What if your greatest act in life is to be killed?
A Tale of Two Cities is a classic novel by Charles Dickens. Normally, I try to stay away from classics – this was the first I’ve read in around three years. All I remembered from when I was a kid attempting to dig through the never-ending tale of Moby Dick but a good friend convinced me that we would tackle classics together. This book was the first on our list, and it was a breathtaking journey. When two literature students spend a month slowly reading through such an adventurous novel, well, there’s nothing short of a literary adventure in the making.
The novel is based around the French Revolution (the mother of all revolutions in modern history) but it doesn’t just jump into the blood and gore right away. Instead, Dickens opens with a beautiful sentence – an extremely long sentence – depicting the times, the plight of the French peasantry as the aristocracy so daintily trampled all over them in the pre-Revolution years.
“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–in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”
A large portion of the book focuses on the pre-revolution period, slowly combining various story lines in the most subtle ways, and softly highlighting the mistreatment of the lower classes and the grandiose indifference of the rich. Often, when you read a classic novel, you read it more for the beauty of the mechanics than for the actual story line, but Dickens makes the plot line just as intriguing by introducing and maintain a connection with several protagonists. (To read more about what I mean by the “mechanics” of a novel, skip to the next paragraph.) We are introduced to Charles Darnay, a man who abandons a life of frivolous debauchery among the French aristocracy to earn an honest day’s bread as a French teacher in England, his subsequent love interest, a wrongfully imprisoned doctor who is barely hanging on his sanity, and an uppity lawyer with a sniveling little assistant. These characters lead completely separate lives and are brought together by the most deliciously unexpected plot twists, resulting in moments of catastrophic anxiety for the readers.
So what were the “mechanics” of this novel? Well, by using the word “mechanics”, I mean the way the novel functioned – how the story plays out with regards to the novel’s structure and how the development of the various characters ties in with the unraveling of the plot. Dickens proves his mastery in this regard by doing something that many modern-day novelists seem to have forgotten – he does not tell the reader how to connect the dots. Instead, he just lays the dots out and continues on his way, a merry story-teller till the end, and waits for you to pick up the pieces. Rather than stating the obvious, Dickens decided to have faith in his readers’ ability to keep speed.
Another aspect of the novel that I quite enjoyed was the polite way in which characters were mocked. The whole ‘the elite mistreat the poor‘ thing has been done so many times. Countless articles, novels, and documentaries have drummed this into our head. Studying the conflict perspective (conflict theory) in my university Sociology course this semester was really the last nail in the coffin for me.
Conflict theories are perspectives in social science that emphasize the social, political, or material inequality of a social group, that critique the broad socio-political system, or that otherwise detract from structural functionalism and ideological conservativism. Conflict theories draw attention to power differentials, such as class conflict, and generally contrast historically dominant ideologies. It is therefore a macro level analysis of society. Karl Marx is the father of the social conflict theory…
Now instead of just bashing the thoughtlessly evil aristocracy with abstract words and preaching to his audience, Dickens takes you on a journey where you are auto-zoomed in and out various situations. In each scenario, certain characters come together and a scene is enacted. Then it is up to you to draw your conclusions or if you are particularly pre-occupied (perhaps your mother is yelling at your or your house has suddenly caught fire, or a man is offering to sell you his socks in exchange for a cookie) not draw any conclusions at all.
The two cities mentioned in the title are of course France and England, and many unflattering parallels of social life are drawn between England and France throughout the novel. The characters’ stories traipse back and forth so frequently that you almost forget there weren’t airplanes back then.
So that’s what I loved about the novel. It was a wonderful experience, and the adrenaline rush I got off of studying it in such depth (I couldn’t show you all my depth in one blog post without giving away all the spicy bits) that I have now embarked on a 22-book commitment to classic novels. Here’s to good literature!
For all your true bookworms, and those of you who have read the books, my friend Faria Kalim compiled a list of points to ponder. Whether you use this to help you with an English course of just exercise your mind, I guarantee it’ll get your brain juices flowing.
- Dark vs. light – Madame Defarge vs Lucie – the two main female contenders.
- Mrs.Pross kills Madame Defarge unwittingly , ‘for love’. Is it still murder or is it justified?
- Power of women – Sydney dies for Lucie, and Madame Defarge has wrought evil during the French Revolution, is ready to kill Lucie and Manetter, and does not heed her husband’s objections to the murder of innocents. The same gender which is the epitome of a homemaker can also produce a murderer. The theme of opposites is found everywhere in the book
- Golden hair – why is it such a big deal? Does this tie into the whole light vs. dark and purity/innocence thing?
- The superlative degree is characteristic of Dicken’s writing:
“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.”
- Contrast between the Marquis and Darnay. Marquis’s beauty is described in terms of great fragility – which raises a few questions in our mind. Does the Marquis stand for the nobility? If so, does Dickens’ imply that the nobility is just as terrible, beautiful and fragile as the Marquis? Clearly, the arrogance that pervades them all is a most definite cause of their downfall:
“We have so asserted our station, both in the old time and in the modern time also,” said the nephew , gloomily, “that I believe our name to be more detested than any name in France.”
“Let us hope so,” said the uncle. “Detestation of the high is the involuntary homage of the low.”
- We must also remember that although Lucie is described as the most helplessly innocent and beatific female alive, (possibly a great offence to the feminists of today) she is the quintessential female of Dicken’s time. Even during the sorrow of her husband’s captivity, she does not falter from her duties: “She was truest to them in the season of trial , as all the quietly loyal and good will always be.” And is otherwise, it is said of this paragon : “Although the Doctor’s daughter had known nothing of the country of her birth, she appeared to have innately derived from it that ability to make much of little means, which is one of the its most useful and most agreeable characteristics.”
- Dicken’s style: Elaborate, verbose, with significant crescendos and diminuendos. Example: “A wonderful fact to reflect upon , that every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other.”
- Irony : “It was too much the way of Monseigneur under his reverses as a refugee and it was too much the way of native British orthodoxy, to talk of this terrible Revolution as if it were the only harvest ever known under the skies that had not been sown-as if nothing had ever been done, or omitted to be done, that had led to it – as if observers of the wretched millions in France, and of the misused and perverted resources that should have made them prosperous, had not seen it inevitable coming…”
- Humour – Example: Sydney to Barsad: “I could not better testify my respect for your sister than by finally relieving her of her brother.”
- Also, characters of Miss Pross and Jerry Cruncher.
- Religious references: Perhaps a significant part of morality to Dickens’ is to have faith and belief in God, which is why Carton soothes himself at the end with references to the bible: “I am the resurrection and the life, said the Lord…” There may have been a contrast in Dickens’ mind between Christ who according to Christian faith, died for the sins of his people, and Carton who died to atone for his. There are also countless references to meeting in Heaven.
- Foreshadowing may include a comparison between Manette being “recalled to life” and Carton serving his purpose by being recalled from it.
“You have been the last dream of my soul.” And she literally is, also.
- Climax – the horror of being convicted by his own father-in-law.
- Does Carton truly reach is his pinnacle at the end of the book? Or is the real tragedy that a man who had finally begun to realize the worth of his life simply gave it away for another man? Or does Carton’s real achievement lie in the fact that he gave his life away for a cause that he deemed was worthy, and thus was content with his end, as he considered his life well-spent.