A Tale of Two Cities | Study Guide

Charles Dickens

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A Tale of Two Cities | Book 3, Chapter 1 : In Secret | Summary



It is 1792, and Charles Darnay is traveling from the ferry port to Paris, but he is constantly stopped for identity checks and observed along the roads. One night while sleeping at a village inn, he is awoken by the "local functionary and three armed patriots" and told he will have an escort to Paris. Darnay says he would love to get to Paris, but doesn't need an escort. He is given no choice; he must have an escort and pay for the privilege. He pays an exorbitant price and sets off at 3 a.m. with two armed patriots riding beside him, both ragged and one drunk. When the trio reaches Beauvais, the postmaster there protects Darnay from the crowd, who want to hang him right away for being an emigrant and an aristocrat. The postmaster says that there was a decree to sell the land of anyone who left France, and there may be a decree to condemn to death any emigrant who dares to return.

When Darnay and his escort reach Paris, Darnay is put in charge of "a resolute-looking man in authority," who reads Gabelle's letter with surprise. Darnay is separated from his escort, who ride off. In the guardroom, Darnay is immediately identified as "the emigrant Evrémonde" and condemned to La Force prison. Paperwork is completed, marked "in secret," and handed to the "man in authority," who turns out to be Monsieur Defarge. Defarge asks Darnay if he is the same person who married the daughter of Manette, the prisoner from the Bastille. Darnay says he is and asks Defarge to help him, but Defarge will do nothing for him. Defarge asks why, "in the name of that sharp female newly-born, La Guillotine," he came to Paris, and Darnay explains again that he is there because Gabelle asked for his help. Darnay begs Defarge to let Mr. Jarvis Lorry know he will be in La Force, but Defarge refuses. As Darnay is led to prison, the people on the street scarcely notice him because they have become so used to seeing people in decent clothes being led to prison.

When Darnay arrives at the prison, the jailer brings him in, grumbling about overcrowding and especially about the notation "in secret," which Darnay discovers means he is to be kept in solitary confinement. The prisoners around him look at him with pity as he is led away to a tiny, dark cell. Darnay paces the cell, thinking of Dr. Manette and the golden hair of one of the woman prisoners he'd passed and listening to "the roar of the city ... with the wall of voices that he knew."


Poor Charles Darnay receives a bracing dose of reality in this chapter. Not only is it impossible to travel very far in France without being caught, but he is condemned as soon as he arrives in Paris. He expects to have rights, but he is told that emigrants have no rights. He finds out that this law was passed on the day he left England, and thinks he would not have left had he known. But readers may doubt this. He is so selfless that it is likely he would have risked the journey anyway in order to try to save Gabelle.

Dickens titled this chapter "In Secret," which is an old term for solitary confinement. By the time Dickens wrote his novel, as mentioned earlier, he would have read the French prison reformer Charles Lucas's works, in which the devastating effects of solitary confinement for long periods of time are described. Lucas was against solitary confinement, and if a harsher punishment than just being in jail was required, he felt that "silence"—not allowing prisoners to speak—was better. Certainly, Dickens's description of the insanity that Dr. Manette experienced after 18 years "in secret" shows that he knew something about this terrible punishment's negative impact.

This is the first time the guillotine has been mentioned, and it is made to sound frightening indeed. But the guillotine was actually an improvement on earlier methods of capital punishment. It is a simple device consisting of two vertical posts with a crossbeam on top, much like a door frame. The two posts have deep grooves in the sides that face one another. These guide a heavily weighted knife that is dropped from the crossbeam. The person to be executed is made to extend his or her neck through a slot below the knife, which slices through it, cutting off the person's head. The guillotine was not developed by the French and was already in use in other countries. It was considered a far less painful death than beheading with an ax or sword, which could require several strokes; or hanging, which might not snap the neck. The first French execution by guillotine took place in 1792; the last was in 1977.

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