Book Review: A Tale of Two Cities

I could write an essay about the eternal greatness of this book, but I thought I would keep it simple.

I think a lot of people are put off by classics because of their density and complexity. A Tale of Two Cities is both these things, but once you get beyond that, it is a truly remarkable story. In my opinion, classics are always relevant, and in starting this blog I was on a mission to try and write about books in a more accessible and down to earth way, but haven’t really gotten round to focusing on classics.

Ever since I came across the famous opening line, “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity…” I have known I wanted to read this.

In a way, I think this current climate is one of the best times to read it. We too, are living in a time of great change and upheaval, but obviously, in many different ways.

Synopsis

Written in 1859, this is a book divided between London and Paris, set in the period between the French Revolution of 1789 and the Reign of Terror which followed.

It centers on these characters: Lucie Manette, her father, Alexandre Manette, who is rescued from imprisonment, Charles Darnay and Sydney Carlton, who are both in love with Lucie, Jarvis Lorry, who rescues Lucie in bringing her back to England, and finally, the Defrages, owners of a ‘radical’ wine shop situated at the heart of the revolution. Darnay is wrongly accused of being a traitor and is imprisoned in the Bastille. During his time on trial, Dickens documents the spirit of post Revolutionary France and the constant state of terror that dominated. No one was exempt from the threat of the Guillotine, or the repressive State under Robespierre.

In a lot of ways, it is a historical novel, but also one of universal hope. Dickens speaks about the importance of humanity arising from the darkness and striving for betterment. During our own uncertain times, it seemed an apt novel to read. Indeed, Dickens’ words of wisdom have the power to transmit through generations, and they certainly do here.

Review

Rating: 5 out of 5.
Image: Violet Daniels
  • Dickens paints a picture of this particular moment, which is why I loved it so much. I have always been fascinated by this period, and therefore it’s incredible to see it reflected on, in an absorbing and visceral way.
  • Unlike other Dickens novels, there aren’t too many characters to keep track of. There are a handful of main characters that feature more than others and often, each chapter features a new character and perspective, which I liked.
  • The language is beautiful, timeless and utterly immersive. But Dickens is also analytical, and a provider of historical and social commentary, which is fascinating.
  • The metaphors are well thought out and consistent. I particularly liked the comparison between the Revolutionary fever, crowds and the endless blood created from the Guillotine, to the sea and forces of nature. Nature is unpredictable, and so is the Republic in its slaughter of civilians, this illustration is stark and uncomfortable, but conveys so much feeling.
  • I found the plot at the start hard to follow and did have to do a bit of Googling just to make myself more familiar with the story.
  • It contains an important message which can be applied to our time. Despite tough periods in history, we have always arisen from it and retained the sense of hope for a better future. In this Covid-age, I couldn’t help but feel this sentiment was significant.
  • Despite the horror that is depicted throughout, it ends on a positive note, “I see a beautiful city and a brilliant people rising from this abyss” in other words, people (and more widely, humanity) is always capable of changing and a better world is always possible. This pandemic is global and the fight is real, but one day we’ll look back on it and be better for the experience.

My favourite quote

Aside from the opening passage, I feel this quote sums up the novel and draws upon that clever comparison between the feeling of the revolution and the oppressive state, and the unpredictability of nature,

“With a roar that sounded as if all the breath in France had been shaped into the detested word, the living sea rose, wave on wave, depth on depth, and overflowed the city to that point.”

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