A Tale of Two Cities

A Tale of Two Cities is the third Dickens novel I have read (after Oliver Twist and Great Expectations). The “bookends” of the novel are two of the most iconic lines in English literature: the lengthy opening sentence about the best and worst of times, and the final words that prophecy “a far better rest.” Yet these were pretty much the extent of my knowledge, and seeing as they were merely decontextualized quotes- famous lines to spout in a suitable situation- they did not tell me much.

Perhaps there is a fair number of people for whom A Tale of Two Cities was assigned reading in high school. For me, this was not the case; part of me wishes that it was, but then again, it’s very possible I would not have been able to adequately appreciate this great work at that time. Either way, I don’t think that this novel (or any Dickens’ novel) can be exhausted on a single reading. As with all Dickensian creations, A Tale of Two Cities is a feat of storytelling. Dicken’s voice is so unique- so lively and delightful (if I may call it that), such that it is always a joy to delve into his world.

Without a doubt, Dickens has created some of the most memorable characters to ever spring from the pages of literature. This book is no exception. At the heart of the story there is the honourable and morally upright Charles Darnay, who abandons his noble status in France to seek a normal life in England. Compared and contrasted to Darnay throughout is Sydney Carton, his double in terms of their physical likeness. Carton, an English lawyer, is grieved by his life yet feels unable to escape the vicious cycle of his own depravity, and this leads to the purposelessness that impedes his true passion and talent.

For me, Darnay is certainly a hero in every traditional sense of the word and I was most definitely rooting for the happiness and wellbeing of this likeable character. But it is Carton, Carton with his many failings and flaws, Carton who does not fall in line with heroic conventions, Carton who is not always likeable or commendable… it is he and it is his role in the story that make this, in my mind, the most moving of Dickens’ novels which I have read so far.

A Tale of Two Cities also has a historical focus, since it is Dickens’ attempt to depict and immortalize the French Revolution and the ensuing Reign of Terror. This turbulent period of history really does come alive through the book, beginning with descriptions of the bleak circumstances faced by ordinary citizens, and the squalor and poverty in which they lived. An image which has really lingered in my mind occurs in one of the earliest chapters: there is a spillage of wine on the village street, and as the dark liquid oozes through cracks in the cobblestones, the thirsty citizens, from old to young, emerge from their houses and put their mouths to the road, desperate to suck up every last drop of wasted wine.

These and other powerful images which Dickens presents set the stage for the violence and chaos that follow. It was fascinating and simultaneously terrifying to read of the storming of the Bastille; Dickens aptly compares this mob to an ocean:

“The sea of black and threatening waters, and of destructive upheavings of wave against wave, whose depths were yet unfathomed and whose forces were yet unknown. The remorseless sea of turbulently swaying shapes, voices of vengeance, and faces hardened in the furnaces of suffering until the touch of pity could make no mark on them” (Dickens 229).

I cannot think of a more evocative description for the mass of popular violence than the sea: the sea which, though full of life and excitement and promise, also holds in its nature the potential for destruction, for death; which cannot be tamed or controlled. As the novel progresses and as Dickens’ view of history progresses, the sea overflows and runs past its dreams of freedom, and instead becomes a sea of blood: of vengeance, suspicion and fear. As the above quote makes clear, “pity” has fled from their faces, and without pity, without compassion for others stemming from our shared humanity, there is nothing to hold us back from murder, violence, cruelty, evil. Indeed, we risk losing what is most truly human within ourselves.

Yet while this historical novel focuses on the Terror, in which a tremendous amount of lives were taken, without cause, without trial, without pity, Dickens offers a message of hope and of life in the midst of death and even as we wade through this ocean of blood. This hope comes not from some glorious victory or conquering of evil but through sacrifice. The willingness to sacrifice one’s own life for another is an outpouring of true and selfless love, and this love will always be stronger and more transformative than hatred: “Greater love has no one than this to lay down one’s life for one’s friend.”

In this novel, it is love that has the final word, it is sacrifice. And despite all the terror, despite the loud, commanding cries of fear and death, this small, still voice of love, of hope, of life is more powerful than any opponent and has the ultimate and enduring victory.