(A review by Sidharth Vardhan
of ‘A Tale of Two Cities (1859) by Charles Dickens
First written on September 9, 2015
(4 / 5))
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.
“No man ever really loved a woman, lost her, and knew her with a blameless though an unchanged mind when she was a wife and a mother, but her children had a strange sympathy with him—an instinctive delicacy of pity for him. What fine hidden sensibilities are touched in such a case, no echoes tell; but it is so, and it was so here. Carton was the first stranger to whom little Lucie held out her chubby arms, and he kept his place with her as she grew. The little boy had spoken of him, almost at the last. “Poor Carton! Kiss him for me!”Charles Dickens (A Tale of Two Cities)
French Revolution must have been too big a thing for Dickens to miss given his protests against class discrimination and constant effort to be the voice of conscience for English rich. In fact, he actually managed to portray the Paris of time well enough, IMO, despite his caricature-like characters and the boring tone he often took.
And all that is good but the truth is three of four stars here belong to Sydney Carton. Charles is a boring Mr. Goody Two Shoes; Lucie and her father are no better – too perfect to be likable. And yet Dickens prefers to give them footage instead of one of the most memorable characters he would make. Sydney would be gone for several chapters. Often I was flipping through pages to see how long I have to continue reading before having him back.
The story is dull and too melodramatic – Charles managed to be accused of things he didn’t do three times (or was it four times?) and be saved each time – twice by Sydney. Also twice would he leave France under assumed identities. Sydney is in Paris to save Charles who had gone there to defend someone else.
Sydney is the only redeeming thing about the novel.
“O Miss Manette, when the little picture of a happy father’s face looks up in yours when you see your own bright beauty springing up anew at your feet, think now and then that there is a man who would give his life, to keep a life you love beside you!”Charles Dickens (A Tale of Two Cities)
He actually said the best monologue that I ever have heard about love:
“I wish you to know that you have been the last dream of my soul. In my degradation I have not been so degraded but that the sight of you with your father, and of this homemade such a home by you, has stirred old shadows that I thought had died out of me. Since I knew you, I have been troubled by a remorse that I thought would never reproach me again, and have heard whispers from old voices impelling me upward, that I thought were silent forever. I have had unformed ideas of striving afresh, beginning anew, shaking off sloth and sensuality, and fighting out the abandoned fight. A dream, all a dream, that ends in nothing, and leaves the sleeper where he lay down, but I wish you to know that you inspired it.”Charles Dickens (A Tale of Two Cities)
And it is not only those big dialogues but the smallest of his acts that have nothing to do with his love. I loved everything Dickens had to say about him:
“At one of the theatre doors, there was a little girl with a mother, looking for a way across the street through the mud. He carried the child over, and before the timid arm was loosed from his neck asked her for a kiss.”Charles Dickens (A Tale of Two Cities)
Florentino, Myshkin, Fredrick, Fredo and now Sydney – I kind of like these losers. I loved everything Dickens had to say about him even when I didn’t know the ending. He suffers from an inferiority complex probably due to the human tendency of measuring the worth of a life in terms of money. I don’t know why shouldn’t he try to move ahead in life, he is definitely street smart.
I didn’t like the ending which was ruined by Sydney’s foolishness. Here is what a more reasonable man would have done – he would have let Charles die; then leave Paris with Lucie. And when she is emotionally vulnerable and busy fainting over her husband’s death; he could have proposed her. But no, he was too short-sighted for all this. Some people just can’t get this right.
A short story related to book that I wrote here.
Copyright – Sidharth Vardhan