(Warning: plot spoiler!)
I finished re-reading A Tale of Two Cities the other night. Reading it took a bit of effort sometimes, but it was worth it in the end!
It’s not lightweight, either in size or in content. Dickens isn’t known for his brevity! From my experience, there is also always an element of darkness in his books, and always an element of the grotesque and the unpleasant. In A Tale of Two Cities, evil is on prominent display. Wading through many words, and wading through much ugliness, can take effort.
It’s certainly not all hard work, however. For one thing, Dickens has a sense of humour, which adds sparkle to his writing. Here’s a little gem for you: “Mr Cruncher himself always spoke of the year of our Lord as Anna Dominoes: apparently under the impression that the Christian era dated from the invention of a popular game, by a lady who had bestowed her name upon it.”
Moreover, Dickens knows how to tell a good story (even if it sometimes requires wading). In fact, being Dickens, he is not content to weave a simple story with a few characters. A lot is going on, and somehow it’s all tied together. Mr Cruncher’s “fishing” may seem like an unconnected aside, but it, too, has its part to play in time….
Evil doesn’t have a pretty face in A Tale of Two Cities. You can see the indefensible way in which the nobility treated the poor, see the lives those masses had to live, lives that were scarcely worth living, and yet not condone the revolution that ensued, but turn from it, too, as if with a shudder. And that, I think, is what Dickens intended. He is clear that the evils of the revolution are the direct result of the evils before the revolution, but that such results cannot be condoned any more than the previous evils could be. I think that in life one of the bad effects of a messy, sin-filled situation is the temptation to respond to it with something else that’s wrong, just wrong in a different way. A Tale of Two Cities shows just how disastrous giving in to that temptation can be.
But in the midst of all the evil–both the general evils of the revolution and the specific evils of twisted individuals–there are characters to warm to, characters who are praiseworthy. There is one in particular who touches me, one whose story crowns A Tale of Two Cities: Sydney Carton. Carton, that dissolute man with the devil-may-care attitude, that “man of good abilities and good emotions, incapable of their directed exercise, incapable of his own help and his own happiness, sensible of the blight on him, and resigning himself to let it eat him away.” The man who loves Lucie Manette but who knows—quite rightly—that he is unworthy to ask for her love in return. But the man whose sad, wasted life eventually ends in an explosion of glory as he gives his life to save the life of Lucie’s husband. I can’t do justice to Dickens’ storytelling in attempting to explain it myself. The end didn’t take me by surprise, but it still brought tears.
So, A Tale of Two Cities isn’t a lightweight story. But it is a vivid portrayal of humanity at its vilest and its noblest, and its depiction of the horror of that evil, and the beauty of that good, makes it worthwhile indeed.