I am not sure what drew me to pick up this classic that I last read in ninth grade! I could remember the bare bones of the plot but not much else, so the characters Dickens creates drew me in immediately.
I originally thought that it would be redundant to try to review such a well-known classic, as I would have little to add to what most reviewers have already said. (After all, isn’t everyone familiar with this story?) However I am going to take a stab at it.
Alternating between London and Paris, the Manette family and the Defarge family are working out their own personal history during the turbulent and tragic period of the French Revolution. Dickens writes with sentiment and feeling and doesn’t spare the reader the awful horror of the peasants’ revolt and the disdain and lack of any human sympathy from the aristocratic class. Is there anywhere in literature that illustrates more clearly the theme of class division? and yet this novel does not delve too deeply into human personality or character; rather Dickens lets the plot take over and give the reader the sense of who each person is through their actions.
And let’s talk about character, one of Charles Dickens’ strengths. Who (in literature) can top Lucie Manette’s beauty, humility, and abiding parental love and solicitude? who could predict Madame Defarge’s simple knitting (a harmless pastime?) is but a tool to foreshadow and portray her consuming need for revenge? Lucie’s father seems to heal (through the passage of years and his daughter’s solicitude) from his long imprisonment without harboring bitterness towards those responsible. Dickens contrasts these gentle Englishfolk with the harsh conditions of the peasant class in France and their responses to personal tragedy.
And then of course, there is Sydney Carton. An enigma at first, seemingly a lost cause, purposeless and content to pass his life on earth between bouts of drunkenness and brilliance in the courtroom. There is a lot here hidden in Carton’s character and to be discovered at the culmination of the plot.
“I fear you are not well, Mr. Carton!”
“No. But the life I lead, Miss Manette, is not conducive to health. What is to be expected of, or by, such profligates?
“Is it not – forgive me; I have begun the question on my lips – a pity to live no better life?”
“God knows it is a shame!”
“Then why not change it?
Looking gently at him again, she was surprised and saddened to see that there were tears in his eyes. There were tears in his voice too, as he answered: “It is too late for that. I shall never be better than I am. I shall sink lower, and be worse.”
But *is* Sydney Carton’s fate set in stone? is there no room for personal choice and free will? Can he not change if he determines to do so? (“Oh wretched man that I am, who shall deliver me from this body of death?”)
And yet when Lucie Manette’s husband is imprisoned the reader will find that Sydney Carton does have a role to play that ultimately redeems everything that has gone before.
I can’t say I enjoyed reading about the atrocities and hardships (and Dickens actually simplifies much of the causes behind this period in history), but I did appreciate his attempts to write a story illustrating how goodness in the end can triumph over the evil in the human heart that in this story is exposed in vengeance, rampant bloodshed and merciless judgment. Known so well for his attempts at reform, if Dickens wanted to advocate true justice and mercy, he certainly does it in “A Tale of Two Cities”.