This is a classic which would have been better enjoyed by my sister who loves Dickens. I found it very hard to “get into”, due to Dickens’ language usage and long narrative style. As a result, it took me much longer to read this 370 page book that it should have taken. However, once I got used to the style and language (and the story picked up), I finally began sailing through and finished it quickly (from about page 200 onwards). It is the tale of the French Revolution nearly two hundred and fifty years ago, so the “two cities” are London and Paris. It is said that Dickens never understood nor liked Paris and loved no city except for his own London, having been born within the sound of Bow bells and, therefore, a Cockney. He does, however, capture the truly terrible human madness in the streets of the French Revolution resulting in the insatiable thirst of Madame Guillotine. It reminded me of many other dark historical times all across the world when one never knew who would be accused and taken away in the night, to be executed after a kangaroo court trial the next day. Dickens uses splendid language to describe the all too human bloodthirsty impulses of mob mentality and how this particular cruelty rears its massive head whenever and wherever events of the day cause a disintegration of the controlling governing forces of a country or region or singles out a scapegoat. It is said that Dickens’ simplicity as a Londoner always and only and his lack of studying the French Revolution in any depth gave him the literary freedom to write convincingly about the human tides which swept France, brutally butchering any and all in its way, for Liberty et Revolution! He is a genuis at describing people in such perfect detail to make them come alive in the pages. He encased Madame Defarge, for example, in a frightening and solid unswerving power which is only explained in the final pages of the book. Whenever he writes of her, you almost feel a chilly wind go through you — a strong instinct to be careful around her with her dangerous watchful silence and infernal knitting. I came to very much enjoy Dickens’ combinations of words to give the reader an immediate feeling for the person described and an understanding of the situation at hand. For example, when one character is uncomfortably confronted by another who the first has deceived for a very long time, Dickens describes the unease of the trapped rogue thusly: “…he changed the leg on which he rested, as often as if he had fifty of those limbs and were trying them all; he examined his fingernails with a very questionable closeness of attention…[and] he was taken with that peculiar kind of short cough requiring the hollow of a hand before it, which is seldom, if ever, known to be an infirmity attendant on perfect openness of character”.
We all know this book by its opening line: “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, 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 — in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.” It is the tale of two cities and Dickens is miraculously able to describe the people and events of the city so foreign to him actually better and with more true feeling than the rather bland events of his beloved home city.
This is a book that I had always MEANT to read and I am glad that I was finally “forced” to do so. It is worth the time that it takes to fall into its style and story line.
One thought on “A Tale of Two Cities – Charles Dickens”