****My commentary contains major spoilers. I found it impossible to convey the thoughts that I wanted to commutate here without giving a lot away.*****
Thanks to Caroline at Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Delia at Postcards from Asia for hosting Dickens in December.
Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities seems to engender very divergent reactions from commentators, some of whom laud this novel as the best of books while others excoriate it as the worst of books. My take is that while this is not, as some contend, one of history’s all time greatest novels, it is a very enjoyable read that contains a fair share if interesting and meaningful characters and ideas.
As Dickens often does, major plot details are often revealed out of order as characters tell stories of events that occurred long ago, old letters are read, and surprising revelations abound.
In 1775, after years of imprisonment, Dr. Alexandre Manette is released from the Bastille a psychological wreck. Brought to England and nursed back to mental health by his daughter Lucie Manette and his banker Jarvis Lorry, Manette eventually regains his sanity. Subsequently Manette and Lucie establish a happy and comfortable life in London. Enter Charles Darnay, who when we meet him is on trial, falsely accused of being a spy. Darnay is acquitted with the help of Lucie and attorney Sydney Carton, an otherwise drunken and depressed self – professed failure who physically resembles Darnay.
Carton falls in love with Lucie. When he professes his feelings in a moment of sobriety, strength and dignity he is gently rejected, at which time he acknowledges that his life will continue down the road of ruin.
Instead Lucie and Darney fall in love, marry and have a daughter. Unbeknownst to Lucie, her husband is really Charles St. Evrémonde, a French aristocrat who has renounced his nobility due to his revulsion towards the monstrous injustice and oppression meted out upon the French lower classes by his family and his class. Furthermore, it turns out that Darnay’s family was responsible for Manette’s imprisonment.
When the French revolution breaks out Darnay returns to France to help rescue his business agent from the guillotine. The former nobleman and is quickly arrested himself and faces execution as he is a member of hated aristocracy. Lucie, Manette, Lorry, Darnay and several others arrive in Paris to help extricate Darnay. Manette, a survivor of a long hard ordeal in the Bastille, has enormous credibility and influence within the revolution, but still struggles over a fifteen - month period to get have his son in law released.
Our protagonists are opposed by Madame Thérèse Defarge, who is a bloodthirsty French peasant woman bent upon seeing Darney executed. It turns out that Madame Defarge’s family members were tortured, raped and murdered by Darnay’s father and uncle. Madame Defarge eventually threatens to send all of the principle protagonists to their deaths. On the eve of Darnay’s slated execution Manette succumbs to the pressure and reverts back into a state of mental incoherence.
When all seems lost, in a supreme act of self – sacrifice, Carton switches places with an unconscious Darnay, engineers the escape of all the principle characters, and goes to his death on the guillotine in place of Darnay.
Dickens devotes much effort on first showing the terrible brutality of the pre -revolution French power structure and then in turn the equally terrible brutality of the revolution itself. Tales of physical and sexual abuse, starvation, mass murder, etc. abound throughout the narrative. His analysis of the revolution is relatively simple and he reiterates it several times. He portrays the French monarchy, aristocracy and church as horrendously oppressive and unjust. This viciousness and corruption created a reservoir of hatred and thirst for vengeance among the French peasantry. The hatred exploded into a chaotic bloodbath of executions, vengeance and sadism by the peasantry once it arose.
“Along the Paris streets, the death-carts rumble, hollow and harsh. Six tumbrils carry the day's wine to La Guillotine. All the devouring and insatiate Monsters imagined since imagination could record itself, are fused in the one realisation, Guillotine. And yet there is not in France, with its rich variety of soil and climate, a blade, a leaf, a root, a sprig, a peppercorn, which will grow to maturity under conditions more certain than those that have produced this horror. Crush humanity out of shape once more, under similar hammers, and it will twist itself into the same tortured forms. Sow the same seed of rapacious license and oppression over again, and it will surely yield the same fruit according to its kind. “
There is a lot more going on in this book in terms of characters, themes and philosophy then I can possibly get my arms around in a single post. As I like to do I will instead focus of one interesting aspect of this work; that is the character of Carton. Tales of burned - out failures rising to the occasion in a crises seem to be somewhat common in books and movies these days, but Carton may be the archetype of all this.
Dickens explains that Carton did not always have such bleak prospects,
“he had been famous among his earliest competitors as a youth of great promise”
But the author paints a picture of a man that low self - esteem and alcohol have nearly ruined.
At one point Carton declares,
“I am like one who died young. All my life might have been."
When he reveals his feelings for Lucie this usually pitiable character shows an unusual composure and there is a hint that he might be saved. Upon his rejection he slides back into drink and despair however.
A key point here is that under normal circumstances Carton is unable to pull himself together and live a life if dignity. Only when the world around him turns into the hellish chaos of the height of the French Revolution, when he faced by barbarity and madness triumphant, does this man find himself and begin to behave in a super - virtuous manor. At this point he is motivated by his love for Lucie and the positive attributes that she brings out in him, as well as Christian virtues instilled in his youth. He sees his sacrifice as a tradeoff between his own unworthy existence and the very worthy existence and happiness of others. One gets the sense that if the world had not turned into a nightmare of death and despair, that Carton could not have risen to the spiritual heights that he attains. Strangely, in a way, abominable evil has does Carton a favor, as it provides him with an epiphany that allows him to save his soul.
A resurrection motif pops up all over this novel (a special note here. I usually attempt to keep my commentary all - original. I try not to read criticism about a work until after I write about it. In this case I was tipped off to the resurrection theme from several sources included the Wikipedia article on the book.) Clearly the concept of virtuous good “returning from the dead” in response to evil is reflected in Carton’s transformation.
Earlier in the novel Dickens ruminates at several points, that to some degree all people are unknowable and isolated from each other. One example,
“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!”
As he goes to die, Carton makes a connection with a young woman who also is condemned to be executed. At this moment it seems that Carton and the girl, due to his spiritual elevation, is able to transcend the human estrangement,
“The two stand in the fast-thinning throng of victims, but they speak as if they were alone. Eye to eye, voice to voice, hand to hand, heart to heart, these two children of the Universal Mother, else so wide apart and differing, have come together on the dark highway, to repair home together, and to rest in her bosom.”
Carton is a very, very interesting man! In him Dickens has crafted such a dynamic and thought proving persona.
This novel is at times flawed, some scenes lack credibility, sometimes the characters are portrayed too simplistically, Dickens’s take on politics and sociology is also without a lot of nuance. On the other hand there is a lot more really good stuff here then I touched upon above.
Dickens fans as well as those who enjoy the classics should give this read. While I do not esteem this novel as highly as some others do, it is an entertaining read and certainly worthwhile. Though it has its weaknesses, this classic has a lot to recommend it.