Wednesday, February 29, 2012
A Tale of Two Cities: Review
"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 best of Dickens, it was the worst of Dickens, it was passages of brilliant description, it was pages of tedious detail. A Tale of Two Cities is very much a best of and worst of kind of book--with a final tally in favor of the best. I love the story. I love some of the descriptive passages....like this one:
[about Tellson's Bank] Thus it had come to pass that Tellson's was the triumphant perfection of inconvenience. After bursting open a door of idiotic obstinacy, with a weak rattle in its throat, you fell into Tellson's down two steps, and came to your senses in a miserable little shop, with two little counters, where the oldest of men made your cheque shake as if the wind rustled it, while they examined the signature by the dingiest of windows, which were always under a shower-bath of mud from Fleet Street, and made the dingier by their own iron bars proper, and the heavy shadow of Temple Bar.
I can see Tellson's. I feel like I'm there. But then there are the long, drawn out bits (pages--especially when Dickens has taken us to France) where I despair of Dickens ever getting back to the story.
The story is a familiar one to most classic literature enthusiasts. Dickens depicts the years leading up to the Revolution in France. He begins with the freeing of Dr. Manette--a man who has been kept prisoner in the Bastille for all of his daughter's life. They are reunited and begin to live a normal life in London. They soon become involved in the life of Charles Darnay, a French expatriate, who is being tried for treason. They are witnesses at his trial and through their evidence and the work of Sydney Carton he is acquitted. Darnay marries Lucie, Manette's daughter, and Carton (who harbors an unrequited love for Lucie) becomes a close friend of the family. Several years later, Darnay (who is really a French aristocrat) is lured back to France when he receives a message that a former servant is imprisoned. The vengeful peasants, led by Mr. & Mrs. Defarge, have begun the movement towards revolution and Darnay is captured and sentenced to death. Carton, who closely resembles his friend, performs the ultimate sacrifice and takes Darnay's place in prison--and finally at the scaffold. To paraphrase: It is a far better thing that he does than he has ever done before.
Dickens does a terrific job in balancing the story between London and Paris. He shows us the building resentment among the poor and oppressed people of France. He uses the backdrop of the horrors of the time to set off and highlight the sacrifice of Sydney Carton. It is a timeless story and a very touching story of redemption and new life. If only Dickens could have trimmed out some of the long-drawn out descriptions in France, then I would give a five-star rating. As it is--four stars--for a timeless classic, for a Dickens novel that I liked so much better than Great Expectations (which I read and slogged through in high school), for Carton's sacrifice, for Manette's suffering, and for Miss Pross's stand-off with Madame Defarge. (Miss Pross is Lucie's devoted former nursemaid and current companion.) A rollicking good historical classic.
Oh...and another plant for my victory garden this one has been on the TBR shelf for...um...30 years. Yikes! But done now. Oh yeah.
...perhaps second-hand cares, like second-hand clothes, come easily off and on. (Book 1, Ch. 4)
I have sometimes sat alone here of an evening, listening, until I have made the echoes out to be the echoes of all the footsteps that are coming by and by into our lives. (Book 2, Chapter 6)
The time will come, the time will not be long in coming, when new ties will be formed about you--ties that will bind you yet more tenderly and strongly to the home you so adorn--the dearest ties that will ever grace and gladden you. O Miss Manette, when the little picture of a happy father's face looks up in yours, when you see your own bright beauty springing up anew at your feet, think now and then that there is a man who would give his life, to keep a life you love beside you! (Book 2, Chapter 13)
If you remember the words that passed between us, long ago, you will readily comprehend this when you see it. You do remember them, I know. It is not in your nature to forget them. I am thankful that the time has come, when I can prove them. That I do so is no subject for regret or grief. If it had been otherwise, I never should have used the longer opportunity. If it had been otherwise. (Book 3, Chapter 13)
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. (Book 3, Chapter 15)