Sunday, June 19, 2016

Classics Club 27: A Tale of Two Cities

One of the things that has always helped me "get into" the previous Dickens' novels that I have read is the strongly written, fully rounded and therefore relateable characters. Rooting for Pip, David Copperfield, Oliver Twist or even Scrooge himself  has helped me through the dense language that Dickens is somewhat infamous for.

A Tale of Two Cities is very different. It is much less character driven than many of his other novels  and the focus is more on plot and the broad sweep of history. Because this is one of just two historical novels that he wrote the focus on plot more than character should not have been a surprise. The fact that it impacted on my enjoyment of the novel was. Obviously much of my enjoyment of Dickens is based on the colourful characters he typically creates.

The other thing that made the novel difficult to get into at the beginning was the constantly changing location - London, then Paris then back again -and the shifting cast of characters. It was difficult to figure out what was going on and how people and events might relate . It wasn't until the two strands came together than the novel picked up - at least for me.

While the charcaters in A Tale of Two Cities are not as colourful and well drawn as in other novels they did evolve over time - or we at least saw a side of them that had previously been hidden. Initially Lucie appears a stereotypical female character - weak and morally too good to be true. Yet when the need arises she is shown to have an inner strength few would have suspected. Sydney Carton first seems a minor character, a flawed wastrel. Yet by the end his actions have turned him into the major player, a self-sacrificing hero. And Madam De Farge has changed from a revoluntionarty heroine to an unprincipled, revenge-seeking villain.

A Tale of Two Cities does an excellent job of highlighting the atrocities of the French Revolution - the power plays, the constantly changing rules, the lack of any semblance of justice, the barbarity. The personifcation of the guillotine is just one masterful way Dickens achieves this.  It  memorbaly illustrates the wrongness of judging and being judged based on class or societal position, rather than ipersonal behaviours.  It also has arguably the best opening ("It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness...) and closing (It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done...) lines in the literary world.

All in all, A Tale of Two Cities is well worth persevering with, but I wouldn't recommend it as an introduction to Dickens.

Although set in the French Revolution this novel was published in 1859. I'm counting it as my 19th century classic for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2016 over at Books and Chocolate.

1 comment:

  1. We post-moderns are apt to gripe that Dickens crammed his novels with too much pathos. A passionate guy, I don’t have a problem with narratives charged with emotion. The incidents, characters, all the unfolding story all worked on my soul. Such is my sense of Dickens’ epic and striking ability to write. After the contrasts of that well-known opening paragraph, he gives us all the feelings of people interacting: love and hate, despair and hope, misery and happiness, darkness and light, betrayal and friendship, mercy and humanity versus ruthlessness, cynicism versus the hope of a better tomorrow. Ah, Syd, you may have done stinky things working for that conceited shyster Mr. Stryver, but that doesn’t mean you were a stinker. Holding the hand of the seamstress was a far, far better thing than making Lucie happy.