Author: Charles Dickens
Publisher: Penguin Classics
Publish Date: 1859
Genres: Classics, Fiction
‘Liberty, equality, fraternity, or death; — the last, much the easiest to bestow, O Guillotine!’
After eighteen years as a political prisoner in the Bastille, the ageing Doctor Manette is finally released and reunited with his daughter in England. There the lives of two very different men, Charles Darnay, an exiled French aristocrat, and Sydney Carton, a disreputable but brilliant English lawyer, become enmeshed through their love for Lucie Manette. From the tranquil roads of London, they are drawn against their will to the vengeful, bloodstained streets of Paris at the height of the Reign of Terror, and they soon fall under the lethal shadow of La Guillotine.
Dickens is one of those daunting authors that immediately causes students to cringe when it appears on their English class syllabus. As my first Dickens novel, I’m ashamed to say that A Tale of Two Cities initially evoked a fairly comparable reaction from me. While I was mildly miserable when attempting to read the novel over the course of a single weekend (which just so happened to coincide with prom), in retrospect, I’m surprised by how quickly I fell in love with the plot, characters, and most astonishingly, the writing style.
Dickens’ writing is certainly not for the faint of heart – he routinely embarks on elaborate, seemingly unrelated dissertations to the topic at hand which become important 300 pages later. His sentences, while grammatically correct, are…lengthy and detail laden. He’s also a huge fan of antithesis, hence the seemingly contradiction-filled most famous and readily recognizable lines from the novel:
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.
My favorite component of the novel was the cleverly-crafted characters who each sported their own intricate backstories. In my delirious state while reading, I was nearly giddy with excitement when I discovered Dickens’ use of aptronyms, or character names which reflect their individual personalities. Let’s take Jerry Cruncher, for example, who spends his evenings illegally digging up dead bodies from the graveyard and selling them to medical professionals. Or Jarvis Lorry, whose employment requires him to travel routinely between England and France, as his last name suggests (slang for British transportation). Okay, I’m still not entirely over the character names. Furthermore, Dickens wrote in varying dialects to reflect each character’s background and education, adding yet another dimension to his already complex characters.
I found both the plot and the integration of French history to be fascinating, which was also a large contributing factor in my overall enjoyment of the book. I loved its historical accuracy and inclusion of events such as the storming of the Bastille, as well as truly captivating the fear and sense of community of the French citizens. The plot itself was action-packed and had more than its fair share of heart-wrenching twists and turns. Dickens incorporated a tragic romance and strained familial relationships into the already complex, tumultuous environment of the French Revolution.
While the beginning of the novel was a bit slow and I was initially bogged down by the dense writing, I came to appreciate the multi-faceted components of the book and readily fell in love with each and every one of the characters. My emotional investment in the story led to quite a few ups and downs, which I wouldn’t recommend over the course of about 36 hours. Overall, A Tale of Two Cities is one of my favorite classics to date, and I’m looking forward to rereading it sometime in the near future!