Book Review: A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

Preview…Charles Dickens’s “A Tale of Two Cities” begins and ends with what are perhaps two of the most famous literary quotations ever—“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”, “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done…”. Admittedly, it took me quite some time to get into the story line, but once I did, I was hit by a tidal wave of wonderment.

I was first fascinated by Doctor Manette who was unjustly imprisoned in the Bastille for 18 years and subsequently driven mad. He spends every day creating and recreating the same pair of shoes as a way of keeping his mind occupied. Manette’s daughter, Lucie, comes to collect him and take him home.

A pair of unrelated look-alikes soon fall in love with Lucie: Charles Darnay, a French aristocrat and Sydney Carton, an alcoholic attorney. Ultimately, Darnay wins her hand, though Carton is never able to overcome his immense love for her. Manette grants Lucie’s hand to Darnay, but the suitor has a secret that upon being revealed sends the good doctor into a mad nine-day shoe-making frenzy. The two are married nonetheless and Lucie gives birth to a daughter.

Meanwhile, Manette’s former servant Defarge and his wife along with an army of devoted “Jacques”s are busy nurturing the whispers of the French Revolution (a historical event that is incredibly popular within classic literature). Madame Defarge turns the lackadaisical hobby of knitting into a means by which to create a covert hit list of the Revolution’s enemies.

Defarge’s list includes Charles Darnay and also his wife and daughter by association. Darnay is arrested and sentenced to the guillotine. Sydney Carton, who until this point has felt wasted and without purpose, calls on his inexorable love for Lucie to perform a classic switcheroo, saving Darnay from his fate and protecting the woman he loves, while catapulting himself to the top of my list of amazingly admirable literary heroes. “It is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”

You may like this book if…you are moved by the self-sacrificial love displayed by Carton, You would like to be able to quote “A Tale of Two Cities” and understand the implications of what you are saying, you are interested in the French Revolution or other books that have approached it, you find the idiosyncratic manifestations of madness fascinating, you think the nobility of yesteryear are evil snobs, you love it when every single minute detail of a story comes together beautifully and unexpectedly in a gripping conclusion, you believe in redemption and a higher calling, you think sometimes justice is just and sometimes it is grossly the opposite, you like finishing a book and feeling so moved by its outcome that you have to just sit there for a few minutes and reflect on it

You may not like this book if…you get too attached to fictional characters and cannot handle it when needless and horrible things happen to them; you don’t have the best attention span (if this is the case, read “A Christmas Carol” so that you can still have a Dickensian experience); you are disgusted by the need for the child to pay for the sins of the father; you think Madame Defarge may just ruin your love of knitting

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  1. I’m a big fan of this book. Definitely one of my favorite Dickens work. And in many ways it is stronger than his other novels since he didn’t write it in installments but as a completed whole.

    I always dreamed of adapting it for the big screen. I have yet to see a good version of it made for TV or movie (the black-and-white classic the closest to acceptable, but still missing a lot of the emotion of it). And there is so much to it that would work well in a visual medium.

    • I know what you mean, Scott. With all of the horrible book-to-film adaptations in the world, you’d think Hollywood would be hopping at the chance to take on a timeless (already very famous) classic. In my mind, the biggest shocker is that there has been no film made of Ann Radcliffe’s “The Mysteries of Udolpho” ever. It would be phenomenal–just amazing–on the big screen!

  2. I wouldn’t say it’s my favourite Dickens work, but it’s one of the easiest to get into; the brushstrokes are bold and vivid, the characterisation energetic rather than nuanced.

    As a reader, though, I’d plump every time for David Copperfield or Great Expectations; or–if I had a great deal of time on my hands–the dark majesty of Bleak House.

    • I have yet to read any of those selections but am looking forward to the time when I am able. Works by Dickens appear 10 times in the 1001 book challenge, and I’ve only read 2 so far.

      So many books, so very little time!

  3. im reading this book right now.. its kinda boring… but i hope it gets better!!

    • Trust me, trust me, trust me–the end makes the whole thing worthwhile, I promise!


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