Friday, January 03, 2014

A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens

As I mentioned, I managed to finish reading A Tale of Two Cities the last day of December. I really, really wanted to finish it up on time so that a.) I could be done with it,  b.) I could move on into 2014 with a clean reading slate, and c.) I can dive into Montgomery without anything holding me back! Before this first week of the new year is out, I'd like to write up my thoughts on A Tale of Two Cities so that I can say goodbye, once and for all. You can understand that last sentence to mean that I'm not likely to ever read this one again (although I'd consent to watching any number of movie versions if someone asked me to).

When Jonathan and I were first getting serious about each other he told me how he read and loved A Tale of Two Cities. So, being the good-natured-and-open-to-anything reader that I am as how I was in love with him, I promised to one day read this even though I didn't like Dickens.

For seven years I went on not liking Dickens when a lady in my local book club selected Bleak House for our monthly-turned-into-two-months read. To my great surprise I actually enjoyed it! So, I was thinking that I could probably read another Dickens and would eventually made good on my old promise to read A Tale of Two Cities. Then came time to select the team members and titles for the 2013 edition of the classics book club and so on and so forth and Jonathan agreed to re-read this book and lead the discussion. So it was done. He read it and passed our copy off to me.

There. That's my Dickens-esque explanation as to how I came to read this book.

If you are unfamiliar with the storyline, I'll copy and paste from Wikipedia because, yes, I am feeling that lazy about it, thank you very much:

"The novel depicts the plight of the French peasantry demoralized by the French aristocracy in the years leading up to the revolution, the corresponding brutality demonstrated by the revolutionaries toward the former aristocrats in the early years of the revolution, and many unflattering social parallels with life in London during the same time period. It follows the lives of several protagonists through these events. The most notable are Charles Darnay and Sydney Carton. Darnay is a former French aristocrat who falls victim to the indiscriminate wrath of the revolution despite his virtuous nature, and Carton is a dissipated English barrister who endeavors to redeem his ill-spent life out of his unrequited love for Darnay's wife. The 45-chapter novel was published in 31 weekly installments in Dickens's new literary periodical titled All the Year Round. From April 1859 to November 1859, Dickens also republished the chapters as eight monthly sections in green covers. All but three of Dickens's previous novels had appeared only as monthly installments. The first weekly installment of A Tale of Two Cities ran in the first issue of All the Year Round on 30 April 1859. The last ran thirty weeks later, on 26 November."

The only other book I've ever read about the French revolution is The Scarlet Pimpernel which I absolutely loved and would read ten times over before I'd read this Dickens again. (Not to be dramatic or over emphasize anything, of course.) Mostly of my problem with this title is that I just feel it is depressing. (Yup.) Given the subject matter it's little wonder.

However, it is the usual experience that even if a story is set into a depressing time period you can still find characters to like. I really did not care for any of the main characters in A Tale of Two Cities and so it felt like a story to slog through more than anything else. (If you are wondering if Jonathan was offended by my opinion, no he wasn't. He also thought it was much more depressing than he originally remembered it being.) Is it worth reading? Oh, yes, I do think so. (I don't have to like a book to make me think it's worth a read.)

On a positive note, I do like Dickens' humor and that helped carry me through. There is a sense in which I felt rewarded by his humor in one of the last chapters where Madame Defarge and Miss Pross are facing off with one another. A good chuckle was had by the descriptions and dialogue in this particular passage:

"You might, from your appearance, be the wife of Lucifer," said Miss Pross, in her breathing. "Nevertheless, you shall not get the better of me. I am an Englishwoman."
          . . .
"On my way yonder," said Madame Defarge, with a slight movement of her hand towards the fatal spot, "where they reserve my chair and my knitting for me, I am come to make my compliments to her in passing. I wish to see her."
"I know that your intentions are evil," said Miss Pross, "and you may depend upon it, I'll hold my own against them."
Each spoke in her own language; neither understood the other's words; both were very watchful, and intent to deduce from look and manner, what the unintelligible words meant.
. . .
"If those eyes of yurs were bed-winches," returned Miss Pross, "and I was an English four-poster, they shouldn't loose a splinter of me. No, you wicked foreign woman; I am your match."
Madame Defarge was not likely to follow these idiomatic remarks in detail; but, she so far understood them as to perceive that she was set at naught.

At the end of the book I laughed, but was also simultaneously horrified and relieved. Dickens stirred up a well of varying emotions which I suppose is one of the reasons why he is such a greater writer. Nothing is simple and yet, at the same time, everything is. He was clearly a good study of human nature but still too verbose for my easy liking.

As I say, I'm glad to have read it so that I can be familiar with the story. At the same time, I'm glad to be done with it. Once and for all!


Tonia said...

The only Dickens I've read is Oliver Twist and A Christmas Carol. I have Bleak House on the schedule for this month (and I keep hearing good things so I'm looking forward to it!). Must add A Tale of Two Cities to my list too!

Lisa Spence said...

I've read A Tale of Two Cities and I remember liking it. But it was years ago! You crack me up with your "Dickens-esque" explanation :)

Monica said...

I am almost done! UGH! I don't really care for this one but I am getting through it. I loved Oliver Twist and A Christmas Carol. I don't know if I can read much more Dickens after this one.
There seemed to be too many characters and I was getting them mixed up or totally forgot about them when the finally reappeared. {{sigh}} but I am glad to say I have read it... :)

Carrie said...

I really did like Bleak House. And I LOVE A Christmas Carol.

I think I would like to read Oliver Twist, my biggest aversion to that story being that I was exposed to a jr. illustrated version of OT when I was young and spending the night at a friend's house. The illustrations scared me so bad I couldn't stomach the idea of staying the night away from home and my dad had to be called to come and pick me up. Such is the effect that Dickens has had on me. ;)

Shonya said...

I really MUST get my review up today! I read this one with my teens and we had SO MANY great discussions about it. And I am different from you in that I really appreciate Dickens' writing--I bemoan the fact that people just don't write like that anymore. What a gift he had!

I've never read Oliver Twist--looks like that will be on our list for the 2015 Book Club! tee, hee

FancyHorse said...

I liked ATOTC but it's been a few years since I've read it. The quotes were especially good, for example "A wonderful fact to reflect upon, that every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other. A solemn consideration, when I enter a great city by night, that every one of those darkly clustered houses encloses its own secret; that every room in every one of them encloses its own secret; that every beating heart in the hundreds of thousands of breasts there, is, in some of its imaginings, a secret to the heart nearest it! Something of the awfulness, even of Death itself, is referable to this."
Mme. Lafarge was a most memorable character, her and her knitting. She'd make a good Halloween dress up character!

I am a fan of Dickens, but you have to get in a slower mindset to enjoy it, at least I do.

Deb said...

I enjoy Dickens but most be prepared for the time it will take. You can not read a Dickens quickly. I have this on my list but my first classic read is War and Peace this year, I will finish the unabridged version of The Count of Monte Cristo, and hopefully Book II of Don Quixote.

Barbara H. said...

I'm glad you finally finished it and can start the year with a clean reading slate. :-)

I'm like a couple of other commenters in that I do like Dickens, but I agree you have to take him slowly. He is more wordy that modern writers, but that was acceptable in his day, and it's not without purpose. That was something that stood out to me this reading (my 4th at least, maybe 5th?), that every character an scene had a purpose. Even the side mention of Miss Pross's brother came back into the plot line later on.

This book is much better on second and third readings, so I hope you do give it another chance some time. :-) I highly recommend the audiobook read by Dick Hill. He did a marvelous job with the inflections an accents. I don't always think in British accent while writing British books, so that added a layer on enjoyment to me. The humorous parts stood out to me more this reading, too, and even Jerry Cruncher, my least favorite character, grew on me.

I had never thought of it as depressing, though it's certainly dark and ominous in places. I've thought the underlying theme might be "Love wins" - in restoring Dr. Manette back to mental health, in creating the "family circle" not just of the Manettes and Darnays but also including Pross and Mr. Lorey, in Carton's change of heart and ultimate sacrifice, also shown up in the opposite way in those who lacked love and their ultimate ends (Madame DeFarge).

JaneGS said...

I finished this book a year ago myself (I think it was my first review of 2013), and I ended up liking it much more than I anticipated. I have mixed feelings about Dickens--I like most of his early work and find some novels/stories hard to swallow (I loathed Hard Times, for example).

While I didn't love any of the characters, I found the story interesting and minor characters (that Madame LaFarge!) fascinating.

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