Sunday, December 9, 2012

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

****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.

Dickens Writes,

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. 


Harvee said...

Ooh, you gave away the surprise ending! Never mind, I read this book in high school and saw the movie. One of my favorite of Dickens. Glad you liked it.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Harvee - Thanks for the comment.

Though I try to avoid spoilers sometimes I cannot help myself :) At least warned everyone.

I actually never saw any of the film versions but I will have to catch one soon.

Caroline said...

Thanks for a great review. I think every Dickens novel is called by ssome people "his best". When I asked about people's favorites on my blog, there were at least 5 mentioned. The only one nobody loves much is Hard Times.
I really liked those quotes, especially the one about not knowing other people. For some reason I always thought Dickens was more plot driven but it is much more about characters, and settings. And ideas too.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Caroline - Though I I do not remember too much about it I read hard times and remember liking it.

I definitely agree that Dickens is more about plot and characters then philosophy. I have tendency to find the limited amount of philosophizing in a book and obsesses over it :)

Guy Savage said...

It's interesting how certain times can create circumstances in which people commit acts of amazing courage.

I've always been fond of this Dickens--although it isn't my favourite. That spot is reserved for Bleak House.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Guy - Indeed, time and circumstances can bring out the best, and of course worst in people. I think that Dickens portrayal of Carton is plausible as it could reflect a real person's reaction.

I really do need to read Bleak Hose. I seriously considered it for the month was not sure I had time to finish it in time as it is so long.

Violet said...

I didn't read your post because I hope to read the book one of these days and I don't want to know what happens in advance. :)

I've never managed to finish a Dickens novel. He is my bête noire of literature. He just goes on and on and on and his characters are so ridiculously quirky. I do hope to make peace with him one day. :)

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Violet - I totally get it about not reading the post. That is why I put the warning up. When possible I try not to put up spoilers but int this case I really neede to reveal how the plot played out.

Dickens does indeed fill his works with strangely fashioned characters. I actually find that his stories move faster then many other great writers.

Tom Cunliffe said...

I greatly admire your abilty to persevere with a book as complex as this one and to pull together as coherent and worthwhile post as this one. Dickens defeats me these days - the sheer quantity of words and characters is almost too much to be able to hold in your mind. Great review!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Tom - thanks for your kind words.

Though I have read a limited amount of Dickens, I think that this one was shorter and simpler then many of his other works.

JaneGS said...

I couldn't read the whole review because of the spoilers--I haven't yet read Tale of Two Cities, but I feel myself getting closer to diving in.

I love your summation, though.
"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."

I think this applies to every Dickens novel I've ever read--he's a fascinating writer. Not even close to being perfect, but brilliant nonetheless.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Jane - I guess my spoilers preventing a few from reading my entire post, but in the end it is good not to ruin things for folks.

Indeed I felt similar things about the limited number of Dickens works. I have not however read Bleak House which many say is his masterpiece.

Anonymous said...

It has been many, many years since I read this novel, and I remember the plot better than i remember any of the incidental details (it's usually the other way round with Dickens). It does strike me though that most of the mental pictures I have of the French Revolution derive from this novel.

As you say, not perhaps among his finest works, but an entertaining read nonetheless. With a plot like that, it couldn't really fail, could it?

vb said...

David copperfield was the first ever I read by dickens I love it so much that I went on to this one..but I guess I preferrd D.C better..Though both deal with totally different plot and circumstances , I love the way Dickens brings out the tough time and hardship bestowed by human upon each other.. great post as alwayss..

Anonymous said...

I'm curious to know how you found A Tale of Two Cities in relation to Hugo's Les Miserables - they both, after all, deal with revolution (although different ones), and they both deal with a love story set in the time of a revolution. The difference, of course, is that Hugo was an insider - and I can't make up my mind if that's an advantage or a disadvantage as far as it goes. Despite the sheer wealth of detail in Les Miserables, I found the ending in Dickens far more moving, and the story made a much greater impact upon me.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi VB - Thanks VB. I think that it is the majority but not exclusive opinopn that A tale of Two Cities is not Dickens's best work. I really need to read more Dickens to establish an informed opinion for myself.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Gautambhatio. Thanks for stopping and asking such a thought provoking question.

It has been awhile since I read Les Miserables so I may be a little vague and unable to fully support my comments on it.

I thought about Les Miserables while reading this book due to the parallels. I agree that A Tale of Two Cities seemed more moving. But at the same time Les Miserables seemed a more serious work. Perhaps the depth that I found in Les Miserables would lend itself to rereading would yield greater rewards. Kind of like comparing a well made cheeseburger to a gourmet dinner with strong and unfamiliar flavors. Initially, I might enjoy the cheeseburger more. I might need to experience the stronger flavors in the complex dinner several times in order to appreciate them to thier fullest extent.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Himdari - I have read a fair amount of non - fiction on the the French Revolution I found that Dicken's portrayal of the facts to be accurate.

Indeed, the plot was really engageing.

Maria Behar said...

Hey, Brian!

Oh, if only I had known about this sooner, I would have participated...well, hopefully, this challenge will take place again next year! I'll be keeping an eye out for it, since I am an ardent Dickens fan!!!!

As always, you have written a stellar review! I have to gently disagree with you, however. I do believe that this novel is a towering masterpiece. It's one of my all-time favorites!! Although it's a very depressing work, the ending leaves one (at least, it did me) with a shining example of the nobleness frequently to be found within the human heart. In spite of all the horrors of the French Revolution, as well as other revolutions throughout history, there are those beacons of goodness here and there, shining in the nearly overwhelming darkness.

I read this book many years ago, and should re-read it, although I know the ending will make me cry once more. Dickens truly plumbs the depths of the human spirit, while also touching the heart, without being too sentimental.

Thank you so much for such an illuminating review! I now have another New Year's resolution -- to read this book again this coming year!! (Perhaps for the 2013
"Dickens In December" challenge?)


Brian Joseph said...

Hi Maria and Happy New Years.

i will say that the ending was extreamly tear jerking to say the least, especially when details of what happened years latter were told. Carton really was an amazing character!

Unknown said...

Recently I've been reading a lot of Dickens, but I remember how much I hated Tale of Two Cities when I was a freshman in high school. I've often wondered if I should re-read it so that I could appreciate it better...but there are so many OTHER Dickens novels that I haven't read... :)

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Rachel - Always the problem of so much to read and so little time!

I think a lot of books that I like now would not have been appreciated when I was younger. If I had read this in my teens I think that I would have appreciated carton's sacrifice, but the contrast between his altruistic actions and what had transpired in his life before.

JaneGS said...

Now that I've finished Tale of Two Cities I could read your blog posting on it--I also think Carton to be a wonderful character, and appreciated your character sketch of him and the quotes from the book.

Next to Carton, Darney is wooden and hardly seems worthy of Lucie. I especially liked how Carton helped the girl at the end, and how she could see almost instantly that Carton was not Darney.

I actually like stories about troubled heroes--Tom Jones springs to mind--and it is to Lucie's credit that she can see the good in Carton, and especially little Lucie can as well. You can always trust the instincts of children and dogs! :)

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Jane - I agree that the character of Darney is indeed flat! I actually would much prefer to hang out with carton, even at his most depressed.

I actually have not yet read Tom Jones. I must get to it!