A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

Cover of A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

Cover of A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens.

I admit I hesitated before reviewing Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities for  the Lost in the Stacks blog, since I thought it would be familiar to many of you, but then I thought that, if you've read it, you've probably read it only once: when you were forced to, in high school.  The same was true of me, I have to say, even though, unlike most of my classmates, I loved it.  I thought it was time to re-read it, since I have been reading a lot about the French Revolution recently, and, after my second reading, I love it even more, even though now I know what Dickens got wrong.  A Tale of Two Cities, more than any other book, has shaped the English-speaking world's view of the French Revolution.  Dickens' scenes of mob violence, including the storming of the Bastille and the September Massacres, are unforgettable.  He gives the reader the impression, though, that the French Revolution went directly from the storming of the Bastille (1789) to the September Massacres (1792), and entirely skips over the idealistic early part of the Revolution.  This blurs the distinction between the Revolution and the Terror.  Readers of A Tale of Two Cities who have not read anything else about the French Revolution will probably think the Revolution was all about the Terror, when that was not so at all, at least in the early part.  In spite of what Dickens gets wrong, though, A Tale of Two Cities is a wonderful story.  After all, Dickens was a novelist, not a historian.

A Tale of Two Cities has often been considered Dickens' darkest novel, and that might be true, even though there are plenty of tragic things that happen in his other novels as well.  Unlike many of Dickens' other novels, though, A Tale of Two Cities contains very little comic relief.  The only comic elements involve the bullying lawyer, Stryver, and his attempts to court the heroine, Lucie, even though everyone except Stryver knows that he has no chance with her.  Also, the scenes of squabbling between Jerry Cruncher, messenger of Tellson's Bank by day and grave robber by night, and his wife are probably meant to be comic, even though to a modern reader they come across as downright abusive.  Jerry does, however, promise to reform at the end.  So there is very little to relieve the tragedy.  Also, A Tale of Two Cities is much shorter than most of Dickens' novels.  And, of course, it is one of only two (Barnaby Rudge is the other) that does not take place in Dickens' own time.  It is by no means a typical Dickens novel.

The story may be familiar to many of you.  Even if you have not read the novel, you might have seen one of several film or TV adaptations, the best, and the most famous, of which is the 1935 film starring Ronald Colman.  But I will go over it for the sake of people who don't know it, and to refresh your memory if you read it a long time ago.  Please be warned: I will give away the ending.  I hesitated about doing this, but it is a very famous ending, and there have been many references to it, in other books.  Other authors have made use of the same plot device, including one of my favorite authors, Katherine Neville, in her novel The Eight.  If you do not want to know how the novel ends, you can skip to the end of this review.

One thing I had forgotten, and which I suspect most people don't realize, is that much of A Tale of Two Cities actually takes place before the French Revolution.  The storming of the Bastille does not happen until more than halfway through the book.  It is the events of the second half of the book that most people remember.  After an unforgettable opening: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times..." the book begins in 1775, with Jarvis Lorry, a banker of Tellson's Bank, which has branches in London and Paris, riding in the Dover coach when Jerry Cruncher approaches him with a message: "Recalled to Life."  It turns out that Lorry's friend, the French physician Dr. Alexandre Manette, is still alive after being imprisoned in the Bastille for eighteen years.  Lorry goes to Paris with Manette's daughter Lucie, who has never known her father, and finds Manette living in a room above a wine shop owned by his old servant Defarge and his wife, Madame Defarge, who will become a bloodthirsty revolutionary and the villain of the novel.  Manette is on the verge of insanity after his long imprisonment, and he works as a shoemaker.  His reunion with his daughter restores his mind, but, at times of extreme emotional distress throughout the novel, he will return to his shoemaking bench.

Manette and Lucie return to London, where Lucie is courted by two suitors: Charles Darnay, a French nobleman who has rejected the values of his aristocratic family and lives as a French tutor in England, and Sydney Carton, a bitter, cynical, hard-drinking English lawyer.  As mentioned above, Carton's law partner, Stryver, is a comic third suitor, even though he never has much of a chance.  Carton and Darnay look alike, and when Darnay is tried for treason early in the novel, it is Carton's resemblance to him that leads to his acquittal.  Carton is, to me as well as to many readers, the outstanding character of the novel.  We know very little of his past, but Dickens hints that something terrible had happened to him, to make him so cynical, and we do know that he lost his parents very young.  In spite of his cynical exterior, he is a good and generous man, always more ready to help others than himself.  At first, only Lucie sees the goodness in him.  He eventually withdraws his suit because he thinks he is not worthy of her and because he knows she loves Darnay.

Lucie and Darnay marry, and soon a daughter, little Lucie, is born.  Carton disappears from much of the novel, only to reappear much later, to bring about the unforgettable conclusion.  The scene moves to France, where we meet the cruel Marquis St. Evrémonde, who turns out to be Darnay's uncle.  In another very memorable scene, the Marquis' carriage runs over a boy, and all the heartless Marquis cares about is whether there was any damage to his carriage.  One evening when Darnay is visiting his uncle, the child's father kills the Marquis in his bed.  Darnay inherits the title, but without revealing his true identity to Lucie.  The only person who knows is Dr. Manette, and the revelation brings about one of his episodes of insanity, when he turns to his shoemaking bench.

Meanwhile, the wine-shop owner Defarge belongs to a secret revolutionary society in his Paris neighborhood, the Faubourg Saint-Antoine.  In real life, this was a working-class area, but by no means as poverty-stricken as Dickens describes it.  This secret society, in which all the members call each other "Jacques," is also fictitious.  The Defarges, husband and wife, participate in the storming of the Bastille, and, in Dickens' version, it is Madame Defarge, by far the more bloodthirsty of the two, who cuts off the head of the governor of the Bastille.  Madame Defarge is, besides Sydney Carton, the most memorable character in the novel.  She is an absolutely terrifying villain, knitting at the foot of the guillotine and including the names of people who are to be sent there, in secret code as part of her knitting.  As we find out later, though, she has a motive for her villainy.

Dickens, as I mentioned before, skips over the years between 1789 and 1792 and goes directly to the September Massacres, one of the most notorious episodes of mob violence in the French Revolution, in which well over a thousand prisoners were massacred.  In London, Darnay receives a letter from an old servant of his, saying that he is in prison and in danger, and Darnay decides to go back to Paris to rescue him, even though he knows the danger to himself, as an aristocrat.  Lucie, her father, her daughter, and her companion Miss Pross soon follow.  Darnay is imprisoned after the Defarges denounce him, but he escapes with his life after the September Massacres because Dr. Manette, as a former prisoner in the Bastille, has influence with the revolutionaries.  He is not free to go, however.  Instead, he languishes in prison for over a year, awaiting trial.  At his first trial before the Revolutionary Tribunal, Darnay is acquitted after Dr. Manette testifies in his favor, but the Defarges are not satisfied.  Darnay is re-arrested that same night, and Defarge produces a document that Dr. Manette had left in his cell in the Bastille, and which Defarge had taken during the storming of the Bastille.  It contains the story of how Dr. Manette was summoned to the bedside of a young peasant brother and sister, who were fatally wounded, and, in the girl's case, raped, by the Marquis St. Evrémonde and his brother, Darnay's father.  At the end of the document, Dr. Manette had cursed the whole family, down to its last descendant, not knowing, of course, that his daughter would marry the Marquis' nephew.  Also, as it turns out, Madame Defarge is the younger sister of the two young peasants killed by the St. Evrémonde brothers, and that explains her implacable hatred of the family.

It is here that Sydney Carton makes his reappearance.  He decides to sacrifice himself to save the husband of the woman he loves, and he visits Darnay in his prison cell and trades places with him.  Meanwhile, Madame Defarge, who has gone in search of Lucie and her daughter, hoping they'll be sent to the guillotine, is accidentally killed by Lucie's companion Miss Pross.  Carton is guillotined in place of Darnay, and his last line is unforgettable: "It is a far, far better thing I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to, than I have ever known."  Carton, the rogue, is redeemed at the end by his self-sacrifice.

A Tale of Two Cities does have its flaws.  As I mentioned before, Dickens sees the French Revolution as being only about the Terror, and he exaggerates the number of victims of the guillotine.  All of his revolutionary characters are bloodthirsty, even though the aristocrats are no better.  Interestingly, Dickens never mentions the revolutionary leaders such as Robespierre, Danton, and Marat, by name.  The closest he comes to it is in a scene towards the end where Dr. Manette goes to plead with certain revolutionary leaders for Darnay's life, after Darnay is condemned by the Tribunal, and it is easy to speculate that Dickens means Robespierre and Danton.  You do not see the scene, only its consequences, when Dr. Manette relapses into insanity and asks for his shoemaking bench, not knowing that his friend Lorry has destroyed it.  Some of the leading characters are one-dimensional.  The heroine, Lucie, is too saintly to be believable, but she does have a certain quiet strength when she goes out in all kinds of weather to stand beneath Darnay's prison cell, hoping he will get a glimpse of her.  Darnay is also almost too good to be believable.  He does make a huge mistake in coming back to Paris at a very dangerous time, but it's for a very good reason, to come to the aid of a friend in need.  Madame Defarge has no redeeming qualities, but she is an extremely memorable character, and, as mentioned above, she does have a motive in the atrocities committed by the Marquis and his brother against her family.  Any flaws in the novel, however, can easily be overlooked.  It is a wonderful story, with themes of self-sacrifice and redemption.

I highly recommend the annotated edition of A Tale of Two Cities with notes by author and French Revolution expert Susanne Alleyn.  She is the author of an excellent novel, A Far Better Rest, which reimagines Sydney Carton in the years in which he disappears from the narrative of A Tale of Two Cities.  Also, her Aristide Ravel mysteries, set in the French Revolution, are wonderful.  Alleyn's notes contain many details about the history behind the novel, including what Dickens got wrong.  She also explains the meaning of certain words Dickens uses, which are unfamiliar to us.  In an appendix, Alleyn reviews the various films and TV adaptations of A Tale of Two Cities and concludes that the 1935 Ronald Colman film is still the best.  Unfortunately, the library does not own Alleyn's edition, even though it is readily available online.  Readers should be aware, though, that p. 161 is misprinted in the print edition, even though it is fine in the electronic edition.

The library owns many other editions of A Tale of Two Cities, including this edition, with copies in the Hatcher Graduate Library, the Shapiro Undergraduate Library, the Buhr Shelving Facility, and an electronic copy, available via HathiTrust.