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A Tale of Two Cities
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Tristram Shandy Dear Pickwickians,

It is always an intellectual adventure to re-read Dickens's novels with you, but, up to now, reading A Tale of Two Cities in this illustrous circle has given me my most overwhelming light bulb moment. It was the novel I had read only once up to now and that was some 25 years ago when I was still a promising youth (and not a prevaricating middle-aged man), and I was simply not ready for it then, I think. I remembered it as much less intriguing than the other novels because I missed the humour and the many subplots that make Dickens's novels such a mindblowing enterprise. Now, however, I fully realize its greatness, and I am asking myself why I did not glimpse the humour connected with Miss Pross and Jerry Cruncher back then.

Seeing the novel as a whole, I am particularly intrigued with the question what to make of Sydney Carton's sacrifice of himself. Is it realistic, and if so, is it an act of true altruism?

Here are my two pence about this, and I'd like to know what you think of this question. Harsh as it sounds, I think that Sydney Carton encountered his death not so much for any other person as for himself. We learn that he might have been a man of great capacities who could have had a bright future before him but through lack of stamina, diligence and patience (virtues that Dickens himself had to a great extent, otherwise he would not have become such a successful writer) he gambled all his advantages away. Yet, at the same time, his cynicism is not so much a comfortable attitude towards life but a mechanism with which he makes things more bearable to him. And when he finally meets Lucie, even this mechanism no longer promises to carry him through into his old age. He wants to be part of Lucie's life, and it is clear to him that her heart belongs to Darnay. Unlike many real-life people, Lucie would not take one for the other but remain true to her first and only love. In reality, and to a certain extent also in Thomas Hardy, people will find time a great cure to their losses and learn to life with the second, or even the third best - but Lucie is no real-life character, and so she won't.

So what is the only way for Sydney Carton to secure himself a lasting place in Lucie's life? Saving her husband. I think it is quite obvious that he does not do this for the sake of the person he saves from the guillotine, because he does not really like Darnay. He does it for the sake of making Lucie happy - but also for the sake of knowing that she knows it was he, Syd Carton, who did it.

He knows that all the members of the Darnay family will think of him as their saviour and benefactor, and that they will even name their next son after him. Peter already said that the first little son simply had to die in the story for otherwise this would not have been possible - and that's probably also why we were not allowed to see this little child as an individual in his own right. But Dickens carries it even farther by making it clear in the final passages that Sydney is going to be revered not only by the children but also the children's children of the Darnays. So, finally his life made sense after all, and he transcended his own mortality. People usually live on in their children, and as long as somebody remembers you, you are not really dead, and so memories will normally last for roughly two more generations after an individual's death - provided this individual had children.

Syd did not have any children himself, but he lives on in the memories of the family next to him. I don't want to say that Syd's course of action is not noble because he could also have tried to comfort Lucie after her husband's execution and maybe one day have taken her husband's place. This does happen in real life, but it can't happen in Dickens because it is too prosaic. Yet, even though Syd acts nobly, he does not act completely altruistically, but also provides for himself.

What do you make of my semi-grumpy reflections, friends?

Another question I have been asking myself is how Darnay might have felt knowing that someone else died for him? Would he have suffered so much from that knowledge that he could not have taken any pleasure in life any more, or would he have thought that as somebody bought a new lease of life for him, he was obliged to make the most of his own life now? This is, interestingly, a question the novel does not seem to ask at all since Darnay completely fades away in the light of Sydney's self-sacrifice.

Tristram Shandy Then there are, of course, countless other questions such as:

What is your favourite / least favourite character, and why?

Do you think that Dickens gave a proper representation of the underlying motives of the French Revolution? What might have been his own stance on this "mother of all revolutions"?

Do you consider Mme Defarge a realistic character, or is she just a monster?

What do Lucie and Mme Defarge tell us about Dickens and his contemporaries' views of typical women's roles?

Of course, as usual, feel free to ask your own questions here. And above all, have fun discussing them!

Peter Tristram wrote: "Dear Pickwickians,

It is always an intellectual adventure to re-read Dickens's novels with you, but, up to now, reading A Tale of Two Cities in this illustrous circle has given me my most overwhel..."


I found myself nodding all the way through your insightful commentary. I agree with you. Sydney Carton is a most fascinating study in the act of self-sacrifice. What does motivate a person to act as Sydney? What is the backstory that would lead to such a sacrifice? It is interesting to note that we do not really get much of a backstory for Sydney.

You also ask a good question about Charles Darnay. How does someone live their life moving forward with the realization of what - and why - someone would give their life for you, especially since that person (Sydney) does not really like you. It is an interesting speculation. Clearly the spotlight does shine on Sydney at the end of the novel, and if one looks for the typical Victorian novel that reads forward the future of its characters TTC takes centre stage. Still, Charles Darnay, and even Lucie, fade very quickly from the last paragraphs of the novel.

I believe Dickens intentionally wanted to be even more melodramatic than usual, and wanted to push the idea of self-sacrifice to his audience.

Peter I would like to offer up a suggestion as to why Dickens used such high drama in the ending of TTC. This idea is, no doubt, not original, but nevertheless, does (to me at least) make some sense.

At the time of the writing of TTC the marriage of Charles and Catherine Dickens was coming to a rather painful and somewhat public ending. Dickens had met Ellen Turnan and his world and heart was in flux.

Two other events that occurred in Dickens's personal life at this time suggest Dickens was changing his personal focus in life.

The first was that after Catherine and Dickens separated Catherine went to live with their long time friends and a business partner of Dickens by the name of Mark Lemon. When Dickens became aware of this fact he broke off his association with Lemon for over a decade. The second, and perhaps much more telling that Dickens was looking for change, is the fact that Dickens also broke off his relationship with Hablot K. Browne, his long time illustrator. I have read that while Dickens did claim that he found the work of Browne not to be up to previous novels, it is also known that Browne was critical of Dickens's marital situation and Dickens did not appreciate such interventions.

Is it possible that Dickens projected himself into the victim of his failed marriage, that he saw himself as sacrificing his life for the woman he now loved, that being Ellen Turnan?

Dickens in a mid-life crisis? Dickens giving up the security of his present for the possible promise of a new future? Well, I am not a psychologist but the next novel is titled Great Expectations. :-)).

message 5: by Kim (new) - rated it 5 stars

Kim It doesn't matter to me why Sydney did what he did. I think the same thing now as I did the first time I read the book, I want someone to step in and save Sydney on the last page and it never happens. Maybe next time.

Oh, and now that we're finished here's the book's cover by Phiz, I feel like I'm working backwards:

The Cover - Phiz

message 6: by Kim (new) - rated it 5 stars

Kim Here are a few more title pages, covers, things like that:
Frontispiece - Fred Barnard

The Trial of Evremonde


Fred Barnard

The Household Edition


"The frontispiece for the slender, 176-page Household Edition of A Tale of Two Cities, first published in volume form in 1859 and reissued as one of twenty green-bound volumes by Dickens's own publishers, Chapman and Hall, shortly after the novelist's death in the larger, double-columned, format (reminiscent of the 1850s journal Household Words) is consistent with the new modes of production and techniques and technologies of illustration of the late 1860s. This large-scale woodblock illustration, probably composed of several blocks glued together, establishes this as an historical novel of epic dimensions in terms of the scope of its narrative. Fred Barnard's "The Trial of Evrémonde" sets the keynote, the legal and extra-legal harassment of blameless individuals caught up in the throes of great historical movements. The original victim of aristocratic malice, the former Bastille prisoner, Dr. Manette, and his married daughter, Lucie, are centre; Charles Darnay, the Liberal-minded aristocrat who has renounced his family name "St. Evrémonde" and fortune, is to the left in the witness box. The courtroom scene from Dickens's second historical novel, the first being Barnaby Rudge (1841), is dramatic both textually and visually as Barnard envisages it as set on stage. However, in contrast to such heroic revolutionary artists as Jacques Louis David, the very English Fred Barnard conceives of this event as staged in a dingy courtroom occupied by ragtag "patriots" — proletarians (left) and a piratical jury of "Jacobins" sporting cockades and revolutionary caps (above). On the wall behind the prisoner, the neatly inscribed "Liberty" and "Equality" are paramount, whereas "Brotherhood" has been scrawled in as an afterthought, implying that the court is devoid of human sympathy and understanding in these dread tribunals. In place of a tricolor flag or other national symbol to suggest the authority of the court Barnard has placed a Phrygian cap on the outlet of the gas-jet, implying that revolutionary fervor — not to say bias — has stifled any possibility for illumination that might guide the whole proceeding.

The frontispiece thus both comments upon and anticipates the highly charged trial late in the story, in Book 3, Chapter 9, and therefore invites the reader to compare the much earlier trial of Darnay as a French spy in the Old Bailey (Book Two, "The Golden Thread," Chapter 3, "A Disappointment"). Whereas Phiz had focused on the impact of the foregone verdict in "After the Sentence" (December 1859) on Charles Darnay's wife (exploiting the sensational and emotional dimensions of the situation in the manner of a Victorian melodrama), Barnard treats the whole affair as mundane, as just another day in the life of a brutal but prosaic revolution. In contrast, in his head note vignette for Book 3, Chapter 1, American illustrator John McLenan had shown an alienated Charles Darnay, ironically well-dressed for the occupant of so dismal a prison cell in "In Secret", then transported to his trial under heavily armed guard in "'You are a cursed emigrant,' cried a farrier", then re-arrested in "The Citizen Evrémonde, Called Darnay" in Book 3, Chapter 6, and finally unseen as he is indicted by his father-in-law's own hand in "This is that paper, written" in Book 3, Chapter 8. McLenan shows us various studies of an isolated Darnay, ending with the head-note vignette for Book 3, Chapter 13 ("Fifty-two"), but fails to depict him in the context of one of the novel's most dramatic events."

Title-page vignette - Fred Barnard

Title-page Vignette

Fred Barnard

"The figure of a female Jacobin, either the Vengeance or Madame Defarge, who is holding up a blood-dripping dagger, sets the keynote as the wind of violent revolution blows through her hair and garments from left (the past) to right (the future)."

A. A. Dixon - Cover for Collins Edition

Sidney Carlton faces execution

A. A. Dixon

Illustration from Book 3 Chapter 15

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"The Characters is the Story"

Ornamental title page

Harry Furniss

Charles Dickens Library Edition 1910

•Darnay before the revolutionary tribunal
•Dissolute Carton and arrogant Stryver
•The Marquis at the fountain, and (earlier, in flashback) murdering Madame Defarge's brother
•The Defarges in the wine shop
•Mr. Lorry at Tellson's Bank
•The Vengeance beating her drum
•Dr. Manette, Lucie, and Miss Pross


"A feature of each volume in the Charles Dickens Library Edition (1910), "The Characters in the Stories," as Furniss has entitled the thumbnail vignettes that form the four borders of the title-page, includes most of the characters in the novel: in the top register, left to right, are the principals of the story, often in postures and poses that anticipate their appearances in the full-page illustrations.

Consequently, for example, Furniss describes Charles Darnay (in upper right-hand corner) and Sydney Carton (in the upper left-hand corner) in exactly the poses in which they will subsequently appear. Darnay is seen in profile, with a Jacobin cap above and behind him, in the same posture that he strikes as he pleads his innocence before the revolutionary tribunal in Darnay arraigned before the Judges in Book Three, Chapter Six, "Triumph," a study which also resembles Furniss's study of him at the Old Bailey, The Likeness in Court, in which however, he faces right rather than left, as in the title-page vignette and the French courtroom scene.

Even though A Tale of Two Cities initially appeared in weekly installments in Dickens's weekly journal All the Year Round without the benefit of illustration, Furniss nevertheless had two sets of competent illustrations available as references, even if he had not seen the work of American illustrators Sol Eytinge, Junior and John McLenan dating from the 1860s: the sixteen steel engravings in the monthly parts illustrated by Hablot Knight Browne and the twenty-five 1874 wood-engravings by Fred Barnard for the Household Edition — to say nothing of the Barnard study of Carton on the scaffold from 1879 for his first series of Character Sketches from Dickens (London: Cassell, Petter, and Gilpin, 1874-79), a version of which, by Toulouse Lautrec admirer John Hassall served to advertise Sir John Martin-Harvey's highly successful stage adaptation The Only Way at London's Lyceum Theatre (which debutéd on 16 February 1899, ran until 25 March 1899 with 168 performances, and was revived some ten times in London up to 1909). And issued just five years earlier than Furniss's edition, the Collins Pocket Edition offered Furniss realistic lithographs as reference points, there being two illustrations of Carton's final moments in that series. Thus, the influences at work in Furniss's frontispiece are legion.

Providing a sort of visual overture to characters and situations in the novel, Furniss offers thumbnail sketches of almost all of the characters, the exceptions apparently being "The Honest Tradesman," Jerry Cruncher, and his son; the road-mender; Gaspard; the chief St. Everemonde family retainer (Gabelle); the wood-sawyer; the Darnay children; and the professional spy for two nations and both sides in the Revolution, Solomon Pross (alias "John Barsad"). The thumbnails filling the borders of the title-page encompass some thirty-seven distinct figures in the sort of ornamental picture-frame that precedes each of the eighteen volumes (including Hammerton's The Dickens Picture Book and The Dickens Companion, volumes seventeen and eighteen). Indeed, sometimes a volume containing several works, such as Volume 13, contain additional title-pages, but these are generally an overview of the most celebrated characters from the novels, as is the case for that for American Notes for General Circulation and Pictures from Italy.

As a weekly novel written for a limited number of installments (as opposed to the nineteen-month, full-length novels, beginning with The Pickwick Papers), A Tale of Two Cities, appearing 30 April through 26 November 1859 and simultaneously in eight parts issued over seven months, has a limited cast of characters and concomitantly fewer dramatic scenes appropriate to illustration. Thus, whereas the equivalent page for Pickwick, for example, in the Charles Dickens Library Edition has forty-five figures, this title-page has far fewer recognizable characters: Sydney Carton, raising a glass, perhaps in celebration of winning the Darnay case, and Stryver, striking an aristocratic pose with his walking-stick, exactly as in Mr. Stryver in Book Two, Chapter Eleven (upper left); the idyllic scene under the plane-tree in the garden at Soho: Doctor Manette, Lucie, Miss Pross, and (disappearing off right) Sydney Carton in the center of the top register; Charles Darnay, the heretofore Marquis St. Evremonde, before the Revolutionary tribunal (upper-right); the Marquis as "Monseigneur in Town," trampling a proletarian child, and (below) killing a youth (Madame Defarge's brother) with his rapier (right-hand margin); the St. Antoine Jacobins (lower right); their leaders, the Defarges, in their wine-shop (lower right); the Vengeance, beating her drum as the mob storms the Bastille (bottom center); Madame Defarge, wielding both a dagger and a Sabre as she tramples Foulon (lower left); Jarvis Lorry on his stool in Tellson's counting-house (lower left-hand corner); above him, the coachman on the Dover Road and Aggerawayter, Jerry Cruncher's much-abused wife; the Judges in the Revolutionary Tribunal; Foulon, a bound captive of the mob; and Lucie, inquiring after her husband with a guard at La Force (upper left)."

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Kim And I saved this one for last:

Title page by Phiz

In The Bastille



"This illustration formed the Title-page for the text and served to enable the viewer to reflect on the formative experience of Dr Manette and his wrongful imprisonment for eighteen years in The Bastille. This is the last image Phiz ever drew for Dickens and is highly effective; both in its composition and its positioning within the novel. The viewer peers into the cell through the portal of the framing arch: we notice the enormous stone blocks which form an inescapable structure; the heavy chains on the wall; the meager bedding and the ewer on the floor. The casting of the light illuminates the face of the weary figure at the center of the picture. Dr Manette is old, exhausted and broken, hunched over something to occupy his mind against the horror of what has happened to him. It is a striking, poignant and incredibly moving image. Through this illustration we really grasp the horror of the injustice perpetrated against Dr Manette by the Evremonde brothers. Many have paralleled this image with Cruikshank's image of Fagin in Oliver Twist as he awaits execution."

Peter Kim wrote: "And I saved this one for last:

Title page by Phiz

In The Bastille



"This illustration formed the Title-page for the text and served to enable the viewer to reflect on the form..."

A remarkable and very powerful image by Phiz. His last image. I fail to see where or how any of Phiz's illustrations were as disappointing as Dickens thought them to be in TTC.

Peter Tristram wrote: "Then there are, of course, countless other questions such as:

What is your favourite / least favourite character, and why?

Do you think that Dickens gave a proper representation of the underlying..."


You pose an interesting question regarding Dickens's representation of The French Revolution. We do know that he borrowed many books about the Revolution including his friend Carlyle's own work on the Revolution. So, given that he had a reasonable background on it, the question is how accurate is the portrayal?

TTC is fiction. It makes no pretence to be anything but fiction. As readers, it then becomes a question as to how accurate do we demand our fiction to be? TTC does not depend on any real historical figures in its pages. We do know there was a Bastille, we do know it was stormed, we do know that far too many people fed the guillotine. We know there was great anger among the poor. Around these historical realities Dickens builds a story meant to entertain his readers and keep his circulation numbers healthy.

To me, ultimately, TTC, like all of Dickens work, is about people and the human condition, how we as humans interact with others. While the setting gives the narrative a framework of place and time, I first look to the story and to its people.

As to Madame Defarge and the degree in which we can see her as evil I see her as an embodiment of what can happen to any human being given the right set of circumstances. When we read of her family history, and how here entire social class of humans she represents were treated, one can better understand her thirst for revenge. At least she had a reason for her anger. I found the actions and attitude of Darnay's father and uncle far more horrific; I found them more purely evil. The depth of revenge that Madame Defarge sought was grossly excessive, but so were her motivations and reasons. To say and hope that an entire extended family should be killed is simply wrong. However, if one believes that you can kill a child and then only worry about the safety of your horse, and then pay for that child's death with the mere callous flip of a coin we have a situation where the actions of both Madame Defarge and Darnay's family are equally unforgivable.

And so Dickens gives us Charles Darnay, a man of honour. Dickens shows us that we need not be consigned to live the life of anyone else. Each human is separate and distinct. Each human can determine his/her own path in life. When Charles Darnay marries Lucie we have the symbolic joining of the past with the future. Families can become joined from past events to lead towards a strong future. As we factor in Sydney Carton we see a similar pattern, on a smaller scale. Sydney Carton's life was one of dissipation. His promise was ruined by his choices, and then he met Lucie. Given a purpose, and a reason to be and act from a position of strength and not weakness he changes the path of his life, and thus the destiny of others. With the success in life of his namesakes who are the product of the Manette's and the Darnay's a new world is created from the blood and the destruction of the past.

Earlier, Tristram pointed out that Madame Defarge's first name meant "the hunter." How appropriate. The name Lucie derives it meaning from the word "light." Darkness and hunting, and the knitting of shrouds in which to bury people; Love, light and golden threads to bind people together. A past of destruction and a future of hope and potential. Dickens demonstrates The power of being recalled to life.

message 11: by Kim (new) - rated it 5 stars

Kim From John Forster's "The Life of Charles Dickens":

"Dickens's next story to Little Dorrit was the Tale of Two Cities, of which the first notion occurred to him while acting with his friends and his children in the summer of 1857 in Mr. Wilkie Collins's drama of The Frozen Deep. But it was only a vague fancy, and the sadness and trouble of the winter of that year were not favorable to it. Towards the close (27th) of January 1858, talking of improvements at Gadshill in which he took little interest, it was again in his thoughts. "Growing inclinations of a fitful and undefined sort are upon me sometimes to fall to work on a new book. Then I think I had better not worry my worried mind yet awhile. Then I think it would be of no use if I did, for I couldn't settle to one occupation.—And that's all!" "If I can discipline my thoughts," he wrote three days later, "into the channel of a story, I have made up my mind to get to work on one: always supposing that I find myself, on the trial, able to do well. Nothing whatever will do me the least 'good' in the way of shaking the one strong possession of change impending over us that every day makes stronger; but if I could work on with some approach to steadiness, through the summer, the anxious toil of a new book would have its neck well broken before beginning to publish, next October or November. Sometimes, I think I may continue to work; sometimes, I think not. What do you say to the title, One of these DAYS?" That title held its ground very briefly. "What do you think," he wrote after six weeks, "of this name for my story—Buried Alive? Does it seem too grim? Or, The Thread of Gold? Or, The Doctor of Beauvais?" But not until twelve months later did he fairly buckle himself to the task he had contemplated so long. All the Year Round had taken the place of Household Words in the interval; and the tale was then started to give strength to the new weekly periodical for whose pages it was designed.

"This is merely to certify," he wrote on the 11th of March 1859, "that I have got exactly the name for the story that is wanted; exactly what will fit the opening to a T. A Tale of Two Cities. Also, that I have struck out a rather original and bold idea. That is, at the end of each month to publish the monthly part in the green cover, with the two illustrations, at the old shilling. This will give All the Year Round always the interest and precedence of a fresh weekly portion during the month; and will give me my old standing with my old public, and the advantage (very necessary in this story) of having numbers of people who read it in no portions smaller than a monthly part. . . . My American ambassador pays a thousand pounds for the first year, for the privilege of republishing in America one day after we publish here. Not bad?" . . . He had to struggle at the opening through a sharp attack of illness, and on the 9th of July progress was thus reported. "I have been getting on in health very slowly and through irksome botheration enough. But I think I am round the corner. This cause—and the heat—has tended to my doing no more than hold my ground, my old month's advance, with the Tale of Two Cities. The small portions thereof, drive me frantic; but I think the tale must have taken a strong hold. The run upon our monthly parts is surprising, and last month we sold 35,000 back numbers. A note I have had from Carlyle about it has given me especial pleasure."

A letter of the following month expresses the intention he had when he began the story, and in what respect it differs as to method from all his other books. Sending in proof four numbers ahead of the current publication, he adds: "I hope you will like them. Nothing but the interest of the subject, and the pleasure of striving with the difficulty of the form of treatment,—nothing in the way of mere money, I mean,—could else repay the time and trouble of the incessant condensation. But I set myself the little task of making a picturesque story, rising in every chapter, with characters true to nature, but whom the story should express more than they should express themselves by dialogue. I mean in other words, that I fancied a story of incident might be written (in place of the odious stuff that is written under that pretense), pounding the characters in its own mortar, and beating their interest out of them. If you could have read the story all at once, I hope you wouldn't have stopped halfway."

Another of his letters supplies the last illustration I need to give of the design and meanings in regard to this tale expressed by himself. It was a reply to some objections of which the principal were, a doubt if the feudal cruelties came sufficiently within the date of the action to justify his use of them, and some question as to the manner of disposing of the chief revolutionary agent in the plot. "I had of course full knowledge of the formal surrender of the feudal privileges, but these had been bitterly felt quite as near to the time of the Revolution as the Doctor's narrative, which you will remember dates long before the Terror. With the slang of the new philosophy on the one side, it was surely not unreasonable or unallowable, on the other, to suppose a nobleman wedded to the old cruel ideas, and representing the time going out as his nephew represents the time coming in. If there be anything certain on earth, I take it that the condition of the French peasant generally at that day was intolerable. No later inquiries or provings by figures will hold water against the tremendous testimony of men living at the time. There is a curious book printed at Amsterdam, written to make out no case whatever, and tiresome enough in its literal dictionary-like minuteness; scattered up and down the pages of which is full authority for my marquis. This is Mercier's Tableau de Paris. Rousseau is the authority for the peasant's shutting up his house when he had a bit of meat. The tax-tables are the authority for the wretched creature's impoverishment. . . . I am not clear, and I never have been clear, respecting the canon of fiction which forbids the interposition of accident in such a case as Madame Defarge's death. Where the accident is inseparable from the passion and action of the character; where it is strictly consistent with the entire design, and arises out of some culminating proceeding on the part of the individual which the whole story has led up to; it seems to me to become, as it were, an act of divine justice. And when I use Miss Pross (though this is quite another question) to bring about such a catastrophe, I have the positive intention of making that half-comic intervention a part of the desperate woman's failure; and of opposing that mean death, instead of a desperate one in the streets which she wouldn't have minded, to the dignity of Carton's. Wrong or right, this was all design, and seemed to me to be in the fitness of things."

These are interesting intimations of the care with which Dickens worked; and there is no instance in his novels, excepting this, of a deliberate and planned departure from the method of treatment which had been preeminently the source of his popularity as a novelist. To rely less upon character than upon incident, and to resolve that his actors should be expressed by the story more than they should express themselves by dialogue, was for him a hazardous, and can hardly be called an entirely successful, experiment. With singular dramatic vivacity, much constructive art, and with descriptive passages of a high order everywhere (the dawn of the terrible outbreak in the journey of the marquis from Paris to his country seat, and the London crowd at the funeral of the spy, may be instanced for their power), there was probably never a book by a great humorist, and an artist so prolific in the conception of character, with so little humor and so few remembrable figures. Its merits lie elsewhere. Though there are excellent traits and touches all through the revolutionary scenes, the only full-length that stands out prominently is the picture of the wasted life saved at last by heroic sacrifice. Dickens speaks of his design to make impressive the dignity of Carton's death, and in this he succeeded perhaps even beyond his expectation. Carton suffers himself to be mistaken for another, and gives his life that the girl he loves may be happy with that other; the secret being known only to a poor little girl in the tumbril that takes them to the scaffold, who at the moment has discovered it, and whom it strengthens also to die. The incident is beautifully told; and it is at least only fair to set against verdicts not very favorable as to this effort of his invention, what was said of the particular character and scene, and of the book generally, by an American critic whose literary studies had most familiarized him with the rarest forms of imaginative writing:

...."Its portrayal of the noble- natured castaway makes it almost a peerless book in modern literature, and gives it a place among the highest examples of literary art. . . . The conception of this character shows in its author an ideal of magnanimity and of charity unsurpassed. There is not a grander, lovelier figure than the self-wrecked, self-devoted Sydney Carton, in literature or history; and the story itself is so noble in its spirit, so grand and graphic in its style, and filled with a pathos so profound and simple, that it deserves and will surely take a place among the great serious works of imagination." I should myself prefer to say that its distinctive merit is less in any of its conceptions of character, even Carton's, than as a specimen of Dickens's power in imaginative story-telling. There is no piece of fiction known to me, in which the domestic life of a few simple private people is in such a manner knitted and interwoven with the outbreak of a terrible public event, that the one seems but part of the other. When made conscious of the first sultry drops of a thunderstorm that fall upon a little group sitting in an obscure English lodging, we are witness to the actual beginning of a tempest which is preparing to sweep away everything in France. And, to the end, the book in this respect is really remarkable."

message 12: by Kim (last edited Oct 25, 2016 07:22AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Kim Darnay’s trial, in A Tale of Two Cities, is based on the trial of Francis Henry de la Motte.

Peter Kim wrote: "Darnay’s trial, in A Tale of Two Cities, is based on the trial of Francis Henry de la Motte."

Absolutely fascinating Kim. There is so much to learn, so much to discover, so many ways to enrich the novel. It's often difficult to figure out where to start.

Thank you for all the research.

Peter Peter wrote: "I would like to offer up a suggestion as to why Dickens used such high drama in the ending of TTC. This idea is, no doubt, not original, but nevertheless, does (to me at least) make some sense.


Following up on my earlier post (I'm having difficulty doing an edit for some reason) another indication that Dickens's life was in flux is the fact that at the conclusion of TTC Dickens wrapped up his periodical Household Words and launched his new venture All The Year Round. There were sea changes in Dickens's life and, as we will see, our next novel Great Expectations will reflect and project these changes.

Hilary (agapoyesoun) I still have a lot of catching up on these comments to do. Your contribution is, as usual, amazing Kim. I 'must needs' look at the illustrations on another device.

Tristram, you have obviously thought deeply about the whole life-and-death event of Sydney Carton. You have put into words certain things that were only floating around at the 'outskirts' of my mind. Certainly Carton is not entirely altruistic. Is anyone? I wonder. I can see how Lucie is at the nucleus of his living and moving and having his being in everyday life and all the more so at the end. Any massive decision such as this could not veer from the Lucie path which he has followed for so many years. As you, most perceptively, imply, his sacrifice is in no way devoid of a desire for the golden child's posthumous approval. To attain her pride in him is to be coveted, whenever that might be.

Nevertheless, I cannot find it in my heart to condemn Sydney Carton's sacrifice as being entirely without altruism. (I don't think, for a moment, that you suggest this, Tristram.) It is difficult though to pinpoint any pure motives. I wonder if any of our actions can be said to be entirely unsullied. It would be nice to think that they were. Carton's dreams have been quashed. He has been his own worst enemy. He has set in motion his own vicious circle and it is in all probability true that he can not point to the moment when his life has taken a wrong turn. There are undoubtedly many such moments. Here is the opportunity to make his life count. We may want to shout out to him to stop and look at his life and to recognise that there were many good things to be found therein; times when he was kind just to be kind; times when he laughed freely; times when he thought life was worth living. Here is the opportunity to make his life count. Were he to be successful in laying down his life for a friend, he knows that he will be lauded at the end of, what to him is, an unfortunate blip in history.

As he walks through the streets his internal struggle pounds through his being. He is as a man without hope facing the abyss. Then the scriptural refrain beats out a tattoo of assurance into his very being. The voice of Christ: I am the Resurrection and the Life ... sears his innermost soul. He stands as Darnay's Redeemer. Charles Darnay is a man whom Sydney Carton does not especially like. But that is neither here nor there. He is, in effect, Lucie's sacrificial lamb.

Tristram Shandy It's true, Hilary, there is probably no completely altruistic behaviour in humanity, and so Syd Carton's self-sacrifice can also be explained with regard to his own psychological needs and his despair of making his own life meaningful. At the same time, and it's good of you to point it out because I'm afraid I did not pay enough attention to it, Carton's act is a noble one which requires a lot of courage and determination. And still, I cannot help wondering whether Charles Darnay's life will ever be untroubled after his escape or whether he will not always feel himself under the burden of a moral obligation to a dead person he never really liked. - All in all, as you said, Carton is Lucie's sacrificial lamb, and not so much Darnay's.

Tristram Shandy Kim, thanks a lot for posting Phiz's last illustration for Dickens! Indeed, as the commentary says, it reminds one of Cruikshank's illustration of Fagin who is waiting for his execution. I remember when I was reading Oliver Twist as a child of maybe 12 or 13, I came across that illustration and it really haunted me for days. Okay, I must admit that I was a very impressionable child.

It's a pity that from now on we will have no more Phiz illustrations, and also that the last illustration Phiz made for Dickens should not have been of a merrier nature. From an artistic point of view, however, I could hardly think of a better farewell performance.

Tristram Shandy As to the way the French Revolution is depicted: I agree with you, Peter, that a novel should be read for the sake of its story and characters, and I am usually not very partial to historical novels because I think they can hardly give an adequate understanding of a historic epoch. I love Dickens, though, and that's why I readily forgive him the authorship of two historical novels. ;-)

I noticed, however, that Dickens always resorted to moral explanations of the Revolution: On the one hand, there were the Evremonde brothers as an example of how callous, inhuman and evil the aristocracy was; on the other hand, there is Mme Defarge, who shows the embitterment and the unbounded drive for destruction and revenge that resulted from the aristocratic evil. This is, I think, a gross simplification. If we trust TTC, we could even think that it was due to the Defarges and other people like them that the French Revolution came about, whereas in reality, the revolution was a initiated by bourgeois members of the third estate who were dissatisfied with their lack of political power and with the fact that they had to pay high taxes. In other words, Dickens gets the Bastille scene and the massacre of Foulon right - as much as he has a lucky hand with a lot of background detail - but the overall mechanics of how the Revolution started and went on are presented in a very simplified way.

I am not saying that Dickens should have given a more scholarly account of the Revolution - this is not the task of a novelist, and the result would probably also be a novel none of us would want to read - but I am asking myself if Dickens's choice to interpret the Revolution as a moral phenomenon is not quite conservative; as is his interpretation of trade unionism as a failure on the road of improving working conditions.

A moral interpretion always implies that the Ancien régime could have continued to exist, had it not been for the excesses of the nobility. But what about the financial crisis, the political injustices and general dissatisfaction with the status quo?

Tristram Shandy Peter wrote: "Is it possible that Dickens projected himself into the victim of his failed marriage, that he saw himself as sacrificing his life for the woman he now loved, that being Ellen Turnan?

Dickens in a mid-life crisis? Dickens giving up the security of his present for the possible promise of a new future? Well, I am not a psychologist but the next novel is titled Great Expectations. :-)). "

That is a very intriguing interpretation, Peter. It does not really make Dickens more likeable as a person to me, but it seems like a conclusive approach.

Peter Tristram wrote: "As to the way the French Revolution is depicted: I agree with you, Peter, that a novel should be read for the sake of its story and characters, and I am usually not very partial to historical novel..."


Evremonde. Your post got me thinking. We have seen countless examples of Dickens creating names to suit individual characters, and we have identified the probable meaning behind Therese and Lucie.

If we switch a couple of letters in Evremonde we get "ever" and "monde." If we then take the word "monde," which is French for world we then get ever + world. Ever(y)world. Did Dickens want to signal that the Evremonde brothers represented a world where people hate? The novel is about two cities, one English and one French. Why not combine two languages for a universal meaning?

Everyman | 2034 comments Peter wrote: "
I found myself nodding all the way through your insightful commentary. I agree with you. Sydney Carton is a most fascinating study in the act of self-sacrifice. What does motivate a person to act as Sydney?"

Carton sacrificed himself for a cause. So do suicide bombers.

message 23: by Peter (last edited Oct 27, 2016 09:21AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Peter Everyman wrote: "Peter wrote: "
I found myself nodding all the way through your insightful commentary. I agree with you. Sydney Carton is a most fascinating study in the act of self-sacrifice. What does motivate a ..."

Yes. The word "cause" has a very active connotation. To have a cause suggests a strong belief. Certainly, Madame Defarge also has a cause that I fully believe she would have (and did?) sacrifice herself for as well. It is interesting to consider the words "cause" and "belief." Does one preceed the other, does one inform the other? Frankly, I'm not at all sure.

Tristram Shandy Everyman wrote: "Carton sacrificed himself for a cause. So do suicide bombers."

The common ground shared by Carton and suicide bombers is that they are not overly content with their own lives, they have the feeling of lacking something, and that sacrificing themselves will give them the chance of making their lives finally have some sense after all.

The difference, however, is that Carton does not harm any other person. On the contrary, he saves Darnay, and he also saves Lucie by restoring her beloved husband to her.

Then there is another difference: While suicide bombers usually see their reward in some silly conception of Paradise, Carton had a somewhat more concrete deal: Exchanging his life as a loner for that of Darnay and Lucie as a happy couple.

Nevertheless, there is something eerie about a man or woman who deliberately chooses death.

Tristram Shandy Peter wrote: "Everyman wrote: "Peter wrote: "
I found myself nodding all the way through your insightful commentary. I agree with you. Sydney Carton is a most fascinating study in the act of self-sacrifice. What..."

Mme Defarge surely had a cause and would probably also have sacrificed herself in order to achieve it. I think she was already on the brink of sacrificing her husband. But, in fact, Mme Defarge seems to have had two causes, one being at the root of the other: Her primary cause was revenge on the Evremondes, and this one was simply sparked and fuelled by hatred, whereas the other cause was Liberté and Egalité, behind which there is a belief in making a better world possible. The only problem being, I think, is that this latter cause was just a cloak thrown over her desire for revenge, in a way to make it seem more justified.

Tristram Shandy Peter wrote: "Tristram wrote: "As to the way the French Revolution is depicted: I agree with you, Peter, that a novel should be read for the sake of its story and characters, and I am usually not very partial to..."

An interesting thought, Peter: Do you mean that the Everyworld people are best represented by hateful characters like the Evremonde brothers?

Peter Tristram wrote: "Peter wrote: "Tristram wrote: "As to the way the French Revolution is depicted: I agree with you, Peter, that a novel should be read for the sake of its story and characters, and I am usually not v..."

As a general statement, yes. Sadly, I think that there are people who because of their perceptions intentionally, and sadly, with beliefs of entitlement, cause harm to others for pleasure, or worse, from a sociopatheic world of their own.

Thankfully, these people are few and far between. To play on the suggested meaning of Evremonde, however, there are people like this in our world, everywhere.

Tristram Shandy In my Penguin edition, the foreword says that Dickens was inspired to write this novel when he was playing the role of a self-sacrificing lover in Wilkie Collins's play "The Frozen Deep". Collins was encouraged to write this play by Dickens, who was disgusted at the notion that people on the Franklin expedition had taken recourse to cannibalism. The notion was brought about by Dr. John Rae, who had investigated the relics of the expedition and come to this dispiriting conclusion. Dickens read a lot about that topic in the hope to find evidence that would help him rebut such a conclusion, which he regarded as a slur on the gallantry of English gentlemen. He was not alone in his indignation, but obviously it was fuelled more by wishful thinking than by any closeness to the truth of human nature. It's like good old Hobbes said, "Homo homini lupus est", especially in dire straits.

Tristram Shandy Peter wrote: "Thankfully, these people are few and far between."

According to a scientific article I read, their occurrence is much more frequent in the ranks of CEOs.

Hilary (agapoyesoun) I had entirely forgotten this expedition, Tristram. Thanks for bringing it to my remembrance. Terribly heartbreaking.

Peter The Franklin Expedition has been much in the news in Canada for the last year. His two ships, the Erebus and the Terror, have both been discovered in the Arctic and are is surprisingly good condition due to the coldness of the water.

There is great irony in the fact that the first commercial cruise ship went through the North West passage this past summer. Franklin's ships sunk because of impenetrable ice; the cruise ship industry flourishing because there is so little ice.

No worry, though. The North Pole is secure and evidently very busy preparing for ... Over to you, Kim.

Tristram Shandy There's one novel by Dan Simmons, The Terror, that deals with the Franklin expedition. I read large parts of it with bated breath, thinking of those men who faced a, to them, almost certain death. If it had not been for Simmons's decision to put some kind of monster into his book, I would have liked it even better.

Hilary (agapoyesoun) This book sounds interesting and awful, Tristram. I looked up some things about the expedition. As you know the mummified bodies of three of the crew were preserved because of the ice. The bones that were found bore signs of cannibalism and the letter/log showing a comment by the captain says "All well." Then a note dated some little time later which announces the captain's death. Quite chilling. (Excuse the pun.)

On a lighter note. Peter, are you first in line for Santa?! It would be too cruel if you had to wait until the end! I hope not! ;-)

Peter Hilary wrote: "This book sounds interesting and awful, Tristram. I looked up some things about the expedition. As you know the mummified bodies of three of the crew were preserved because of the ice. The bones th..."

Well, not the very first, but certainly within hearing the "ho, ho, ho"!

Hilary (agapoyesoun) Oh good, Peter, that's acceptable at least. I'm sure that he'll be kind to you this year, as always ... :-)

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