Monday, 16 November 2009

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

I was introduced to A Tale of Two Cities in high school and immediately fell in love with it. As with many of Dickens’ books, it’s just a bloody good yarn.

The book is more of a tangled web than a book with things disappearing from the plot, only to return later in a completely different context but with much dramatic effect. A good, short summary is impossible, especially without giving anything away. It begins with the Dr. Manettes “return to life” after having been a prisoner in the Bastille for 18 years. He is withdrawn and lost in his own world; it’s almost like he has been forgotten and left to sink to his own death as best he can. The only person able to bring him back from the depths is his daughter, Lucy, who does the best she can to help him and does succeed to a great degree after they bring the doctor back to England.

Meanwhile, the erstwhile servant of Dr. Manette, M. Defarge, has begun a revolutionary group to fight the injustice of the aristocracy in France. Along with his wife, Madame Defarge, he is in charge of condemning the aristocracy and recording their crimes, a record of which is knitted into Madame Defarge’s work readable only by herself, to be used as evidence when the time is right for revolution. Eventually the revolution does begin and Manettes, along with Lucy’s husband, Charles Darnay, are drawn into the dangers of France and Paris during a revolution which saw the deaths of hundreds of French aristocrats, regardless of their true guilt or innocence.

One thing that struck me after this reading was how evil human beings really are. On the one hand, there are the aristocrats, who generally treat the common people with such utter contempt and disregard that it’s easy to see where the impetus for the revolution came from. However, the revolutionists, personified in the book by the Defarges, are so zealous in their attempts to stamp out the outrageous behaviour of the aristocrats, that they become just as contemptible, and just as guilty, as the aristocracy. It’s like when the political left swings so far left that they almost become the political right. What starts out as retribution becomes a blood bath for both the guilty and the innocent. The revolutionists become like misers counting their spoils, only with them, it’s heads they’re counting instead of coins.

Dickens, as always, has brilliant characters who inspire sympathy and hate in equal measures on both sides. The two sides, or cities, play off each other to strengthen the impression they give the reader. Lucy is the epitome of love and innocence while Madame Defarge is the personification of evil inspired by revenge and the desire for power. Dickens also verbally draws his characters so well that it’s quite easy to picture them. Madame Defarge is forever imprinted in my brain as a wizened little woman sneering evilly to herself as she knits her condemnation into her work, while Lucy all but has the golden halo above her head.

I could go on forever, but I’ll spare you my verbosity. I love this book and always will. I can especially recommend it to any first time Dickens readers since it is the shortest, yet one of the most powerful books he wrote. 5 out of 5 for this one.


Jeane said...

My mother read this in two days when she was in the hospital once. It took me weeks to get through- I always struggle a bit with Dickens. Slow beginnings, lengthy and complex!

Lula O said...

Oooo, great review! This is a tough one to describe without giving too much away. Dickens was a gem wasn't he. He took his job very seriously, always tackling some sort of social ill in society. And the characters! Timeless. I've not read this for many years but I remember the ending most of all. It killed me.

Mari said...

I haven't read this in years but it is one of my favorites. Wonderful review!