Sunday, May 4, 2014

T is for A Tale of Two Cities

I wasn't going to get through an A-Z book challenge without coming to Charles Dickens eventually.  I came close several times, but always settled upon a different book to write about, until now.

A Tale of Two Cities is one of my two favorite Dickens novels, along with Nicolas Nickleby.  A Christmas Carol which is more of a novella, is my absolute favorite work by him, but I have written about it before. So its off to the French Revolution we go, and one of the great historical novels of all time.

This is the one that begins "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times" (and then goes on in that vein for a whole chapter, because Dickens was like that) and that's appropriate because this novel is all about contrasts: between London and Paris, Justice and Vengeance, Rich and Poor, so on. Most importantly its about the contrasts between two men: Charles Darnay (an exiled French Nobleman) and Sidney Carton, an Englishman of good family who has wasted his opportunities on drink and debauchery. Both men fall in love with a woman name Lucie, and Darnay marries her, after Carton takes himself out of the running saying he's not worthy of her.

As it happens, the two men share a striking physical resemblance. 

As in most good historical novels, the private lives of these people play out against the backdrop of history, in this case the French Revolution.  Darnay is eventually captured by the Revolutionary forces and sentenced to death--not for anything he himself has done, but because of the sins of his forbears against the common man. His death is largely because of the personal vendetta of Madame Defarge, one of Dickens' greatest charecters, a woman eaten alive by vengance, who knits cheerfully while counting victims at the guillotine.

For Lucie's sake Carton substitutes himself for Darnay, the family escapes back to England and all ends well, even for Carton, who going to the guillotine reflecting (In a quote so famous it even got into a Star Trek movie) "Its a far far better thing I do, than I have ever done. Its a far far better resting place I go to than  I have ever known. "

In between there's all sorts of drama, and unforgettable characters, just the sort of thing Dickens is good at. As usual Dickens contrasts the lives of the poor and helpless with the lives of the rich and privileged.   This is actually one of him more straightforward books, not burdened with excessive subplots.   

The last couple chapters of the book detailing Carton's thoughts and feelings on morning of his death are among Dickens' best. A young seamstress makes a heartbreaking cameo her as well. 

There have been several good film versions of A Tale of Two Cities, but the one that is not to be missed is the 1935 version starring Ronald Colman. Not only does it stick quite closely to the book, but no one could die nobly like Ronald Colman.  

I know we came up a little short last week trying to finish up the 
A-Z challenge, but work and a bad round of spring sinuses kind of got in the way.  I promise to not let anyone down though, there will be a post finishing up the remaining letters of the alphabet, as soon as I find a book for "X".


  1. I'm trying to read all the "classics" of literature and I admit, this is on my list b/c I've never read it before! I really enjoyed Great Expectations in school, but haven't quite gotten around to A Tale of Two Cities!

    1. I love classics, but I haven't read this one either. Meg's review definitely makes me want to read it though.

  2. Hi Meg,

    I'm pretty new to the book community, and I came across your blog randomly. This A-Z challenge sounds like such a fun challenge. I can't believe you made it all the way to T! Great review of "A Tale of Two Cities", by the way!

    1. Hi Lauren! Randomly is sometimes best. Thanks for stopping by.

  3. You're going to be very disappointed with me when I tell you that I haven't read this book. I need to!

    1. Not disappointed at all. I know you've reaf A Christmas Carol once or twice, which is still my favorite. It is a great book, but just between the two us, I live the Ronald Colman movie even more. Dickens could run on, and even I don't always have the time.