A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

a tale of two cities“Tell the Wind and Fire where to stop…”

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Set before and during ‘The Reign of Terror’ in Revolutionary France, A Tale of Two Cities ranks amongst the finest of Charles Dickens’ works, even though it is in many ways quite different to his other great books. The humour and exuberant language is toned down; there is not the huge cast of peripheral caricatured characters; there are no major sub-plots. Instead there is a tightly-focused and exciting plot, a hero in Sidney Carton of much greater complexity than Dickens’ norm, and some of his most hard-hitting commentary on the effects of poverty and abuse, not just on those who suffer directly from it, but on society as a whole. While often Dickens’ books feel as if they have organically grown during the writing, with Dickens himself being as surprised as the reader by the direction they take, this one always feels to me as if he had planned it down to the last detail before he began. Nothing happens that isn’t relevant, and everything is explained completely in the end. And it has a purpose – one overwhelming theme: to show the possibility of redemption and resurrection, personal and political. That theme is what carries the reader through what must be the darkest of Dickens’ stories to the sense of hope that is inherent even in the tragedy of the ending.

“Since I knew you, I have been troubled by a remorse that I thought would never reproach me again, and have heard whispers from old voices impelling me upward, that I thought were silent for ever. I have had unformed ideas of striving afresh, beginning anew, shaking off sloth and sensuality, and fighting out the abandoned fight. A dream, all a dream, that ends in nothing, and leaves the sleeper where he lay down, but I wish you to know that you inspired it.”

Dickens throws us into a state of menace right at the start of the novel, as Mr Lorry makes his way to Dover on the mail coach, the passengers and coachmen all in a state of extreme anxiety that the coach will be held up by highwaymen. This, together with the introductory chapter comparing the social inequalities and injustice in both England and France in the period, are an indication that Dickens is warning that the situation in England is not so very different to the conditions that led to the uprisings in France. This is one of the book’s strengths – Dickens doesn’t do the too frequent British thing of assuming that upheavals in foreign lands are somehow due to a form of moral inferiority. He makes it clear all the way through that the social problems in pre-Revolutionary France are paralleled in English society, and that the end result could very easily be the same.

tale-of-two-cities the mob

As always with Dickens though, the story is the thing. Unlike too many modern writers of misery, he recognised that the first thing an author has to do is entertain his audience. That way they might stick around long enough to hear the message. The story proper begins as Doctor Manette is released from the Bastille after a long imprisonment without trial, for reasons that only become known to the reader towards the end of the book. ‘Recalled to life’ through the love of the daughter he never knew he had, he returns to England where he regains his health and sanity. His beloved daughter Lucie falls in love with a young Frenchman, Charles Darnay, and the little family settles happily in a small house in London. But always Dickens keeps us aware of the approaching political hurricane that will soon sweep through France, and we know that somehow the family’s fate is tied to those events. When Charles Darnay is summoned to aid an old servant imprisoned for his loyalty to Darnay’s aristocratic family, the action moves to Paris…

“Patriots and friends, we are ready! The Bastille!”

With a roar that sounded as if all the breath in France had been shaped into the detested word, the living sea rose, wave on wave, depth on depth, and overflowed the city to that point. Alarm-bells ringing, drums beating, the sea raging and thundering on its new beach, the attack began.
***
“To me, women!” cried madame his wife. “What! We can kill as well as the men when the place is taken!” And to her, with a shrill thirsty cry, trooping women variously armed, but all armed alike in hunger and revenge.

Storming of the Bastille Jean-Pierre Houel
Storming of the Bastille
Jean-Pierre Houel

It’s in Dickens’ depiction of Paris at this horrific moment in its history that he shows his genius, with some fantastic writing of the storming of the Bastille and the behaviour of the mob. With barely concealed anger he straddles both sides – showing the decades of cruelty and abuse meted out to the poor by pampered aristocrats, and the dehumanising effects of this, turning the Revolutionaries into savage monsters, akin to devils, when they come to power, wreaking vengeance even on the innocent. Though never sympathising with the viciousness on either side, he nonetheless brings the reader to feel pity amidst the revulsion for those caught up in these times – to understand how mobs become a force apart from the individuals within them. Madame Defarge is one of his greatest creations. The driving force behind the Revolutionary zeal to feed the guillotine, she is monstrous in her savagery, all the more so for being female. And yet we see the forces that have formed her and it is a hard heart indeed that can feel no trace of pity for her in the end – and for those who follow her. Dickens shows us how weak people can be in times of great turmoil, as neighbour betrays neighbour, and loyalty to a cause, or fear of it, trumps personal morality.

Crush humanity out of shape once more, under similar hammers, and it will twist itself into the same tortured forms. Sow the same seed of rapacious license and oppression over again, and it will surely yield the same fruit according to its kind.

Six tumbrils roll along the streets. Change these back to what they were, thou powerful enchanter, Time, and they shall be seen to be the carriages of absolute monarchs, the equipages of feudal nobles, the toilettes of flaring Jezebels, the churches that are not my father’s house but dens of thieves, the huts of millions of starving peasants.

But amidst all this horror and tumult, there is Sidney Carton. In love with Lucie but knowing that she could never love someone so deeply flawed as he, his unselfish devotion is brilliantly portrayed, without any of the wild exaggeration of character in which Dickens often indulges. Carton is believable and therefore the reader cares about him. The redemption of this weak drunkard, a wastrel who has thrown away the talents he was born with, is the heart of the plot, and central also to the wider message of the book – that through love, faith and sacrifice, resurrection is possible – for the person, but also for this deeply fractured society. Carton’s final scenes and last speech are beautifully written and intensely moving. I can’t think of another book where both the opening and closing lines are quoted so often that they have passed into cliché. (“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”, “It is a far, far better thing that I do…”)

french_revolution_guillotine

For me, Bleak House is the best, but this one has all the things that make Dickens great – the writing, the plotting, the social conscience – without the things that sometimes put new readers off – the caricatured comedy, the overblown descriptions, the saccharin romances. If anyone were to ask me where to start with Dickens, this would be the book I would recommend.

71 thoughts on “A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

  1. I admit: I was traumatised by having to read this at school when I was about 11-12 and I was bored out of my wits. There would be a few good scenes, followed by a lot of dulness. That’s what I remember, and it’s made me never want to touch it again. I do love Bleak House and Great Expectations, enjoy a lot of other Dickens books, and my kids read a simplified version of this one and loved it. But not for me!

    • What a pity! I really wish they wouldn’t teach Dickens so young – or at all, if it comes to that! University destroyed Great Expectations for me, and while I can now appreciate it, I’ll never love it. Whereas the ones I read for pleasure at times of my own choosing, I count amongst the greatest reading experiences of my life. And I don’t know how many people have said that school killed Shakespeare for them too. Ban all education! 😉

  2. You know dear heart, we absolutely agree hear. Bleak House I think too, his best, but this so unlikely one is magnificent. I read this when I was probably far too young, around aged 10 or 11, but I absolutely loved it – gave me nightmares, and resulted in almost permanent red eyes, from endless weeping, and I really think i should read it again. I read just about every Dickens between the ages of 12 and 15 (and then jumped ship to RUSSIA!, France and Germany) but you are in line to make me revisit this one. Which is of course a far far better thing than you have ever done before……………..

    Just don’t take up knitting, promise!

    • I can’t remember when I first read it – probably late teens which was when I read my way through tons of the classics – but I had really forgotten everything but the main story, I found. It’s much more politically focused than I’d remembered. I also found, and I think this is probably age related, that I had much more sympathy for the Revolutionaries this time round, and I loved his depiction of the mob and how it became a being in its own right. And Sidney is just such a brilliant character! I really think you should read it again too…

      Perhaps I should get rid of the TBR spreadsheet and keep a knitted record instead…

  3. I took a class on Dickens and, while we read many of his books, we did not read this one. I’d always heard it was his most boring and unreadable… but this review makes me happy I downloaded a free copy to my Kindle some years ago. May need to finally read it!

    • It does seem to divide readers, this one, but as you’ll have gathered I think it’s great, even though it’s different from his usual style. A slow start perhaps, which might be why people find it boring, but once it gets to Paris and the revolution it’s a real thriller… and definitely a three-hanky epic!

  4. FictionFan – Like several of your other readers, I like Bleak House better. I do. But I agree with you that this one has strong and biting social commentary as well as some really interesting characters. It’s not particularly heavy on the wit, but I do like Dickens’ observations. And of course, it’s got one of the most famous opening lines in literature.

    • I think ‘Bleak House’ is more what Dickens fans expect of his style, and so ‘A Tale…’ can perhaps disappoint. But I think it’s much easier to tackle for newcomers and not as sickly sweet as ‘Oliver’, which is so often recommended as starter Dickens. And I do love Dickens when he’s in social rant mode…

    • Thank you! 😀 Glad you agree! It does seem to be more divisive than his usual stuff, probably because it’s more blatantly political and doesn’t have much in the way of humour. But it’s got one of the most exiciting stories of all his books… and his writing is wonderful, as always.

  5. Stellar review! This is my favorite sentence (love it, really): “The redemption of this weak drunkard, a wastrel who has thrown away the talents he was born with, is the heart of the plot, and central also to the wider message of the book – that through love, faith and sacrifice, resurrection is possible – for the person, but also for this deeply fractured society.” That makes me smile every time I read it! You’re a good writer, FEF.

    You know, you almost make me want to read it…and that says something. Interestingly enough, I’ve always been fascinated with the guillotine, you know, you know.

    Where does “Tell the Wind and Fire Where to Stop” come from?

    • Aw, thanks, C-W-W! Funnily enough, I thought of you when I wrote that sentence – I thought you might enjoy it, so I’m glad you did! *smiles bigly*

      Well, I think I’ve said it before, but this would be the Dickens I would recommend to you, if I was recommending any Dickens to you – which I’m not! But… if I were… I’d say toss Bleak House back on the bookshelf for twenty years, and read this one instead! There’s some great action scenes and the message of the book is one I reckon you’d enjoy…

      Avoiding spoilers, Madame Defarge is using the Revolution to take revenge on the aristocrats and at one point her husband suggests they’re going too far – killing the innocent along with the guilty – and says they should maybe stop now. To which Madame Defarge replies “Tell the Wind and Fire where to stop, but don’t tell me…”

      • Did you? That’s so special! So glad to have you back. Maybe I missed you. How’re you feeling?

        For 20 years? I won’t be able to read in 20 years, probably. Well, I must admit the action scenes thing sounds great. I don’t know… And it’s shorter too, I think. Oh dear.

        *laughs* What a wicked woman! Someone should guillotine her! Does she get it?

        • Aw, thanks! Maybe I’m glad you maybe missed me. *blushes* Much better – another day or two and I might even feel like dancing again!

          Whew! Just as well I’m not recommending it then! Even though it’s only about half the length of BH. And even though there’s cannons, and savage women, and guillotines. And spies… ooh! And I forgot to mention the graverobbers! But you probably shouldn’t read it.

          I can’t tell you that! It would be such a spoiler. But I will tell you you’d never think of knitting needles as quite such innocent things again…

          • That’s good then! I must be eternally sick since I never feel like dancing.

            *desire to read it grow exponentially* You so did that on purpose!!! *rampages*

            Through the eyes! She gets it through the eyes!

            • *laughs lots* Oh, you’ll want to dance as soon as you see my ballgown…

              *wide-eyed innocent face* Me?!? But I said you shouldn’t read it! You’d hate the riots and the shrieking mob and the storming of the Bastille – and the bit where they dangle the man over the well would be too shocking for you! And anyway, you don’t really want to know about those knitting needles. *shudders* No, you shouldn’t read it! (Did you know – well, I know you don’t, but you will in a second – that FF went to Paris for the 200th anniversary celebrations of the storming of the Bastille? It was amazing! Over a million people on the Champs Elysees…)

              *laughs lots* You’re so brutal!!

            • You mean, I’ll want to dance with your ballgown? *skeptical*

              *laughing lots and lots and lots* Well, maybe when I finish Dune. You’ll have to remind me. But I was thinking about getting Dune’s sequel. (So, you’ve been to Paris twice, then? A million?! Wow! Do you have any pics of the crowd?)

              Just a guess!

            • *laughs and shakes head* Well, I was thinking more of its contents… (Oh dear! That sounds almost Cassie-ish! Forget I said it!!)

              Really?? Oh, good – that must mean you’re enjoying it! I was scared you maybe just didn’t want to admit that you hated it! I may join you for no 2, if you don’t object. (I’ve been to Paris loads of times in my youth. It’s the place I love most in the world – if I believed in past lives, I’d feel I had lived there once. Sadly, no pics, except the ones in my memory – I very rarely took a camera with me in those days. Still don’t, much. But it was an amazing experience…)

            • Oh! Yeah…I see what you were saying. *laughs* I can be foolish sometimes. That’s something Tom Sawyer might say. (All girls are like that, I fear!)

              No! I’ve been enjoying it. I know I read slow…but I think I’m past the 500th page! *proud face* I’d love for you to join me! Have you read #2? (You little world traveler you! You don’t speak French, do you?)

            • Tom Sawyer would be all soppy about ballgowns, if Becky wore one! (I beg your pardon, sir?! The Cassies and Amelias of this world might be *spits* *spits* but not the FFs!! *convincingly innocent face*)

              I don’t think you read slow (except BH, of course, but we won’t mention that). Then I shall! Just let me know when you’re ready to start – no rush! I’m sure I did read it, but I don’t remember much about it except that Irulan must have been in it more, ‘cos I was surprised at how little she was in Dune. But it might come back to me when I start reading. (*laughs* Well, I’ve only been out of Europe once, and that was only to Canada, so I don’t think I can be classed as an intrepid explorer! I used to be just about able to get by in French so long as they spoke slowly and clearly but I doubt if I’d manage at all now. I can still sort of read it though – if it’s fairly simple.)

            • Oh…well you might maybe have a point. But he only liked her for the minute. He would have moved on, you know, you know. (*laughs* That’s cause FEF is special.)

              You’re supposed to forget about BH! I’m working on it. I will! Now that you bring her up, I don’t think I like Irulan. (You were in Canada but didn’t visit the US? FEF! *professorish eye* Now, that’s impressive. You sorta speak French. That’s cool.)

            • *nods sadly* Yes, I expect he’d have become a fickle philanderer in time… (*preens smugly* I am!!)

              I’ll try! Why not?? She’s beautiful and intelligent, and a Princess! (I was right at the border at one point too. If we’d both had massive telescopes we could have waved to one another. *laughs* I wish it was, mon petit chou!)

            • Imagine Tom becoming that! Well, I’m thinking he probably would have. Or a pirate.

              But her dad! Isn’t he wicked?! (*mouth drops* And you didn’t visit? Boy that’s insulting. What does ‘petit’ mean?)

            • But pirates are fickle philanderers too – look at Jack!

              You can’t blame Irulan for that! (But I didn’t know you then, so I hadn’t realised how wonderful America is! Especially the sport! Little, and chou means cabbage, mon loup!)

            • That’s a good point. But Jack was heartless. I think men might be overall.

              Can!! (You disliked American then, didn’t you? *professorish eye* I know you did! Little cabbage?! I might need to rampage. I’m guessing ‘loup’ is soup.)

            • Yes – except the Professor! He’s different. Special!

              Can’t!!! (In truth, I was a little fed up with them at that point in time, but I’ve (more or less) forgiven them now. It’s a term of endearment!! ‘Loup’ is wolf! Suits the Professor much better!)

            • Yeah…I think I might care too much at times. *dejected* Oh rats!

              Why didn’t you say you wanted to be Chani? (*laughing lots* You were! Well, I’m glad I sorta maybe changed the way you think of them. Loup is perfect, then!!)

            • Aww, no, don’t say that! *dejected ‘cos he’s dejected* All great warriors have great hearts, you know, you know…

              But you’ll like Irulan when you get to know her better! And I do like Chani. It’s just… (*laughs too* You did, mon loup! Now I chew gum and speak with an American accent, and every morning I go up on the roof and wave the Stars and Stripes…)

            • *smiles* I suppose that’s true… Hector didn’t! Maybe.

              It’s just what?! Oh dear. What? (*laughing* I don’t chew gum! Or, wave the stars and stripes. Toby Keith would not be happy with me. And I have a professorish accent.)

            • Yeah, but my C-W-W is a much greater hero than Hector…

              Well…we’ll see what you think when you get to know Irulan better. And I might even change my mind when I read the sequel – my memory of it is so vague… (You don’t?! Don’t you sing the Star-Spangled Banner every morning before breakfast? I do, in your honour… *wide-eyed honest look*)

  6. Although I read all Dickens major novels years and years ago I couldn’t call myself a Dickens fan. I liked most of the books and two or three I loved, one I even read more than once, but there were two or three that left me a bit cold and this was one of those. You make it sound more appealing than I remember it.

    • I think it’s one of his more overtly political books, and I always enjoy that aspect, so I find this a powerful read. But it is very different from his usual style, so I can quite see why it doesn’t work for everyone. I love nearly everything he wrote – it’s the actual style of his writing that I love, so the plots and characters are almost secondary for me, if that makes sense.

  7. This is one of his I’ve never read, or if I did, it was at far too early an age…. Hmmmm. I know I’ve got it on my shelves. Perhaps it will find its way off the shelf and into the pile. Perhaps I should keep the lights on at night to watch this happen.

    • Yes, for some reason it doesn’t seem to get the same attention as the rest, but I think it’s well worth a re-read. I’d forgotten loads about it since I last read it hundreds of years ago, but I think I probably appreciated it more now. Haha! Now there’s a spooky thought – but it would explain so much!

  8. Good to know this is the best book to start reading Dickens! I have a copy of A Tale Of Two Cities lined up as one of my next reads and it will also be my first Dickens novel… Your review really made me look forward to it!

    • Oh, I hope you enjoy it, Yvo! It is different to his usual style, but you still get all his great writing, and because it’s shorter and more tightly plotted I think it’s easier as an introduction rather than one of the huge monsters like Bleak House or David Copperfield, brilliant though they are. I look forward to hearing how you get on with it.

  9. Hurray for the classics. We never had to read this in school and I have never finished reading it. Shame on me. I think that “Sister Carrie” filled that slot at my school…..

    • Dickens is very much a matter of taste. Though I love him, I understand why his style isn’t for everyone, and this one, being a kind of action adventure almost, is definitely one lots of people don’t like so much as the others. But I do (as you probably gathered! 😉 ) I haven’t read “Sister Carrie” – in fact, I’ve never heard of it. Must go check it out…

    • Thanks, Rose! And I’m delighted to hear you’re going to try one – either of these is a great choice. I must admit I get a bit pushy about Dickens – keep trying to force people to read him whether they want to or not… 😉 But his style is so distinctive that people tend to either love ir hate him – I hope you end up loving him… 😀

  10. This was the first Dickens I ever read, and apart from “A Christmas Carol”, which I read every Christmas Eve, it is the one I have read most often. Mum loved it too – it was when she took it out of the library that I saw the picture of Dr Manette in the Bastille, and I had to find out what it was about. I think I was about eight. I hope your review encourages lots of people to read and enjoy it.

    • I can’t remember when I first read it, but it must have been ages since I last did given how much I’d forgotten. But it really does deserve to be considered as one of his greats, I feel, and especially (without wishing to be sexist about it) much more the kind of book boys and young men are likely to enjoy than the likes of David Copperfield. And maybe girls and young women too, actually…

      Me too – it’s my mission in life (insofar as I have one) to force everyone to Read More Dickens!!

  11. Great review. I’ve avoided A Tale of Two Cities until now, perhaps I should give it a go. I always find it hard to imagine anything being better than Great Expectations, which I love.

    • It’s different to his usual style – more focused on one story and fewer characters. But the writing is great as usual and the story is brilliant. If you do decide to give it a go, I hope you enjoy it! 🙂

  12. It is years since I read this one and I’ve never been moved to pick it up again, until your review. My favourite Dickens is Bleak House which I’ve re-read numerous times but reading your review I think that perhaps I was just too young to understand the political element which is why this didn’t grip me like some of the others. Thanks for a great review (as always) 🙂

    • I think I was more aware of the politics this time round. I can’t remember exactly how old I was when I first read it, but I think I thought of it as just an adventure story. But this time I really admired how he showed how a mob works and how things spiral beyond control. If you do read it, I hope you enjoy it – it is different from his other most well-known books.

  13. It was the best of times, it was the worst of time… I have yet to plough through this book and Les Miserable. (Though I enjoyed the musical of the latter.) I read Great Expectations in tenth grade for fun and read it a number of times with school classes and home schooling my kids. Having discovered Dickens, I moved on to Oliver Twist and then David Copperfield. Then, I was done with Dickens except in December.

    • Oh, this one is a mere tiddler in comparison to Les Mis – size-wise at least! I must say neither Great Expectations nor Oliver are my favourite Dickens, though David Copperfield is. Nicholas Nickleby and Bleak House are both great ones too…

Please leave a comment - I'd love to know who's visiting and what you think...of the post, of the book, of the blog, of life, of chocolate...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s