tek's rating: ¾

A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens (pub. 1859)
Amazon; B&N; Goodreads; Scholastic; TV Tropes; Wikipedia

This is something I've wanted to read for as long as I can remember, mainly because it's a classic. And because its opening line is so famous: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times..." (and the sentence goes on through several other paradoxes, but that's the most commonly quoted bit). I think I've probably had this copy of the novel since grade school (in the 1980s), but I didn't get around to reading it until 2015. I started reading it in April, and sometime thereafter, I got the idea to time my completion for July 14 (Bastille Day). I did read the final two chapters that day, though I didn't get around to writing this review until a few days later. I probably had some specific reason for deciding to read it, such as seeing parallels between the current state of the United States and France just before their Revolution. Or... there may have been other reasons, which I've now forgotten. In fact, I've probably had any number of thoughts throughout the course of my reading that I planned to mention in my review, but have now forgotten. (I really should take notes.) The novel is divided into three books, and I think it was early in Book Two that I started thinking Dickens's style reminded me a lot of that of Douglas Adams (though this feeling would not persist throughout the novel). But I must say, I was a bit surprised... I never knew much about the actual plot of the novel, just that it involved the French Revolution. So I didn't expect there to be as much humor in it as there is. Though most of that is before the actual Revolution begins, and that's another surprise: how long it took for the Revolution to come. There was an awful lot of foreshadowing, but it seemed like the largest part of the novel had nothing to do with that at all.

Another thing I wanted to mention was that, somewhere in the last part of the novel, I started to realize that scenes were sometimes written in the past tense and sometimes in the present tense. I recalled having seen some article probably not more than a week or two before this occurred to me, about some languages not having a past tense. I didn't actually read the article, and I've never really studied other languages, so I wasn't sure if French was such a language (probably not), but I wondered if Dickens might have been doing this on purpose. However, I could find absolutely no rhyme or reason in which scenes were written which way. I would have thought, maybe scenes set in England will have a past tense and those set in France won't. But no. Or, scenes focusing on an English character will have a past tense and those focused on French characters won't. But no. No, it just seemed completely random, to me. If he had a reason for it, it's beyond my ability to discern. But it's hard for me to imagine it was an accident. (I myself am very capable of making exactly that accident, in my own writing, but Dickens? I shouldn't think so.)

Also, it must be mentioned that the two cities referred to by the title are London and Paris. But for a large portion of the novel, I thought the French city in question must be Saint Antoine. The first time it is mentioned, it says "the suburb of Saint Antoine, in Paris," but I had completely forgotten that. Also, it is entirely foreign to my way of thinking to consider a suburb as being "in" the city of which it is a suburb (though it is later referred to as a "quarter," which wouldn't have given me the same trouble as "suburb"). But after that, I don't think Paris proper was mentioned for quite a long time, most of the action was in Saint Antoine. But of course, I would be remiss if I didn't point out that my own powers of reading comprehension and especially of retention are often severely lacking. There were undoubtedly some scenes, at least in the first part of the novel, where I either was unaware of which country they were set in, or else forgot as soon as I'd finished reading the scene (even when Dickens specifically mentioned the location). For example, he takes pains to make it clear that there were many similar problems, between France and England, so I suppose it's rather a cautionary tale, not to let things get so bad in England (or anywhere) as they were in France, lest the people rebel, as they inevitably did in France. (The novel, btw, is mostly set not long after the American Revolution.) But because my reading skills suck (and probably in some small part because the vernacular of Dickens's time is considerably different from that of our time), it was far too easy for me to completely miss that point, and only remember the descriptions of how bad things were for the peasantry of France, not of England. I also often had a hard time, early on, remembering which characters were which, or knowing who might be important to the story later on. I have a tendency to forget names and relationships and such. So, a lot of what happened seemed random and confusing, to me, even when it was actually very important to the story. I'm sure if I read the novel a second time, it would make a lot more sense, feel a lot more cohesive. (And I might rate it higher than I did upon my first reading; either way, do remember that my ratings have more to do with subjective enjoyment than with estimation of objective quality.)

But in spite of all my difficulties, I think I had a fair handle on what was going on most of the time, and especially when reading the last book. And I definitely quite liked the story, for both the humor and the drama (though I have no idea how closely it hews to the reality of the French Revolution). There is undoubtedly a lot of symbolism that went completely over my head (as symbolism pretty much always does), but I think I essentially understood the major themes, and I think they are important themes. The characters were sympathetic, and I think the situations they faced made for decent illustrations of the novel's themes. But I've rambled on long enough. (Imagine if I hadn't forgotten stuff I might have wanted to say!) It's well past time to start laying out the actual plot.

Book One: Recalled to Life (6 chapters)
It begins in 1775. We learn a bit about the state of life in England and France, which is none too good. A man named Jarvis Lorry is traveling by coach, and receives a message from his servant, Jerry Cruncher. The message leads to a meeting between Mr. Lorry and a young woman named Lucie Manette, the daughter of an Englishwoman and a Frenchman. Miss Manette had always thought her father, Dr. Alexandre Manette, was dead, but Mr. Lorry informs her that he is alive. He's been held prisoner in the Bastille for almost eighteen years. Meanwhile, in Saint Antoine, there's a wineshop owned by Monsieur Ernest Defarge and his wife, Madame Thérèse Defarge. Dr. Manette had recently been released into the custody of Monsieur Defarge, who had long ago been a servant of the doctor's. Mr. Lorry takes Miss Manette to France to meet her father for the first time, and he seems entirely out of touch with reality. Lorry and Miss Manette take him back to England with them.

Book Two: The Golden Thread (24 chapters)
Five years have passed since Dr. Manette's return to England with Lucie. At some point in the intervening years, his sanity had been restored by the presence of his daughter. The two of them now become witnesses in the trial of a man named Charles Darnay, who has been accused of treason against England. They hope not to do Darnay any harm by their testimony, which is given against their will, but it seems like their testimony will be bad for his case. However, Darnay's counsel, Mr. Stryver, manages to win the case, when another witness who testifies against Darnay is unable to say that Darnay could not be mistaken for another man whom Stryver introduces to the court, a subordinate of his named Sydney Carton. A lot more went on at the trial, not all of which I clearly followed, but this is the most important part: that Darnay and Carton look very much alike. This becomes very important at the end of the novel, for a reason I won't spoil. But while I was reading of the trial, and even for some time afterwards, I could not have imagined how important this resemblance would be, nor even how Carton could be an important character, beyond his part in getting Darnay freed. He does become a friend to the Manettes, and sometimes visits them at their apartment in Soho, as do Mr. Lorry and Mr. Darnay. But Carton always seemed the least important member of the group (as he himself would attest).

Meanwhile, in France, there's a Marquis named St. Evrémonde, who is pretty terrible, and citizens have good reason to hate him. And in flipping through the pages now, as I write this summary, I see that a man named Gabelle worked for him. Gabelle becomes somewhat important later on, but at that time I had no recollection of having read his name before. Anyway, the Marquis is visited by his nephew, Charles Darnay, who obviously disagrees with him about many things. And as far as I could tell, it was at the time of this visit that the Marquis was murdered by a revolutionary (though this was still some years before the Revolution began). So Darnay inherits his property, but relinquishes it, and returns to England.

I don't do well at keeping track of dates, but at least a year passes, I think, before Darnay talks to Dr. Manette about a desire to marry Lucie. He seems very sincere in his love for her and his respect for the close relationship between her father and herself. Meanwhile, Stryver is also interested in marrying Lucie, but he's obviously a pompous ass. And... I'm not even going to detail any of the scenes throughout the novel that focus on Jerry Cruncher. They always struck me as the most random, confusing, pointless parts of the story. Later on, it would seem that they weren't so pointless after all, but I did well enough without remembering them. Meanwhile, there are scenes throughout the novel of the Defarges looking forward to eventual revolution against the aristocracy of France. They conspire with three or four different people named Jacques, and perhaps with others. Certainly I always recognized that such scenes were important, but I still failed to retain any specifics of what was said in them. But I'm sure all the many things I failed to remember, both in English scenes and French ones, all tied together quite cleverly, and again I'll say that the novel would make a lot more sense to me if I ever read it again. Oh yes, there is a spy named John Barsad, whose name I would never remember until near the end of Book Three, though he had played a part in earlier scenes, I see now as I flip through the pages, and curse my miserably excuse for a memory. But of course, there are things the author, and certain of his characters, understood, which I could not possibly have understood until much later, so I suppose it is not entirely my memory that is to blame for my failure to know which details were important, beforehand.

Anyway, Charles and Lucie eventually marry, and later they have a daughter, also named Lucie. More years pass, until eventually it is 1789 (at which point Little Lucie is six years old). That July, the men and women of Paris storm the Bastille, with Monsieur and Madame Defarge as two of the most prominent leaders of the revolutionaries. Monsieur Defarge makes a search of the cell previously occupied by Dr. Manette, and the result of that search- which I will not spoil- will become very important, later in the story. Oh, and Madame Defarge gets a lieutenant called "The Vengeance," which is an awesome nickname. Anyway, three years later, in 1792, Mr. Lorry (who is now 80 years old) tells Darnay of his plan to go to France on business (he represents Tellson's bank, which has branches in both London and Paris). In the midst of their conversation, Darnay learns of a letter addressed to Marquis St. Evrémonde, which had been entrusted to Tellson's, though no one there had any idea who this person was. Darnay, of course, knows that it refers to himself, having inherited the title after his uncle's murder. But he doesn't want to reveal his identity to any of them, instead saying he knows the man, and will deliver the letter. It's from Gabelle, who's been imprisoned by the people who've taken control of France after the overthrow of the aristocracy. In spite of the fact that, upon Darnay's instructions, Gabelle had apparently acted on behalf of the common folk, he's to be executed for protecting an emigrant (Darnay), unless Darnay returns to France to testify on his behalf. And so Darnay decide to do just that. He leaves without telling anyone, but leaves letters to be delivered Lucie and Dr. Manette, after he's gone.

Book Three: The Track of a Storm (15 chapters)
Darnay arrives in Paris, and to his surprise, he is arrested. For having emigrated is now a crime, besides which the people can have no mercy for any member of the aristocracy, even one who had renounced his title and left his wealth to the people. Lucie eventually learns of her husband's situation, and she comes to Paris with her father and daughter and Miss Pross (whom I haven't mentioned before, but she's been Lucie's caretaker ever since Lucie was a child). They reconnect with Mr. Lorry (and Jerry Cruncher, who had accompanied Lorry on his business trip). And they'll all try to help get Charles released from prison. However, it's a year and three months before he even has a trial. And all that time, dozens of people are being executed every day, beheaded by the guillotine. It's a great wonder to me that the citizens of France didn't run out of people to kill, for they surely must have long since run out of people who'd done any harm to the citizenry for which they actually deserved to be executed. And in fact, that's rather an interesting twist, I think. Early in the novel, Dickens made it clear that conditions were so intolerable that the coming Revolution would be entirely justified. But once it came, he made it clear that the Revolution was horrifically excessive, to the point that it seems worse than what necessitated it in the first place. But the novel ends on a hopeful note, a prophecy of what is to come. But I get ahead of myself. I should say that as hopeless as Darnay's situation seems, there was hope in the fact that Dr. Manette has become a popular figure among the people of Paris, owing to the many years he'd spent unjustly imprisoned in the Bastille. So he has faith that he'll get his son-in-law released. And... well, all the various plot threads from throughout the novel finally start coming together, and various characters who seemed unimportant to me, now become very important. And that's all I'll say. I won't reveal how it all ends. I will say the final line of the novel is nearly as famous as the first, though, while it was familiar to me, I wouldn't have been able to tell you it was from this novel, until now. (But even without providing specific context, I'd still consider it too spoilery to include here. I'll just say it involved a pretty damned heroic act.)

classics index
historical fiction index
(Image is a scan of my own copy. I assume the picture is from a movie adaptation, but the book doesn't say anything about the cover image. I tried using the internet to figure out which of the various adaptations it might be from, but I failed.)