Sonntag, 5. Februar 2012

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

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 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, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.
This. Everyone knows these words, or at least the beginning of them and yet I have to point them out, because firstly they are obviously heartbreakingly beautiful and secondly: Did you notice what Dickens is doing here? After finishing A Tale of Two Cities, my second one of his novels, I feel already surprisingly familiar with his writing and have come to notice a certain pattern in it.
In this specific passage Mr Dickens does what he can best: he creates an atmosphere which is so tense that you are immediately sucked into the
While reading Dickens's tale of love and hate, of uproar and peace, I felt as if I was standing in the bloodstained streets of Paris myself. I smelled the smoke and watched dizzily the silhouettes of the loathed nobility's burning palaces against the dark night sky. I wept for the tragedy of a hero whom no one would recognise as one until the very end and I am not afraid to say that I had to pause reading to get a handkerchief before I read the final scenes.

So, did I like A Tale of Two Cities? I think it is enough to say that my adoration of it even surpasses my love for Great Expectations. I cannot remember when I last looked forward to re-reading a book so much; but, to get my thoughts in order, why did I love it so much?

A huge part of the answer to this question is a name: Sydney Carton.
To be honest, I already knew roughly how the novel would end, so my perception of him was perhaps altered from the beginning, but I think he would have impressed me anyway. I cannot do my love for this constantly drunk, lazy, discourteous, honourable and lion-hearted man justice in a post about the book in general (or else I would have to neglect all other amazing aspects of it and this would become mere swooning), so I intend to do the February Prompt of November's Autumn's Classic Challenge about him.
Until then, let's focus a little on the historical side of Dickens's story.

Of course I had known before how horrible the French Revolution was, but not until now did I realise that it was in fact the most senseless, cruel, indescribable, stupid, incomprehensible bloodshed one can possibly imagine. It is beyond words how the long oppressed people reacted to their new freedom; yes, they had been treated like mangy dogs for decades, but why didn't they use their recaintly gained power to truly build up a state of liberty, equality and fraternity instead of introducing a new form of terror? Through the horrible Madame Defarge, Dickens, the great judge of human nature, has made me understand these people better, although I am still convinced I would act differently (but probably even Madame Defarge was before her family was destroyed by the ancien régime).
Perhaps the most shocking thing in the whole parade of cruelties called the Revolution, is how normal citizens, peasants, tradesmen and mothers transform into inhuman monsters, incapable of pity or sympathy.
The following conversation takes place after the arrest of Charles Darnay, Lucie's innocent husband.
"As a wife and mother," cried Lucie, most earnestly, "I implore you to have pity on me and not to exercise any power that you possess, against my innocent husband, but to use it in his behalf. O sister-woman, think of me. As a wife and mother!"
Madame Defarge looked, coldly as ever, at the suppliant, and said, turning to her friend The Vengeance:
"The wives and mothers we have been used to see, since we were as little as this child, and much less, have not been greatly considered? We have known their husbands and fathers laid in prison and kept from them, often enough? All our lives, we have seen our sister-women suffer, in themselves and in their children, poverty, nakedness, hunger, thirst, sickness, misery, oppression and neglect of all kinds?"
"We have seen nothing else," returned The Vengeance.
"We have borne this a long time," said Madame Defarge, turning her eyes again upon Lucie. "Judge you! Is it likely that the trouble of one wife and mother would be much to us now?"
Does this make anyone else shiver? I have to admit that I was relieved when Madame Defarge was killed, for her revengefulness and dangerous patriotism knew no limits. It almost physically hurts to imagine the hundreds and thousands of citizens like her who really lived and all the innocent people they slaughtered.

But, Dickens offers a counterweight to all the terror and as corny as it may sound; this counterweight is love. And while the word "liberty" will forever leave a bad taste in my mouth fom now on, even though I am not religious, there are some other words I will never be able to forget:
"I am the resurrection and the life, saith the Lord: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: and whosoever liveth and believeth in me, shall never die."


  1. How wonderful that you are reading Dickens! As much as I am in love with classics, he is the one author I find quite challenging - I just can't seem to get through any of his books. Your enthusiasm is inspiring me to give him another try!

    1. Do so! Dickens is one of my favourite authors of all times, even though I admit that there are sometimes more words in his sentences than necessary ;)
      The wonderful thing about his books is that you can really sink into them and let the words wash over you like waves, if that makes any sense. Besides, he builds his books up slowly, so even though they might seem a little boring in the beginning I guarantee you that you will be rewarded with a thrilling and absolutely surprising finale if you make it until the last third of the book.
      Since today is Charles's birthday, I am eager to spread the Dickens-Love!

  2. A Tale of Two Cities is one of my all time favourites. There was a period in my life in which I would read almost nothing but Dickens, and in this - rather long - fraction of time, I have grown immensly attached to this book. I am delighted to hear that you seem to have found as much pleasure in reading it as I did. I don't know how it works for you, but for me, this specific book gets more thrilling and moving each time I reread it.

    1. I hope it will! Even though I am pretty sure I will always cry when reading about the Jackal.

  3. I would like to re-read this one. I'm sure I would love it more, like Helena.

    Liberty is a great word! Like all great words, it can be badly misused, as in the French Revolution. But when people gain power, they almost always abuse it somehow. I think there's a tyrant in all of us.

    1. Well said, Jean. Let's go with Madame Roland: "Oh Liberty, what crimes are comitted in thy name!"

  4. I am reading this one right now, so I didn't read this post or the comments in full, in case there were spoilers. But -- I'm ghoping to love the book. :)

    1. Great! Thank you very much, Jillian, now I'll be anxiously checking your blog every few hours to see if you've already posted a review! ;)
      Seriously, go and read it! Now!!! I am soooo eager to hear what you think of it!!

  5. I love your enthusiasm for this book and Dickens! I am only starting to become acquainted with him - and I have Oliver Twist on my shelf to read this year. You've made me more excited to dig into it!

  6. I have read a few of Dickens's books, but not this one. Your enthusiasm and my already positive experience with Dickens has convinced me to put this on TBR list.