|Genre:||Literature & Fiction|
For a Dickens novel , this story is not all that complex. An old doctor named Manette is freed from the Bastille after seventeen years; his daughter Lucie, brought up in England, goes to fetch him with the help of Mr. Lorry, a banker at Tellson's who has looked out for her since she her father was thrust unjustly into the Bastille and forgotten.
A man whom they meet on the return voyage across the Channel (Charles Darnay) is a French aristocrat who has turned his back on the cruelty and feudal barbarism of his family to make a life in a foreign land.
Later, the man Darnay finds himself on trail for his life, mistakenly thought to be a spy for the French in 1780's London, when both nations were at war with each other over the issue of the American Revolution. An identical-looking man in the courtroom that day, the lawyer Sidney Carton happens to be there helping his associate. The fact that Darnay and Carton both look alike convinces the jury that one witness must be lying. Darnay is spared from a gruesome death.
Dickens will come again to that plot device in good time. But the scene will not be in England but in the chaos of Paris in the time of The Terror, where the unforgettable figures of Madame Defarge and her husband lead a pack of blood-thirsty revolutionaries to a measure of vengence beyond anything close to justice.
Darnay is descended from an aristocratic French family whose hobbies include running-down a small child with an over-sized coach, then tossing the poor father a gold coin for the inconvenience. He is not like his uncle, the Monseigneur, although he will have to likely have to pay for the crimes of his elders.
Darnay is a enlightened man, a good egg and Dr. Manette welcomes him as the groom for his beloved daughter Lucie. Carton is a heavy drinker and a reprobate--he is in love with Lucie, too, but he knows he's no good for her. All this plays into Dickens theme of redemption and sacrifice. Darnay goes to France in a suicidal mission to get an old servant out of prison and away from the harsh justice of the Jacobins. This inspires Carton, who rises above his past to use blackmail and his considerable personal resources to redeem himself beyond all measure, all in the hope of a better world in the future.
That the individual human heart can bring a person to change his course and that a better world can be made from this, writ large, is a great theme of Dickens. Look at "A Christmas Carol" where Ebenezer Scrooge gets a makeover of his conscience in one horrific night, and turns into a decent and generous man. .
Paris and London are the settings for the book . Both cities have their share of injustices. But Paris is depicted as having a more hungry and brutalized populace. In London much of the lower classes are in dire straits but are not planning more than the breaking the laws (such as Jerry Cruncher, the Tellson Bank odd job man and part-time grave robber) or robbing a stagecoach or two. In the end its the servant -class people of people, including Miss Pross, Lucie's lifelong maid, who are as much appalled by the violence they see while in Paris during the September Massacres of September 1792 and on through the Great Terror as any of the middle-class folk they serve.
Critics have chided Dickens for some points in this book, for not balancing the violence of the old regime with that of the Great Terror for instance. But the Terror is the stuff of great drama and to expect a great novelist to also be a great historian is really asking too much.
In George Orwell's 1941 Essay on Dickens, he comments on this book with a particular emphasis. Here is one part:
"The one thing that everyone who has read A TALE OF TWO CITIES remembers is the Reign of Terror. The whole book is dominated by the guillotine--
tumbrils thundering to and fro, bloody knives, heads bouncing into the
basket, and sinister old women knitting as they watch. Actually these
scenes only occupy a few chapters, but they are written with terrible
intensity, and the rest of the book is rather slow going. But A TALE OF
TWO CITIES is not a companion volume to THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL. Dickens sees clearly enough that the French Revolution was bound to happen and that many of the people who were executed deserved what they got. If, he
says, you behave as the French aristocracy had behaved, vengeance will
follow. He repeats this over and over again. We are constantly being
reminded that while 'my lord' is lolling in bed, with four liveried
footmen serving his chocolate and the peasants starving outside,
somewhere in the forest a tree is growing which will presently be sawn
into planks for the platform of the guillotine, etc., etc., etc. The
inevitability of the Terror, given its causes, is insisted upon... in the
But Orwell also analyzed (keenly I think) that Dickens was not really a political writer, as some would have him be, but rather one whose attitudes were to show his countrymen and women how bad things could get if reform wasn't followed through upon. Then the politicians themselves (well ,some of them, like John Russell, the Parliamentary reformer that Dickens dedicated the book to in 1859) would see the way to head off the tide of red blood running through the streets of some future London.
Whatever can be said for Charles Dickens, he knew how to make you want to read more. His whole style was perfect for the way novels were introduced to the public in those days, with passages in serial form in magazines. Each couple of weeks there was a new couple of chapters in his magazine
"All the Way Around".
In "The Inimitable" Dickens' case, thousands of eager people shelled out hard coin to read about the latest triumphs, setbacks, wicked deeds and tragic ends of his characters. He was as popular in North America as his own nation.
Reading the book again, it was clear to me why my father--not a keen novel reader later in life, but a man who preferred non-fiction books--had always remembered this work with such fondness. It's a novel of great suspense and memorable characters first and foremost and, secondly, one that shows the power of an individual or a small group of people to rise above personal concerns for those they love.