A Tale of Two Cities (Book Review)

Title: A Tale of Two Cities

Author: Charles Dickens

Publication Date: 1859 (book), 2008 (audio)

Publisher: Tantor Audio

Narrated By: Simon Vance

THE PLOT

In 1775, after eighteen years in the Bastille, a French prison, Dr. Alexandre Manette is “recalled to life” after long being presumed dead. Dr. Manette is released into the temporary custody of Monsieur and Madam Defarge who own a wine shop. Newly released from prison, Dr. Manette can scarcely remember who he is or any part of his old life. He is instead consumed by a craft he picked up while imprisoned – shoemaking.

Word reaches London and Manette’s banker, Jarvis Lorry, that he is alive. As a result, Lorry and Manette’s daughter Lucie set off for Paris to recover Lucie’s father and bring him into their custody and care.

Five years later, Charles Darnay is accused of being a spy and is thus on trial for treason against the British Crown. John Barsad and Roger Cly are the two witnesses against him. Barsad claims he could easily identify Darnay. Darnay’s lawyers are a man named Stryver and his co-counsel, Sydney Carton. Darnay is acquitted when Carton points out to Barsad – and everyone in court – that Carton so strongly himself resembles Darnay that an eyewitness identification should be doubted. This resemblance thus undermines the prosecution’s case for identification being unmistakable. Dr. Manette and Lucie are present for the court proceedings.

No long after, in France, Marquis Evrémonde runs over a peasant child with his carriage. He shows no regret whatsoever and instead hurries home to await the arrival of his nephew, Charles Darnay. Darnay renounces the French aristocracy, including his place therein, and returns to England shortly after his arrival. That same night, the Marquis is murdered in his bed. The murderer left a note that merely says “Jacques.”

A year later in England, Darnay confesses his love of Lucie to Dr. Manette and asks permission to marry her. Manette knows that Darnay is not his birth name but insists that Darnay not share his real name with him unless or until Lucie accepts his marriage proposal. Not long after, Syndey Carton tells Lucie that he loves her while simultaneously telling her that his own life is worthless. He impresses upon her that neither of them ever acknowledge his confession to her again.

A man named Jerry Cruncher is a grave robber. He undertakes to dig up the body of recently deceased spy Roger Cly. He refers to himself as a “Resurrection Man.”

In Paris, John Barsad turns up at the Defarges wine shop. Monsieur and Madam Defarge are now key members in the growing French Revolution – with Madam Defarge knitting a registry of people she wishes to see dead.

In London, on the morning of his wedding, Charles Darnay confesses to Dr. Manette his real identity. While Lucie and Darnay are on their honeymoon, Dr. Manette relapses into the mental state he was in, when recovered by Lorry and Lucie, unresponsive to anything and constantly working to make shoes. After nine days, his relapse finally ended. After the couple returns from their honeymoon, Carton visits Darnay and asks permission to be welcome in their home and his request is granted.

In 1789, peasants in France storm the Bastille. The French Revolution begins. The revolutionaries begin to murder French aristocrats in great numbers. Gabelle, the man in charge of maintaining the Evrémonde estate is imprisoned. He writes to Darnay asking for help. Despite the danger, Darney departs for France.

Upon arriving in France, Darnay is arrested almost immediately. Dr. Manette and Lucie follow Darnay to Paris in an effort to help him. He is in prison for over a year before he is finally given a trial. Dr. Manette is a sympathetic figure to the Revolutionaries – having served eighteen years in the Bastille – and he uses his influence to persuade the Revolutionaries to acquit Darnay. However, the same night that he is released, Darnay is arrested again. His re-arrest is spurred on by the Monsieur and Madam Defarge.

Sydney Carton arrives in Paris with a plan to save Darnay. Carton learns that Barsad is working as a spy for the Revolutionaries. He further learns that Barsad has access to the cells of the prisoners. He leverages his knowledge that Barsad is British to force the man to grant him access to see Darnay. Barsad is forced to comply because failing to do so could lead to Darnay accusing him of working as a spy for the British. This revelation to the Revolutionaries would surely lead to Barsad’s death. We further learn that Barsad’s real name is Solomon Pross. He is the long-lost brother of Lucie’s loyal servant, Miss Pross, who has also joined the group in Paris.

At Darnay’s second trial, Defarge produces a letter that Dr. Manette wrote while a prisoner in the Bastille. He had hidden the letter behind a block in the cell in which he was kept. The Defarges discovered the letter during the storming of the Bastille and kept its existence secret until this second trial under the belief that it would guarantee Darnay’s conviction. As the letter is read aloud, we learn why Dr. Manette was in prison.

Manette – a doctor – was enlisted by the Evrémonde brothers (Darnay’s father and uncle.) They wanted him to tend a woman whom one of the brothers had raped. They also wanted him to tend to the woman’s brother, whom the same Evrémonde brother had stabbed for trying to protect his sister. After Manette treated the two, the aristocrats worried he would report their behavior so they conspired to have him arrested and imprisoned. The jury hears the story, become furious, and condemns Charles Darnay for the crimes of his father and uncle. He is sentenced to die within twenty-four hours.

That night, Sydney Carton visits the Defarge wine shops and overhears Madam Defarge plotting to have Darnay’s wife and young daughter also executed. We learn that Madam Defarge is the surviving sibling of the woman who had been raped by the Evrémonde brothers and the brother who had died attempting to defend her.

Carton arranges the paperwork for the Manette’s immediate departure from France. As Lucie, her father, and her daughter are fleeing Paris, Madam Defarge visits the residence where they had been staying. She finds Miss Pross there. Pross intuits Defarge’s intentions. The two women begin fighting. Defarge draws a gun but in their struggle she shoots herself. Miss Pross flees the scene.

Sydney Carton uses Barsad to gain access to Charles Darnay. Once inside the prison sell, he gets Darnay to change clothes with him. Darnay leaves the prison dressed as Sydney Carton. Carton, in turn, takes Darnay’s place under the guillotine. Due to their similar appearance, no one notices the switch. Carton dies believing that his life served a great purpose and that he will be remembered well by those he saved.

My Review:

This book is not without its faults but I love it just the same.

A common complaint about the writing of Dickens is that he was paid by the word and that this arrangement is obvious when one attempts to read his works. I usually feel that way, too. However, the descriptive text is wonderful when narrated by Simon Vance. Where my eyes might long to scan ahead to the next bit of action, were I reading this book, my ears in contrast are eager to take in the scene. Simon Vance’s narration was wonderful and I will probably never *read* another Dickens novel again.

The story is broken down into three “books” within the novel. The first book presents the recovery of Dr. Manette and the second book sets up the third by introducing Sydney Carton, Charles Darnay, providing the wedding of Darnay and Lucie, and then giving us the ill-fated decision by Darnay to return to France from England. The third book is where most of the action occurs and it was hard to stop listening in this section until I reached the end. My advice to anyone who wants to revisit A Tale of Two Cities is to not give up on the novel too soon.

I could say volumes about this book but I will instead try to be brief.

What Doesn’t Work:

It is one thing tot ask your reader to accept that Carton and Darnay look so similar that they could pass for one another. But Dickens asks his reader to continue just accepting coincidence after coincidence almost all the way to the novel’s conclusion.

  • Barsad is Miss Pross’s long lost brother!
  • Miss Pross somehow misses out on her brother’s new French identity when he was the key witness at a trial Lucie and Dr. Manette attended in London!
  • Miss Pross sees him on the streets of Paris by chance!
  • Sydney Carton just so happened to be privy to Barsad’s identity due to having him as a witness in Darnay’s trial years earlier!
  • Jerry Cruncher just so happens to know that Cly faked his death because he personally dug up the grave and found that there was no body there!
  • All of these people just so happened to be near one another at the exact right moment for Carton to put all of this information together!
  • Dr. Manette was imprisoned by Darnay’s father and uncle!
  • Madam Defarge is the third sibling in Dr. Manette’s tragic prison tale!
  • Dr. Manette former servant, Monsieur Defarge, just so happened to marry that third sibling!
  • Dr. Manette went then to live with the Defarges after he was released from prison!
  • The Defarges are the ones who found Manette’s long lost prison letter!

It’s all a bit much. I believe there is a purpose, though, and I’ll get to that below. Either way, I forgive the novel its faults because its virtues are so great.

What Works:

Dickens’ prose is brilliant. The novel has arguably the most famous first line in all of English literature.

“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, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”

The novel also has arguably the most famous final line in all of English literature.

“It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”

The lines between are exceptional, too. Dickens is a master of sentence construction and from start to finish, the novel is quite simply a masterpiece.


Themes:

Resurrection: Dr. Manette is “recalled to life” as the novel begins. Sydney Carton – in death – is resurrected as the novel ends. Charles Darney is all but dead before his own life is restored to him by Carton. Jerry Cruncher is a “resurrection man” in the novel (i.e. he digs up bodies for profit.) The burning of Dr. Manette’s work bench is described as “the burning of the body.”

Social Justice: The novel clearly decries two forms of social evil. The first evil is the aristocracy, characterized by its arrogance and its indifference to the poor and suffering. The aristocracy does not care about peasants because they view them, collectively, as a group who are lesser. Dr. Manette is a victim of this evil – though we do not learn that until the novel is near its end.

Dickens also makes it plain that the Revolutionaries are a different type of evil, characterized by over-indulging in violence, cruelty, malice, chaos, and a lack of love and mercy. The mob is an inversion of the aristocracy, viewing humanity not on a person-by-person basis but instead making collective value judgments on the basis of the group to which one belongs. We see this most clearly in the character of Madam Defarge. She becomes a Revolutionary because of a great wrong done to her family. However, by the novel’s close, she has become indifferent to whether or not an accused is actually innocent or guilty. She becomes the thing she despised in the aristocracy. She views all members of the aristocracy as a collective evil.

The message from Dickens in this novel is that every individual person matters and should be judged on an individual basis. He drives that point home via the innumerable coincidences I mention before. Every person in the story, regardless of station, ultimately mattered to the resolution of the story.

Redemption: Dr. Manette redeems the time of his suffering by using that suffering to save his son-in-law. Jerry Cruncher’s unseemly trade as a “Resurrection Man” is redeemed by the important knowledge it provides late in the novel. Charles Darnay attempts to redeem his family by braving danger and rescuing a man in a French prison who needs his help. Sydney Carton redeems (in his own view) his entire life by trading places with Charles Darnay.

One way that the novel thus condemns both the aristocracy and the mob is by demonstrating that neither have the capacity in their worldview for allowing an individual’s redemption.

I am glad that I revisited this book. If you enjoyed it in High School and have been tempted to re-read it I recommend doing so. You could also do as I did and listen to the audio book.

In closing, I thought I would let Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) read some lines from this book. If you haven’t seen The Dark Knight Rises… well, don’t watch the video.

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2 thoughts on “A Tale of Two Cities (Book Review)

  1. Of all the classics I was assigned to read in school this is one of the only ones that I enjoyed. Older books do seem to lean heavily on coincidences, maybe because people were less used to entertainment as a concept? I assume way back in the day you needed a Greek chorus because the entire idea of presenting a story was new. “Okay audience this guy is an actor get it? You’re watching a performance”. Or maybe I’m underestimating our primitive screwhead ancestors.

    1. I think audiences once required less realism in literature and more realism in visual art. I think people were willing to be moralized to in literature (not just willing, they wanted it) and that often manifests itself in coincidences, deus ex machina, etc. Now visual art is often abstract and story-telling demands realism so intricate that one can craft a universe around it. I don’t know what that says about our species but it is an interesting change.

      I also liked this book back in HS and like you it was one of the few classics I really enjoyed. The thing I particularly liked about A Tale of Two Cities was 1) the character development of Sydney Carton and 2) the sinister feeling Dickens was able to evoke in his realistic portrayal of the aristocracy AND the mob. Darnay’s uncle and Madam Defarge are both awful and plausible people.

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