Charles Dickens — A Tale of Two Cities

A wonderful fact to reflect upon, that every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other.

So reads one of the earliest quotable moments in one of Dickens’ two “historical” novels (i.e. taking place in the 1770s rather than the 1800s), A Tale of Two Cities. I’m not even going to bother repeating the opening and the closing lines, though, because I think they may be amongst the most recognizable quotes in English literature that aren’t Shakespearean in origin. Not that they aren’t awesome, of course, but they’re just very recognizable. And the other writing in A Tale of Two Cities is just as lovely, and under appreciated. For instance:

In the moonlight which is always sad, as the light of the sun itself is—as the light called human life is—at its coming and going.

Anyway, the actual novel. It is, as the title implies, a tale of two cities, set alternately in London and Paris during the time of the French revolution. Lucie Manette, the daughter of a former political prisoner, marries Charles Darnay, an emigre with secrets of his own. Sydney Carton is an alcoholic lawyer in love with Lucie, but resigned to loving her from afar and doing what he can to make her happy. All of this is set against the bloody backdrop of the rapidly escalating revolution.

It also features a truly chilling villain in Madame Defarge and her band of Jacques. Witness that implacable lady, inciting revolution:

“Then tell Wind and Fire to stop,” returned madame; “but don’t tell me.”

Truly elemental, is she not? Considering what a remorseless villain she is, she still has an equally chilling and sympathetic back story, a reason why she is the way she is. That doesn’t make her any less frightening, though, sewing her reckoning as she waits for blood and revenge.

The writing in A Tale of Two Cities does not have the customary “tone” of a usual Dickens novel which is why I found it at first rather hard to get into. It’s recognizably Dickens, and there are a few comic characters to soften the relentless blood that’s coming later in the novel, but it’s Dickens at his more strident and poetic than even in Bleak House, which featured the sardonic voice of the narrator. Here, Dickens, with his horror of the excesses of the revolutionaries, chooses to remain almost totally serious, sometimes overly so, in order to prove his points and drive them home. It’s a book full of feeling, but not so much for the characters themselves as the whole mess of a situation. It doesn’t quite work for me–even Carton’s sacrifice didn’t move me as much as I thought it would–and I can’t quite put my finger on why.


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