“I see a beautiful city and a brilliant people rising from this abyss, and, in their struggles to be truly free, in their triumphs and defeats, through long long years to come, I see the evil of this time and of the previous time of which this is the natural birth, gradually making expiation of itself and wearing out.”
-Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
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After more than a month of reading sporadically, I have finally finished this novel. Harvin, who frequently expresses contempt for my literary tastes, finds this to be the only tolerable Dickens novel. Other professors have expressed shock that I claim to love Dickens and had not read what they declared to be his best work. Therefore, when the semester ended in December, I began this novel, anticipating that I would soon have another favorite Dickens novel.
The story takes place during the French Revolution. The book begins with the story of Dr. Manette, who has been imprisoned. His daughter Lucie (of whom he had no knowledge) and his friend Mr. Lorry rescue him from Paris, and they all return to London, where Dr. Manette is recalled to life; Lucie’s love and loyalty help him to overcome the isolation he has known for 18 years.
Part II begins with many other stories converging: the Defarges, who own a wine shop and are part of the Jacquerie, revolutionaries who storm the Bastille; Charles Darnay, estranged from his noble family, who flees to London and later marries Lucie; Jerry Clunker, an odd-job man at Mr. Lorry’s bank; a random mender of roads; various other minor characters that are sometimes hard to keep up with.
In part III, Charles returns to Paris to aid a friend who has been imprisoned. In the fervor of revolution, the Parisians are bloodthirsty. They will arrest anyone under suspicion of any illegal activity. And La Guillotine becomes a major character in the story, as she is worshiped by the Parisians. Charles is arrested, and the story ensues.
I found this novel difficult to get through. However, I think that’s probably because I’m burnt out on Victorian literature. Though I love it, after taking a class and reading two other Dickens novels just for fun in the past few months, I think I’ve just had too much description, verbosity, and intrigue. Perhaps a few years from now, I’ll pick up A Tale of Two Cities and be utterly delighted. This time, however, I had to force myself to finish, and I refused to start any other books until I was done.
Another reason I had a hard time reading the book is because the characters did not appeal to me nearly as much as others that Dickens has written. To be honest, I didn’t really care whether Charles Darnay was able to escape from prison. I didn’t care whether Dr. Manette became catatonic and started making shoes again, as he had done while imprisoned in the Defarges’ upper rooms. In Great Expectations (still my favorite Dickens novel), I cared about Pip from the very first page. I wanted to know how his story was going to end; I wanted to know if he achieved his great expectations. Conversely, I just didn’t care that much about Lucie and Charles in A Tale of Two Cities.
All that said, the very last chapter made the journey worth it. In the last few pages, Dickens concluded this story of love and loyalty in a profoundly beautiful way. Sydney Carton is the real hero of this novel, which is quite a feat considering I didn’t like him when he first appeared in the novel. For those of you who haven’t read this novel, I won’t ruin the ending. Just know that Dickens’ last chapter reminded me of why he is one of my favorite authors.