This is a wonderful tale with so many different threads and themes, and is a brilliant read. It is centred on the French Revolution and very much told from two different viewpoints all the way through, allowing the reader to experience the events from both England and France, from the rich and the poor, and from the powerful and the powerless. I think Dickens is such an incredible storyteller, and this is yet another of his books that has been added to my list of favourites.
This start of this book surely must rank as one of the most dramatic and memorable beginnings to a story, with a father believed to be dead actually being found alive and imprisoned for many years and about to be finally released! The novel is then continued in a very interesting way with two stories happening at the same time, with each story having many characters and situations. Charles Darney is the main character that crosses the two stories, and it is interesting how the reader gets to know him firstly in his life in England where he is liked and respected but that this isn’t the case in France where he is despised and viewed as an enemy, and the reader is shown these two viewpoints. The huge twist at the end must also surely rank as one of the most dramatic and memorable also, and I am still reeling a little from it; I couldn’t read it fast enough once it dawned on me what was happening. Clearly this is a superior book, having both beginning and end being remarkable, as well as all the bits in-between.
Reading this book made me want to find out more about the French Revolution. I also found it fascinating that this was an event that provoked strong sympathies with both opposing sides and that both sides had widely differing viewpoints of the same incidents, as The Tale of Two Cities seems to begin by presenting the side of the peasants and yet The Scarlet Pimpernel (another favourite book of mine) presents the side of the aristocracy, and I can empathise with both sides. I also realised that A Tale of Two Cities presents both sides at different times in the novel and alters the sympathies of the reader; firstly it puts the case of the oppressed and desperate poor and how they struggle against the unjust and cruel aristocracy abusing their power, but then when the Revolution happens the case of the imprisoned aristocracy is put forward and how they struggle against the unjust and cruel peasants with no chance of a fair trial and them suffering many indignities and abuses. I was left with the realisation that both sides initially intend to be fair and just with the power they have, but that both become tyrannical and act in the same cruel way that they have protested at in the people who had power before them; I find it so disheartening that the peasants had a chance to construct a better system that is fair and just and equal, and they fully intended to do this, but then these good intentions were discarded and the same mistakes repeated with the same resentments and fears created in their subjects, and it made me think about more modern attempts to change an unfair system and whether this pattern can actually be seen in these.
Reading A Tale of Two Cities also imbibed me with the feeling of the underlying threat that the people in France at that time lived with; the threat that anyone can denounce you and that everyone around you is potentially looking for anything in your behaviour to get you into trouble, and if you are denounced there is no guarantee of justice or that you would be treated fairly by the authorities, that there is no official right and wrong, no regulations to protect you, and that rules and laws can be changed or reinterpreted to suit the whim of the governing body.
I was particularly intrigued by the Defarge couple and what fantastic characters these are, with him meticulously planning a revolution and having to be very cautious by using false names of Jacques 1 and Jacques 2 and Jacques 3, and her with the secret signals of particular flowers to warn that the situation isn’t safe and incorporating men’s names into her knitting – what a brilliant creation these characters are.
I found the violent ways of executing ‘criminals’ quite difficult to read, and there are several gruesome bits in the book that I had to skip over, but I realise these are descriptions of what used to happen, including the extremely inhumane punishment for treason, although I can barely believe people used to treat another human being in this way and that they felt this was acceptable.
I did find the ending of some of the main characters a little dissatisfying though in that I was left wondering whether they reached the end of their journey or not. However, this is a fantastic book with a story that has stayed with me for quite some time after I finished it, and I am certain I will re-read this book many times. It doesn’t have the comic lines or brilliant character names that I usually love in his books, and it is a complicated story that I felt I needed to concentrate hard on to follow, but I feel it could possibly topple Bleak House and Little Dorrit as my favourite Dickens book – and I didn’t think I’d ever say that!
Tale of Two Cities