“Statesmen, men of science, philanthropists, the acknowledged benefactors of their race, might pass away, and yet not leave the void which will be caused by the death of Charles Dickens.”
— The Times of London
When my daughter, Kate, was assigned to read A Tale of Two Cities, I thought I might as well read it with her. I did the same with Braiden when he had to read Far From the Madding Crowd, and I really enjoyed it. But I'd just started Nicholas Nickleby, which seemed very funny, and I wasn't looking forward to the gloomy story of the French Revolution. And as my reading lagged behind Kate's (she had a deadline and I was unusually busy) I was surprised at how much she liked the story. In fact, when she finished she said it was one of her most favorite books.
A Tale of Two Cities weaves several stories together. There's Mr. Jarvis Lorry, the banker, who is sent to "recall to life" a man in France who has been "dead" for 18 years. There's Monsieur Defarge and his wife, who have a recently released prisoner of the Bastille in one of the rooms over their wine shop. There's Dr. Alexandre Manette, who is so broken and ruined that I thought his plight was hopeless. There's his daughter, Lucie Manette, who lovingly takes him home and cares for him, restoring him to life. There's Charles Darnay, who is on trial for his life as a spy in England, and Sydney Carton, who saves him when he points out during the trial the physical similarity between himself and the condemned man, thus confounding the witness. And all their lives (and a few others) get tangled up in the ruthlessness and tragedy that was the French Revolution, and yet Dickens is the master story-teller who weaves such an amazing tale of the tangled threads.
"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times..."
Often, I don't worry about revealing the plot (spoilers) of classics – after all, everyone read them in high school and they're usually pretty well-known. Except I didn't read this one (I wonder if I'd have liked it as much as Kate did, or as much as I do now?) and don't want to spoil it for anyone else (because I encourage you to read it if you haven't already!). But I found this one much harder to understand than Oliver Twist or Great Expectations. In fact, I had to pull up the SparkNotes and follow along each chapter, which was so much more enlightening. The language Dickens uses to evoke certain emotions shows just how good of a writer he is. In particular, he tells of Lucie hearing the footsteps echoing outside her home, which are usually of friends coming to visit, but they foreshadow the events in France that threaten to destroy her family. When he writes of the blood-lust of the revolution, he does so with a shadow of horror that casts a soberness over the story. (I'm reminded of Ray Bradbury's beautiful – almost poetic – writing in Dandelion Wine.)
Dickens is also very economical with his characters – there aren't many throw-away people here – and they often come back at important points in the story. I read that this is one of the criticisms leveled at the book – a deus ex machina idea where the plot is manipulated through unlikely coincidences. But it seemed to me that Dickens was showing an inter-connectedness between mankind; events abroad can impact us, and in some ways those events aren't always so different from our own lives. And while there are many themes in this story, the one I enjoyed best was of resurrection and being "recalled to life." Dr. Manette is "recalled" by Mr. Lorry and Lucie, and Darnay is saved from an especially cruel sentence, but it comes up in interesting ways: Jerry Cruncher's side-job as well as some other, even more dramatic examples.
“It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”
The temptation is to go on and on and include a lot of quotes I highlighted while reading, but I don't want to give away too much. This is probably my favorite novel by Dickens, and it was such a weighty and moving story that I'm having a hard time going back to the levity of Nicholas Nickleby. So I'll just end by recommending you read this one if you haven't already – and it might be a good idea to find a SparkNotes or Cliff's Notes to help appreciate it with a little more depth.