Sunday, May 25, 2014

Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities


Opening Passage:

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.

Summary: A Tale of Two Cities begins with the recovery of Dr. Alexander Manette from prison in the Bastille, where he has been 'buried alive' for eighteen years. He is taken care of by the Defarges, who run a wine shop in the suburb of Saint Antoine in Paris. Jarvis Lorry, a banker, and Lucie Manette, his daughter, take him back to England. In the second book, we learn of Charles Darnay, who is the son of the Marquis St. Evremond, but has shed his name and gone to England out of disgust for his family's rather brutal ways. We also learn of Sydney Carton, who happens to look very similar to Darnay; they both fall in love with Lucie Manette, but Lucie marries Charles. They have a son (who dies in childhood) and a daughter, also called Lucie; Carton becomes a family friend.

In the meantime things are afoot in France. The Defarges help to storm the Bastille. Darnay, receiving a plea from a former servant who has been wrongly imprisoned, returns to France at exactly the wrong time, and finds himself accused of being an emigrated aristocrat; he is sent to prison. Dr. Manette and Lucie meet Lorry in Paris in an attempt to free him; after a considerable amount of effort, they are able to do so due to the influence of Dr. Manette, who is a hero for having been imprisoned in the Bastille. However, after the release, Charles is denounced by the Defarges and by 'one other'. The denunciation ends with a sentence to the guillotine. Sydney Carton happens to overhear comments by the Defarges indicating that they intend to denounce Lucie as well, and he begins to form a plan for getting Lucie and her daughter, and even Charles Darnay, out of France.

Most authors, writing a story like this, would give us the story of events occurring during the French Revolution; but Dickens goes farther and gives us something of the French Revolution. He is able to do this through his emblematic way of writing. Everything in Dickens's world is charged with moral significance. Early in the novel, a wine cask bursts in the street, causing a brief frenzy, which is emblematic -- Dickens makes this clear on multiple occasions -- of the frenzy for blood in the Revolution. The monuments and buildings suggest the moral features first of the old regime, then of the Republic One and Indivisible of Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, or Death. This is partly why, I think, much of the story is so memorable -- one can hardly forget, for instance, Madame Defarge, an increasingly ominous figure, knitting the condemnations of those she considers guilty of the crimes of the age, like some dark fate. Dickens is also unafraid to point out explicitly what he means at times, so that the emblems he gathers will not go to waste, and he often uses repetition to layer them, so that we get a sense of vastness, and sometimes oppressiveness, that would otherwise not be there.

The basic story as regards the characters is essentially taken by Dickens from a play by Wilkie Collins, The Frozen Deep; Dickens was involved in its production, helped improve it through rehearsal, and acted in it. But the real strength of Dickensian characterization is often in the secondary characters, and this book is no exception. I particularly like Miss Pross who rises suddenly, splendidly, unexpectedly, yet plausibly to the occasion when it most matters. Many of Dickens's characters here rise to the occasion, despite considerably varied (and not always reputable) backgrounds. This makes it a surprisingly bright book, for all the darkness and terror and threat.

Favorite Passage: There are a number of good ones, but this is a fairly striking passage, occurring after the wine cask passage.

And now that the cloud settled on Saint Antoine, which a momentary gleam had driven from his sacred countenance, the darkness of it was heavy—cold, dirt, sickness, ignorance, and want, were the lords in waiting on the saintly presence—nobles of great power all of them; but, most especially the last. Samples of a people that had undergone a terrible grinding and regrinding in the mill, and certainly not in the fabulous mill which ground old people young, shivered at every corner, passed in and out at every doorway, looked from every window, fluttered in every vestige of a garment that the wind shook. The mill which had worked them down, was the mill that grinds young people old; the children had ancient faces and grave voices; and upon them, and upon the grown faces, and ploughed into every furrow of age and coming up afresh, was the sigh, Hunger. It was prevalent everywhere. Hunger was pushed out of the tall houses, in the wretched clothing that hung upon poles and lines; Hunger was patched into them with straw and rag and wood and paper; Hunger was repeated in every fragment of the small modicum of firewood that the man sawed off; Hunger stared down from the smokeless chimneys, and started up from the filthy street that had no offal, among its refuse, of anything to eat. Hunger was the inscription on the baker's shelves, written in every small loaf of his scanty stock of bad bread; at the sausage-shop, in every dead-dog preparation that was offered for sale. Hunger rattled its dry bones among the roasting chestnuts in the turned cylinder; Hunger was shred into atomics in every farthing porringer of husky chips of potato, fried with some reluctant drops of oil.

Recommendation: Highly recommended.

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