide of history.
  • Explain how the author uses foreshadowing to heighten suspense and create interest.
  • Discuss how Dickens exaggerates the descriptions and actions of certain characters to make these characters caricatures of particular types of people.
  • Identify and analyze symbols used throughout the novel.
  • Discuss the societal abuses that bring on the revolution and comment on the revolution's human face.
  • Discuss how mob rule can lead to violent excess.

Key Elements and Techniques

  • Caricature
  • Epithet
  • Foreshadowing
  • Hyperbole
  • Imagery
  • Irony
  • Paradox
  • Parallelism
  • Personification
  • Symbolism

Themes and Motifs

Rebirth — The novel explores the personal transformation of various characters who are metaphorically reborn, as well as the potential rebirth of society after the violent revolution.

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Social Justice — The French Revolutionaries are trying to give the French people the freedoms they deserve while also punishing the aristocracy.

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Reality and Illusion — Throughout the novel, characters question whether they are awake or dreaming, which illustrates the confusing nature of the changing regime.

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There are many movie adaptations dating back to a 1911 silent movie. The most critically acclaimed film of A Tale of Two Cities is the 1935 adaptation directed by Jack Conway; it was nominated for two Academy Awards and remains true to the book.

External Resources

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