“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”
― Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
A classic, a very challenging one, but still a classic nonetheless. Charles Dickens sends us to France during the early days leading up to the French Revolution. I know some have tried to read and cannot get past the first 30 pages, but trust me it is worth it. Just power through and you will not regret it.
Charles Dickens once said that ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ was his best story. I agree. It is artfully written and introduces a cast of characters, extended across two nations and spanning varied social classes and political associations. He then manages to weave their stories and secrets together beautifully in a masterful way –many readers seem to agree with this. The ending of this novel wraps everything up magnificently with no loose ends and all the mysteries are solved. It is a beautiful story and read.
The novel is broken into three books. The first book was short and covers the time when Lucie’s long lost father is released from Bastille prison after 18 years and does not know who he is but manages to reunite himself with his long lost daughter. The second book is the longest of the three and covers a good few years leading up to the French Revolution. The third book and final book is just fantastic. You get to read and feel the poverty that has risen , as well as the danger for the aristocracy. The dreadful Madame La Guilotine is introduced which is just an image of horror for everyone. ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ is a brutal and insightful look at the French Revolution with all its heroes and villains and a clever twist at the end which will draw all the main characters together. It can be argued that it is one of the best novels on the French Revolution. It is a large work of imagination, giving a fictional account of the events and causes leading up to that dreadful summer of 1789.
You feel for many of the characters in ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ and each one is unique and different. Lucie Manette, the female protagonist, seems to connect every character together and inspire love from every direction. She is a likeable character and cannot help but sympathise with her. In a way, she is a heroine herself, at least she would be viewed as one back in 1859. I found Lucie engaging despite some people views about her. She was a strong character for the time and became the sole support for her poor father. Lucie Manette attracted two suitors who coincidentally looked quite alike; Charles Darnay , a French aristocratic who abandons his family name, and Sydney Carton, an English lawyer. Charles Darnay is a likeable character. I have to admit I was set against him because he was Sydney’s competition when it came to Lucie’s heart but in the end I did sympathise with him. Disgusted with his family’s dealings and the way they treated the poor in France, he leaves for England and takes his mother’s maiden name and changing it a bit. He is well- meaning towards the end, trying to do the right thing and go back to France at a time when it was better to stay away and save a fellow family servant/friend. He is thus arrested and imprisoned in the Bastille. He does not have a hoped-for heroic moment, but a moment of quiet dignity that is most moving for his humility.
As far as Doctor Manette, Lucie’s long lost father, goes he is first introduced in the first book of ‘A Tale of Two Cities’. He was a prisoner in the Bastille prison for 18 years and throughout the book he battles his way from madness under the gentle protection of Lucie. Doctor Manette is a character that you cannot help but sympathise with. His character is written wonderfully as a man whose understandable anger whilst in the Bastille prison comes back horrifically to haunt him and his new found peace. When the reader discovers the reason why Doctor Manette was imprisoned in the first place, you instantly empathize with him and want to seek revenge for him.
The villain of the story — Madame Defarge. A very surprising character. At the start of the book you just think she is the wife of Monsieur Defarge, the owner of a French wine shop. You always see her knitting quietly in the corner and you soon come to suspect that she knows more than it seems and that she will become a big part of the story. How right your assumption turns out to be. We soon find out that she is part of the revolution against the aristocracy and a very vengeful woman. The big revelation of who she really is, is revealed in the third book of ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ and all of a sudden everything clicks into place. Madame Defarge is seen as the antithesis of Lucie Manette. She is the villain of the story as already stated, consumed with revenge and in a way not even human towards the end of the book as she is consumed by her hatred. She is one of the characters that sticks to you after reading ‘A Tale of Two Cities’.
Before I begin to talk about Sydney Carton let me make a small mention of another character, that of the name Jarvis Lorry. Jarvis Lorry is a banker and a dear friend to the Manette family. Throughout the book, his love and concern for Doctor Manette is touching and his protectiveness over Lucie is just wonderful. He can be seen as a somewhat of a hero when Dickens puts him in charge of the carriage that will help an entire family escape from the guillotine.
Now as regards to Sydney Carton. Oh Sydney Carton! Safe to say that I fell in love with Sydney Carton immediately, and this book is so cruel for anyone who loves him as much as I do. Brilliant, bohemian and indifferent. He is the ultimate hero of the book with his selflessness at the end. Half way through the book he confesses his love to Lucie even though he knows it will not be returned. He tells her to forget their conversation for now and never to speak of it and that he will ever be in her service if he is ever needed. When Sydney tells Lucie that ‘there is a man who would give his life, to keep a life you love beside you” you know that you will break down in tears at the end of the book. Dickens is preparing you of what is about to happen in the next chapters. You have a feeling of what is coming. His genius, his agony, his selflessness and his ultimate noble sacrifice make his stand out from the rest of the characters. The ending is so heartbreaking and I don’t think I am recovered yet after reading this. If you have not read the book or do not know how it ends stop here as a major SPOILER will be discussed. Sydney’s final thoughts and vision of Paris is fantastic; ‘fair to be look upon, with not a trace of this day’s disfigurement‘. His vision of Lucie with Charles now safe and would live happily and safe is heartbreaking and emotional. He knows that Lucie would remember that promise he made her back when he first confessed his love to her and thank him for what he is about to do. His sacrifice to save Lucie Manette’s love is just perfect. I believe that the ending is what makes the book. As sad as the ending is- trust me, it is devastating- it is a perfect ending to a book with the infamous words from Sydney Carton as well as one of the most well know phrases today. By the time I finished the book, I was in tears and did not recover for a good few hours.
A book full of love, sacrifice, and revenge. A story well written and worth a read. As I said at the beginning of this post, I know it can be slow to start with but it is worth reading all the way through. I know that Dickens is not for everyone; however, I would say to have a go and see what you think. He might surprise you as a writer. The unjust imprisonment of Charles Darnay makes up for the ironic justice dealt out to Madame Defarge in the end. And of course, Sydney Carton is one of the most beautiful characters in all literature I find and will always have a place in my heart.
“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.”
― Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
— K.J. Koukas