A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
Published in 1859
Genre: Historical fiction
“It was the best of times, it was the worse of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”
This is arguably one of the most famous opening lines in all of Western literature. At least, the first twelve words are well known. An impressive tome of intimidating reputation, A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens spans years, chronicles the growth of its characters, and weaves a narrative through a truly tumultuous time. The French Revolution serves as the setting for this tale of love, betrayal, and the clash between social classes.
Beginning in 1775, the English banker Mr. Lorry takes the young Lucie Manette to recover her father who was imprisoned at the Bastille and thought dead for many years. Doctor Manette has resigned to making shoes in a sort of stupor; he resides in a room belonging to Monsieur DeFarge, a wine seller in Paris (one of the two titular cities in the title). Being reunited with his daughter helps to regain his faculties and the trio return to London (the second eponymous city). Five years later, all three are present in the court case of Charles Darnay, a man accused of being a French spy. Charles is acquitted and begins a friendship with the Manettes thanks to their testimonies and his legal defense.
The book then introduces us to the ruling class of France in the form of Monseigneur the Marquis. Given to much pomp and circumstance, he is our example of how the nobles treat the poor. In one scene, the Marquis accidently kills a child with his carriage while traveling at unsafe speeds and is upset with the parents that they let the child get in the way; the Marquis believes his total disregard for the lives of the lower class is part of his station. It is revealed that he is Charles’ uncle and after a composed disagreement, Charles renounces his titles as a noble before leaving his uncle to be murdered by the dead child’s father.
In contrast, the lower class is shown through Mr. Cruncher in London, who is a messenger for Mr. Lorry and moonlights as a grave robber. He is uneducated and believes his wife prays for his misfortune, though he does what he can to make a better life for his son. In Paris, the aforementioned Monsieur DeFarge and his wife are owners of a wine shop that harbors and cultivates a safe haven for revolutionaries. They help plan and participate in the revolution, including the storming of the Bastille (as seen in the image above on the cover of the book) and help to set up the new Republic.
Over the years Lucie and Charles grow closer, marry, and have children. On a trip to France, he is imprisoned as an emigrant from London and detained in order to be put on trial. On behalf of the love for his daughter, Doctor Manette uses his influence in the Republic as a former prisoner to the old regime to win Charles’ freedom, only to have a story told that connects them all to an event in the past that reveals Darnay’s connection to the aristocracy. A plot is created to free Charles and that is as much of the story as I can write about before ruining the ending.
A Tale of Two Cities frames the French Revolution around the characters and brings it to a personal level. The brutality of the revolution is made gravely apparent with descriptions of heads on spikes, people hanging from fountains, and a woman literally nicknamed The Vengeance. The Guillotine (Dickens capitalized it, so I am too) is seen as a force of good that sends the heads of the wicked rolling and the mob flock to it in order to see the fruits of their revolution; whether those killed are actually guilty of the sins of which they are accused is none of the mob’s concern.
Dickens makes frequent use of an effective storytelling technique; many characters that are mentioned peripherally return to have large parts in the story that often cause a significant shift. An example of this is with the character Solomon; initially mentioned as the brother of Doctor Manette’s servant, he is revealed to be John Barsad, a man who was present at the trial of Charles Darnay in London early in the book. He is a spy who also showed up in the wine shop of Monsieur DeFarge with his friend Cly, who was presumed dead and had a fake burial. This lie is revealed when Mr. Cruncher admits to robbing that grave and that he only found stones interred within. Small details, like two characters looking so alike that it is uncanny, also become central to several plot points and the climax itself.
A Tale of Two Cities shows humans at their best and their worst. Packed with dense 19th century language and compelling characters, this is not a book for the faint of heart. Dickens writes with conviction and a little bias toward his countrymen, but this does not detract from the emotional story that is so well presented in its pages. There is a reason that this novel is mentioned on so many “Must Read” lists; it is well worth the emotional and temporal investment to dive into this tale of the French Revolution and the lives of those swept up in it.
Verdict: 4 roundabout and satisfying connections out of 5
Recommended for: Fans of Charles Dickens, French Revolution enthusiasts, anyone interested in reading what comes after one of the most famous first sentences in Western literature, and you!
Not recommended for: Those who despise Charles Dickens, the French aristocracy, fans of guilt by association, Madame DeFarge, Sydney Carton, people who have a hard time pronouncing “gaol” as “jail,”or those who don’t like mentally translating 19th century English while reading.