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[283] A Tale of Two Cities – Charles Dickens

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“The fountain in the village flowed unseen and unheard, and the fountain at the chateau dropped unseen and unheard—both melting away, like the minutes that were falling from the spring of Time—through three dark hours. Then, the grey water of both began to be ghostly in the light, and the eyes of the stone faces of the chateau were opened.” [Book 2, IX 132]

Set in vengeful Paris and (relatively) tranquil London before and during the French Revolution, A Tale of Two Cities limns the plight of the French peasantry demoralized by the French aristocrats in the years leading up to the revolution. Where hungers sweeps France, England is rife with crime. Espoinage is also in rampage. The French government commissions spies to eavesdrop on its nationals who are affiliated with the peasant uprising. The Brits recruit agents to collect intelligence on the cause of the rebellion in colonial America.

Thrown out of his honourable employment in England . . . he knew that he had crossed the Channel, and accepted service in France: first, as a tempter and an eavesdropper among his own countrymen there; gradually, as a tempter and an eavesdropper among the natives. [Book 3, VIII 313]

Fallen victim of such espionage is Charles Darnay, a French once-aristocrat who has renounced his status and property. Living in England as a teacher of the French language who is conversant in French literature, Darnay is accused of collecting information for France. Later, as the footsteps (a recurring motif Dickens employs to show the pull of destiny) of the revolution gains momentum, Darnay, who is really a marquis of the detestable aristocratic family Evremonde, falls victim to the indiscriminate wrath of the revolution despite his virtuous nature.

Little need to show that this detested family name had long been anathematised by Saint Antoine, and was wrought into the fatal register. [Book 3, X 344]

At the heart of this inveterate pursuit is the sovereign Madame Defarge, who maintains her composure behind the counter of her wine-shop, knitting.

But, imbued from her childhood with a brooding sense of wrong, and an inveterate hatred of a class, opportunity had developed her into a tigress. She was absolutely without pity. If she had ever had the virtue in her, it had quite gone out of her. [Book 3, XIV, 375]

The cause of her revenge is more personal because the Evremondes had done her family wrong. She is implacable that she wants to pursue this family to annihilation, to extermination. Her surreptitious management of Darnay’s rearrest is cunning—vengeance has consumed her that she won’t regard his child and wife with sensibility. Meting out deadly punishment, figuratively, is her knitting, a coded register of the death roll when the revolution triumphs.

He always remembered with fear and trembling, that the terrible woman had knitted when he talked with her, and had looked ominously at him as her fingers moved. [Book 3, VIII 313]

Duality, as suggested by the consecutive clauses in the opening chapter, is obviously at work in the novel. he ultimate duality would be that between life and death, or more subtly, sacrifice and resurrection. Dickens first drops hint of this sacrifice on the part of Sydney Carton, a dissipated British barrister, when he saves Darnay from the trial in England. Carton’s martyrdom atones for his ill-spent life full of wrongdoings. The fatal act in a sense has perfected him, as he opts for death and resurrection to a life better than that which he has ever known. As Darnay is recalled to life (another recurring motif), Carton has redeemed himself. He wields a prophetic power through a secret atonement. As much a havoc in which the novel takes place and progresses, the events all converge in hopeful resurrection.

482 pp. Penguin Classics. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]


8 Responses

  1. I actually attempted to get this one on audio (it seems to be easier for me to get through audios these days) but something was wrong with the discs. I’m ashamed that I’ve not yet read this one or Great Expectations.

  2. Thanks for the review, Matt. I had a hard time getting through this one – it felt like a slog at times. I loved Great Expectations and hope to read Bleak House next.

    • Bleak House is also on my list. A Tale of Two Cities is not an easy book for me, because somehow I can got caught up with the social commentary.

  3. I was planning on reading this this summer, but every time I look at it my head hurts. At some point I really need to start some Dickens though. Thanks for sharing!

  4. I read this book quite a long way back but it was a good read nevertheless.

  5. […] drastic drop in homework load. It was in ninth grade that I cultivated a love for reading, after A Tale of Two Cities, which I re-read this year. I never thought history and literature could be combined in such […]

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