A Tale of Two Cities was only the second book by Charles Dickens that I ever read. In the years since, I’ve read several more but still have always claimed A Tale as my favourite work of Dickens. Re-reading it now, probably a decade or more later, I’m delighted to stay its status as my favourite work of Dickens (and one of my very favourite books) still stands.
A Tale of Two Cities is an absolutely masterful work of writing. It’s heart-wrenching and beautiful and suspenseful and it cuts to the core of human nature and human history in a half dozen different ways. It doesn’t need me to applaud it but I will anyway and will simply say that if you haven’t yet read this book, you really should.
There was a lot I remembered from my previous reading of the book and a lot that I had forgotten. The beginning and end of the novel of course contain some of the most famous lines in English literature. In this reading I was struck by how Dickens portrays the way the revolution tumbles so quickly into corruption and violence. At the beginning, and as a rather left-leaning person, I found it easy to sympathize with the peasants and the movements of the notorious Defarge and Madame Defarge. Dickens pokes fun at the ruling, elite class while also clearly pointing out their excesses, particularly in comparison to the absolutely poverty of the peasants. Early on, even Madame Defarge’s intensity of purpose could be seen as inspiring.
“Well!” said Defarge, with a half-complaining and half-apologetic shrug. “We shall not see the triumph.”
“We shall have helped it,” returned madame, with her extended hand in strong action. “Nothing that we do, is done in vain. I believe, with all my soul, that we shall see the trump. But even if not, even if I knew certainly not, show me the neck of an aristocrat and tyrant, and still I would – “– Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities (pg.165)
This, in contrast to the clear evilness of the character of the Marquis who kills a child through carelessness and is incapable of any sympathy. But Dickens doesn’t let us see things as so black and white and slowly but steadily through the novel he develops his characters, showing the complexities of human nature.
And no character has quite so much complexity as that of Sydney Carton. From a modern perspective, Carton might not be quite as scandalous as he would have been to a Dickensian-era reader but it’s still easy to understand that he is not a gentlemanly figure. Looked down upon by all other men, only Lucie seems to have a glimmer of who he is or might be at his core and it is to her that Carton pledges any good in himself.
“And, O my dearest Love!” she urged, clinging nearer to [Charles], laying her head upon his breast, and raising her eyes to his, “remember how strong we are in our happiness, and how weak he is in his misery!”– (pg. 193)
I would be remiss to say that, as with other Dickens heroines, Lucie is sadly still disappointing. She exists at the heart of the novel, acting as inspiration for the men around her from her husband her father to Sydney Carton and the steadfast old Mr. Jarvis Lorry. But she herself is almost nothing. She does nothing for herself, takes no action to save herself or others, and seems entirely satisfied with doing anything and everything that the men around her tell her to do. On the other hand, I had forgotten one of the final scenes of the novel which is a showdown between two women and I did enjoy the absolutely horror and power that Dickens creates in the character of Madame Defarge.
“Then tell Wind and Fire where to stop,” returned madame; “But don’t tell me.”(pg. 318)
And just because I think this is a beautiful quote, coming at the end of a powerful chapter where Carton walks through Paris, battling with the decision he must make, where we follow his thoughts and his struggles without Dickens ever explicitly telling us what the decision is:
Then, the night, with the moon and the stars, turned pale and died, and for a while it seemed as if Creation were delivered over to Death’s dominion.
But, the glorious sun, rising, seemed to strike those words, that burden of the night, straight and warm to his heart in its long bright rays. And looking along them, with reverently shaded eyes, a bridge of light appeared to span the air between him and the sun, while the river sparkled under it.(pg. 294)
(Be warned: the following paragraphs contain some spoilers!)
I re-read A Tale of Two Cities as a part of my Virtuous Reading Challenge. In her book On Reading Well, Karen Swallow Prior chooses this novel to examine the virtue of Justice. The question of Justice is an obvious one in A Tale, not least because it both begins and ends with courtrooms scenes. In On Reading Well, Prior states that “The just society is the one that frees people to do good.” In A Tale of Two Cities Sydney Carton performs the ultimate good, certainly the action that the Christian Bible says is the most loving thing one can do for another person. Carton does this, however, within a society that has become entirely unjust. The peasant girl who accompanies Carton at the very end to the guillotine perhaps embodies this injustice most wholly, as she is entirely innocent of any crime, willing to die for the Republic but confused as to why her death is necessary.
Prior argues that the novel shows the peril of excess, just as Dickens states in that famous opening. It was a time without moderation, where mob rule reigned and no one was safe from injustice. Lucie and her young daughter perhaps represent the great cruelty of that injustice as vengeance and rage turn against them toward the end of the novel, despite their complete innocence and naivety. “Excessive anger,” writes Prior, “distorts justice, turning it into vengeance.” Madame Defarge may have a real and understandable reason for her desire for justice against the Evremonde line but her anger has turned it into injustice and vengeance (literally the name of her closest ally).
But what makes this novel still so powerful so many years later, to a readership far removed from the time and place of these characters, is the injustice that Sydney Carton chooses to take upon himself. Charles Darnay is a good man who does not deserve to die for the crimes of his forebears, this much is true. Carton is a complicated man who has likely performed his own wrongs but there is no indication that he deserves to die for these either. Yet he chooses voluntarily to take the injustice of the mob on himself and sacrifice his own life in the hopes of letting a better future reign. As he steps toward the guillotine, he is granted a glimpse of that future, where a man who bears his name will be able to return to the same spot one day in safety and honour. The power of that moment, of a wretched man making a beautiful and self-sacrificing choice, is what still makes A Tale of Two Cities such a powerful and moving story today.