Book Review: A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

05 March 2013

Perhaps it's a morbid quality to admit, but ever since reading The Scarlet Pimpernel several years past, I've had a certain facination with the French Revolution. That is not to say that I condone the bloodthirsty slaughter of the aristos on the guillotine, nor do I hold with the French revolutionaries' political thought — quite the contrary, I assure you — but one cannot observe such a tempestuous time in history without a sort of curious interest. When married with the mutual facts that this book was written by Dickens and the ending involves the tragic sacrifice of a redeemed soul, it is understandable that I anticipated A Tale of Two Cities with a violent curiosity for many months. Though perhaps not as glamorous and fast-paced as Baroness Orczy's beloved work, it was every bit as worthwhile.

*This post will contain spoilers. Read with caution.

A Tale of Two Cities
By Charles Dickens
*Summary via Goodreads.com

'Liberty, equality, fraternity, or death; — the last, much the easiest to bestow, O Guillotine!' 

After eighteen years as a political prisoner in the Bastille, the aging 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.

My Thoughts: First of all, it's penned by Charles Dickens. Which is to say, I knew there was very little chance I would find disappointment among its pages. True to his form, the author opened with a flurry of characters, seemingly unimportant at the moment, and yet each came to play a pivotal role in his story. I stand amazed at Dickens' mastery as a penslayer each time I read another of his novels. Oliver Twist was quite enjoyable, but I believe I prefer A Tale of Two Cities (that could have something to do with the fact that Tale was written later and his style was more developed). The beginning was a bit slow, as I had expected, but once I finished Book I, the pace picked up remarkably.

From the novel's start, there was something in Sydney Carton that drew me to him. As an alcoholic and a ne'er-do-well, apathetic and slovenly in his dress, he isn't the sort of character to typically catch my interest. I normally admire the hard-working, disciplined, gentlemanly male characters; in short, those like Charles Darnay. But the very fact that Sydney's life has no vision and he believes himself to be beyond saving tore at my heart, and I wept for him through the scene in which he confesses his love for Lucie. "I wish you to know that you have been the last dream of my soul," he tells her. "For you, and for any dear to you, I would do anything . . . think now and then that there is a man who would give his life, to keep a life you love beside you!" It is his very love for her and the sacrifice he makes on her behalf that orchestrates his ultimate redemption.

Pros: Dickens knows how to quicken your pulse. He painted each layer of anticipation until I could feel the boiling blood of the French revolutionaries and the imminent, bloodthirsty revenge soon to be wreaked upon the aristos they so despised. Each character mentioned in passing he resurrected and knitted back into the threads of the story with a talent even Madame Defarge and her eternally-clicking needles couldn't manage. And then the ending came and wrenched me of all my tears with its mingled beauty and sorrow.

Cons: Not for nothing has Dickens been accused of writing flat characters. Though the people who populate this book are memorable and engaging, they're not terribly dynamic (excepting Sydney Carton, of course). Lucie Manette in particular remains the gentle, soft-spoken, loving daughter and wife throughout the entire story, with little in the way of character development, and her relationship with Charles Darnay, while genuine, isn't very deep. In addition to that, there is some mild swearing, a veiled description of rape, and a fair share of violence and bloodshed, making this a book for mature readers.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars
I'd recommend this book for ages 14+ because of the violent content and more difficult prose.

A Bit O' Reading For the Day:
“It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.” — A Tale of Two Cities

3 epistles:

  1. This is one of my absolute favorite of Dickens's books- I agree that some of the characters are flat, but Sydney Carton is so very intriguing, and like you, I've been fascinated with the French Revolution ever since being introduced to The Scarlet Pimpernel.

    Again, at times difficult to read, but so worth it!

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  2. Well, you caught ahead of me, Elizabeth, there as I've just written a guest post review for 'A Tale of Two Cities' as well though it has yet to be posted on Leah Elizabeth Good's blog :). Anyhow, I think you wrote a fuller and more coherent review of this amazing tale - it's beautiful, isn't it? Probably one of my favourite classics ever. I should like to reread it sometime soon as I read it when I was quite a bit younger and i think I missed out on a lot of the beauty of Dickens' description and poetic prose.

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  3. I've been wanting to read this book! It sounds wonderful.

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