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A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations (Oprah’s Book Club) Reader’s Guide

By Charles Dickens

A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations (Oprah's Book Club) by Charles Dickens


Questions and Topics for Discussion


Considered by many critics to be Charles Dickens’s most psychologically acute self-portrait, Great Expectations is without a doubt one of Dickens’s most fully-realized literary creations.

Work on Great Expectations commenced in late September of 1860 at what proved to be a peak of emotional intensity for its author. Two years before, Dickens had separated from Catherine, his wife of twenty-two years, and several weeks prior to the beginning of this novel, Dickens had burned all his papers and correspondence of the past twenty years at his Gad’s Hill estate. This action, in retrospect, can be viewed as a sort of spiritual purge (think of Pip’s burnt hands/Miss Havisham on fire)—an attempt to break decisively from the past in order (paradoxically) to fully embrace it, as he does so resonantly in this work.

The writing of Great Expectations, and by extension the creation of its protagonist, Pip, therefore, can be viewed as a kind of excavation for its author, a cathartic attempt to come to terms with the painful facts of his childhood—particularly the family’s chronic economic instability, culminating in his father’s imprisonment due to financial insolvency. Also paramount in his psychological make-up were Dickens’s consignment at the age of twelve to work as a child laborer at Warren’s Blacking factory (a secret no one but his closest friend, John Forster, knew) and his subsequent separation from his family as a result—all of which took place over the course of two months. This period in the young boy’s life, then, represents both a literal and metaphorical “orphaning” and was certainly the crucible in which his personality was formed. This sense of primal loss, and fear of impending economic ruin, manifested itself later in Dickens’s own Herculean and obsessive efforts to busy himself (often simultaneously) as a writer, editor, and public speaker—as if this were the only way he could ensure himself of financial solvency.

Where the creator (Dickens) and his creation (Pip) diverge is that the protagonist (through his suffering and disappointment) learns to accept his station in life. By the end of his saga, Pip has, for the most part, shed his illusions (his “expectations”) and is able to live a simple but fulfilling life as a clerk in the company of his great friend, Herbert Pocket.

Dickens, on the other hand, it seems never adequately internalized the lessons of his own life and success. In an autobiographical fragment, he wrote: “Even now, famous and caressed and happy, I often forget in my dreams that I have a dear wife and children; even that I am a man; and wander desolately back to that time of my life” (as a child laborer).

Written in the last decade of his life, Great Expectations is also a meditation on the act of writing (as a book of memory) and the creative imagination, opening as it does with the young Pip (aged seven) in the churchyard, attempting to conjure up through sheer will, a physical picture of his (never-seen) parents by carefully studying the lettering on their tombstones. This memorable scene is a metaphorical attempt to raise the dead through an act of pure imagination.

Serialized between December 1, 1860, and August 3, 1861, Great Expectations was an extraordinary success, selling (midway through its run), over one hundred thousand copies weekly in Dickens’s magazine All the Year Round. Published in book form in July 1861, it was considered by contemporary critics to represent a return to Dickens at the peak of his powers, deftly mixing comedy and tragedy and with a rich brew of major and minor characters. By the end of that summer, the book had gone through four printings. Later critics were equally responsive. Playwright George Bernard Shaw felt that Great Expectations was Dickens’s “most compactly perfect book.” The poet Swinburne believed the story of the novel to be unparalleled “in the whole range of English fiction.”

Narrated by a middle-aged Pip, Great Expectations can be read on many levels—as a morality play of a young boy’s coming of age, and his sudden and unexpected rise from the lower to the leisure class (due to the anonymous efforts of a mysterious benefactor). The novel can also be read as an ironic commentary: a social critique on money (as commodity) and how that commodity affects everyone around it. It can also be enjoyed as a rattling good mystery story replete with secrets, as well as with shady characters, thieves, and murderers of all stripes. In the end, Great Expectations is an unforgettable tale about fate, and how a chance encounter between an orphan named Pip and an escaped convict radically and arbitrarily alters the lives of everyone around them.


Beginning and ending with some of English literature’s most famous lines, Charles Dickens’s novel of the French Revolution thrives on tensions—the tensions inherent in those lines, tensions among people and conflicting beliefs, tensions that drive the forces of history. Much of the tension in A Tale of Two Cities is embodied in pairings, in comparisons and polarities: in that opening passage (best, worst; wisdom, foolishness; belief, incredulity; Light, Darkness; and so on), in political unrest (France, England; England, America), in social and economic strife (French aristocrats, underclass), and in characters, most notably the lookalikes Charles Darnay and Sydney Carton, but also numerous other confrontations and encounters. Tensions large and small give this powerful historical novel a sense of both urgency and intimacy.

Spanning from 1775 to the 1790s, with an epistolary flashback to the 1750s, A Tale of Two Cities shifts back and forth between London and Paris but is most memorable for its depiction of an increasingly unstable France. The poverty-stricken neighborhood of Saint Antoine, in the early chapters so squalid and miserable—so classically Dickensian in its resemblance to his portrayals of London in other novels—is by the end of the story a place of pitilessness and terror: oppression of a different kind. The novel is awash in blood, much of it ominously metaphorical—spilled wine, spilled sunset—but plenty of it spilled in acts of vengeance. The raging mobs moving through the streets, as in the scene of the taking of the Bastille, are frequently described as water: oceans, seas, floods that cannot be stopped, that will engulf each person in its path.

The violence seems inevitable, and indeed, like the novel itself, the characters are filled with a sense of inevitability. The tension that pervades the novel is most strongly felt in the moral certainty that determines the reality and the actions of many of the characters, whether French or English, aristocrat or working class. The Evrémonde brothers cannot conceive of any order other than a world in which the nobility has the power to do as it pleases. Their descendent Charles Darnay, turning his back on the life he was born into, believes he will be accepted, and his call for restraint heeded, by those newly in control. Since childhood, Madame Defarge has been determined to exterminate the aristocracy. Doctor Manette has complete confidence that he will succeed in getting Darnay released from prison. Even the most iconic character, Sydney Carton, who skulks through the novel disheveled and drunk, is sure of one thing: that he has wasted his brilliant promise and his life. Once he makes up his mind about saving Darnay, he is certain that his actions, though they will lead to his death, are right. The moral certainty these characters feel and display means not only that their minds cannot be changed but also that they lack all understanding of the minds of others. In a blackly comic scene toward the end of the novel, Madame Defarge meets her match in Miss Pross. Neither speaks the other’s language, neither can understand a word the other says, but each recognizes the wild determination and strength they share—until Madame Defarge’s fatal misinterpretation of her nemesis’s tears. More tragic is the citizens’ inability to see the people they send to the guillotine as human beings: they simply count their heads as they come off.

The sense of inevitability running through the novel characterizes the descriptions of the revolution as a long time in the making: the nobles should have seen it coming. The grimmest and most certain inevitability is, of course, death. Images of death, of burials, graves, and ghosts, are everywhere. Characters such as the Doctor, Carton, and Lucie who suppress painful memories or feelings are said to bury them. But references to resurrection are also found: in the return of Doctor Manette (“buried alive” and then “recalled to life”), the “resurrection man” Jerry Cruncher, the faked death of the spy Roger Cly. Most striking is the passage from John 11:25 – 26 (“I am the resurrection and the life…”), which arises in Carton’s mind during a late-night ramble and again as he faces his own death. Carton’s story will be told to ensuing generations, including Lucie’s son, his namesake and also a lawyer: his metaphorical reincarnation.

Dickens first published A Tale of Two Cities in serial form in 1859, more than half a century after the events he depicts. Even today—150 years later, and more than two centuries after the French Revolution—it speaks to us as a dramatic and moving story and a portrayal of the complexities of humans and their desires, both political and personal. Despite its historical backdrop, it is actually one of Dickens’s shorter novels; despite its raging mobs, it features a relatively small cast of characters. Yet the pairs, the dualities, the tensely polarized urges are more complicated than the opening lines might imply.

The final pairing—the closing lines—convey the novel’s final tension, between Carton’s grim ending and the noble sacrifice of it, while also expressing hope for the future: the “far, far better place” is not only Carton’s certain destination but also that of the broken country. But rather than pulling at each other, these tandem lines run forward in parallel. They offer a vision of the inevitable restoration of balance, of tension relieved, of new life: the true freedom of the people, domestic happiness, lives lived out to their natural end, and eternal life both in heaven (though it is never thus named) and in the form of memories and stories.


Charles Dickens was born in Portsmouth on February 7, 1812, the first son of John and Elizabeth Dickens. His father John was a clerk in the Navy Pay office. Owing to his father’s low-level position and his inability to manage money, the Dickens family moved often throughout his childhood, living variously in Chatham, Kent, and Camden Town, London. In 1824, at the age of twelve, Charles went to work at Warren’s Blacking (a shoe-polish factory) in order to help provide additional funds for the penurious family. This event, along with the family’s routine evictions due to non-payment of rent and his father’s eventual imprisonment for debt at Marshalsea Prison, were pivotal events in the young boy’s life.

In 1827, following the completion of his formal education, Dickens went to work for various London legal firms and became a court reporter. Shortly after his eighteenth birthday, Dickens met Maria Beadnell with whom he was involved for several years. Due, perhaps in part, to the Dickens family reputation, this relationship did not prosper, although it no doubt left its imprint on the young Charles who subsequently based the character of Estella in Great Expectations on Maria. Estella was also conjured from the character of the actress Ellen Ternan with whom Dickens was deeply involved during and following the dissolution of his marriage.

  • In this novel, Great Expectations, things are often not what they seem. Discuss how the theme of “expectations” is illustrated by and through the various major characters in this book. How are Pip’s expectations different and similar from those of his surrogate father, Joe (the blacksmith), Miss Havisham (the eccentric recluse), Estella (the daughter of a convict and murderess), and Pip’s benefactor, (the convict) Magwitch?

  • Why do you think it is one of the Magwitch’s principal conditions that Pip (his nickname) “always bear the name of Pip” in order to receive his financial support?

  • If Pip had not received his “great expectations” and never left Joe’s forge, how do you think his life would have been different? Are the lessons he learns during his physical and emotional journey necessary for him to arrive at the wisdom he evinces as the middle-aged narrator of this tale? In what ways?

  • Why do you think Miss Havisham manipulates and misleads Pip into thinking she is his secret benefactor? What, if anything, does she derive from this action?

  • Given Dickens’s portrayal of Estella, what do you think attracts Pip to her in the first place and what, when he learns of her cold-blooded manipulation of men such as her husband, keeps Pip devoted to her until the end, loving her, as he says, “against reason, against promise, against peace”?

  • In the final chapter Estella says to Pip: “Suffering has been stronger than all other teaching.” Discuss the theme of suffering in this book—specifically how it instructs Pip, Miss Havisham, and Estella.

  • In Chapter 49 Miss Havisham confesses to Pip that in adopting Estella, she “meant to save her (Estella) from misery like my own.” Do you believe this, given Dickens’s harsh characterization of Miss Havisham throughout the novel?

  • And in the same chapter (49) when Miss Havisham is set afire, do you believe that, given her state of mind, Dickens intends us to read this as an accident or as a kind of penance/attempted suicide on her part for her cruelty to Pip and Estella?

  • What do you think makes Pip change his opinion of his benefactor Magwitch from one of the initial repugnance to one of the deep and abiding respect and love?

  • In Chapter 59, when Pip places Joe and Biddy’s son (also named Pip) on the same tombstone that opens the novel, what do you think Dickens intends to tell us with this image? Given the novel’s theme of how the sings of others are visited upon us, do you view this image as a foreboding one in any way?

  • A Tale of Two Cities opens with a passage that has become one of English literature’s best known: “It was the best of times…” It is a passage well worth parsing. What does Dickens mean by setting the stage with such polarities? For whom was it the best and the worst of times? Dickens also mentions that the era about which he writes was very much “like the present period,” which when he was writing meant the late 1850s. Why does this passage continue to be quoted today? In what ways does our own present period merit such an assessment?

  • The novel takes place, per its title, in two cities: London and Paris. What are some of the differences between these two cities? Between their denizens? What about characters who travel—or move residence—from one to another? What about each of the cities themselves: how are they divided in two?

  • Why does Dickens describe Madame Defarge, several times in her early scenes, as seeing nothing? Why does this depiction of her change?

  • Why was Charles Darnay able to see the unfairness of the class structure that privileged him and to extricate himself from it? Are there other characters as capable of seeing beyond their own circumstances?

  • Dickens seems to have great sympathy for the poor, the sick, the powerless, but not all such characters are portrayed sympathetically. What does that say about his sympathies? Where does he intend our—the readers’—sympathies to lie?

  • The news that Doctor Manette, while imprisoned, denounced all the descendents of the Evrémondes comes as a shock. Given that he saw young Charles and spoke with his beleaguered, compassionate mother—that he, in effect, had reason to have compassion toward them despite the evils of the family—why would he have made such a declaration? What can we make of his repeated claim in the letter read aloud during Darnay’s retrial that he was in his right mind? How does he really feel about Darnay and his marriage to Lucie?

  • What is Defarge’s motive in betraying Doctor Manette, endangering his daughter and grandchild, and framing Darnay? How might the relationship between Madame and Monsieur be described?

  • Carton’s background is alluded to, though we never quite learn the source(s) of his disappointment and degeneracy. What might have happened in his past?

  • Late in the novel, Carton is described as showing both pity and pride. “Pride” is a word we have not heretofore seen associated with Carton, who is full of mostly suppressed regret and anguish over his wasted life. What is Carton proud of, and do others see it? Does Dickens intend to convey that others see his pride?

  • Carton has clearly misused his youthful promise and believes himself to be unredeemable. Does this view of himself actually change, and if so, how? Is Carton a man of faith? Does he become one?

  • Lucie finds “faith” in Carton, described as a “lost man,” after he confides in her. Does Lucie come to understand Carton? How? Does she believe that he can be saved from himself?

  • Dickens prefaces the final paragraphs of the novel, which are in Carton’s voice, by noting that “if he had given any utterance to his athoughts], and they were prophetic, they would have been these.” How might we read the vision expressed in these words? Are we meant to take these thoughts as prophetic—that is, as a portrayal of what actually came after the end of the novel, in both France and in England? Among the beloved friends he has left behind?

  • The vision expressed in Carton’s supposed final words includes one for the country and its people after the newest “oppressors” are themselves put to death. What would such a post-Revolution world be like, and how could it be achieved?

  • The French Revolution was of great interest to Americans in the early days of their own republic. Given today’s polarities of extreme wealth and poverty and strongly expressed patriotism, as well as the interest in early America, what parallels might we draw between our own time in early twenty-first-century America and what happens in A Tale of Two Cities? What lessons?

  • Penguin Books and Penguin Classics wish to thank and credit the following writers and books for information used in creating this Reading Group Guide:

    Janice Carlisle (editor), Charles Dickens, Great Expectations: Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism, New York, Bedford Books of St. Martin’s Press, 1996

    Edmond Jabes, The Book of Questions (Volume 1), Middletown, CT., Wesleyan University Press, 1976

    Fred Kaplan, Dickens: A Biography, New York, William Morrow & Co., Inc., 1988

    Norman Page, A Dickens Chronology, Boston, MA., G.K. Hall & Co., 1988

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