Summary: Chapter 1: In Secret

Travel through France proves difficult for Darnay. Hostile revolutionaries frequently stop him and question him. Upon his arrival in Paris, the revolutionaries confine him to a prison called La Force. Darnay protests and reminds his jailers of his rights. However, the guard responds that, as an emigrant, Darnay—whom he refers to as Evrémonde—has no rights. The guard hands Darnay over to Defarge with the instructions, “In secret.” As he is being led away, Darnay converses with the wine merchant. Defarge wonders aloud why Darnay would choose to return to France in the age of “that sharp female newly-born . . . called La Guillotine.” Darnay asks Defarge for help, but Defarge refuses. At La Force, Darnay feels he has entered the world of the dead. A fellow prisoner welcomes him to the prison and says that he hopes that Darnay will not be kept “in secret”—the Anglicized form of en secret, meaning solitary confinement. But Darnay has indeed been sentenced to total isolation, and he soon finds himself in a cell measuring “five paces by four and a half.”

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Summary: Chapter 2: The Grindstone

Lucie and Doctor Manette storm into the Paris branch of Tellson’s Bank to find Mr. Lorry. They inform him that Darnay sits imprisoned in La Force. Manette remains confident that he can use his standing as a one-time prisoner of the Bastille to help rescue his son-in-law. Lorry sends Lucie into the back room of the bank so that he can speak to Manette in private. He and Manette look out into the courtyard, where throngs of people sharpen their weapons on a grindstone. Lorry explains that the mob is preparing to kill the prisoners. Manette rushes into the crowd, and soon a cry arises: “Help for the Bastille prisoner’s kindred in La Force!”

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Summary: Chapter 3: The Shadow

Fearing that Lucie and Manette’s presence might compromise the bank’s business, Lorry ushers Lucie, her daughter, and Miss Pross to a nearby lodging. He leaves Jerry Cruncher to guard them. Back at Tellson’s, Defarge approaches Lorry with a message from Manette. Following Manette’s instructions, Lorry leads Defarge to Lucie. Defarge claims that Madame Defarge must accompany them, as she will familiarize herself with the faces of Lucie, her daughter, and Miss Pross, in order to better protect them in the future. The woman known as The Vengeance also comes. Upon arriving at the lodging, Defarge gives Lucie a note from the imprisoned Darnay. It urges her to take courage. Turning to Madame Defarge, Lucie begs her to show Darnay some mercy, but Madame Defarge coldly responds that the revolution will not stop for the sake of Lucie or her family.

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Summary: Chapter 4: Calm in Storm

Four days later, Manette returns from La Force. Lorry notes a change in the once-fragile Manette, who now seems full of strength and power. Manette tells him that he has persuaded the Tribunal, a self-appointed body that tries and sentences the revolution’s prisoners, to keep Darnay alive. Moreover, he has secured a job as the inspecting physician of three prisons, one of which is La Force. These duties will enable him to ensure Darnay’s safety. Time passes, and France rages as though in a fever. The revolutionaries behead the king and queen, and the guillotine becomes a fixture in the Paris streets. Darnay remains in prison for a year and three months.

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Summary; Chapter 5: The Wood-sawyer

While the family waits for Darnay’s trial, Manette tells Lucie of a window in the prison from which Darnay might see her in the street. For two hours every day, Lucie stands in the area visible from this window. A wood-sawyer who works nearby talks with Lucie while she waits, pretending that his saw is a guillotine (it bears the inscription “Little Sainte Guillotine”) and that each piece of wood that he cuts is the head of a prisoner. One day, a throng of people comes down the street, dancing a horrible and violent dance known as the Carmagnole. The dancers depart, and the distressed Lucie now sees her father standing before her. As he comforts Lucie, Madame Defarge happens by. She and Manette exchange salutes. Manette then tells Lucie that Darnay will stand trial on the following day and assures her that her husband will fare well in it.

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Analysis: Chapters 1–5

The scene at the grindstone powerfully evokes the frantic and mindlessly violent mob of the revolution. A master of imagery, Dickens often connects one scene to another in such a manner that the images flow throughout the entire novel rather than stand in isolation. The reader feels this continuity as the crowd gathers around the grindstone to sharpen their weapons. The description of the people in blood-stained rags, “[not one] creature in the group free from the smear of blood,” immediately recalls the breaking of the wine-cask outside Defarge’s shop in Chapter 5; there, too, the people’s rags are stained and “those who had been greedy with the staves of the cask, had acquired a tigerish smear about the mouth.” These parallel scenes do more than testify to Dickens’s artistry. They serve to place disparate motifs into symbolic relation. In repeating the motif of the red-stained peasants’ rags, Dickens links wine with blood, invoking the Christian association between communion wine and the blood of Christ. However, Dickens complicates the symbol in his text. While the blood of Christ traditionally signifies salvation—Christians believe that Christ sacrificed his life for human deliverance from sin—Dickens’s grisly depictions of the vicious, vengeful, and often sadistic revolutionaries express a deep skepticism in the redemptive power of political bloodshed.

Read how the scene at the grindstone connects to the broken wine cask scene.

Shadows constitute another symbol that permeates the entire novel, here providing the subheading for Chapter 3. Dickens uses light and dark much as a painter might, infusing his composition with a wide range of tone and depth. The reader can observe Dickens’s use of light and shadow at various instances in the novel. Notably, the chilling opening of the novel, in which the mail coach weaves its way through the darkness and fog, sets a tone of ominous mystery for the story; conversely, the sweet sunrise that opens Book the Second, Chapter 18, lends Lucie’s wedding day an air of promise and happiness. In the current section, Madame Defarge casts a menacing shadow:

The shadow attendant on Madame Defarge and her party seemed to fall so threatening and dark on the child, that her mother instinctively kneeled on the ground beside her, and held her to her breast. The shadow attendant on Madame Defarge and her party seemed then to fall, threatening and dark, on both the mother and the child.

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The narrator’s focus on the looming presence of Madame Defarge and on Lucie’s inability to escape this woman’s shadow establishes a tension between the gentle and nurturing Lucie—the “golden-haired doll”—and the dark and cold Madame Defarge, an unrelenting instrument of the revolution. Indeed, the narrator implicitly likens Madame Defarge’s shadow, which “fall[s] . . . threatening and dark,” to the guillotine blade that she is so eager to see making its fatal descent.

In Chapter 5, Dickens furthers this tension between Lucie’s sweet goodness and the perverse malevolence of the revolution. The wood-sawyer who talks with Lucie in Chapter 5 possesses a grotesque zeal for decapitation, as evidenced by the religious nature of the moniker that he gives to his saw. He labels his imagined guillotine “Sainte”—that is, holy—illustrating his belief that the guillotine, in lopping off the heads of the aristocracy, is carrying out divine will. Similarly devoted but of opposite sympathy, Lucie waits steadfastly outside of her husband’s prison, merely on the off-chance that Darnay might catch a glimpse of her. Whereas the violent and rambunctious Carmagnole dance, in which the wood-sawyer participates, symbolizes the ruthlessness of the revolution, the white snow that falls “quietly and . . . soft” in the very same chapter symbolizes Lucie’s gentle soul and pure love for Darnay. When Madame Defarge passes by “like a shadow over the white road,” the reader again senses the threat she poses to Lucie’s happiness.

Read more about how Dickens initially creates stark contrasts between characters but later reveals unexpected similarities.