My rating: 4 stars
Love in its various forms is enfolded in an account of how those who fight against tyranny can become tyrants themselves in A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. As the characters travel between London and Paris in the eighteenth century, readers are presented with a picture of the society of the time. Although this is a challenging and difficult novel to get immersed in, it ends up being engaging, since it raises stimulating questions.
In 1775, Mr Jarvis Lorry, a clerk at Tellson’s bank, had to accompany Miss Lucie Manette to Paris on a critical mission. Her father, who was long thought dead, had reappeared, and Mr Lorry’s assistance was fundamental to identify him. Monsieur Manette was hidden in a room at a wine-shop. He was making shoes, a skill that he had learnt while imprisoned for many years without a trial. Doctor Manette not only didn’t remember his time in prison, he also didn’t know who Mr Lorry and Lucie were. Mr Lorry managed to recognise him, though. And, as soon as it was possible, they took him to England.
Five years later, the three of them were called as witnesses at the trial of a man, Mr Charles Darnay, who had taken the same boat as them from Calais to England when they left France. He was acquitted after a successful defence by Sydney Carton, who looked very much like him. From that moment onwards, their paths became intertwined. Charles Darnay fell in love with Lucie Manette, who was kind and compassionate. But he was not the only one developing feelings for her.
The love story progresses almost in the background, though. It only turns out to be genuinely relevant near the end, when past events are exposed and have consequences. Doctor Manette and Charles Darnay are the sources of the most engaging mysteries and stories, which become important in a surprising way. While Doctor Manette had experienced great trauma, Charles Darnay was the nephew of Monsieur the Marquis. But he had dissimilar political views to his uncle. Charles believed that his family had wrongly hurt many people, so he renounced his claim to the property.
The period right before and after the French Revolution is of extreme importance to the novel. Charles Dickens successfully portrayed the outrageous poverty of the Parisian population of the time, which contrasted with the exuberant lifestyle led by the nobility. After so much suffering, people wanted to put an end to the aristocracy. However, when a new beginning is tainted by revenge, the outcome of an uprising may be unreasonable. People make similar mistakes to those of their predecessors. Ideals are taken to extremes and lose their original meaning.
Thanks to an extraordinary combination of description of and justification for the storming of the Bastille in 1789, it is clear that the population sought vengeance for living so long in poverty and having to deal with abuse of power.
“The remorseless sea of turbulently swaying shapes, voices of vengeance, and faces hardened in the furnaces of suffering until the touch of pity could make no mark on them.”
Although the novel becomes more gripping as the plot unfolds, it is challenging to get immersed in it. The way in which some of the characters are randomly introduced makes the story confusing. It also doesn’t help that, at the beginning of a couple of chapters, we are reintroduced to the story through the perspectives of new or secondary characters. It’s only after the first third of the book that the characters start to become more familiar and, therefore, the plot stops being confusing. Nevertheless, Sydney Carton could have been more fleshed out, so his role was more impactful.
Despite its flaws, A Tale of Two Cities is a thought-provoking and gratifying novel. The first paragraph is a good summary of the main topic explored – humans being capable of the best and the worst actions.
“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, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way (…).”