A Tale of Two Cities is the second of Dickens’s two historical novels (the other is Barnaby Rudge). It is set before and during the early part of the French Revolution (1789-99). The two cities are London and Paris. The novel shows the downward slide of France into inevitable revolution and reads (as suggested by the title) like a tale. Webster’s Dictionary defines a tale as an “imaginative narrative of an event”. In this, Dickens excels. He portrays the horrible conditions in France that let to the uprising and he handles the mob powerfully. Many of the chapters are written in pairs, contrasting ideas and people: love and hate, life and death, true delicacy and false delicacy, &c.
Dickens did a good job of showing the French mob as evil while not downplaying what brought them to that point. In no way does A Tale of Two Cities condone the gratuitous bloodshed of the revolution, but, at the same time, Dickens vividly describes the oppression the people were under. But, when they finally rebel, they become as their oppressors — unjust, without compassion or respect for human life. Many of the people they killed deserved to die, but others, such as Charles Darnay and his wife and child, did not.
Few of the characters are portrayed in great depth, but we see enough of them to understand their motivations and their characters. Doctor Manette’s portrayal is touching. His reactions are natural and moving. Lucie’s character is not explored much, but she is a beautiful person. Love vs. Hate is a theme in A Tale of Two Cities and Lucie symbolizes Love. Her love revives her father after his eighteen year imprisonment, bringing him, in a sense, back to life. She is a gentle, uplifting influence on those around her. Charles Darnay is a good man — strong and upright. His character shows that not all of the aristocracy of France was depraved. His disgust at his uncle’s callousness and his efforts to earn his own living rather than living off from the oppressed are praiseworthy. I think that Dickens did a good job showing Darnay’s emotions when preparing himself for death. He has a natural hold on life, but is brave and upright in the face of death.
The character Sydney Carton shows just how much easier it is to make occasional efforts than to live uprightly day in and day out. Despite his love for Lucie, he finds himself unable to quit his degrading habits. He tells Lucie that he is glad that there is no possibility of their marriage, and, in compassion for Lucie, the reader must agree. In the end, however, he makes a tremendous effort to help Lucie, and is rewarded by her good opinion — along with the reader’s. His quotation of John 11:25-26 is lyrical.
Of the other characters, Mr. Stryver is annoyingly pompous — a dash of irritation amongst all the Manette sweetness. Mr. Lorry is a kind friend of the family. Miss Pross is a forceful woman — too jealous of her “ladybird” in my opinion, but still a kind, good woman. Madame Defarge is marvelous. The story is full of grotesque characters such as Dickens loved to describe, and Madame Defarge is right up Dickens’s alley. Her knitted register of those who are condemned to death makes for an interesting combination of natural domesticity and unnatural bloodlust. She was not about to leave vengeance up to God. Her husband, Ernest Defarge, is much more sympathetic. Though as eager to rise against their oppressors as his wife, he has some compassion for Doctor Manette, who suffered so much already, which his wife completely lacks. Still, he heads mobs and is at the forefront of the revolution.
Some things about the story were just not right. When Lucie goes to France to find her father, she graces him with several long, grandiose speeches full of abstract ideas that I am absolutely positive he didn’t understand a word of. He couldn’t even remember his own name, and I’m sure he didn’t follow what she was saying. Her appearance, voice, and compassion were, I believe, what drew him to her and she could have spared him (and us) her oratory.
At one point, Sydney Carton opens his heart to Lucie, telling her since he knew her he had “been troubled by a remorse that I thought would never reproach me again, and have heard whispers from old voices impelling me upward, that I thought were silent for ever. I have had unformed ideas of striving afresh, beginning anew, shaking off sloth and sensuality, and fighting out the abandoned fight. A dream, all a dream, that ends in nothing, and leaves the sleeper where he lay down, but I wish you to know that you inspired it.” (Book II, Ch. 13). At the end he asks Lucie to promise not to share his confidence with anyone — not even “the dearest one ever to be known to you”. She does so. This was obviously aimed at her future husband, and I don’t think it was right for Carton to ask this of Lucie, or for her to grant it. It mars an otherwise fine scene.
I like A Tale of Two Cities a lot. I’d like to read it again someday, more slowly.
I read A Tale of Two Cities July 19 – 25, 2013.
Illustration by Phiz.