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ClassicsOnline Home » DICKENS, C.: Tale of Two Cities (A) (Abridged)
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times’. A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens’s only historical novel, sets personal happiness against the terrors of the French Revolution where the search for social justice sacrifices individual rights. Dr Manette has emerged from eighteen years’ unjust imprisonment in the Bastille: by an ironic twist of fate, his daughter Lucie’s marriage draws the family into a terrifying web of circumstance which, it seems, can only end in death by the guillotine.
A Tale of Two Cities
A Tale of Two Cities, first published in 1859, is one of
Dickens’ later novels and has always been amongst his best known and
best-loved. A highly dramatic setting switches between London and Paris as the
French Revolution looms and finally breaks out. Each of the three ‘books’ into
which the novel is divided is precisely located in time — 1775, 1780 and 1792.
Dickens is interested in the effect of great historical
events on private lives. Charles Darnay, however liberal himself, cannot escape
the consequences of his aristocratic French family’s cruel oppression: he marries
Lucie Manette, whose father, the Doctor, had been unjustly imprisoned in the
Bastille by Charles’ own father and uncle. Sydney Carton finds in the terrors
of revolution his great opportunity for personal redemption: and even Jerry
Cruncher (Dickens’ only concession to popular humor in the novel) is given the
chance to throw over his old grave-robbing trade and turn honest gravedigger.
Dickens is, of course, also interested in the historical
drama itself and had conscientiously prepared by reading Carlyle on the
Revolution — but his attitude to it is interestingly ambivalent. On the one
hand, his generously humane
instincts lead him repeatedly to express his loathing for the tyranny of the
ancien regime, and to show how the aristocrats reap as they have sown — yet;
equally, he describes with fascinated revulsion the Parisian mob in full cry.
Both philosophies horrify him: he acknowledges the grim inevitability of the
Revolution, but by showing its effects on his characters he is able to pull the
reader’s emotions this way and that, to powerful effect. This ‘doubleness’ is
perhaps best expressed in Carton and Darnay, the look-alikes; both love Lucie
Manette, yet Carton is cynically self-loathing while Darnay is upright and
noble. What is important for Dickens is the possibility of self-redemption:
Carton wins from the tragic impact of the Revolution on the Darnays the chance
to give meaning to his life — he is, in a sense, reborn.
This idea of rebirth of resurrection is the central idea of
the novel. It resounds with related images: at a simple level, Jerry Cruncher
is a ‘resurrection man’, a grave-robber who is himself reformed by the end; Dr.
Manette is ‘recalled to life’ by his daughter’s selfless care, in an
interesting role-reversal; while Sydney Carton, as he paces the dark streets of
Paris and plans his last, great act, repeats to himself the haunting words, ‘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.’
We know Dickens as a reforming novelist, the scourge of
Victoria humbug and materialism, but he has no blueprint for revolution: as
underdog or victim, yet for Dickens ‘revolution is a monster’. What he really
demands from us is a simple increase in our capacity for plain loving-kindness.
At the end of this novel, he is able to reconcile the opposing forces —
revolution and civilization — through the redemptive power of personal love,
the ‘holiness of the heart’s affections’.
Charles Dickens was born in 1812 in Portsmouth. His father
imprisoned for debt and the twelve-year old Charles sent to
work in a blacking factoring; these experiences influenced (for instance)
Little Dorrit and David Copperfield. Having learnt shorthand, he became a
parliamentary reporter and began to submit magazine pieces. In 1837 The
Pickwick Papers brought Dickens fame, and the rest of his literary career was
almost uninterruptedly successful. His personal life was less happy; eventually
he separated from his wife, Catherine, partly as a result of his growing intimacy
with Ellen Ternan, the actress, and he died relatively young in 1870, his last
novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, unfinished.
Notes by Perry Keenlyside
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DICKENS, C.: Tale of Two Cities (A) (Abridged)