A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens

by Robert A. Parker

This 1859 work is not the real Dickens, the classic Dickens. I wanted to return to a classic of my high school days, and I chose this work both because I recalled its strong narrative drive and because I still have an interest in the French Revolution.

But, while this work did not offer what I had expected, I found that from the beginning I was in the hands of a master. Dickens quickly proved himself in the control of his material, and he also exhibited a rich, rewarding style. His famous opening, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” certainly reflects this. Moreover, the initial focus on the English bank, Tellson’s, that does business in France, and the mysterious mission of Jarvis Lorry, a bank manager, both drew me into the novel and introduced the contrasting backgrounds of England and France, as well as a few of the main characters.

And yet as I moved further into the work, I sensed considerable preparatory work, such as the London trial of Darnay and his similar appearance to Sidney Carton enabling him to avoid sentencing. Dickens was also introducing here the power of the mob and the themes of innocence and injustice. Not to forget that the title reflected his wish to create similarities between a civil London society and a different, revolutionary French society.

I could also see him setting up his dramatic finale, especially when Sidney Carton, not a strongly drawn character, one of simple contradictions, swears his love and loyalty to the golden heroine Lucie Manette, whom Charles Darnay also loves. Indeed, for me, Darnay is the more interesting character, as a former French aristocrat who has rejected his cruel, arbitrary ancestors and turned English gentleman.

So slowly, this novel moved from a classic work for me to very rich historical fiction. This was Dickens using all his literary skills, but using them in the interest of his narrative. Most prominent is a resurrection theme, starting with Carton’s continual repetition of “I am the resurrection and the life, saith the Lord,” as he commits himself to saving the life of Darnay. It is a resurrection theme that begins on the opening pages with the message, “recalled to life,” that Lorry sends back to his bank. It is also reflected in the rescue, and then revival, of Dr. Manette, Lucie’s father, as well as Darnay’s triple (London, Paris, and Paris) rescue from an evil fate.

Another prominent theme is sacrifice and redemption. By Sidney Carton, especially. But also Darnay, who has given up his wealth and title for a sense of justice. And just so for Dr. Manette, who sacrificed 18 years of his life. While a corollary suggests the sacrifice of one, Darnay, for the many, and the sacrifice of the many to satisfy the one, such as Madam Defarge.

Antonio Conejos has perceptively written: “The resulting irony is that while Darnay returns to save a common man (in the singular sense), it is the common man (in the collective sense) that will be the death of him…. Predictably the mob cares nothing for his noble ideals, the honorable nature of his trip or the fact that he has renounced his name and chosen to make his own way in England. The crowd must have all aristocratic blood, and Darnay is swiftly imprisoned upon his return….This conflict is the essence of the Tale of Two Cities. On one hand you have grand, ambitions movements, full of generalizations, abstract sentiment and vague rhetoric. On the other you have individuals who…are noble people…because they are sound enough to exercise their own proper judgment.”

Dickens himself wrote that he did not emphasize characterizations when he wrote this novel, that he wished the emphasis to be on the narrative. I would note, however, that his work is most effective when he keeps his characters in the foreground. The work is not nearly as effective, for example, when he leaves his characters in order to narrate certain historic moments, such as the storming of the Bastille. One feels he was writing then out of research then, rather than out of a personal interpretation of an experience.

One character continually cited by critics is Madam Defarge, whom they say outshines the other characters in her determination, her evil, and her characteristic knitting. She does dominate everyone in her scenes, especially her husband who once served Dr. Minette. But for Dickens, she balances the altruistic Sidney Carton, as the author contrasts the evil and the goodness to be found in both London and Parisian societies. Apparently, Dickens was drawn to this subject by the contradictions he saw everywhere in the lives of the wealthy and the poor, the powerful and the weak. And what happens when the poor become powerful and the wealthy become weak.

I would also note that, as dramatic as some of the chapters are, I often found it difficult to remember where the action left off when I returned to the novel. This suggests a lack of continuity, of one development leading inevitably to the next. Not least because this is a very complicated plot, and at times appears to be more the author moving on to a new development.

For example, when Darnay returns to Paris in order to save a colleague who has been arrested. This very arbitrarily sets up the long dramatic finale. There is also Carton fortuitously encountering a British spy, Solomon Pross, and blackmailing him into helping to save Darnay. Finally, there is Dr. Minette’s letter of long ago, found in the ruins of the Bastille. It suddenly appears at an (in)opportune moment, and is quite long for the circumstances under which it was written.

But beyond the narrative momentum, the lack of continuity may also reflect the creation of the novel, which originally appeared as 31 weekly installments. Which was typical of Dickens’ era, and particularly of himself.

To conclude, I should try more of Dickens before reaching any conclusions about him. This is out of his mainstream; it is not the personal story of a youth or of English society. Yet one can see why it was introduced into high school classrooms of the past: its history, its balance of good and evil, its strong narrative drive, and its resurrection theme. (August, 2014)