If someone were to ask me what my favourite book is, I admit that I would deem it an exceedingly difficult question to respond to. I am a strong believer in the idea that a good work of fiction will never fail to have some kind of impact upon its reader, and that a true emotional connection can be formed if only one will take the time to appreciate the words before them; for me personally, I always know that I have enjoyed a book if I can visualise in my mind’s eye exactly where I was and what I felt as I read it (for instance, I am currently recalling how my little gold-paged copy of the subject of this post was the only thing getting me through those terror-inducing train journeys into school to take my dreaded AS examinations). However, despite the fact that I could quite easily produce a highly extensive list of fantastic reading experiences, it is also true that there have been certain books which have really spoken to me, books which have stayed with me due to both their plots and their beautiful writing, books which have made me wish that I could discover them for the first time all over again. From my perspective, there is little doubt that A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens is such a book.
“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…” and so continues Dickens with his list of contradicting phrases, the series of antithetical statements not only perfectly summing up the myriad of political, social and religious conflicts which pervaded the Victorian era, but also making for one of the most famous novel openings in the literary sphere. It is the combination of these things which convinces me that there is something absolutely wonderful and enlightening about reading classic works of literature, as it is truly fascinating how words which were written almost two centuries ago have been able to touch such a chord with readers over the years so as to almost imprint themselves onto human consciousness, while still offering us in the 21st century a unique historical insight into a whole other world. For indeed, Dickens is certainly tackling a momentous period of history in this novel, the two cities of the title being London and Paris and the narrative following Dr. Manette, his daughter Lucie, her husband Charles Darnay and the family’s acquaintances as they travel between the two capitals amidst the horrors of the late 18th century’s French Revolution. As is perhaps only to be expected from such a premise, one of the things I most loved about this novel was how it is so action-packed and dramatic as to provoke the same sort of compulsion and heart-stopping suspense more commonly afforded to TV dramas, and although the plot’s complexity means I will not attempt to go into it in detail in this post, I must now add a SPOILER warning as certain parts of my response may give away pertinent points.
It was not too far into the novel’s first part, intriguingly entitled ‘Recalled to Life’ (this encapsulating one of the book’s most important and thought-provoking themes, which I shall discuss more about later in this post), that I not only began to realise that I would really have to pay attention if I was to have any hope of keeping up with the numerous characters being interjected into the narrative left right and centre, but also began to be overwhelmed by a great sense of mystery. In fact, I would even go so far as to say that this was one of the things I most loved as I continued to read, since as every new page was turned and the print translated itself from incomprehensible shapes into recognisable mental images, more and more questions began to pervade my consciousness. What exactly happened to Dr. Manette to put him in the incarcerated state in which we first see him? What are the terrible secrets of Charles Darnay’s past? Who was it that was behind the bloody murder of Monsieur the Marquis? Although any fellow reader will know just how frustrating it can be to have such questions in one’s head due to the absolute desperation to have them answered quickly, it is also true that such a defining characteristic of the narrative truly made for an utterly compelling opening which really succeeded to draw me in, while also boggling my mind at how anybody could possibly stereotype Victorian literature as dull or monotonous when it contains such moments of exciting intrigue.
It perhaps goes without saying that whenever one thinks about A Tale of Two Cities one simply has no choice but to pay some consideration to the manner in which Dickens has chosen to depict his version of France during the Revolution. Despite, until only recently, always studying History as one of my subjects at school, the limitations of the years’ syllabuses have meant that I have never officially learnt about this most controversial of historical periods, and so I must admit that I did not have a deep prior knowledge about the French Revolution (save for what little I knew from watching the gorgeously artistic Sofia Coppola film Marie Antoinette). Maybe this ignorance rendered my image of the Revolution more susceptible to the influence of Dickens’s words, but there is no denying that by the time I finished the book the author’s powerful language had painted such a savagely brutal picture of life in France under the people’s Republic as to leave me reeling in absolute horror at what I had encountered.
It seemed incomprehensible to me – as it obviously did to Dickens and likely to many of his contemporaries in England at the time – that anyone in France could possibly think that this society of extreme oppression and inhumanity was in any way an improvement on the monarchical society they had overthrown; at least in this latter there was, even if the king and queen were as neglectful as they were accused to be, some semblance of authority and order, as opposed to the manic and terrible chaos which Dickens presents the replacement society to embody. Take Madame Defarge, and her Nazi-esque agenda of exterminating anybody who does not fit in with the type of society her and others like her are trying to create (this hence seeing them killing off anybody who belongs to the nobility); take the informers and spies lurking around every corner, ready to denounce and rip to pieces anyone who could be so ‘treasonous’ as to show any sign of grief as their loved ones are executed for being enemies of the Republic; take the barbaric sadism which has spread like a virus through the streets of Paris, causing citizens to worship the guillotine as if it were a deity and attend beheadings with a thirst for blood. Such a depiction of rebellion seemed miles apart from the ‘Do You Hear The People Sing’ sense of comradery and greatness which epitomises the revolutionary actions in Les Miserables, and made me realise just how ironic and misleading the ‘Liberty, Equality, Fraternity’ slogan was; for indeed, it appeared that this was seriously lacking one very significant aspect of the Republic : ‘Death’.
Another element of Dickens’s novel which really appealed to me was his effective use of metaphor; in particular I was captivated by the author’s extended metaphor of the sea to represent the rising of revolution in France. An example of this can be seen at the beginning of Chapter 24, where Dickens writes, “the firm earth shaken by the rushes of an angry ocean which had now no ebb, but was always on the flow, higher and higher, to the terror and wonder of the beholders on the shore.” By creating such a forceful image, its sense of terror particularly heightened by the foreboding repetition “higher and higher”, it can be said that Dickens is intending to represent that the Revolution is, just like the ocean, a natural force which, although seemingly majestic at first, is something that is inevitable and quickly becomes sinister and frightening as one realises that they are powerless to stop or control it.
Reading A Tale of Two Cities has also made me deem Dickens to truly be a ‘master of the metaphor’, another particularly noteworthy one being the ‘golden thread’ metaphor: Lucie Manette, with her golden hair and beauty, is the character to whom this imagery applies, she being the one who is able to unite her father with his present and prevent him from dwelling in the maddening turmoil of his past, while also being the binding force that shapes the tapestry of family life as it weaves itself together over the years. This metaphor, although very simple and subtle, was one that truly touched me, as amidst all the bloodshed, hatred and anger of the scenes in France, here was a beautiful and gentle reminder of the goodness and purity that could still exist in human nature.
As well as Lucie Manette, there were a number of other characters in the novel whom I found to provide a welcome contrast in terms of their absolutely admirable natures being representative of human goodness. Miss Pross for instance, the young Lucie’s governess and later the family’s companion, is in my opinion a complete marvel of a woman, never shrinking away from her unashamed patriotism and courage, and showing such loyalty to the family as to even sacrifice her hearing during a struggle with Madame Defarge in order to save them (I realise this sounds rather unusual, but you’ll just have to read it to find out…). However, when I turned the final page and returned the book to my crowded shelf with a contented sigh, the character who had earned himself the warmest place in my memory was none other than Sydney Carton, an English lawyer who bears a striking resemblance to Charles Darnay and who travels to France along with the other protagonists. Admittedly I had initially dismissed his character as being too inexplicable for my liking and had thus deemed him untrustworthy, yet my qualms were converted into something close to love in the moment it took me to understand just how honourable his plan is at the end of the novel. As I realised how Dickens had cleverly been planting seeds in the narrative to lead up to this scene (for indeed, when it was first mentioned I didn’t consider how relevant Carton’s physical similarity to Darnay would later prove to be), and that Carton would now be saving Darnay’s life for the second time by sacrificing himself to the guillotine in the latter’s place due to his secret love for Lucie and his resulting desire for her happiness, I sat back, took a deep breathe and said to myself, “What a good man.”
As is argued by Sam Gilpin in the afterword of my edition of the novel, it can perhaps be said that by ‘becoming’ Darnay in this way Carton is in fact becoming a better version of himself, that taking on the name of his lookalike is bringing out the very sort of kindness in him that Darnay so embodies, a kindness which is indeed exhibited towards the frightened young girl with whom he shares his journey to the guillotine. This idea of a clear parallel can also be seen in a number of other instances in A Tale of Two Cities: obviously there are the titular cities, Paris and London, the terror of one contrasting with the relative safety of the other; the much more civilised and just nature of Darnay’s first court case in London directly opposes his second at the Republic’s court in Paris; Manette’s wrongful imprisonment at the beginning of the novel is later replaced by that of Darnay; one French system of repression takes the place of another, and so the list of parallels goes on.
Another theme in this novel which I was particularly interested by was that which, as I have mentioned earlier, is best summed up by the phrase ‘Recalled to Life’, the ‘revival’ of Manette from his sub-human state back into an active member of civilised society prefiguring how a letter he wrote in the past is recalled, to disastrous effect, at Darnay’s trial in France. In my opinion, both of these things can actually be read as a metaphor for the idea that our past will always have a bearing on our present whether we want it to or not, just as the past mistreatment by Darnay’s noble family towards the poor one of Madame Defarge has now hardened her to a lust for revenge on Darnay, even though he himself is innocent. And while this is clearly a highly extreme example, I believe that this idea is one that is just as prevalent in society today, for it is as true as ever to say that one can never truly escape the consequences of one’s actions or those of people close to them. In my eyes, the fact that Dickens was writing almost 200 years ago about something which is still applicable today is one of the most fascinating things not only about this book specifically, but indeed about the concept of literature as a whole.
Link to BBC History page on Charles Dickens: http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/dickens_charles.shtml