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!