Cannonball Read III: A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
I am one of those people who spends too much time feeling accomplished for reading a lot of the classics. I do like most of them and have come back for the more obscure ones, but man, do I love being able to tick more and more boxes in all those literature questionnaires (I also love questionnaires way too much).
But maybe I’m not doing myself and Charles Dickens justice. I loved Bleak House and found David Copperfield interesting enough to finish it within a week. More importantly, those books taught me a lot about Victorian novels: Sometimes, you have to skim in order to keep your sanity. When Dickens goes on a spiritual rant, I turn the page. Sometimes I lose track of the story, because Dickens actually has a point in his rants. He wrote enormous amounts of enormous novels and mastered the art of never being too obvious. Quite often, this makes it hard for the reader to get the gist of the story, and I’m not entirely sure I have this problem because Victorian English is still foreign to me. Dickens was just so good that he could afford to play around with language.
The setting of A Tale of Two Cities is an unfamiliar one at first: It takes us further back, past the good old Vitorian days—more precisely, to the days of the French revolution. The scope of the novel seems breathtaking; Dickens proposes to paint a picture of both France and England in those days, of a whole time (the famous “best of times and worst of times”). He accomplishes it, while managing to take the reader in by focusing on a small number of characters. Alexandre Manette, a French Doctor, is released from the Bastille after years of captivity, and reunited with his daughter Lucie, who lives in England. Manette is traumatized but slowly brought back to life by Lucie’s love and the support of his few friends (Dickens is only too happy to supply suitably sentimental descriptions). Lucie falls in love with another Frenchman in exile, the dashing Charles Darnay, who turns out to be an aristrocrat on the run from his family’s bad deeds towards the enslaved peasantry. In an attempt to save a loyal servant who is caught up in the tumult of the revolution, Darnay travels to Paris and is promptly arrested. His family’s attempts to rescue him form the last, and most exciting part of the novel.
Apart from his usual sentimental description of young love, old loyalty and pure goodness of heart, Dickens excels in capturing the mood of France in the years of the revolution. He describes the suffering of the people without the usual sentimentality, and caricatures the aristocracy with a good amount of bile, while at the same time condemning the senseless slaughter in the name of the young Republic. I found it hard at first to unite those two viewpoints, in that silly, polar way of thinking that makes sane, balanced literature a necessity. I eventually realised there is no simple right or wrong, even in Victorian literature. Dickens makes it clear that while he thinks both extremes wrong, a bloody revolution as this was, was necessary for France to make a complete fresh start with new, better rules, laws and conditions.
As for the story, nobody really wins. While on the surface level there is the expected happy ending, the overall mood is one of despair and loss. The long-term effects of the revolution are yet to come, and we leave Paris in a hurried, panicked way. As far as Dickens goes, this is strong, dark stuff that goes beyond the description of individual fate. Not what I expected, but all the better for it.
For more of Karo’s reviews, check out her blog, …and then I read some more.
This review is part of Cannonball Read III. For more information, click here.
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