A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
This one has been more than a week coming! When I first finished A Tale of Two Cities I was so fired up and had so much I’d wanted to say. The passion has cooled down somewhat, but I hope to recapture my thoughts and feelings on the book.
I went into this novel with mixed feelings. One – this was a story by Dickens. I’d read Oliver Twist and Great Expectations and had been impressed by neither. I didn’t care much for Dickens’ style. This is the reason it took me five or six years to finally pick this book from off my shelf and read it. Two – this was about the French Revolution. A good point, that. I’m interested in anything to do with this era. However, three – my mom had told me how it ended and I wasn’t too keen on reading something that was sad. I overcame my feelings for point three sometime ago, was still into point two, and finally decided to give point one just one more chance.
The result? It was simply beautiful!
I don’t know that I would like to read Dickens again (except for re-reading this novel sometime), but I began to appreciate his skill. Actually, admire him for his skill.
The story…isn’t simple. It has a lot of twists and turns that to try and summarise it here would really give away a great deal. I will, thus, just stick to saying, it’s a story about a French doctor and his beautiful, sweet-natured daughter, the people who love them, and the small part they all play during the course of the French Revolution. Personally, for me, the main story itself didn’t do much, except for its end, and that for different reasons than what most who have read the book would think. (I shall elaborate on this point a little later). What I loved about this book was the unbiased portrayal of the mood and atmosphere of the French Revolution. As G K Chesterton** says:
Dickens’s French Revolution is probably more like the real French Revolution than Carlyle’s.
To better understand the above quote, I would like to point out, that Charles Dickens new nothing about the French Revolution until Carlyle had written its history. Dickens’ only source was Carlyle’s account. And yet he is supposed to have captured the spirit of the revolution way more clearly and more accurately than the historian ever did.
It is necessary thus to insist that Dickens never understood the Continent, because only then can we appreciate the really remarkable thing he did in A Tale of Two Cities. It is necessary to feel, first of all, the fact that to him London was the centre of the universe. He did not understand at all the real sense in which Paris is the capital of Europe. He had never realized that all roads led to Rome. He had never felt (as an Englishman can feel) that he was an Athenian before he was a Londoner. Yet with everything against him he did this astonishing thing. He wrote a book about two cities, one of which he understood, the other he did not understand. And his description of the city he did not know is almost better than his description of the city he did know.
What then was his source? His inspiration?
|The Storming of the Bastille
…the fact of his dependence upon another of the great writers of the Victorian era. And it is in connection with this that we can best see the truth of which I have been speaking; the truth that his actual ignorance of France went with amazing intuitive perception of the truth about it. It is here that he has most clearly the plain mark of the man of genius; that he can understand what he does not understand.
If this is indeed true, that Dickens had no idea about the details of the French Revolution, until he read Carlyle’s history (and Carlyle was said to have given a detailed yet biased account of the Revolution. He apparently never believed in it.), then he is truly a genius to have woven this amazing tapestry on the same.
I love the way (and I know I am not alone or among the few in this) the novel begins:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way — in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only. (p.1)
Apart from the way he handled the background and setting for his story, I enjoyed some of Dickens’ literary devices. I was amazed at how detailed his description was – not that it would go on for pages, but that it highlighted such tiny aspects as the slant of an eyebrow, a ray of light, the position of a hand. It is all done with such finesse and the directions of a film script. I also loved his rhetorical phrasing, an example of which can be found here (apart from the above quote):
Through the dismal prison twilight, his new charge accompanied him by corridor and staircase, many doors clanging and locking behind them, until they came into a large, low, vaulted chamber, crowded with prisoners of both sexes. The women were seated at a long table, reading and writing, knitting, sewing, and embroidering; the men were for the most part standing behind their chairs, or lingering up and down the room.
In the instinctive association of prisoners with shameful crime and disgrace, the new comer recoiled from this company. But the crowning unreality of his long unread ride, was, their at once rising to receive him, with every refinement of manner known to the time, and with all the engaging graces and courtesies of life.
So strangely clouded were these refinements by the prison manners and gloom, so spectral did they become in the inappropriate squalor and misery through which they were seen, that Charles Darnay seemed to stand in a company of the dead. Ghosts all! The ghost of beauty, the ghost of stateliness, the ghost of elegance, the ghost of pride, the ghost of frivolity, the ghost of wit, the ghost of youth, the ghost of age, all waiting their dismissal from the desolate shore, all turning on him eyes that were changed by the death they had died in the coming there. (p.250)
Isn’t this passage so achingly beautiful? It is so full of pathos and so filled with gentle irony. But, I think also, with much sympathy, for not all of the aristocracy were responsible for the state of the common Frenchman, though, perhaps, unwittingly. However, it was the wickedness of a few, as represented by the old Marquis of Evremonde, that led to the Reign of Terror. By the end of the novel one sees how much out of control the revolution had gone with the blood-thirsty madness of the likes of Madame Defarge and her entourage, and the death of not only the innocent once-rich, but the poor as well. As I mentioned before, it wasn’t the main story itself that moved me, but the era in which it takes place. I shed my first tears when I read of the young peasant girl going to her death for something she didn’t do. Her words:
‘I am not afraid to die, Citizen Evremonde, but I have done nothing. I am not unwilling to die, if the Republic which is to do so much good to us poor, will profit by my death; but I do not know how that can be, Citizen Evremonde. Such a poor weak little creature!’ (p.349)
I shed my second and last set of tears for this:
‘It is a far, far better thing that I do, that I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to, than I have ever known.’ (p.370)
These tears, though, were of a sort of relief and happiness for the man who found no joy (except one) in his earthly life, but was able to redeem himself so wonderfully at the end.
I had been speaking of Dickens’ writing style before I went down another road: he used a great deal of personification. And he picks out interesting quirks in each of his characters that we begin to know them by. These are little things, but they made the reading a pleasure. However, two things about his writing that I truly dislike were ever present here as well. One – his tendency to have a rather intrusive narrator’s voice. I dislike the fact that it distances you from the story, makes you feel more like an outsider looking in through a window of a house where interesting things are happening that you so much want to be a part of. This ‘intruding narrator’ seems to take a back seat in the third part of the book, though, which was probably why the last section of the novel is the most interesting (apart from its being involved solely with the revolution). Two – it has always annoyed me, the way everything falls together way too perfectly in terms of the plot line, in Dickens’ novels. Someone once used the word saccarine to describe Dickens’ works and I’ll have to agree. It’s like reading a Daniel Steele novel, I presume.
Yet, there are some memorable characters from this novel, of which I would like to mention three – The Marquis Evremond, Madame Defarge and Sydney Carton
. I’ll be writing up a separate post for this mini-characterisation. At this point, I would like to mention how there is no one main character in this book. The whole novel is carried by the intricate plot.
I shall stop here. I had no idea, when I began this, that it was going to turn out so long!
If you have read A Tale of Two Cities
I would love to hear if you agree with what I have said or not. What was your opinion of the novel? How has it affected your opinion about Dickens? If you haven’t read this novel, would you give it a try? I would highly recommend it!
If you would like a crash course in the French Revolution before you get started on the book, or even after you have finished it, here’s
a good, succinct article for you to peruse.
A Tale of Two Cities published by Dent Dutton, printed 1979
** Appreciations and Criticisms of the Works of Charles Dickens by G K Chesterton