This classic and much-loved novel about the French Revolution offers deep social commentary and an intriguing cast of characters.
One of the best-selling novels of all time, Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities recounts the story of Alexandre Manette, a French physician who is released from a long imprisonment on the eve of the French Revolution. As he sets out for London to find his daughter Lucie, social and political turmoil in Paris lead to the Reign of Terror. Against this backdrop, the reader is introduced to a variety of characters and storylines in both cities that are woven together to tell the story of a tumultuous era. This enduring classic showcases at its finest Dickens’s flair for creating rich detail and memorable characters.
“A tale of two cities” by Charles Dickens
Charles Dickens (1812 – 1870) wrote only two historical novels “Barnaby Rudge” (1841) and “A Tale of Two Cities” published in installments in 1859.
Set between Paris and London in the stormy period from the years immediately preceding the French revolution and the reign of Terror, “A tale of two cities” tells the private story of a group of people through a succession of twists.
Although the setting differs significantly from the Victorian England typical of Dickens’ novels, this novel contains all the classic themes of Dickensian opera: poverty, nobility of mind, redemption and sacrifice.
The beginning of the novel immediately clarifies the connection between the past that is about to be told and the present that is experienced:
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–in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
There were a king with a large jaw and a queen with a plain face, on the throne of England; there were a king with a large jaw and a queen with a fair face, on the throne of France. In both countries it was clearer than crystal to the lords of the State preserves of loaves and fishes, that things in general were settled for ever.
Dickens goes through the past time, creating a warning to the present time in which the threat of repeating old mistakes is still alive. In fact, it must be borne in mind that in 1859 (year of publication of the novel) the memory of the riots and agitations due to the approval of the Corn Law and that of the revolutionary movements following the paper movement, which with its request for a radical electoral reform, it evoked the ghosts of French terror.
For Dickens, revolution is a disease, it is a fever and delusion of self-destruction whose contagion spreads at frightening speed.
Society is continually threatened by the imbalances of the distribution of wealth and the crowd subjected to constant abuse becomes easily cruel and uncontrollable:
at that time the crowd was a very feared monster that stopped in front of nothing
Among the many human events that intertwine in these pages, those of Lucie Manette stand out, a virtuous woman who inspires love and loyalty in other characters and those of her father, an unjustly imprisoned doctor.
The novel is above all the story of Doctor Alexandre Manette: the story begins, in fact, with his release from the Bastille and in the end it will be precisely the reading of his letter which, for a mocking fate, will decree the death sentence of his son-in-law Darnay, obliging so Sydney Carton to sacrifice his life.
Alexandre Manette, a doctor of high hopes in his youth, is one of the most complex characters in the story: as a prisoner who meditates revenge – through a difficult path that alternates madness and fight against his ghosts – he succeeds in the end, for the love of his daughter and granddaughter , to put aside hatred and anger and become a symbol of forgiveness himself.
The theme of “dualism” is felt in several characters: Lucie golden thread of family life is opposed to Madame Defarge who knits the thread of hatred. Lucie, would have the same reasons for resentment as Madame Defarge, whose family was exterminated by arrogance and aristocratic arrogance, but Lucie embodies the quintessence of the petty-bourgeois female ideal (sweetness, love and compassion). Madame Defarge, bloodthirsty and vindictive, is the embodiment of a disfigured femininity, she is the embodiment of revolution itself and perversion.
Lucie’s husband Charles Darnay (justice and sense of duty), a French aristocrat expatriate in England, indiscriminately accused during the Terror, is twice the size of Sydney Carton, a character with a dissolute and alcoholic life. Carton will redeem his apathetic existence by sacrificing his life for the sake of Lucie and his family, thus becoming a “hero”.
A recurring theme is therefore also that of rebirth, of resurrection: Doctor Manette, Sydeny Carton and Darnay / Evrémonde are all characters who have been “brought to life” even if in different ways.
Jerry Cruncher himself, a minor figure in the economy of the story, becomes a strong symbol of redemption when, repenting, he renounces the theft of corpses to which he was dedicated, reconciling himself with religion.
Considered by Dickens himself to be one of his most successful novels, “A Tale of Two Cities” is a text that fascinates from the first page for its mix of historical truth and fiction.