book review: a tale of two cities

After eighteen years as a political prisoner in the Bastille, the ageing Doctor Manette is finally released and reunited with his daughter in England. There the lives of two very different men, Charles Darnay, an exiled French aristocrat, and Sydney Carton, a disreputable but brilliant English lawyer, become enmeshed through their love for Lucie Manette. From the tranquil roads of London, they are drawn against their will to the vengeful, bloodstained streets of Paris at the height of the Reign of Terror, and they soon fall under the lethal shadow of La Guillotine.


Great Expectations used to be my favorite Dickens, but after re-reading A Tale of Two Cities recently, I realized that that was no longer the case.  Great Expectations is a great classic (no pun intended) and the two books come pretty close to being tied, but ATOTC just has more for me, personally, with all the awesome characters (Pip doesn’t have many sterling qualities about him) and the themes of revolution and self-sacrifice.  It truly is a masterpiece.  And it’s also one of the only books that my mom has ever expressly forbidden me to read (though the ban was lifted – obviously).  Why?  Because I was galloping through Austen and Brönte and Dickens at such a great speed that she didn’t think she’d have anything left to teach me in Literature and she really wanted us to go through ATOTC.  Trust me, it was frustrating, not being able to read it but when I was able to, I read the whole thing in about three days (despite the slow pace that I was supposed to stick to) and it was glorious.  Dickens can tell a ripping good story AND leave the reader an emotional mess by the end.

That’s what I call good writing, people.

Dickens’ writing style is unique,  of course, and quite easy to read, although his ramblings do get a little hard to take sometimes (like Victor Hugo, though not quite as bad).  There are a few parts of ATOTC that I tend to skim over now that I’ve read the book once, like the chapters with Jerry Cruncher.  Yawn.  I know what he’s up to and it’s disgusting and I’d rather get to the more important things.  Oh, and some of the more wordy bits concerning the French Revolution are skippable too, because I’m not as interested in that time period as I used to be.  And I also give some of the Jacquery meetings a miss.  But as for the rest (and I only skim very small parts, really) it’s amazingly good, with the fast-paced plot, great characters (none of them are flat – not even Lucie or Charles), and Dickens’ arresting prose.

I think that the characters are what everyone most remembers about this book, especially Madame Defarge and Sydney Carton.  But let me make a case for Lucie before I talk about anyone else.  Because first of all…Lucie is not weak.  Yes, she faints maybe two or three times in the course of the story, but what about how she stands outside the prison every day for over a year, no matter the weather, just because Charles might get a chance to see her?  That takes some strength.  And she doesn’t take to fainting and crying and getting all down in the dumps when Charles is captured, either, but continues on in France just as she did in England.  And she does try to help Sydney which, frankly, is more than any other character in the novel does. (Even Sydney himself.)  Now, as for Charles I don’t have much good or much bad to say against him.  He’s a gentleman, he’s kind, he’s brave, but I don’t think Dickens devoted much time to developing his character, unfortunately.

Sydney, though.  It’s hard to fangirl over Sydney (though I do occasionally indulge) because he is such a dissolute, drunken, depressed character and I can’t really condone that kind of lifestyle.  But he does become better over time (character development, you know, even if he doesn’t see it in himself) and his final scenes more than make up for everything else. (Of course, by that time I’m hardly in the mood or state to be analytical, but I can try here.)  Self-sacrifice always gets me and the last chapter of ATOTC is one of the most heartbreaking (but at the same time, uplifting) endings in literary history, one that has made people cry for literally centuries.  Before I read the full book, I got my hands on the Wishbone edition (figured it wasn’t cheating on Mom’s restrictions because putting a dog in classic literature is the weirdest) and as the last scene didn’t have Wishbone in it (because he played Charles), I was crying my eyes out.  And I’ve never gotten over Sydney since. (I mean, when I finished the book a couple days ago, I was sobbing.  A lot.  So, I definitely haven’t gotten used to the feels.)

As for the other characters, Madame Defarge makes a chilling villainess, Mr Lorry is one of my favorite characters – as is Miss Pross – and I’ll always feel sorry for Doctor Manette. (I know there are others, but I want to get this post wrapped up.)  Each character, whether minor or major, has an important part in the story (Miss Pross, anyone?) and I find it fascinating, the way that Dickens weaves every story thread together.  Such a good author…

Have you read A Tale of Two Cities?  What did you think of it?  Of Sydney?  I look forward to hearing your thoughts!



24 thoughts on “book review: a tale of two cities

  1. No, I haven’t read it . . . I probably should, though. I mean, it’s a classic. And I’ve always loved Sydney Carton’s famous line–you know, that one. 🙂


  2. I’ve read this and cried at the end. Goodness, and the opening is BEAUTIFUL. It’s been a couple years. I should reread it. 🙂


  3. I definitely agree with you on Lucie – no way is she weak. She shows amazing strength and resilience of spirit. She’s endured crazy amounts of tribulation, but can still show compassion and hope towards others.

    Sydney saddens my heart. I wanted him to change SO BADLY and find happiness. His famous last words echoed in my mind for weeks after I read ATOTC. I may need to design something with those words…..

    Overall, I love that book – definitely more than Great Expectations. We had to write an essay on it for Brit. Lit. when I was in high school and it was one of my favorites; but I don’t remember what the topic was now.


  4. You read that in three days? I find that… hard to believe! Gracious! I absolutely adore this book, it was incredible. Gripping, wonderful, sad, all those things I love in a book. And Sydney. He is a beautiful example of… well, us! He is a sad, messed up, and lazy man, going nowhere. But then because he has a great love, he changes himself slightly, and sacrifices himself. His life didn’t end in waste the way he thought it would.

    Also, random question, are those Audrey Hepburn blogathon things on the side of your blog put up by you or are they just advertisements?


    • I read super-fast, especially if it’s a book I love. (Also, I’ve had tons of time on my hands lately, for whatever reason, so that helps.) You pretty much summed up my opinion of the book (and Sydney) in one paragraph. *siiiiigh* Such an amazing read.

      Nope, those are just advertisements! If you click on them, they’ll take you to their respective blogathon pages.


      • Wow, impressive! (Just in case it came across that way, I didn’t mean I didn’t ACTUALLY believe you, it’s just impressive :D)
        Ah, well I clicked on the top one but the second one has a word that I was a surprised to see on what I thought was a clean blog. The top one looks fun though.


      • Oh, no, the bottom button says Flickin’ Out. Not what you thought (I thought the same thing when I first saw the button, but then I went to the actual blog). I try to keep this blog clean. 🙂


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  6. I love, love, love this book! And yes, I skim parts of it. And even though Sydney’s not a “good” guy, I can’t help liking him so, so much. And LUCIE IS NOT WEAK!!!!!


      • You’re not alone — lots of people think that, because I love so many other British classics. But reading most of his books is like eating kale for me — way too much work, and very little taste benefit. I make myself do it, though, because, also like kale, he’s good for me. So every few years, I slog through one just to be good.

        Some time, I will reread ATOTC — I think it’s on my Classics Club list.


      • That’s an interesting comparison – kale and Dickens. 🙂 I find his books very hard to read unless I’ve watched a movie or miniseries beforehand (preferably a good one). Apparently, he was paid by the word so he loaded his books with characters and descriptions. So I don’t blame you for not enjoying his writing much.


      • I realized recently, though, that it’s his writing style I dislike, not the stories he tells, so I’m planning to watch more movie adaptations of his stuff in the future.


      • The musical-in-concert version of AToTC is worth looking into. The music is great and a lot of the lines are taken straight from the book (or slightly paraphrased). And, of course, the ’35 movie version that I just reviewed.


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