A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens

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Four stars, read from October to November 2017.

I decided to read this book right now because of some TV show we were watching recently, and I’m hoping that by the end of this post I’ll be able to remember what it was. A character must have made a reference to the opening lines of the book, because it started me thinking about them for the rest of that evening.

dickens

It seems to me—and I’m sure this has been obvious all along, I’m just slow joining the conversation—that these words must apply, always, to whatever the present time is. Because it’s always the best, as we learn more and our technology advances and daily life becomes better for more and more people. And it’s always the worst, too, as our increased access to information makes us more aware of how much is actually terrible in the world, and people find new ways to abuse that technology and information. It is always the season of light as we gain more perspective on the past, and it is always the season of darkness as we try to ignore everything that makes us uncomfortable.

It’s interesting that Dickens chose to make his protagonist a member of the aristocracy, given the lengths to which he goes at the beginning of the book to illustrate why a revolution was so desperately needed. In the first pages, Charles Darnay’s uncle casually kills a baby in the streets of Paris, and it’s made clear that the lives of common people are literally worthless in pre-revolutionary France. Why, then, is the narrative structure geared toward sympathy with the aristocrats?

The disturbing question of the revolution is why everything had to be so extreme, so absolutely all or nothing, but that’s the terrifying bestiality of human nature; as a group we cannot tolerate nuance of any kind, especially in politics. And was the violence perpetrated by the revolutionaries, indiscriminate as it was, any more violent than the system they were overthrowing? Specific, concentrated acts of violence are always easier for us to condemn than pervasive, systematic ones.

He’s not going to become one of my favorite writers, I don’t think, but I do like Dickens a lot; he is witty and sarcastic and insightful, casually pointing out human cruelty and weakness on both individual and societal scales, but he tells a great story, too. The first two-thirds of the book took me a while—not out of boredom, it’s just a slower pace—but the denouement was pretty gripping.

I’ve been meaning to read this for years, so I’m relieved to have finally gotten around to it. I don’t feel compelled to read everything he wrote, but there are a few others I’m interested in, like Bleak House and Great Expectations, maybe Hard Times. I don’t really know the plots of many of them, actually; they’ve just always run together in my head as a kind of Dickens stew (hmm, now I want stew. And while I’m in parentheses: alas, I didn’t remember what TV show it was). Which of his books have you read, and which would you recommend most highly? Maybe that will help me decide.

4 Comments Add yours

  1. Jan Hicks says:

    Great Expectations is my favourite. I also like The Old Curiosity Shop, Little Dorrit, and A Christmas Carol.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Miri says:

      A Christmas Carol is the only other one of his that I’ve read (I liked it), and I remember liking the BBC adaptation of Little Dorrit. I don’t think I know anything about The Old Curiosity Shop!

      Like

      1. Jan Hicks says:

        It’s very sad. It’s about a teenage girl, Nell, who lives with her grandfather. He owns the old curiosity shop and is swindled out of it by the evil Quilp who takes advantage of his desperation to provide Nell with a good life. Things go from bad to worse. It’s sort of the anti-Oliver Twist. It will make you angry.

        Like

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