Tripp's Reviews > A Tale of Two Cities

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
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Dec 08, 11

bookshelves: omniscient, past-tense
Read from November 03 to December 03, 2011, read count: 1

I began reading this in tandem with Thomas Carlyle's The French Revolution and finished it far ahead of that other book--more on that when Carlyle's time comes round--heaven only knows when that'll be. Dickens's story, set against the grisly backdrop of the French Revolution, offers possibly the most famous combination of opening and closing lines in fiction, and I was delighted to find that Sydney Carton's final speech, the often quoted, "It is a far, far better thing that I do...," is not actually said by Carton--to the greater success of the ending.

I think this point gets missed; my Barnes & Noble edition makes this mistake in its back of the book Questions for Readers section: "Would the novel be better without Sydney Carton's sacrificial act and final speech?" Like poor Madame Roland, he is not given the option to speak! Dickens is clear about this, so it surprises me to find the mistake so prevalent. Here's how Dickens begins the final paragraphs:

"If he [Carton] had given an utterance to [his thoughts at the time of execution], and they were prophetic, they would have been these:" and what follows is Carton's famous "speech," which is no speech at all, only the omniscient narrator's privileged access to the doomed man's final thoughts. Much better than if Carton had been allowed to declaim and prophesy for a page!

Most of the characters are two dimensional, such as Charles Darnay and Lucie Manette, the happily-ever-after couple. Madame Defarge, of course, is the most memorable creation here, a personification of vengeance on par with the Furies of Greek myth. An attempt at rounding, or at least giving the reader a reason for her implacable desire to exterminate all of the Darnay line, comes late in the book, too late to give her dimension, but Dickens was after something different with her, I'm convinced, and succeeded in his goal. She is chilling.

And what of Sydney Carton? His clever substitution for Darnay in prison at the eleventh hour is meant as redemption for his wasted, alcoholic life, yet we don't have nearly enough of that life, or of his sudden love for Lucie, to understand, or believe, that he would sacrifice his himself to save Charles. It feels orchestrated. In fact, the plot, with its coincidences and neatly meshing gears, is one of the novel's strengths, though it comes at the expense of character.

Dickens is fair to the French Revolution, calling it out for its horrors and bloodthirstiness on the one hand, while indicting the aristocracy for creating the conditions that gave birth to the Terror. He does not seem encouraged, though, by humanity; one gets the impression he firmly believes that, had the mob and the aristocrats' positions been reversed, the outcome would have been no different, that the mob, given privilege for centuries, would have oppressed the people, and that the aristocrats, thus oppressed, would have eventually given birth to a Terror.

And somehow, in the midst of all this, the scene of Sydney comforting the little seamstress as they ride in a tumbril to the guillotine is incredibly powerful and poignant. Think of it: arms bound so you must be lifted out of the cart and set in line to wait your turn, seeing and hearing the guillotine at work in front of you, just waiting your turn. Dickens puts the reader in that tumbril, on that platform, sets Carton and the seamstress morally and spiritually apart from the howling mob that surrounds them:

"The two stand in a 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....She kisses his lips, he kisses hers; they solemnly bless each other. The spare hand does not tremble as he releases it; nothing worse than a sweet, bright constancy is in the patient face. She goes next before him--is gone."


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Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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Keith Great review, this another classic that I read long ago, truly enjoyed (if that's the right word) but never reflected on why it worked so well. This review helps a lot.


message 2: by Tripp (new) - added it

Tripp Yes, ToTC sweeps everything before it, somehow. I was glad Dickens didn't try to prettify the French Revolution; his dissection of mob mentality is precise and damning. And that scene in the tumbril is one of Dickens' most heart-wrenching, in spite of the scant attention given to Carton's back-story! If you do anything, re-read those three or so pages.


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