A-E, Dickens, Charles, Historical Fiction, Victorian

Review of A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

I read A Tale of Two Cities for the read-a-long hosted by Laura@ Reading in Bed.

What was it about?

“Recalled to Life.” That is Jarvis Lorry’s response to his colleague Jerry Cruncher of Tellson’s Bank and Company. Confused, Jerry sets off to deliver the strange message. Shortly afterward,  Mr. Lorry meets a young woman named Lucie Manette at the Royal George Hotel. She has been summoned to Saint Antoine, Paris by two French shopkeepers. Her father Doctor Manette, formerly a French prisoner, has been found alive, sheltered in the Defarge’s wine shop. It is 1775.

Five years later in London, a young Frenchman named Charles Darnay is tried for treason. He has been accused of spying on the English and relaying information back to King Louis XVI. Lucie Manette is in the courtroom, and Sydney Carton makes note of her reactions; she is very much troubled by the plight of the prisoner.  In the course of the trial, Sydney passes a note to the defense attorney and his colleague Mr. Stryver. After much deliberation, the jury determines that there is not enough proof that Charles Darnay has been spying on the English, and he is exonerated of all charges. But revolution is in the air. In less than a decade, aristocratic heads will roll.

A Tale of Two Cities is more than a story about two cities. It is also a story about two families. These families may both be French, but they belong to very different social strata. Aristocrats have been living comfortably for centuries at the expense of the peasants, but mobs are popping up all over France that aim to flip the social hierarchy. Led by women, these mobs go through the streets of France, arresting and beheading any and all aristocrats they find. Under the watch of the revolutionary women, no aristocrat, no matter his/her innocence, can escape from Lady Guillotine.

What did I think of it?

Although this was a re-read for me, I was still surprised by the density of this short novel. The first five chapters were the hardest to read; the characters were not fully fleshed out and the use of too many pronouns made it very hard to understand who was speaking. However, it became easier as I went along.

What a difference three decades can make! Early this year I reviewed The Old Curiosity Shop (1841). It was one of Dickens’ earliest works, and it left much to be desired; the characters were more like caricatures and the plot was virtually non-existent. But A Tale of Two Cities, written 28 years later, had a very well-developed plot, and the characters were a lot more complex and interesting than in The Old Curiosity Shop. The revolutionary women were not portrayed as purely evil. Dickens described their state of mind in such detail that the women were arguably the most interesting characters in the story. The only flat character was Lucie Manette; she was nothing more than a sweet, perfect angel. Her character irritated me because I wanted to understand her true feelings. I wanted her to be powerful and intelligent like Madame Defarge or even Miss Pross (Lucie’s servant). Still, A Tale of Two Cities was a breath of fresh air in comparison to The Old Curiosity Shop. The story was considerably shorter, but no part of the plot was compromised. The start of the novel made a lot of sense after I finished the book. I especially loved how each character mentioned was connected in some important way to the other characters and to the plot. I definitely consider A Tale of Two Cities a classic.

Favorite Quote: “A wonderful fact to reflect upon, that every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other. A solemn consideration, when I enter a great city by night, that every one of those darkly clustered houses encloses its own secret; that every room in every one of them encloses its own secret; that every beating heart in the hundreds of thousands of breasts there, is, in some of its imaginings, a secret to the heart nearest it!”


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