I have heard it said that A Tale of Two Cities is unlike Dickens’s other works. I cannot say for sure because I have only read a handful of others (David Copperfield, Oliver Twist, The Pickwick Papers, Great Expectations, and A Christmas Carol). But I can say that the style is very different from those I have read. This one is much harder to get into, but once you do, and you finish it, it is much harder to forget.
There are a great many reviews and reflections on the quality and substance of this novel available everywhere. I have no desire to try to do what many have already done exceedingly well. This submission is just a chronicle of my most recent experience with reading this recently in two separate book clubs.
“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.” Book I, Chapter I – The Period
“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 III, Chapter XV – The Footsteps Die Out For Ever
While our Tolle Lege Facebook book club was reading this classic, my friend Jennifer Halverson wondered how it is possible that one author could have two of the most memorable and beautiful lines in all of English literature in the same book, with the opening and closing lines. I wonder the same thing.
Despite the delightful opening line, A Tale of Two Cities is a difficult book to enter into. The story starts in the dark, literally. The action opens on a Dover Mail coach traveling at night in the mud, and is terribly confusing. In classic Dickens style, the reader meets many characters all at once, none of whom seem relevant, but nearly all of whom will be essential many chapters later. In addition to reading this with the Tolle Lege group, I was reading this with my Tuesday Night Classics Club at the same time. My book club friends came to our first session wondering why I had suggested this book, and were preparing themselves to hate it and the slog that it seemed like it was going to be. By Book II, however, their interest was piqued and they were finding their rhythm with Dickens’s writing.
At that first meeting, some of my book club friends bemoaned that they felt this text would demand multiple readings in order to really enjoy the story. They might be right. It occurs to me that when this was being published, readers would only get a few chapters per month and they would likely read and re-read those chapters (and maybe early chapters too) again and again as they waited for the next installment.
I have read this beautiful book several times over the years. I know how it ends before it even begins. But the story is so rich and the characters so colorful that I learn new details every time I read.
Throughout this story, Dickens uses a literary device called an anaphora which is the repeating of a word or phrase over many lines or sentences or clauses. Sometimes called “doubles,” this repeating of phrases with different context gives the reader many different views of a particular idea and/or it compares and contrasts different understandings of the word or phrase. But, as the title implies, so much more than just a device, this is the substance of Dickens’s plot. Two cities are being compared. Two men are being compared. There are two of nearly everything and they are all being compared or contrasted with each other. And, ultimately, one character chooses the better part of two choices which contrasts two worlds: this one and the next one.
If David Copperfield is the story of how a man makes his life because of the choices he makes with regard to friends and marriage, and A Christmas Carol is the story of how a man makes heaven or hell of his life because of the choices he makes with regard to the guardedness of his heart, A Tale of Two Cities is a story of how a man (or in this one, several people) make their souls ripe for salvation through their submission to substantial sacrifice. It seems to me that most of Dickens’s writing is a morality tale of some kind or another, and that has a certain appeal to me. This one is among my favorites because it painfully and beautifully follows the journey of souls moving out of darkness and into light.
Nearly everyone, in both of the groups I was reading with, struggled at the start with this one, but cried out in sad satisfaction at the end. This is a story worth struggling with.
A note for those who are unaccustomed to reading Dickens, and/or who know little about the French Revolution: in both of my groups, many readers were aided by reading a guide (like Sparknotes) alongside their reading. Rather than “cheating” what they were doing was gaining necessary context so they could appreciate the story and the complex writing. It proved to be tremendously useful to many readers without stealing any of the joy of reading the text itself.