Thursday, June 16, 2011

A Tale of Two Cities (1859)

Genre: Literature & Fiction
Author:Charles Dickens
A TALE OF TWO CITIES is a book that reminds me how powerful a story can affect a reader, especially a younger one for the rest of his life. It was a favorite book of my father as he was growing up. I first read it at fifteen, and at my most recent return to it I was impressed by how quickly I was absorbed into a book I was already familiar with from earlier times.

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
clearest terms..."

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.


  1. Paul Adams reads the opening pages of the novel.

  2. lol that was interesting favorite books as a kid were The Hardy Boys..I think I must have read them all never read Dickens (other than a Christmas Carol) but sounds great.

  3. I've never read this, Maybe I should, it sounds really good.
    Thanks, Doug.

  4. I enjoyed mystery books like "Hardy Boys" as well, Mike. I think "Tale of Two Cities" is a really good book to start to see if you enjoy Dickens' other works, Mike ---that was my first book of his.

  5. I think its worth reading (or if you like audio books) listening to, Jacquie. One site I saw estimated there were 200 million copies of this one book published since it came out.

  6. Excellent review Doug, thanks for posting the video clip I enjoyed the reading. I myself was brought up on Dickens my maternal grandfather had the whole set of all Dickens work which he seemed to have spent his entire life reading and re-reading.
    He was word perfect on some passages.

    I read most of them as I was growing up, but interestingly this one 'Tale of Two Cities' is the one I didn't finish.
    Your review has made me think I should give it another go, but I have uncommonly for me of late, just started a novel so maybe when I finish that I'll try to read it again.

    At the time of my first attempt, I suppose I'd be in my early teens and I recall expressing the view that Dickens was not in his element with the historical drama and it was a misjudged departure from the contemporary journalistic morality tales at which he excels.

    My favourite Dickens novel is 'Hard Times' but I have a great affection for all of his classics.

    As I remember it now, Dickens's had raised my adolescent ire by what I saw then as his 'taking his eye off the ball' ... I have always had a taste for social realism which I thought Dickens had more or less pioneered in England in his exposés of the underbelly of Victorian life.

    I felt that 'Tale of Two Cities' let the side down a bit, although I know that was not my Grandfather's view who praised the book fulsomely and probably thought me a right twerp for failing to appreciate its brilliance.

    In later life I have had to defend Dickens from uncompromising assault by Trotskyite critics who denounce him as a liberal apologist whose tales salve the collective conscience of the exploitative bourgeois classes. To me this criticism does have a hint of truth about it, but certainly should not be overstated lest we throw the baby out with the bathwater.

    So thanks again Doug, I would probably never thought about this book again had you not deftly placed it here across my path!

  7. Thanks AA. Dickens does wonders with the language, creating such a vivid sense of time, people and place in the first few pages. He does it equally well in "Bleak House", my personal favorite of his novels.

    I gather from by reading of this Penquin Dickens edition I have that this was only one of two novels he worked on with a historical setting. (The other being "Barnaby Rudge", set, I gather, during the anti-Catholic "Gordon Riots" of the 1780s.) I think you might find much of the material in "Two Cities" of interest. I think his motives were to write a book both to serve as a warning against retarding refrom and what it might lead to and, because he got a hell of a story in his head from reading Thomas Caryle's French Revolution book on that period, and then got other primary sources he found on his own. )

    I never read "Hard Times" for some reason. It will be interesting in the near future to do so and compare notes with you since you found that one his best. There was certainly a lot of social "underbelly" to expose in his day, and, sadly, he would find plenty to arouse ire today.

    It's true his early training as a journalist and his eyes for the just the right telling detail in a story is one of his great strengths as a storyteller. Mark Twain had this as well. They were both great critics of their times. It's a shame I think that they never met up.

    Good for you for defending "The Inimitable"! He might not have had a big philosophical plan for all the reforms he sought--but he did and does prick the consciences of any serious person who reads a book like this one. No question he was on the side of the oppressed and the forgotten, and he told the truth (albeit with dramatic or comic flourishes.) And to tell the truth, hard truths, truths that jam a quill like lance into cold-blooded institutions of both courts, governments and unbridled capitlalist structures. That is a revolutionary act in times like that, as Orwell, as you well know ,put it!

  8. I read a lot of Dickens work but I have never read this one. I am no sure why or how that happened.

  9. Yes I always connect them in my mind too, a meeting would have been a fascinating exchange I'm sure....but ... 'east is east and west is west and never the Twain shall meet'....but Dickens obviously could never have said that in exactly that way because Rudyard Kipling was only 4 years old when Charles Dickens died.

  10. I find this true of a lot of famous authors and books in my case, Fred.

    Which is one reasons I've been gravitating lately toward a few of the "older titles" on the library shelves.

    Is somebody once said, "any good book you haven't read is a new book."

  11. LOL! That would have been a great line, AA, had Dickens ever taken questions from the assembled on his lecture tours...of course it would be considered churlish to steal quotes from a four-year's old nipper like little Ruddy Kipling.

    During Dickens' first tour of America in 1842, one where he later wrote his quite interesting "American Notes" book (and drew some criticism from folks on these shores for that silly habit of his in telling the truth as he saw it) , he did meet up with Edgar Allen Poe.

    I always find these meetings of remarkable people fascinating to conjour up in my mind's eye. Alas, from the description below, this one was a bit of a limp firecracker, although one with a Dickensian ending worthy of one of the Englishman's stories.

    This is all the more interesting in that Poe had given a bad review to Dickens' next novel that came out. This was not atypical of Poe, a fellow who also panned Longfellow's work, even though he could have used the poet's support for a literary journal he was trying to get off the ground in Baltimore.

    Actually, speaking of "panning your competition", it is true that while "Twain did never meet" Dickens, I have discovered he did see "The Inimitable" on stage in New York during his second and less controversial visit to America in 1867-8.
    And cut into him the way Hamlet went after a player in his famous "Speak the speech..." scene.

    Here's a link to the review Twain wrote for a San Francisco newspaper is very good writing for him but to me its pretty tough on Dickens given that Twain himself was but a budding lecturer. He had been quite terrified before his first lecture in San Francisco (on traveling to the Sandwich/Hawaiian islands) not two years before this review.

    A bit of jealousy perhaps? One wonders. At the very least this is an example of Twain bucking the general positive opinion of a popular author with a bit of due praise but then launching some severe contrarian barbs.

  12. This is a book with great memorable words at the beginning and end and a super story in between.
    My father has the complete set of Charles Dickens books. I also have a set, but nothing as perfect as my father's with the wonderful illustrations. I covet them. :-)

    When I first read The Tale of Two Cities I found it rather gloomy, but it grew on me.

    Super write up, doug, thank you.

  13. Yes, Cassandra, the first and last parts of this novel are so memorable and beautiful. I love that feeling of really being "drawn into " the story, even remembering some details does nothing to dampen the sense of power that the strong narrative flow and these characters provide!

    Book sets are a great thing to pass down through the generations. Modern editions generally have more footnotes and appendixes, which is fine, but they are shorter on matching the beauty of the prose with a cover that also befits the fine work inside. It's especially nice when you can find editions that have fitting illustrations.

    Thank YOU.

  14. Golly gosh, doug. I was sitting watching television when into my head popped the fact I had written that my father has the compete set of Shakespeare's books, well he has, but in this case I meant CHARLES DICKENS. What made it come to mind just when I was watching a programme I don't know. So of course, I had to log in again to correct myself, hahahahahaha.

    Yes, as you say, it is a book one is easily drawn into. Apparently Dickens loved to travel. I wonder how long he had this book forming in his mind before he put pen to paper.

  15. I figured you meant Charles Dickens, Cassandra. :-)

    Dickens was an amazing traveller, at least in my opinion. I'm reading his travel book "American Notes" (1842) and he does a great job as a journalist re-creating his five-month tour of America from Boston to the frontier-lands outside St. Louis. As I mentioned to Aaran, his wanderlust resembles Mark Twain.

    The most interesting thing to me so far is that in every city and fair-sized town he stopped to explore, even for half-a-day, he always requested a visit to its prisons (and/or mental asylums). I think his father's experiences in Debtor's Prison left a mark on his psyche. His sensitivity to those in deplorable conditions of confinement obviously influenced his novels, on which "A Tale of Two Cities" is a prime example.

    According to the notes in the edition I read, Thomas Carlyle's massive book on the French Revolution was a book Dickens returned to again and again. That might have been the genesis for his novel, but he might have had earlier sources.