Wednesday, 13 June 2001

Charles Dickens: A Tale of Two Cities (1863)

Edition: Heron
Review number: 839

The two quotations that everyone remembers from this novel come at the very beginning ("It was the best of times, it was the worst of times...") and at the very end ("It is a far far better thing..."). There are other memorable phrases ("Recalled to life", for example), and plenty of memorable scenes as Dickens depicts the arrogance of the French aristocracy of the eighteenth century and the turmoil of the revolution.

But A Tale of Two Cities is not just about memorable phrases and scenes. It is the Dickens novel which is most clearly plotted as a whole, where events flow from one to another and melodramatic coincidences are at a minimum. (The obvious example of the resemblance between Charles Darnay and Sydney Carton is long established by the time it is needed.) The novel is one of Dickens' shortest, and that may be a reason why it is better plotted, but it also lacks the wonderful casts of minor characters which fill most of his writing.

Having said that, the most memorable characters are the Defarges, particularly Madame, who has a disturbing malevolence. They are not as central to the plot as they are to the atmosphere in the Paris set sections of the novel, as it moves from sullen resentment of the aristocracy to the tyranny of the Terror. Dickens' handling of the history is closely based on Carlyle's account, and is even-handedly against injustice, portraying a terrible picture of the actions of both sides. We shouldn't forget, of course, that when Dickens was writing this novel, the French Revolution was comparatively recent history, as much as the Second World War is today, and well within living memory.

The story is one of personal heroism in a world gone mad, and Dickens' novel is a plea for humanity. It remains immensely powerful, perhaps more so than some of his works which campaign with a specific target, now long attained.

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