I had the best of times and not the worst of times, reading this novel. While I certainly had great expectations going into it I found that there were no hard times to be had while reading. Which is a great positive, because otherwise my home would have been a bleak house. Now, with it being holiday season and with much of my reading out of the way I may just be able to enjoy a trip up to the Gold Coast and a Christmas Carol or two. But first, it is a far, far punnier review that I write now than I have ever written.
"I see Barsad, and Cly, Defarge, The Vengeance, the Jurymen, the Judge, long ranks of the new oppressors who have risen on the destruction of the old, perishing by this retributive instrument, before it shall cease out of its present use. I see a beautiful city and a brilliant people rising from this abyss, and, in their struggles to be truly free, in their triumphs and defeats, through long, long years to come, I see the evil of this time and of the previous time of which this is the natural birth, gradually making expiation for itself and wearing out."
All jokes aside, A Tale of Two Cities was a novel I had been looking forward to reading since I tackled Great Expectations last year. While many consider that Charles Dickens is a great if lengthy, long-winded author, I have a different opinion. That is not to say that I believe Dickens is a poor author. No, indeed, he is one of the best. Few have ever had the same dark humour, wit, descriptive power or character building ability to match him. What I mean to say is that I believe Dickens to be much shorter than many perceive. The reason for this, is that in his writing I perceive Dickens to make use of tautology, with several words combining together to mean the same thing. Yet at the same time these words are not useless repetition but an extension of each other, making beautiful prose that readers can read through quickly because of the mashing together of many words meaning precisely the same concept.
"I see the lives for which I lay down my life, peaceful, useful, prosperous and happy, in that England which I shall see no more. I see Her with a child upon her bosom, who bears my name. I see her father, aged and bent, but otherwise restored, and faithful to all men in his healing office, and at peace; I see the good old man, so long their friend, in ten years' time enriching them with all he has, and passing tranquilly to his reward."
A Tale of Two Cities is in effect, apart from a wonderfully written novel, a mixture of genres. It is now a historical fiction based around revolutionary themes, but it is also a character drama centred around one woman and her father and the men who fall in love with her. It is these men who become drawn into the desired execution of nobility and these men who must sacrifice their lives for her. In how this novel portrayed love as being linked to sacrifice it is one of the true romance stories I have read about in a while. For too often romance is linked to the physicality of loving, while ignoring the symbolic, emotional and spiritual sides.
"I see that I hold a sanctuary in their hearts, and in the hearts of their descendants, generations hence. I see her, an old woman, weeping for me on the anniversary of this day. I see her and her husband, their course done, lying side by side in their last earthly bed, and I know that each was not more honoured and held sacred in the other's soul, than I was in the souls of both."
The themes of this novel centre around trials, tribulation, freedom, spirituality, sacrifice and all manner of revolutionary discussion. Dickens certainly writes some beautiful passages about the tragedy associated with Madame Guillotine in France and his turn of phrase at times is wonderful, particularly with the recurring: 'recalled to life.' This phrase highlights an important idea in the novel connected to the use of one's life and further, the idea that there could be a moment in one's life where salvation from disaster occurs (or maybe several moments). These moments mean that one has been 'recalled to life' to serve another purpose and it becomes up to the individual to work out for themselves how to use this new lease on life (I recommend not becoming a vigilante like Iron Man or Batman, however).
"I see that child who lay upon her bosom and who bore my name, a man winning his way up in that path of life which once was mine. I see him winning it so well, that my name is made illustrious there by the light of his. I see the blots I threw upon it, faded away. I see him, foremost of just judges and honoured men, bringing a boy of my name, with a forehead that I know and golden hair, to this place - then fair to look upon, with not a trace of this day's disfigurement - and I hear him tell the child my story, with a tender and a faltering voice."
One final theme I wish to discuss is that of the idea of individuality. Dickens does a marvellous work in being capable, and more than capable, of showing the two cities of his novels as entities. I know of only two other authors who have done such a job and with far greater a number of pages (James Joyce and Victor Hugo). In doing so, he shows off the people of this city as part of a massive beast, a monster which in a time of Industrialisation was reaping souls and spitting out pollution. This ability of Dickens, therefore, to remove the individuality of many of his characters, serves to highlight the final and crucially selfless act of the novel as a defiance of the repression created by London. While the French may have perceived the aristocratic individuals as ripe for the guillotine harvest due to their oppressive ways, the city of London had its own oppressive atmosphere, created as a smog which covered the hearts and minds of her people.
So, what is A Tale of Two Cities in the end? Is it a story of redemption through sacrifice? A re-incarnation of the gospel story? A tale of what happens to men cursed by violence, oppression and revolution? A story of the trials that befall men even when they are uncalled for? Or is perhaps A Tale of Two Cities simply what it is: a powerful novel that speaks of truth throughout the centuries, calling men and women and inspiring them to do a far, far better thing than they have ever done and in so doing, to go to a better rest.