Turn Back The Clock

Book Review

A Tale of Two Cities

Author:  Charles Dickens

Published By: Barnes & Noble

Reviewed by Melissa Minners

            “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” - all of us by now should know what book the oft spoofed phrase comes from.  I read A Tale of Two Cities for the first time when I was attending junior high or high school.  At the time, I had found it hard to get into, but that the story got more and more enjoyable the more I read.  I recently decided to re-read the classic novel by Charles Dickens.  Now, having finished reading the book a second time, I have discovered that A Tale of Two Cities is a novel best enjoyed as an adult.

            A Tale of Two Cities takes place during the French Revolution.  For those of you who aren’t really up on history, the French Revolution took quite a few years, the first uprising taking place when the poor and downtrodden French stormed the Bastille prison.  This was followed by bloody massacre after bloody massacre, during which many a nobleman was put to death for no other reason than that he was rich.  A thirst for blood pervaded the rebels and, upon the construction of La Guillotine, many who were not nobleman, but had found themselves denounced also found themselves without a head.

            The novel begins with the release of Dr. Manette from the prison at Bastille after a period of eighteen years.  His daughter, Lucie, only a baby when he was first imprisoned, is delighted to discover that her father is alive and is more than willing to take care of him while he makes a long journey towards recovery.  Upon their return to Britain, the doctor and his daughter are required to testify at the trial of Charles Darnay, a man accused of being a spy for his native country of France.  The trial ends in a shock when a look-alike named Sydney Carton is presented, foiling eyewitness testimony and clearing Darnay of any wrong-doing.  After the trial, Darnay begins to frequent the Manette home.  Lucie Manette and Charles Darnay fall in love and marry.

            Some time after the birth of their first child, Darnay finds himself needed back in France.  A long faithful friend has been locked up by the rebels during the first portion of the French Revolution and Darnay can not leave the man to an uncertain fate.  Convinced that he can save his friend, he leaves for France at once.  Unfortunately, Charles Darnay has been keeping a secret from his wife – a secret that could seal his fate as he returns to France.  Charles Darnay is actually Charles St. Evrèmonde, a French nobleman who has denounced his title long before the revolution after witnessing the atrocities visited upon the impoverished citizens of France by his people.  The fact that he has denounced his title makes little difference to the bloodthirsty rebels who are quite ready to relieve Charles of his head immediately upon arrival to France.

            Dr. Manette and his family travel to France to appeal for Charles’ release.  Can Dr. Manette’s reputation as a man wrongfully imprisoned in the Bastille aid him in rescuing Charles from the Guillotine, or will it only serve to drive him to its blade even faster?

            The version of A Tale of Two Cities that I read came from the Barnes and Noble Collector’s Library.  I’m sincerely disappointed that Barnes and Noble decided to discontinue this series of books.  They are small, professional looking, hardcover books with gold-gilded pages and a red ribbon bookmark.  Not only do the books in this collection look nice, but they serve an even greater purpose – they allow you to read the classics without taking too much space.  These books are great for use on the train – they actually could fit in a jacket pocket.  Moreover, they don’t take up much shelf space – something I was very pleased with since my bookshelves are filled to overflowing.

            As are most of Charles Dickens’ novels, A Tale of Two Cities is not only a source of entertainment, but a way for Dickens to express his distaste at the state of the world.  If you aren’t careful, you might learn a thing or two from this novel.  Though fictional, Dickens did a great deal of homework when it comes to describing the feelings pervading France during the Revolution.  Many an event described in this novel is based on actual events that took place during the madness.  And he doesn’t just take pot shots at the French – he makes certain to remind you of his lack of respect for the court system in place in Britain at the time.

            A sense of duality takes place in the novel, hence the title.  Yes, the title can also represent the fact that this novel does in fact take place in two cities, but there is more to this story than that.  For instance, Charles Darnay finds himself at trial as an enemy of the state on separate occasions in both Britain and France.  He is wrongfully accused and placed in prison, just as Dr. Manette was decades before.  Charles’ look-alike, Sydney, is another instance of duality.  There are more instances, but if I were to list them all, I would end up giving away much of the story, and I don’t want to do that – I want you to read the novel for yourself.

            Those who have some issue reading Charles Dickens’ writing style will find a couple of thorny passages in the beginning of the book, but don’t be turned off by them.  This is a novel well-worth the read.  Dickens is incredibly descriptive, so much so that it is almost as if you were transported into his world.  You can actually picture the locales discussed in the book and the events that take place.  Dickens has a way of making even the characters of the lowest possible moral structure important to the reader.  You want to know what happens to every character in the novel, regardless how small their role.

            All-in-all, I think A Tale of Two Cities is a novel best read in adulthood.  As an adult, you will have more tolerance for the flowery writing style pervading Dickens’ work.  Also, with luck, you will have an idea of the history that takes place in the novel and will be able to understand the mindframe of the people during that time period.  As an adult, you will also be able to appreciate the subtleties of the novel – the dualities presented, the sarcasm, the symbolism (look for the blood and wine link), the social critique.  Finally, as an adult, you will be able to draw parallels between what takes place in the novel and events in the world today.

            Not all of the so-called classic novels out there are worth the title.  A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens is one of those classics that has earned the title and then some.  This novel should be on every adult’s must read list.


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