Review: A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

PAPERBACK; 367 P.
PENGUIN CLASSICS, 1994/1859
SOURCE: PURCHASED

From Goodreads:

It was the time of the French Revolution — a time of great change and great danger. It was a time when injustice was met by a lust for vengeance, and rarely was a distinction made between the innocent and the guilty. Against this tumultuous historical backdrop, Dickens’ great story of unsurpassed adventure and courage unfolds.
Unjustly imprisoned for 18 years in the Bastille, Dr. Alexandre Manette is reunited with his daughter, Lucie, and safely transported from France to England. It would seem that they could take up the threads of their lives in peace. As fate would have it though, the pair are summoned to the Old Bailey to testify against a young Frenchman — Charles Darnay — falsely accused of treason. Strangely enough, Darnay bears an uncanny resemblance to another man in the courtroom, the dissolute lawyer’s clerk Sydney Carton. It is a coincidence that plays a vital role as the story unfolds. Brilliantly plotted, A Tale of Two Cities is rich in drama, romance, and heroics that culminate in a daring prison escape in the shadow of the guillotine.

Aside from Jane Austen’s Pride and PrejudiceA Tale of Two Cities has one of the most quoted first sentences:

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.

And if you’ve read the book, you know that the ending is no less memorable. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves! Charles Dickens is one of my favourite authors and before starting this book blog, I had read Little Dorrit, Nicholas Nickelby and Bleak House. I try to read at least one of his novel a year and last year it was A Christmas Carol. A Tale of Two Cities might not be considered as Dickens’ most renowned novel, but it’s definitely one of the most popular ones. The combination of history, excitement, and beautiful prose also make it very readable.

A Tale of Two Cities begins with an journey from London to Paris where an old man, Dr. Manette, is reunited with his daughter Lucie. This reunion is arranged by Mr. Lorry, a gentleman of the Bank, but during their return to London the group becomes unknowingly involved in the fate of a young Frenchman, Charles Darnay. As the father and daughter are set to testify against the treason accusation against Mr. Darnay, the connection is once again refreshed and gradually develops into friendship. However, a deeper, hidden connection lies between the old man’s unjust imprisonment and the young man. In the meanwhile, the air of Paris is simmering with discontent as the poor are grow hungry. The spark of a revolution is relatively easy to ignite, but like fire, it cannot always be contained.

First of all, I have to gush about the way Dickens manipulates language in A Tale of Two Cities. It is amazing, wonderful, sublime, enticing, comforting, harrowing and riotous. I’ve usually considered Dickens to be more of a plot- and character-based writer whose forte is characterisation. However, this time I was almost instantly enthralled by the language of the novel. I don’t know if it’s a specific aspect of A Tale of Two Cities or if I’ve just grown more attune to beautiful writing, but the way the sentences flow and the imagery is presented just stunned me. The story itself is also fascinating as it gave me new insight to the French Revolution, and I think Dickens’ intention was partly to remind people that despite the beautiful ideals behind the Revolution – Liberté, égalité, fraternité –, the revolution itself involved lots of violence and cruelty from both sides. A Tale of Two Cities is said to be one of Dickens’ more depressing novels, and its portrayal of cruelty is oddly juxtaposed by the stunning use of language; similar juxtaposing is present in the first sentence of the novel. This balance – or should I say imbalance – only occurred to me only after I had finished the book, but it’s made me view the novel in a new light.

I believe A Tale of Two Cities is/has been mandatory reading for many, but if you haven’t read it, I’d highly suggest you do so. It’s also one of Dickens’ most accessible novels, making it a great place to start with him (another one being A Christmas Carol). Also recommended to people who want to know more about the French Revolution. A Tale of Two Cities has beautiful language, historical interest, and a mixture of mystery, romance, and comedy à la Charles Dickens. It’s now one of my favourites.

5/5 

Waste forces within him, and a desert all around, this man stood still on his way across a silent terrace, and saw for a moment, lying in the wilderness before him, a mirage of honourable ambition, self-denial, and perseverance. In the fair city of this vision, there were airy galleries from which the loves and graces looked upon him, gardens in which the fruits of life hung ripening, waters of Hope that sparkled in his sight. A moment, and it was gone.

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2 thoughts on “Review: A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

    • Dickens is not for everyone, and the same goes for many classics – and that’s okay. I personally don’t see what the fuss is about Moby-Dick, except maybe the immense research he’s put into the book. Our tastes and preferences in literature change from time to time, so there’s no need to try and push yourself into reading something that you’re not enjoying. Perhaps it’s not the right time, or the right book for you. Thank you however for sharing your thoughts on this!

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