A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
Publisher: (of this particular edition) Harper Press
Publishing Date: (original) 1859, (of this particular edition) 2010
Genre: historical fiction, Victorian, gothic
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” With these famous words, Charles Dickens plunges the reader into one of history’s most explosive eras — the French Revolution. From the storming of the Bastille to the relentless drop of the guillotine, Dickens vividly captures the terror and upheaval of that tumultuous period. At the center is the novel’s hero, Sydney Carton, a lazy, alcoholic attorney who, inspired by a woman, makes the supreme sacrifice on the bloodstained streets of Paris.
One of Dickens’s most exciting novels, A Tale of Two Cities is a stirring classic of love, revenge, and resurrection.
From the moment Dr Manette is released from prison, a decade-long plot begins to unfurl surrounding English lawyer Sydney Carton, French aristocrat Charles Darnay, and Lucie Manette. The two men fight for the love of Dr Manette’s daughter Lucie, but outside circumstances with the French Revolution begin to interfere. Only Lady Guillotine, the icon of the Republic, can solve end the battle.
Admittedly, I began this book thinking it would be all about love and heartbreak. It is referred to several times in other favorite books of mine. However, this is Dickens, and Dickens is so much more than a simple love story author. I have learned from my Victorian literature classes that, to read Dickens and fully appreciate his work, one must read slowly and split it with another book. His work was read serially, just like TV episodes today are aired. I practiced this method again (breaking up every few chapters with a chapter of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets — vastly different genre) and it certainly helped me enjoy the novel. But Two Cities was nothing like I’d imagined.
I was most interested in all the scenes containing Darnay, Carton, and Lucie, of course. The error in paying close attention to those scenes meant lots of confusion towards the end when the complicated plot began to unravel and reveal itself in the final chapters. I did not pay close attention to Mr Lorry — “only a man of business” — or Madame DeFarge — always knitting, knitting, knitting — nor do I know enough about the French Revolution. Because of my personal flaws, I could not enjoy the novel as much as I should have.
Dickens is a master with characters, though. He makes everyone incredibly memorable, even archetypal. We know, as a reader, that every time DeFarge appears, she’ll be knitting. She’s grouchy and revengeful. We know that when Mr Lorry appears, he wants to do the right thing by man but wants to keep his hands clean, so he will only do what his business will allow him to do. We know Darnay to be a kind and gentle person, easy to fall in love with and difficult to hate. Carton knows this, and although a drunkard, he is a good man at heart. This makes the love triangle heartbreaking to watch — neither man wants to fight the other, they have mutual respect in their love for Lucie, and it’s all so personal, raw, and human. It makes Carton’s sacrifice unbearable.
After I spend some time researching the French Revolution, I will come back to this book and try again. I truly think that if I understood my history and pay closer attention to the outside plots that later converge, I could love this book.