The narrator begins his story in the year 1775 with the observation that "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times" and concludes that it was a period in all respects much like the one nearly 70 years later from which the tale is being told. The narrator observes that there were kings and queens in England and France and that the aristocrats in both countries found little reason to expect any change in their status. At this time the English Crown received reports of unrest from its American colonies and in France the aristocracy continued its trend of overspending at the expense of its working poor. Criminals in both countries were dealt harsh physical punishment for even the smallest of crimes. In England, there were frequent highway robberies and corruption allowed the practice to flourish.
On a particularly foggy night in 1775 the mail coach from London to Dover is struggling up a muddy hill. The coach's three nervous passengers walk beside the coach in order to lighten the load for the horses on the grade. The passengers are thickly wrapped and unrecognizable in the fog. Finally, the coach reaches the summit and as the coachmen opens the door for the passengers he hears the sound of a horse approaching. He draws his pistol and expects the worst. Amid much anxiety and suspicion the approaching rider requests an audience with Mr. Jarvis Lorry, one of the passengers, who identifies himself and asks if the rider is a man named Jerry. Learning that this is the case, Mr. Lorry reassures the skittish coach drivers and receives the written message. Mr. Lorry identifies himself to the drivers as a member of Tellson's Bank of London on his way to that company's Paris branch. He reads aloud the brief message: "Wait at Dover for Mam'selle" and sends the brief reply, "Recalled to life." Jerry departs for London, by way of several roadside ale-houses, with the strange answer and the coach continues on to Dover. As he rides, Jerry muses that he would be in a "bad way, if recalling to life was to come into fashion."
Back in the coach, Mr. Lorry holds onto a leather strap, which secures him against the jolting road and allows him to fitfully doze during the journey. He dreams that he is walking in the underground storerooms of Tellson's but in the dream he knows that he is going to dig someone out of their grave. He inquires several times of the spectre how many years it remained entombed and receives the unvarying answer: "Almost eighteen years." When he asks the apparition if it is glad to be recalled to life, it answers, "I can't say." In the dream he digs to free the buried man but just as the body is unearthed it crumbles to dust. Mr. Lorry awakes in the coach and lowers the window to feel the real rain and mist on his face. The dream repeats often during the journey until Mr. Lorry realizes that the day is breaking.
At noon, when the mail coach reaches Dover, Mr. Lorry is the only remaining passenger because the other two men alighted at points along the road. After confirming that a packet ship will leave for Calais, France the following day, Mr. Lorry instructs the head drawer at the Royal George hotel to prepare a bedroom for himself and orders a barber and breakfast. Mr. Lorry emerges from his room clean and shaven and is revealed to be of about sixty years of age and formally dressed in a plain and worn but well-cared-for suit. He takes his breakfast alone before the fire and briefly dozes before his meal arrives. He instructs the drawer to prepare lodgings for a young lady who may arrive at any time that day. A brief but friendly exchange with the waiter reveals that there is much traveling between Tellson's branches, though Mr. Lorry himself has not traveled to Paris in nearly fifteen years. Mr. Lorry spends the day walking the beach, alone with his thoughts. That evening after dinner orders a bottle of claret and just before finishing the wine he hears the sound of an approaching carriage and rightly surmises that it is the Mam'selle he has been expecting. The waiter announces her as Miss Manette and conveys her wish to see him immediately.
Mr. Lorry follows the waiter to a darkly furnished room where he meets Miss Manette, a very pretty girl about seventeen years old. He is reminded of a little girl he carried in his arms aboard the packet from Calais to England many years before. Miss Manette relates that she has received a message informing her that a recent discovery regarding her deceased father (whom she never saw in life) has been made and that she must travel to her native land of France. She asks if she may place herself under Mr. Lorry's protection for the journey and he readily assents. She was told that the discovery is of a very surprising nature and that the bank's representative, namely Mr. Lorry, would reveal it to her. Mr. Lorry is somewhat disconcerted at the prospect but begins to relate the story of one of his customers when he worked at Tellson's French branch nearly twenty years prior. Miss Manette soon discerns that Mr. Lorry is speaking of her own father, a man of science, and she also gleans that it was Mr. Lorry himself who brought her to England soon after her mother's subsequent death. Mr. Lorry admits that all that is true but asserts that he is a man of business and his relations with people are business in nature and devoid of strong emotional attachment. He continues his story by suggesting that the fictional character he has invented to stand in the place of Dr. Manette did not die but instead imprisoned with no appeal or outside communication. This information causes Miss Manette to swoon with emotion, but she begs Mr. Lorry to continue his story. After appealing to her to be business-minded about the affair, Mr. Lorry proceeds to tell her that her father has been found alive but greatly affected and changed by long years of imprisonment. Miss Manette reflects that she will be going to see a ghost but Mr. Lorry encourages her to be strong and that perhaps her influence will bring her poor father to reason. He tells her that her father is now under another name and she should not speak his true name aloud while in France, but he then notices that she is not listening but has sunk into a chair and become catatonic.
Mr. Lorry calls for help and a large, redheaded woman, Lucie's guardian Miss Pross, comes running into the room and shoves him away. She orders smelling salts, cold water and vinegar and affectionately fawns over Miss Manette. She castigates the flummoxed man of finances for frightening such a fragile girl.
Analysis of Chapters 1-4
The opening commentary attempts to connect the time in which the novel is set the latter half of the eighteenth century, with that of Dickens' contemporary audience. The grand superlative ambiguities, "it was the best of times, it was the worst of times," would be recognizable readers from any age and serves to introduce one of the novel's great themes, that the quality of life is relative to the perspective from which it is drawn. It may have also served as notice to Dickens' regular readers that this story was going to be different from his others, which were set during Dickens' own era. Mirroring the extremes of the introductory section the story begins with the juxtaposition of two opposites: the carriage's slow laborious climb to the top of the hill and the suspense of the dangerous times and the approach of a strange rider through the fog. His claim that he maintains a business-minded outlook and resists emotional involvement is contradicted by his troubled dreams which belie a degree of nervousness about his current errand. Mr. Jarvis Lorry, a man of levelheaded business sensibility is a likable character, typical of the Dickens oeuvre. His memory of carrying Miss Manette over the Channel as a child belies his sympathies for her and his advice that she maintain a business outlook on the situation only serves to reveal his own emotional state. Miss Pross' accusation that he has intentionally frightened the poor girl so undermines his original intent as to make him seem humorous.