Sunday, August 16, 2015

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

Love triumphs in a time of chaos

For years, Dr. Manette was unjustly imprisoned in the Bastille, his sanity broken and happy life with his wife and child irretrievably destroyed. His malefactors are evil French noblemen twins, whose impunity from their many violent crimes is embedded in the unfair social structure of France. Once the doctor has been released to the care of loyal manservant Defarge, Manette’s lovely daughter Lucy nurses him back to mental health in democratic England. There Lucy entertains two suitors, the mysterious Charles Darnay, emigrant teacher of French, and hard drinking wisecracking tip top lawyer Sydney Carton. Strangely enough, both men bear a remarkable resemblance to each other. Meanwhile, Carton doesn’t have a chance with Lucy, though after her wedding to Darnay he takes his place as trusted family friend. Finally, the intolerably repressed peasants of France revolt and seek a terrible revenge against their well-bred oppressors. The Manette family is soon trapped by the competing claims of justice and mercy. Who will restore their simple happy life?

I have never really taken Dickens seriously, because I thought, despite those amazing sentences, his books lack real people and are populated by oversize variably colored papier-mâché heads. And the women—really! But A Tale of Two Cities left me entranced, touched by these frankly sentimental characters. The sweep of the story was cinematic, as was to be expected in the days before cinema. Also, I loved the excitement at the end when the narration slipped into intense second person to describe the coach carrying the escaping Manette family to freedom. Finally, I blubbered at the climax.

The technical storytelling skills are excellent, and the minor characters take on a life of their own. Mr. Lorry, the businessman, is the most sentimental of the bunch, and Lucy Manette, who I always thought of as a vapid blonde, is actually a pretty tough customer. Sydney Carton is a jolt of iconoclastic energy. The ultimate end of revolutionary psychology is depicted and the symptoms of the doctor’s post traumatic stress are carefully detailed. Even Madame Defarge gets sympathy during her murderous final walk, when her past as a little girl walking on the sand of the beach is evoked.

The symbolism and imagery was deep and resonant. One character obsessively makes shoes to forget, and one character obsessively drinks to forget, and one character obsessively knits in order to remember. There are two set of twins. And what is the meaning of the phrase, Recalled to Life? The story makes good use of the powerful emotional release ignited by the second chance. The resurrection.

Mr. Dickens, I stand corrected. This was a wonderful book.

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