Charles Dickens had an amazing talent for producing bestsellers. Just like Elvis Presley, he churned out hit after hit, wore white jumpsuits and ate too much peanut butter (actually, I’m not certain about the jumpsuits and peanut butter—it’s just a theory of mine). A Tale of Two Cities is one of Dickens’ most famous works. The opening and closing lines are among the most well known in English literature—simple yet so full of meaning, and a delight to read. The rest of the book is a little more challenging.
The story takes place in London and Paris during the early stages of the French Revolution. In Paris, Dr Manette is released from the prison cell where he was held unjustly for eighteen years. He is united with his daughter, Lucie, who brings him back to her home in London. After so long in solitary confinement it takes some time for him to mentally adjust to his new freedom. His progress is almost destroyed when Lucie’s fiancé, a young Frenchman named Charles Darnay, reveals he is related to the family who imprisoned Dr Manette. The old man recovers, Charles and Lucie marry, and life, for the time being, has brought peace and happiness. After a few years Charles travels to France where, on account of his bloodline, he is arrested. Lucie and Dr Manette go to Paris to try and free him. Also making the journey is their friend, Sydney Carton. He is a dull and depressed lawyer who once loved Lucie, and also happens to look remarkably like Charles. In court, the French revolutionaries’ desire for vengeance outweighs Charles’ innocence, and the family’s legal efforts fail. Sydney visits Charles in prison the evening before his execution, drugs him and swaps clothes with him. As a lookalike, Sydney takes Charles’ condemned place, considering this act toward Lucie and her family the most worthwhile thing he has done with his life.
A Tale of Two Cities is full of opposing pictures of humanity, laid out in the first paragraph, and building to the unforgettable climax, where the French mob’s spiteful bloodlust is the backdrop for Sydney Carton’s ultimate act of charity. Throughout the novel the theme of resurrection is constant. Dr Manette and Charles receive their lives back when freed from prison, and as Sydney prepares his rescue plan, the words of Jesus Christ become his mantra of hope:
“I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live.”
Despite the story’s historical and moral weight, I struggled through the early chapters. I got lost trying to keep track of where each scene was taking place, and remembering which character was which. It might have been helpful if Dickens had made his characters more easily identifiable, perhaps colour-coding them—like the Teletubbies. It’s a simple but effective technique that I used in my own novel The Last Pancake in Nairobi. Here’s an excerpt:
Bill walked into the room, wearing a red sombrero as usual. He tried not to stare at the enormous green birthmark on Gordon’s forehead.
Do you see how it makes the characters stand out? Anyway, what trouble I had at the start of Dickens’ novel was more than made up for by the satisfaction of the ending.
A Tale of Two Cities is a moving and memorable story that has become a favourite of many, myself included. 8.5/10
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