Friday, February 26, 2016
A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I first read this book when I was in high school. I don’t recall if it was for a specific class, but I remember that I simply loved it and always thought of it as my favorite Dickens, even after reading such classics as David CopperfieldDavid Copperfield and Great ExpectationsGreat Expectations. However, since high school was over 40 years ago (gasp!) and our book club likes to read at least one classic a year, I nominated A Tale of Two Cities, as I wanted to refresh my memory on why I loved it so much. And a third of the way into the book, I was seriously questioning my high school judgment!
As most people know, ATOTC is about the French revolution. The two cities are Paris and London. The first part of the book introduces us to the cast of characters, which isn’t as large as many other books by Dickens. We learn about Charles Darnay, the young French aristocrat who has walked away from his estate and title to live in London. He falls in love with Lucie, the daughter of Dr. Manette, who was a political prisoner in France until recently. Sydney Carton is the barrister who becomes involved in their lives, and who also loves Lucie. Those are the main characters in London, though there are a few secondary characters that end up playing significant roles in the action that transpires. In Paris, we meet the Defarges, a married couple who are both leaders in the revolution. Again, there are a few other characters that impact the plot, but it is the Defarges that we mostly follow.
Because the entire first half of the book is establishing characters and their relationships, I was baffled by why I had loved the book so much when I first read it. We see lots of little vignettes showing the characters involved in what appear to be insignificant activities. I was just not engaged by any of the characters, and even the love triangle seemed forced. Thankfully, Dickens is a master at creating an interesting turn of phrase, and quirky characters, so I kept plugging away at the book. And I was rewarded by the last third - in spades!
The action in the last part of the book takes place back in Paris, where Darnay has returned to carry out a mission of mercy. But the revolution is in full swing and he is arrested because he is an aristocrat. Things happen fast and furious from this point on, and we see how events from the first part of the book tie into events in this section. Dickens was absolutely masterful at sprinkling these seemingly unrelated events throughout the book, and then weaving them all together in an intricate tapestry. It was brilliant! He also gave each secondary character a scene of their own, where we get to see them at their best/worst. The themes of love, honor and sacrifice were powerfully played out. This last section of the book is clearly why I loved it so in high school! And why I still think it’s one of Dickens’ best books, despite the seemingly slow start.
Dickens’ portrayal of the revolution and its proponents was quite interesting. For someone whose writings helped change the way the poor were treated in Great Britain, he doesn’t paint the revolutionaries in a very favorable light. He certainly highlights the abuses of the aristocracy, but the proletariat are portrayed as blood-thirsty villains, uninterested in truth, only revenge. His depiction of what can happen in mobs, and how easy it is for noble causes to be hijacked by baser motivations, shows great insight. I was reminded of the events in South Africa, when they threw of Apartheid, and how they didn’t succumb to a spirit of revenge, though God knows they had enough motivation. I was also struck by the similarities of the world (and U.S) today, where great wealth is in the hands of a very few, who live lives so completely removed from the lives of the rest of us that they could be on an entirely different planet. I wonder if at some point there will be a similar revolution. Food for thought.