I must admit that I am especially thrilled to be sharing this 3rd Classics Club review with you today on A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. I am making lovely progress on my Classics Club list and feeling good about finishing on time. This one feels especially good.
First, I just need to say I FINALLY FINISHED THIS BOOK!!!
A Tale of Two Cities is a novel that has given me trouble over the years. I’ve started it at least 3 times and could never quite get into it enough to finish. This time had a few month hiatus in the middle during my first trimester, but I came back to it. And now I have finished it!
An observation about Dickens novels in general:
I have found that Dickens novels are slow to start and fast to finish. They start a bit slower and more confusing with lots of characters in lots of settings. The real action is at the end. If I can get to the last third of his novels, I am hooked and fascinated by how he ties together different story lines and characters.
- Interesting time to finish this book amidst worldwide panic and fear about the virus. The fears are different but interesting to see fear in action today vs then.
- While this novel isn’t as long as some of the big classics I’ve read, it does lend itself better to a review more like those I’ve written about large classics so enjoy my thoughts in that format below.
According to Goodreads, “After eighteen years as a political prisoner in the Bastille, the ageing Doctor Manette is finally released and reunited with his daughter in England. There the lives of two very different men, Charles Darnay, an exiled French aristocrat, and Sydney Carton, a disreputable but brilliant English lawyer, become enmeshed through their love for Lucie Manette. From the tranquil roads of London, they are drawn against their will to the vengeful, bloodstained streets of Paris at the height of the Reign of Terror, and they soon fall under the lethal shadow of La Guillotine.”
- Charles Darnay – I love how he becomes a good, honest man despite his upbringing and his sweet love for Lucie and he loyalty to friends. What he suffers on his return to France is astonishing and unfair. But I admired his optimism and determination to do what was right.
- Jarvis Lorry – He is the first character we meet by name in this story and remained a favorite of mine throughout. Mr Lorry is just a genuinely good man who is both strict by the letter of the law (in his business dealings at Tellsons Bank) and truly kind to his friends (he is instrumental in saving the Manettes in the end and is constantly near when they need him or something big happens).
Most Intriguing Characters:
- Doctor Manette – Everything about Dr Manette intrigues me. His unfair prison time in the Bastille and subsequent affects are fascinating. He reverts to his shoemaker mental state several times in the story and it’s fascinating to see what sets him off vs what doesn’t. I was intrigued by his connections to other characters in the novel including those who were responsible for his imprisonment. Most intriguing were his actions in Paris as he sought release of Darnay and the ways his mental capacities shifted at that time.
- Mousier and Madame Defage (for different reasons) – He is intriguing as a leader of the new French Republic but also has a soft spot for Dr Manette which humanizes him. He believes in freedom for the common people and is instrumental in many people meeting La Guillotine. But he seems to have a conscience buried deep that surfaces from time to time. His wife, however, is fascinating because she is so ruthless and revenge focused. She is a terrifying villain as she loses her humanity and demands death of everyone connected with the Evremonde family. Fascinating to see what hunger, loss, poverty, and power can do to people.
- Sydney Carton — He is so interesting because his last act seems to redeem his character to new heights despite the mediocrity of the rest of his life. You love him for what he sacrifices and yet it all seems so tragic to sacrifice so much for unrequited love. But perhaps this is a sacrifice made more beautiful by the ending words of the novel and his final ride with the poor seamstress.
Extreme poverty and fear can lead to terrifying and surprising actions.
There is a lot of intense violence in this book especially once the French Revolution really begins. From the storming of the Bastille to the murder of aristocrats in the streets and at the Guillotine, human life is not valued as universally sacred and precious. In fact, the poor people of France felt justified in their revolt because frankly, the aristocracy had treated them like vermin for generations. It was fascinating and shocking how quickly the mob mentality overtook France and became unreasonable. All was justified under their new Republic but fear was at the center of their power. It was shocking to hear about their unfair laws, unfair trials, and general spirit of the revolution. I knew a bit about the French Revolution before reading this novel but to see it in action with characters that we had read about for many pages made it all more compelling and disturbing.
I love reading classics because they discuss meaningful themes in compelling ways.
Some of my favorite themes explored in this novel are below:
- Light v Darkness – Some characters emulate these qualities like Lucie as a symbol of light and Madame Defage as one of darkness. But you also find these in different settings. Paris as a place of darkness but Sydney Carton’s last ride to the Guillotine as a surprising place of light.
- Fear – What causes fear? What will people do when they are fearful? What can they be made to do when they are fearful? How do you limit fear? How do you control fear?
- Identity – How does one create or change identity? Charles Darnay is condemned because of his heritage not because of his actions. Dr Manette is haunted by his past but also seeks to move forward. Madame Defage is only interested in family names and lineage– not in what kind of people those she condemns are. Mr Lorry is hyper aware of his identity as a banker at Tellson’s but contrasts that with a true sincere friendship with the Manettes.
- Revolution – We have the obvious revolution in France and all the consequences of that violent rebellion. I have read that Dickens wrote this book at a time when England was having similar problems with extreme distance between classes. Dickens was considered by many to be a champion of the poor and experienced the difficulties of life in a debtor’s prison. Could what happened in France have become England’s future? For Dickens, perhaps he saw the potential for such a bloody, fearful revolution.
- Resurrection – “Recalled to Life” is a phrase repeated throughout the story and is a central idea in the story. Dr Manette is restored to society and life early in the novel but must fight for his place throughout. And naturally, Sydney gives Charles a resurrection of sorts in his final act of sacrifice at the end. Can France one day be brought back to life–a better life than before the revolution or since?
Ideas for finally finishing that tough/intimidating classic:
- Make a daily goal – read one chapter, 5 pages etc each day and stick to your goal!
- Listen to the audiobook – That helped me in the middle of this one to keep going. I switched to a hard copy at the end so don’t feel like you have to stick to one medium.
- Read the ebook to see your progress – It helps me feel more excited about reading if I can see that I’ve made real progress in the chapter and overall novel.
- Reward yourself at the end! You did it! Now celebrate! For me, this usually means buying new books or celebrating with a treat.
I am so proud to have finished this novel! It is a compelling tale of revolution, resurrection, and love. As always, Dickens creates compelling characters and complex plots that surprised me and fascinated me. And also as usual, I finish a Dickens ready to read another.
Do you enjoy reading Dickens? Why or why not?
Which books (classics or otherwise) have taken you a long time to finish?