Charles Dickens always amazes me. I’ve been meaning to read this book for some 20 years. Maybe longer. Why did I wait this long? I ask you…
Five stars. Yes, there’s a reason why this book is so famous. And after (finally) reading, I’m in complete agreement. It was wonderful. And without further adieu, I’ll give my 5 reasons why I loved this book…
A Tale of Two Cities // by Charles Dickens
#1 – The Purple Prose
I don’t always like purple prose. But Charles Dickens is the master. And yes, there’s a lot of purple prose in this book. Just look at the opening lines… possibly the most famous lines Dickens ever wrote (although A Christmas Carol might give this one a run for its money)… These lines are absolutely beautiful.
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.
(Book the First, Chapter 1)
What’s amazing about those lines is that they actually mean something to the story. Sure, it’s purple prose, but it demonstrates the dual-nature, the good and the bad, of the French Revolution. Dickens’ point is that the peasants needed relief from the tyranny of the aristocrats… But the bloody results made this the worst of the times.
But, that’s not our only example. This book is chock-full. Here’s a less familiar quote, but it’s equally just as poignant:
He had never seen the instrument that was to terminate his life. How high it was from the ground, how many steps it had, where he would be stood, how he would be touched, whether the touching hands would be dyed red, which way his face would be turned, whether he would be the first, or might be the last: these and many similar questions, in nowise directed by his will, obtruded themselves over and over again, countless times…
The hours went on as he walked to and fro, and the clocks struck the numbers he would never hear again. Nine gone for ever, ten gone for ever, eleven gone for ever, twelve coming on to pass away.
(Book the Third, Chapter 13)
If you love words, you’re in for a treat.
#2 – The Characters
I loved old Mr. Lorry (that man of business!). And the Doctor. And Lucie and Darnay. And Sydney Carton. Okay, Sydney was my favourite from early on in the book… in spite of the fact that he drinks too much!
And then we have an assortment of true Dickensian characters. You know the ones. The caricatures… the larger-than-life creatures that inhabit every novel by Charles Dickens. There’s the old codger, Jerry Cruncher (who made me furious with how he treated his wife!)… And Miss Pross (who plays a role in the story I didn’t anticipate)… And the three Jacques (who inhabitant of the wine shop in Paris)…
Which bring me to the antagonists of the book: M. and Mme. Defarge. What complex feelings they stirred within me. One minute, I was hating them, and another minute, feeling pity for their long-suffering. (I have hope for M. Defarge at the end of the book, although his fate after the last chapter is untold.)
And most of all… I loved seeing how all the characters come together at the end. It never ceases to impress me how Dickens manages it all.
#3 – The Themes and Symbols
Reading this book brought me back to my course of study at university: Literature! We studied other works by Dickens (Great Expectations and David Copperfield), but not this one. What I love about writers like Dickens is that there is so much to be digested in terms of themes and the symbolism he works into his novels.
The symbolism of twos. Two cities. Two heroes. Even Miss Pross and Mr. Cruncher make an interesting two-some!
The symbolism of feet and shoes. Lucie hears phantom footsteps. Doctor Manette, in time of great distress, sets to work making shoes. The fact that time ever marches forward, marking out our path in life. (I feel an essay coming on!)
Then there’s the images of wine and blood that permeate the story. After all, it IS the French Revolution.
But best of all, I loved the theme of resurrection that runs through the book. The story starts with Doctor Manette being “recalled to life”. And the theme keeps popping up. Even in the macabre grave-robbing scene involving Mr. Cruncher. And finally to Sydney Carton and Charles Darnay. (Note: I did a blog post earlier this year about the theme of resurrection in books. Here’s one more book to add to that list!)
#4 – The History
This book was a historical novel even in Dickens’ day. And boy, does it bring to life the reality of the French Revolution like no other. The chapters devoted to the Storming of the Bastille, the frenzied state of Paris, the blood-soaked paving stones gives us a vivid picture of the Reign of Terror. It’s not like reading the history books. (Maybe it’s all that purple prose!)
And yet, it feels so real. It doesn’t feel like a historical novel. At least not like the historical novels written today. (Sometimes, those books just feel like they’re historical novels.)
And finally, let’s just say that reading this book makes me very glad I am not living in Paris at the time of the French Revolution. Or as Dickens would say: “The new era… the Republic of Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, or Death…” (Book the Third, Chapter 4)
#5 – The Ending
This is a wonderful story of sacrifice. If you haven’t read the book, I won’t give spoilers. But if you have, you will know what I mean. As I was reading, it reminded me of the movie, Casablanca. I love that movie because of the sacrifice at the end of the story.
Back to A Tale of Two Cities. I did guess (partly) what would happen by the story’s end, although, there were various possibilities. The suspense was well-played. Which brings me to my next comparison: The Scarlet Pimpernel. Perhaps this is just a French Revolution thing going on here, but trying to get our characters out of the city of Paris (with their heads intact) is a harrowing read.
I also love the glimpse into the future that we get at the very end.
Have you read this book? Did you love it as much as me? Let me know in the comments!