Whenever I think about A Tale of Two Cities, I will always remember that eloquent, haunting ending. I haven’t read a lot of books so I am not sure how much weight this statement carries, but I will say it anyway: that was the most powerful ending that I’ve ever read in all my years of being a reader.
A Tale of Two Cities has been one of those classics that I’ve long wanted to read. When I was a child, I had a bunch of those mass market paperback-sized illustrated classics for children, with hardback covers, colorful illustrations, and huge typesets, but with no authors. I remember distinctly that I had a copy of A Tale of Two Cities along with Pinocchio, Little Women, and The Jungle Book. What I couldn’t recall, however, is if I had actually read A Tale of Two Cities because unlike the other three, I couldn’t remember the story. I’m more inclined to think that I haven’t, because if I did, I think I’d remember the names of the characters, at the least.
But it doesn’t matter now because I’ve finally read A Tale of Two Cities – the novel in its original, serialized version – and totally, completely loved it.
This classic Dickens novel is set in, well, two cities: London and Paris. It begins with a journey from London, as young Frenchwoman Lucie Manette travels to Paris to be reunited with her father, Doctor Manette, a former Bastille prisoner now in the twilight of his years. With the help of a trustworthy businessman, Mr Lorry, the Manettes travel back to London to start life anew. There, their lives get intertwined with those of two men: Charles Darnay, an exiled French gentleman, and Sydney Carton, an English lawyer who has alcoholic tendencies. Both men fall in love with Lucie, and while Lucie makes her choice easily, a well-kept secret complicates things. This secret takes Charles, Lucie, and Sydney back to Paris – to the French spies, to La Guillotine, the Reign of Terror, and to their fates.
The first sentence – well, first paragraph, really – was poetic and stirring. It made me keep on reading.
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.
It was paradoxical and symbolic of the themes extant in the novel, as I would eventually realize, and when I read it again after finishing the book, it held more meaning for me than it did when I first read it.
But reading this tome was no walk in the park for me. Dickensian prose is a challenge to read, especially for neophytes, and demands total dedication. I was initiated into Dickensian prose with A Christmas Carol some years back, and I struggled back then, as I did now. But it was a worthwhile exercise in both instances, and I know that I will read more Dickens in the future.
Despite the occasional difficulties I encountered in the prose, I ended up loving A Tale of Two Cities. In hindsight, I don’t think the novel would have been as effective or as powerful were it not for the distinct tone that Dickens gave it. The courtroom scenes were some of my favorites (remember that Sydney Carton is a lawyer) because of the flair and the drama; the scene where wine was described as spilling onto a Paris street and into the mouths of a hungry mob completely moved me. The quiet moments that Lucie and Doctor Manette spent together, as well as those spent between the old man and his daughter’s suitors, imploring his blessing and sharing confidences, tugged at my heart. And of course, the powerful ending that until now makes me shiver whenever I think of it. These scenes, and the novel in its entirety, would not have had the same heartfelt and pervasive effect had it not been for the grandiose and florid prose.
Try to hold me in your mind, at some quiet times, as ardent and sincere in this one thing... when you see your own bright beauty springing up anew at your feet, think now and then that there is a man who would give his life, to keep a life you love beside you!
I’ve read somewhere (or did I hear someone say?) that one of Dickens’s strengths is to create well-fleshed out characters, and I have to agree. Every one of the characters – from old, emotionally-scarred Doctor Manette to the utterly despicable Madame Defarge – were perfectly and fully portrayed that I cannot help but sympathize, fall in love with, or loathe them. My favorite character would have to be Sydney Carton, not just because he’s a lawyer but also because he represents a great many things that a truly honorable man ought to be.
It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.
In sum, all the difficulties that one may encounter while reading this novel will, in the end, be overshadowed by the satisfaction derived from it. It is all worthwhile.
Book Details: Kindle edition