Book Review: A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens

A couple of months ago during The 30 Days of Books meme, I admitted that I had never read any Charles Dickens (A Christmas Carol didn’t count) and to remedy that put up a poll to choose the Dickens book that would be my introduction to the Master. The winner by a narrow margin was A Tale of Two Cities.

In a way, it wasn’t my first introduction to Dickens. In Dan Simmons historical fiction thriller Drood, Dickens was one of the main characters. One of the things the character did throughout the book was give readings of different works to rapt audiences. I was intrigued by this idea and so for my “reading” I chose to listen to the audiobook. I’m glad I did, though I wasn’t sure about that at first. Initially, I found it difficult to get into the rhythm of the language and began to despair of the upcoming 21-hour commitment. Fortunately, my ear (and brain) got in sync with it and I was able to immerse myself in the story.

What did I know about AToTC going in? Well, I knew the two cities were London and Paris. I knew the opening line. I was pretty sure that it took place during the years of the French Revolution, and that it may or may not have included look-alikes…wait, wasn’t that The Prince and the Pauper or maybe I’m thinking of The Parent Trap?

Man, do I know my classics, or what?

In a way, AToTC focuses on a love triangle, with the honorable (but hopelessly boring) ex-French aristocrat Charles Darnay falling for the lovely Lucie Manette (also boring but not as boring as Charles). Also falling for her is the wry, cynical, card-playing (and alcoholic) barrister Sydney Carton – who we learn is the spitting image of Charles (see? I was right!). Now, if this book was a modern TV drama, Lucie would be friends with the nice guy, but fall for the bad-boy Carton while helping him see the errors of his ways. But this is not so in the Victorian era that Dickens was writing. And even though Lucie chooses the proper, boring guy, their love is so chaste as to be to the point of seeming abstract.

The narration moves back and forth between London (proper, orderly, even its underclass has a sense of propriety) and Paris (quickly devolving into the throes of revolution) and the story really picks up when Darnay, who has just married Lucie, goes to Paris to help an old family servant and is apprehended for being a detested aristocrat by The Revolution. Over the course of imprisonment and kangaroo-court trials, Charles is to be put to the guillotine. Can Lucie and their steadfast English friends save him? Well, it really wouldn’t be a far, far better thing if I gave away the ending, would it?

I was, of course, impressed with Dickens’ control and use of language. As I was listening, there were probably dozens of times when I wished I had an audio “highlighter” to save one knock-your-socks-off sentence or another. Usually, I just sat back and let the prose just carry me. In particular, I found his descriptions of the Revolution particularly chilling without being gruesome.

But really, where AToTC surprised and delighted me the most was Dickens’ nailing of human nature, peoples’ descriptions and their motivations. The cynical snarkiness, the putting on airs for propriety,  the rising up to be honorable or giving in to the basest of temptations, the hypocrisy of zealots and the crippling disparity between the rich and the poor were spot-on. In fact, put different clothes on these characters and they would have been perfectly at home in the 21st century.

Except for that chaste stuff, I suppose.

Four stars out of five.

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15 thoughts on “Book Review: A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens

  1. I’ve only ever read Hard Times, and that was also an audio book. I really enjoyed it. Who did the narration for AToTC? I might have to put it on my library hold list.

  2. Interesting. I would never, ever have called ATOTC a love-triangle story. That’s a sub-plot. Then, again, being a history fan (I could’ve claimed a minor in History but I already had 2 with Psychology and French) and oh, did I mention the fluent French thing? Yeah. I saw it as a microcosm/ parable for the time. I thought the relationship thing was chucked in to keep the rag readers intrigued (assuming you’re familiar most of his work was published as serials* in papers, like Verne and many others of the day; Dickens was a Very Political Dude on top of publishing fiction).
    *http://www.gradesaver.com/author/charles-dickens/

    • MT — yes, I knew that AToTC had been originally published as a serial and so I ended up listening with that in mind — it was sort of interesting to try and figure out where one installment might have ended and another start.

      I was also listening with an ear towards what Dickens was trying to say about his own day by using the French Revolution as the medium. Great book on many levels.

  3. *grumble* I don’t want to be a bad sport, but I guess I’m going to be one anyway. ToTC was one of Dickens’ lesser efforts. He had to read up on the French Revolution and the Terror, and he chose the most Francophobic accounts available. The main characters, as you point out, are boring because they’re basically stick figures by which to hang a plot: they’re not half so interesting as the minor characters, whom Dickens painted with a deft eye and ear, or the scenes featuring mob rule and carnage. He is a great writer no matter which work you choose to read, but Great Expectations ftw! :D

    • No well thought-out opinions around here can be bad sportsmanship… ;)

      As I was listening, I thought that Dickens’ was being very pro-English and anti-French though I wasn’t sure whether that had come from anything politically motivated during his time or whether he thought it was the just the way we wanted to tell his story.

      I wholeheartedly agree that that minor characters really drove the story.

  4. Wonderful review, Steve! ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ was one of my favourite stories when I was a child – my mom told it to my sister and me countless number of times and the fact that Darnay and Carton looked very similar and how that played an important role in the book, was one of my favourite parts of the book, then. I read it later when I was in school / college and liked it. I haven’t read it in many years though. Glad to know that you liked your first foray in Dickens :) Hope you enjoy ‘Great Expectations’ too. Can’t wait to hear your thoughts on it.

  5. I’m glad you enjoyed AToTC. When Dickens is on his form (as he is in that one), nobody can beat him for pointing out our foibles without descending into preaching.

    I will politely disagree with you on the subject of the marriage and love relationship; it was quite explicit, by Victorian standards. That most of the action takes place off the page is all to the better, IMHO. After all, imagination is always the best aphrodisiac!

  6. According to Clifton Fadiman’s Lifetime Reading Plan, it’s too bad you start with AToTC. He calls it “one of his worst novels”. He suggests :

    Pickwick Papers
    David Copperfield
    Great Expectations
    Hard Times
    Our Mutual Friend
    The Old Curiosity Shop
    Little Dorrit

    Unfortunately, I too am very lacking in Dickens’ reading, so I can’t personally recommend any of them over AToTC.

  7. It is an interesting story, but the characters are largely a disappointment. Charles Darnay is boring; he’s like a robot whose been prgorammed to be honourable, courageous, etc. Lucie Manette is like a caricature of Dickens’ insipid heroines. The lack of insight into the characters thought processes doesn’t help, either. Why is Carton (oh dear, what a name!) so morbid and hopeless?
    The wicked Uncle Marquis is like something out of a pantomime; I felt like hissing every time he came on (not often, as he gets bumped off quickly). And what is the purpose of the angelic son of Darnay who gives such an improbable speech on his deathbed?
    Carton is more rounded than Darnay and Lucie, but that’s not saying a lot. Why does he ask for Darnay’s friendship after he marries Lucie? Is it so he can keep on visiting and hopelessly adoring her or becasue he has sworn to sacrifice himself for any she loves? We don’t know.

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