A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens [A Review]

A Tale of Two Cities is one of the most widely read novels in history, yet it has a number of qualities at odds with that. It is picaresque and disjointed; it is a ‘tale’ but a long one; it is historical fiction but avoids a lot of the history and, given its source material, runs several risks of unoriginality. But, in the hands of a master, it becomes a classic.

Cover image of A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

After 18 years imprisoned in the Bastille, the infamous Paris fortress converted to a prison, Alexandre Manette, a former physician, has been released. The news is shocking to his adult daughter, Lucie, who had long thought him dead. When she is taken to him, she finds him much changed. He is being cared for by a former servant, Defarge, who now owns a wine shop in Paris. The long imprisonment has taken a heavy toll on Manette and the sudden change is especially frightening to him. Confused and afraid, he recognises none of the friendly faces around him and finds comfort only in obsessively pursuing his prison occupation of making shoes.

We next see the Manettes five years later, in London, where they are witnesses in the trial of Charles Darnay, a Frenchman who is accused of providing intelligence of British troops to the French during the recent American Revolution. The Manettes happened to be travelling with Darnay on one of his frequent trips between England and France and can therefore verify some of his movements. Darnay, however, is acquitted because a key witness admits he can’t tell Darnay apart from another man in court – Sydney Carton – whose resemblance is strikingly alike to Darnay’s and who happens to be one Darnay’s counsellors in his defence.

After the trial Darnay and his lawyers, Carton and Mr Stryver, all stay close to the Manettes, in no small part due to the three men all being drawn to Lucie’s beauty. Carton, a heavy drinker and idler, self-pitying and lacking ambition, knows he has no prospects with Lucie, but nevertheless vows to serve her. It is Darnay who wins Lucie’s hand but, before he marries her, he confesses to her father that ‘Darnay’ is not his real name – it is St Evrémonde. Darnay changed his name to renounce his aristocratic heritage. The revelation causes Dr Manette considerable anxiety – the Evrémonde’s were responsible for Manette’s long imprisonment. Further, anti-aristocratic feeling is swelling in France and Darnay’s despised father, the Marquis St Evrémonde, has just been murdered.

‘Repression is the only lasting philosophy. The dark deference of fear and slavery, my friend,’ observed the Marquis, ‘will keep the dogs obedient to the whip, as long as this roof,’ looking up to it, ‘shuts out the sky.’

While events in France become more troubling, the family and their friends settle into a comfortable life in London. Until Darnay receives a plea from a friend in France, imprisoned by revolutionaries, begging for help. Despite the considerable risk to himself, Darnay is unwilling to avoid doing what he can. He and his family will leave the security of London and dare the blood-stained streets of Paris.

A Tale of Two Cities begins with one of the most famous openings in all of literature:

It was the best of times, it was the worst 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 was not my first time reading A Tale of Two Cities. It is a book that, while not one of my favourites, is one that I flagged as deserving another read to see if I liked it better second time around.

Among the strengths to recommend it, there is no denying that Dickens knows how to write a great scene. In a general sense, he creates a tone for the reader to feel in the world he is creating for them, such as when he describes the poverty and hunger in France, with the tools and weapons lying sharp and ready.

The mill which had worked them down, was the mill that grinds young people old; the children had ancient faces and grave voices; and upon them, and upon the grown faces, and ploughed into every furrow of age and coming up afresh, was the sign, Hunger. It was prevalent everywhere. Hunger was pushed out of the tall houses, in the wretched clothing that hung upon poles and lines; Hunger was patched into them with straw and rag and wood and paper; Hunger was repeated in every fragment of the small modicum of firewood that the man sawed off; hunger stared down from the smokeless chimneys, and stared up from the filthy street that had no offal, among its refuse, of anything to eat. Hunger was the inscription on the baker’s shelves, written in every small loaf of his scanty stock of bad bread; at the sausage-shop, in every dead-dog preparation that was offered for sale. Hunger rattled its dry bones among the roasted chestnuts in the turned cylinder; Hunger was shred into atomies of every farthing porringer of husky chips of potato, fried with some reluctant oil.

Dickens always has a way of arming his words with drama and tension. He then deliberately concentrates his ability to give certain chapters and moments in the story great power. The chapter where Lucy is reunited with her father shortly after his emancipation from the Bastille (The Shoemaker, Book 1 Chapter 6), is one of the most memorable scenes in all of my reading. The only other passage I can compare it to is from another Dickens novel – when we first meet Miss Havisham early in Great Expectations.

Reading A Tale of Two Cities again made me feel that it is a novel of two halves. We often think of the French Revolution as being a sudden explosion of violence and terror but five years span the Storming of the Bastille to the end of the Reign of Terror and A Tale of Two Cities begins 14 years before the Bastille. The first half of the novel, set mostly in London, therefore, covers a large block of time, it is somewhat disjointed and jumps ahead several years at a time. The second half, set mostly in France during the Terror, flows continuously and has all the momentum and urgency you would expect. Does the drama and tension of the second half make up for the slow build up of the first? Maybe it does just enough.

All this, though, is what Dickens intended. He wanted A Tale of Two Cities to be picaresque. Hence, the jumpy timeline; the effort put in to make key scenes powerful; the vignettes outside the main story and even a certain vagueness in the text to avoid being caught by historical specifics.

A Tale of Two Cities also feels like a story that stakes a lot on the ending. One senses Dickens came up with the ending first and then crafted a story to make it plausible and meaningful. Reading it again, I could not help but wonder how a modern writer would do it differently – perhaps beginning closer to the end and breaking up the narrative with passages of backstory; to allow better pacing, dissolve the leaps in time and spread the tension throughout? I say Dickens ‘came up with’ the ending but the fact is that the ending, even in a French Revolution setting, is not original to A Tale of Two Cities – it had been done before. To write A Tale of Two Cities long after the events also required Dickens to do a large amount of research. He certainly set himself a difficult project in pulling this story off.

Did he succeed? Again, I think he does just enough. The research Dickens undertook, not just into the French Revolution but for much else besides, such as prisoner psychopathy, was extensive and the novel benefits from it. It is true that some historical errors are present in the novel but that does not take much away from the story. The psychology of the characters can also seem a little cliché but I think this is due to the passage of time whereby most readers today are used to more psychological complexity in fictional characters. It is an aspect of fiction that has evolved a lot since Dickens’ time.

‘You see,’ said Doctor Manette, turning to him after an uneasy pause, ‘it is very hard to explain, consistently, the innermost workings of this poor man’s mind. He once yearned so frightfully for that occupation, and it was so welcome when it came, no doubt it relieved his pain so much by substituting the perplexity of the fingers for the perplexity of the brain, and by substituting, as he became more practised, the ingenuity of the hands for the ingenuity of the mental torture; that he has never been able to bear the thought of putting it quite out of his reach. Even now, when, I believe, he is more hopeful of himself than he has ever been, and even speaks of himself with a kind of confidence, the idea that he might need that old employment, and not find it, gives him a sudden sense of terror, like that which one may fancy strikes to the heart of a lost child.’

The character of Sydney Carton exemplifies these threads. In the first half of the novel, once the reader is introduced to him, Dickens seems to put in a lot of heavy lifting for him. A lot of effort is made to make him psychologically known to us and it feels somewhat forced, especially if you already know the story. In the second half of the novel, he’s a far more likable, respectable and understandable; the writing begins to feel more clever than contrived and you wonder if all the early effort was really necessary.

Waste forces within him, and a desert all around, this man stood still on his way across a silent terrace, and saw for a moment, lying in the wilderness before him, a mirage of honourable ambition, self-denial, and perseverance. In the fair city of this vision, there were airy galleries from which the loves and graces looked upon him, gardens in which the fruits of life hung ripening, waters of Hope that sparkled in his sight. A moment, and it was gone. Climbing to a high chamber in a well of houses, he threw himself down in his clothes on a neglected bed, and its pillow was wet with wasted tears.

A Tale of Two Cities has possibly sold more copies than any other novel in history. It has therefore been read and reread, analysed and dissected more than most. When it comes to the themes in the novel, I probably have little to add to the already existing plethora. A significant theme of the novel is of resurrection/rebirth and second chances – from Manette’s release from prison, Carton finding purpose in his life, amongst other examples. But I would like to examine another theme that struck me particularly on this second reading.

The novel, obviously, contrasts extremes and showcases extremists. I say ‘obviously’ because it is emblematic in the title. Though, I think London and Paris of the era are not directly compared as often or as comprehensively as the title might imply. The comparison is mostly indirect and symbolic, such as the application of the rule of law despite prejudices in Darnay’s London acquittal in contrast with the excesses of the Terror. Elsewhere, we see the contrast between the characters of Darnay and Carton who look alike but don’t have much else in common or between characters for whom violence and hate come easily and those who can not bear to conceive of it. But we also see that, in an era where extremist views hold power and wield the threat of violence, those who do not view the world in black and white terms, but appreciate its complexity and nuances, find themselves in a difficult position.

Dr Manette has every reason to hate Darnay for having his life ruined by Darnay’s family. But Manette’s feelings are complicated by his affection for his daughter, his want for her happiness and by recognising Darnay as an individual distinct from his family – a truth that contradicts the revolutionary feeling in France where people are guilty by association; being judged and killed not for their deeds but for their relations. Similarly, Manette’s former servant, Defarge, is torn between his loyalty for his former master and his revolutionary feelings which urge him to destroy Manette’s new family.

‘I entreat you to observe that I have come here voluntarily, in response to that written appeal of a fellow-citizen which lies before you. I have come here to clear him and to clear myself. I demand no more than the opportunity to do so without delay. Is it not my right?’

‘Emigrants have no rights, Evrémonde,’ was the stolid reply. […] ‘My name is Defarge, and I keep a wine-shop in the Quarter Saint Antoine. Possibly you have heard of me.’

‘My wife came to your house to reclaim her father? Yes!’

The word ‘wife’ seemed to serve as a gloomy remined to Citizen Defarge, to say with sudden impatience, ‘In the name of that sharp female newly born and called La Guillotine, why did you come to France?’

‘You heard me say why, a minute ago. Do you not believe it is the truth?’

‘A bad truth for you,’ said Defarge, speaking with knitted brows, and looking straight before him.

The edition of A Tale of Two Cities I read was a Penguin Classics edition that includes an Introduction and Notes by Richard Maxwell, then of Yale University. The Introduction contains several interesting ideas about the novel including Dickens’ interest in the French Revolution and the question of oppression justifying or causing violent uprising; the Bastille legend and its influence on Gothic and historical romance novels; an interpretation of the novel around Manette, Darnay and Carton’s different relationships to Lucie and the novel’s influence, for example on Hugo’s Les Misérables which was published a few years after A Tale of Two Cities.

Another advantage of this Penguin Classics edition is an appendix which covers Dickens’ source material for the French Revolution, life in Paris of the time, Bastille lore and real-life events and people which were inspirations for characters and events in the novel. One annoyance was that the explanatory notes contained spoilers which, in my opinion, ought to be avoided. I can understand spoilers in Introductions, which is why I avoid reading them until after I’ve read the novel, but they should not be in the notes which are there to aid uninitiated readers.

When I posted my 2020 Reading List I said that I was unsure if I would reread A Tale of Two Cities. The purpose of my rereading books is to experience some of my favourites again and to give non-favourites a second chance. I was unsure whether A Tale of Two Cities deserved a second chance. But I actually underwent an appraisal of the books I have read and which made it clear that it did – I did enjoy and admire it the first time around, it was worth seeing if I would like it more a second time as I have for some others. It didn’t quite achieve that – I still enjoy and admire it and would recommend it, I just wouldn’t call it a ‘favourite’. I don’t regret making the time to reread it either. It is, after all, a story about second chances.

2 comments

  1. I love most of Dickens’ books especially his late great trio. I can never decide whether ”Bleak House”, ”Little Dorrit” or ”Our Mutual Friend” would be my desert island book. However I’ve always had problems with his two historical novels ”A Tale of Two Cities” and ‘Barnaby Rudge”. Do you know Noah Baumbach’s film ”The Squid and the Whale”? Jeff Daniels plays an embittered, overbearing and rather contemptible character, but I warmed to him somewhat when he said that his son should be studying ”David Copperfield” or ”Great Expectations” at school rather than ”A Tale of Two Cities”, which he summed up as ”minor Dickens”.

    Liked by 3 people

    • It sounds a bit harsh, but I think once I read more Dickens I’m going to agree and say A Tale is a minor Dickens. So far I’ve only read A Tale of Two Cities, Oliver Twist and Great Expectations, but I am eager to get to David Copperfield and Bleak House.

      Liked by 1 person

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