I’ve mentioned before that years ago I tried to read A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens a few times before I finally was able to complete it, but once I did finish it, it became one of my all-time favorite novels and I immediately reread it. I am not sure how long ago that was, but I decided to revisit it. I love Dickens, but it has been a long time since I read any of his work, and I was afraid the time away might have made the language harder to wade through and the book less enjoyable. But happily that was not the case. I love it even more and saw things I don’t remember seeing in previous readings and am more convinced than ever that Dickens was a master craftsman.
The two cities in question are Paris and London, and most of the main characters have dealings in each city. Charles Evremonde is the nephew of a Marquis in France, but has turned his back on his uncle’s profligate ways and emigrated to England under the name of Charles Darnay to earn his living as a French tutor.
Doctor Manette was cruelly and unfairly imprisoned in France for 18 years and lost touch with reality before being found and rescued and reunited with his daughter, Lucie, who nurses him back to physical and mental health. The reason for his imprisonment is not revealed until near the end of the book and plays a key part in the plot. On their way to England they run into Charles Darnay, and thus begins a relationship which eventually culminates in marriage between Lucie and Charles.
While the elements leading to the French Revolution foment, Lucie and Charles begin a happy home with her father and guardian, Miss Pross, and eventually a little Lucie. They are visited often by longtime family friend and banker, Mr. Lorry, and Sydney Carton, a dissolute lawyer who once helped defend Charles. When Charles receives an appeal for help from a steward of his late uncle’s estate who is facing danger, Charles naively believes he will be safe going back to France to help him since he has renounced aristocratic ways. The first half or so of the book leads to this point, and the latter tells what happens to Charles and everyone else involved. I don’t want to tell you much more than that: I’d rather let you be drawn into the intrigue yourself. The ending was a complete surprise to me the first time I read it, but in subsequent readings I’ve discovered clues leading toward it all through the book.
I think perhaps what gives many people trouble with Dickens is that he doesn’t tell you anything outright if he can lead you to it and draw you in until what is happening dawns on you. He is accused of being overly descriptive, and by today’s standards he would be, but even his descriptiveness has purpose. For instance, he goes into a great deal of description about the chateau of the Marquis, particularly the stone faces decorating the outside. After taking almost two full pages to describe the normal activities of the village going to sleep and then awakening the next morning, he begins to clue the reader in that something abnormal has happened this particularly morning, and then slips in “there was one stone face too many, up at the chateau” — meaning that the Marquis has been killed. The first time I read that it sent chills up my spine! I have to admit, though, that the first time I read this section, before getting to that sentence, I thought, “What is it with these stone faces?!” Yet getting to that sentence gave me the answer!
The beginning of the book can be confusing, too, as different individuals are introduced in different settings, but it takes a while before their identity and relationship with each other becomes clear. That technique of beginning a story is used a lot these days in films and TV shows, but I wasn’t used to it then. But I learned to trust that eventually all the different threads would come together.
These days we’re also used to the fact that filmmakers set the tone or mood of a scene with lighting, camera angles, background music, etc. Dickens does so with words. That and a perhaps heavier use of symbolism than we’re used to in modern literature accounts for a scene such as the one in which the characters are gathered together one hot evening at Dr. Manette’s house when a massive storm “comes slowly” yet “comes surely,” and the echoes make the footfall of people in the streets who are scurrying to get out of the storm sound like a great crowd surging toward the group. The darkness, eeriness, tension, and the sensation of a crowd all foreshadow the coming events when they encounter the effects of the Revolution for themselves.
There are moments of pathos: Dr. Manette’s “flashbacks” to his mindset in prison and Lucie’s patient dealings with him, until the time she leaves for her honeymoon; Sidney Carton’s promising talents and seeming decline into ruin except for an unrequited love that has the potential to ennoble him. There are moments of humor as well: Mr. Cruncher, employed by Mr. Lorry, remonstrating with his wife for her “flopping” (praying) against his moonlighting business (which business seems at first an unnecessary sideline concerning a secondary eccentric character, but does tie into the main plot later). There are moments of high suspense as well, particularly when Miss Pross, to protect her beloved Lucie, faces off against antagonist Madame Defarge. Even though I knew the outcome of the scene from previous readings, or maybe because I knew the outcome, I was on the edge of my seat with the tension of the moment.
Beyond the story of Charles, Lucie, the Doctor, and those dear to them, Dickens gives us a window into the excessiveness and cruelty of some of the aristocracy that led to the French Revolution and then shows as well how the oppressed became oppressors themselves. He also contrasts the results of choices we make: the cruelty of the Marquis and his contemporaries backfires, Dr. Mannette handles his unjust suffering with grace and eventually with forgiveness, but the Defarges in France and others of their ilk handle theirs with bitterness and vengeance. But fascinating though that terrible time in history was, I believe the core of the story is true unconditional love.
Sarah has posted a lovely, well-written review of A Tale of Two Cities as well as great advice to help in reading classics.
I have a VHS copy of a production of A Tale of Two Cities that was on PBS in 1989, which I watched and enjoyed then, and I have started viewing it again but am only partway through. So far some of the events are out of order, there are interpretive bits of conversation not in the book, etc., as is usually the case with any film based on a book, but by and large it’s a faithful representation and I’ve enjoyed it. Sarah recommends a 1980 version with Chris Sarandon, and I’ve seen several recommendations for a 1935 version with Ronald Coleman. I’d like to see those some day as well.
Though it pains me to hear someone say they don’t like Dickens, I do understand. Not every author appeals to every person. I’ve been surprised to discover that I don’t like some highly regarded classics that I’ve loved film versions of, like Pride and Prejudice (though I do want to give that one another chance some time and see if I feel differently after a second reading.) But I encourage you to see A Tale of Two Cities through to the end and then see if your opinion is the same as when you started. As for me, it will always be one of my favorites.
(This review will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)