Wednesday, June 9, 2010

A Tale of Two Cities

A Tale of Two Cities
© 1859 Charles Dickens
353 pages

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 only. 

I’ve wanted to read A Tale of Two Cities for a long time, not for its reputation as a classic so much as its setting: the French revolution fascinates me, and as this is “the” novel of the French Revolution, it surely merits my attention. According to the introduction of my copy, Dickens regarded this as his best and favorite work, and he wrote it in a hurry -- dispensing with his usual wordiness.  I can’t speak for that, as A Tale of Two Cities is as florid as any work of the Victorian period I’ve yet read. Although I approached the novel thinking it to be chiefly about the French Revolution,  Dickens keeps his focus on a few varied characters living in England for most of the book: Charles Darnay, a French nobleman who renounced his title to support himself in England;  Dr. Alexander Manette, a physician long imprisoned whose release at the outset of the book starts the plot; Sidney Carton, an alcoholic lawyer’s associate in England who believes he will never amount to anything;  Lucie Manette, the doctor’s daughter who has been raised in England during her father’s captivity; and Jarvis Lorry, a kindly old banker.

The story is told in three parts, the first being set nearly a decade before the revolution begins. After introducing the primary characters, Dickens slowly works toward the uprising that began the French revolution, ultimately having them ensnared by it through no fault of his own. He plainly expects his audience to know what the French revolution was and why it occurred: modern audiences who are more distant from its context would do well to peruse information on the subject before diving in. While Dickens writes the book to comment on the horrors of violent revolutions -- specifically, the inhumanity they unleash --  his main characters also give the reader a story of love and redemption.  The book was not as I expected in being wholly about the revolution, but I enjoyed it nonetheless. I particularly enjoyed Dickens' use of foreshadowing at the outset of the book, when a comic writes the word "BLOOD" on the walls of a local shop using spilled red wine: Dickens comments that the day would soon come that 'that' wine, too, would soon spill and stain the streets.

  Being such a classic, it's almost pointless for me to "recommend" this: I'm certain most readers are familiar with its reputation. I considered it worth my while.

An illustration from my edition.(© 1942 Halbot K. Browne)

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