Nextext Classic Retellings are high-interest adaptations of classic literary works. Each carefully crafted volume retains the spirit of the original while making it's themes, plot, and characters accessible to a wider range of today's students. Vocabulary support is porvided throughout.
Our tale begins in the year of Our Lord one thousand seven hundred and seventy-five, at which time ‘there were a king with a large jaw and a queen with a plain face, on the throne of England; there were a king with a large jaw and a queen with a fair face, on the throne of France.’ Instantly, Dickens catapults us into a world on the brink of revolution, and you can tell he’s having the time of his life setting the scene with sweeping (but deft) strokes. Kings, peasants, lawyers, bankers, tradesmen, whole countries – all are cut down to size with tongue-in-cheek prose and expert use of the free indirect style. Dickens writes like a favourite uncle who knows that all his nieces and nephews are seated around him, cross-legged and wide-eyed, giving him their rapt attention. Storytelling is about savouring all the best bits – the danger, the suspense, the romance, the adventure – and above all about having fun.
But there comes a point when Dickens seems to put the play aside and tell his listeners, ‘But now, children, we must get down to business; there’s a serious story to be told.’ And it’s at this point that the charisma starts to leak away. There are moments when it resurfaces, such as when Dickens describes the famous machine of the revolution: ‘the sharp female called La Guillotine’. All too often, however, the novel suffers from taking itself too seriously. Scenes like the fall of the Bastille may be impressively written, but most of the melodrama is much less stirring. Our heroes – Doctor Manette, his daughter Lucie and her husband Charled Darnay – are so incredibly beautiful and virtuous that Dickens’ acid pen leaves them entirely unscathed. How boring! Surely Lucie Manette, with her incessant laying of her golden head upon other people’s breasts, is a prime target for some of that famous Dickensian wit. But no – these characters end up just as flat as the comic-relief personalities of Mr Cruncher and Miss Pross, without the same humour to support them. How frustrating it is that Dickens can line up these one-dimensional figures beside such tenderly drawn characters as Sydney Carton, who, for all his flaws, draws our interest and our sympathy.
The descriptive language is likewise varied. Sometimes the details are brilliant and subtle and telling. At other times they are laid on far too thick. Do I really need to be familiar with every aspect of a character’s physical appearance, right down to the distance between their eyes?
The plotting is a delight. Little traps are laid down over here to be sprung over there, five years and a hundred pages later. No characters are wasted or discarded; they meet each other again and again in different locations and combinations, each with their own role to play in the drama that unfolds. Admittedly, coincidence does come into play a lot, but the coincidences are precisely what provides so much of the fun. Reading this story is like watching dominoes topple; the setup is plain to see, but the execution is still entertaining. It would be even more entertaining if all the declarations of love and loyalty did not slow it down so much.
So, having read my first Dickens novel, I am left with very mixed impressions of his writing. Perhaps I should turn to his earlier work to find a bit more fun and a bit less soap opera. David Copperfield next?
The two cities of the title are London and Paris. Dr. Manette, a French physician, had been wrongly imprisoned for eighteen years in the Bastille when he is quietly set free, "recalled to life" (the name of the first book). Though he is a broken man, his reason and health are slowly restored by the loving ministrations of his beautiful daughter Lucie. With the help of the family lawyer, Jarvis Lorry, they escape France and make their home in London, where they become friends with a fellow exile from France, Charles Darnay. Darnay and Lucie eventually marry, but there is a dark secret in Darnay's family... a secret related to Dr. Manette's imprisonment, and a dangerous one to have during the violence and passion of the Revolution.
This is one of Dickens' least comical stories—and it is indeed hard to imagine a heavily comic take on the gruesome events of the French Revolution. And yet Dickens does infuse some humor into the story; Jerry Cruncher and Miss Pross have some golden moments (especially as regards Mrs. Cruncher's "flopping"). And the confrontation between Madame Defarge and Miss Pross, though a suspenseful fight to the death, also has its funny side.
Wrongful, lengthy imprisonment is a theme common to three of my favorite stories set in France. Alexandre Dumas treats it as a training period of sorts in The Count of Monte Cristo (1844); Dickens likens it to being buried alive in A Tale of Two Cities (1859); and Victor Hugo uses it to demonstrate the brutalizing effect of France's legal system in Les Misérables (1862). Each uses it differently within his plot and the characters who suffer it are all very different from one another. But all three authors are fascinated by the psychological effects of such confinement. Imprisonment viewed as training produces the Count's terrible oath to wreak vengeance on his enemies. Hugo shows long imprisonment as creating something subhuman, and contrasts its dehumanizing effects with the humanity of his Bishop. Of the three, Dr. Manette is probably the most scrutinized from a psychological perspective. His relapses are heartbreaking, to say the least.
I listened to this on audiobook, read by John Lee, and it was superb. Lee does the characters' accents perfectly. The best narrators contrive to give me a mental image of the characters, and I will always think of these as he voices them.
A Tale of Two Cities is one of Dickens' best-known novels, and contains what are arguably the most famous opening and closing lines in 19th century English literature. And like the best and worst of times that it portrays, we also see the best and worst of humanity here. Sydney Carton, that disreputable and strangely attractive character, is this tension in microcosm. Chronically lazy, selfish, and unmotivated, he is yet capable of one great thing—and this great thing is the powerful theme of substitution that goes beyond mere poignancy. Greater love hath no man than this... The novel ends with his final thoughts:
"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."
What more is there to say? Utterly satisfying.
... So how is it that I upon cracking open the front cover, I knew nothing of A Tale of Two Cities other than it took place in the French Revolution and the very famous, very abridged opening line? Wikipedia tells me that it is the most printed original English book at 200 million copies. Certainly some of those copies can be attributed to decaying away on impressive foyer bookshelves next to, say, The Satanic Verses, but really, this should be all be open knowledge.
Though of course I couldn’t recognize it yet, the answer to my question lay in that opening line. Because Charles Dickens lays it all up front, and manages to tell the reader more story before his first period than most authors manage to say in a whole novel. Granted, it's a monstrous sentence and reproduced unabridged for those of us used to the short version, e.g. myself, after which we can go into some quick thoughts about it:
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.
- You don’t have to look very far today to see the same injustices and inequalities— downright human pains that drive drastic social upheavals. It’s no coincidence it’s been made into a musical that transplants the action to the Russian Revolution… we see it again and again, then is now.
- It’s so not about the characters (they appear neither here nor in the entire first chapter). Sure they are our points of entry into the story, but in the larger picture they are swept in the swells of the time (and so their archetypical and sometimes downright thin characterizations are intentional).
- To have power, the French people become an unseeing mob under the thrall of symbol (extremes and 'superlative's), but the heroic act the forms the climax is individual and alone and transcendent—both equally representative of ideals, one twisted by hope and another by vengeance. Is it a naïve construction that our “protagonists” are such reactive victims?
Quite simply, there’s a rare passion and ambition to the scope of A Tale of Two Cities that makes it so easy to forget the some flaws of pacing (notably the end is dizzyingly terse with plot developments that could have been dispatched to focus the middle more) or short characterization. At the end of the day, I’m going to remember when Dickens hits the mark spot on. As readers, we remember the breathlessness of a giggle (oh the frequent scathing irony), the echo of a mental refrain (“a life you love”), the shudder down a spine (“Tell the Wind and Fire when to stop, but don’t tell me.”)… the sudden dustiness in the room ([Redacted] for my modicum of self-respect) … And that’s real storytelling, folks, no shortcuts.
And I mentioned it was really crazy quotable, right?
This was my third Dickens this year, and perhaps I am getting used to his dense prose, but I found this one the most accessible. His trademark use of incredible coincidences to advance the plot is very much in evidence here. Characters are revealed to be related or linked by past events, even a grave robbing comes to play a significant part later in the book. You can see that Dickens methodically worked out his plot and every character, every scene was used to add another link in the chain and all were to the benefit of the story.
The righteous Miss Pross, the darkly twisted Madame Defarge, and the kindly Mr. Lorry are three of my favorite characters and all played their parts in A Tale of Two Cities to perfection. Yes, the book is melodramatic, but in such a grand scale as to be epic. This book has love, revenge, political upheaval, and a noble act of self-sacrifice. I admit that though I read the last few pages with tears streaming from my eyes, I thought the closing of A Tale of Two Cities was sheer perfection.
The Tale of Two Cities is his historical fiction novel about the French Revolution, comparing the peoples and events of the time through a tale that moves back and forth between London and Paris. I love his writing and storytelling - the serialization of his work pays off for the modern reader in his ability to keep you reading just one more chapter.
I very much enjoyed the experience of my 21st mind trying to get inside his 19th century mind as he tries to understand the 18th century mind. It's reminiscent of Matryoshka dolls - each nesting inside the other and just a little different than the rest. What a fascinating adventure for a reader.
Let's not forget the characters - the noble Dr. Manette, the somewhat insipid Lucie Manette (I know, she's of her time, but just a little sicky sweet for my taste), the dashing Charles Darnay, and one of the very best bad boys in literature - Sydney Carton - my very favorite, although Miss Pross and Madame Defarge are both unforgettable in their own ways.
Zillions of words of literary criticism expounding upon Mr. Dickens and his themes and meanings and probably anything else you can think of have been written. That's not how I want to connect to him, though. I am a reader. I wanted him to tell me a great story (and he did).
I do love many classic works, but I'm afraid Dickens is going to remain a non-favorite. His characters are certainly vivid and memorable--but they're often over-the-top. The opening (It was the best of times, it was the worst of times...) and closing (It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done...) sentences to this book are among the most eloquent and famous passages in literature. But I mostly found his prose overwritten, repetitive, and melodramatic. (He'll take a refrain like "recalled to life" and beat it to a bloody pulp.)
But what really made me cringe, and a major reason why I think I find it so hard to like Dickens, is how he writes his women characters. Great Expectations was refreshing in having a bitchy heroine in Estella, but Lucie Manette reverts back to type. An "angel" with "golden hair" and "rosy lips" and everyone loves her and she's prone to swoon and to tears. I find this kind of female figure infantile, both in the sense that a character such as Lucie doesn't strike me as a functioning adult nor can I see this as a mature view of women. And I don't think we can say, well, that's the way woman were back then, or the way woman were seen. It's not surprising certainly that female Victorian authors such as Elizabeth Gaskell or Charlotte Bronte were capable of writing women characters that feel real--but so were male authors such as William Thackeray, Wilkie Collins and E.M. Forster--and for that matter even medieval and Renaissance authors such as Shakespeare managed a lot better than this.
Also, hello, Charles Darnay and Sydney Carton are doubles? And believe me, the improbable coincidences do not stop there. Color me eccentric, but that doesn't constitute good plotting to me. And frankly, Sydney Carton isn't my kind of hero. His sacrifice to me seems cloyingly sentimental and abrupt. Give me the Scarlet Pimpernel any day! Or for that matter Ebenezer Scrooge, whose redemption comes in the hard work of living life, not whining he's no good then throwing his life away.
We start the story slowly, with a few characters: A banker by the name of Jarvis Lorry, his assistant Jerry Cruncher, a young Frenchman known as Charles Darnay, a scarred doctor named Alexandre Manette, his daughter Lucy, her friend Miss Pross, and an attorney’s assistant named Sidney Carton. Sidney and Darnay are unconnected with the others’ social group until both fall in love with the fair Lucy. Lucy chooses to marry Charles, but Sidney stays by her side, friend-zoned until the end of his days. Soon after, Charles receives a letter from an old friend named Gabelle, who has been captured by revolutionaries (Charles & the gang were in England, but during this time the French Revolution had broken out and the normal people were taking over France from the aristocrats) and needs Charles to come right now to bail him out by saying he’s a good guy and shouldn’t be executed. Because in the French revolution, the rebels executed everybody for every crime, even if they had made it up themselves just to get more people to kill, and they did that a lot too. Up to 40 people a day, I think, were fed to the Guillotine (referred to as the “Barber”). And so Charles went on his way, but even Admiral Ackbar couldn’t have saved him, as IT’S A TRAP! Yes, Charles Darnay came into France, was taken to a town, forced to pay for “escorts”, and was “escorted” to La Force prison. The family came out and tried to help him, the doctor being especially persuasive as he was a Bastille prisoner (and was therefore wronged by the rich), but there was no way out. Charles was to be executed the next day. But then Sidney showed up and made an incredibly heroic (though a bit predictable) move for love. And that’s pretty much it.
In my personal opinion it was interesting as I’ve already said. I noticed a few pages written in first person as opposed to 3rd person. Not to mention almost the whole last chapter being written in present tense and not past-tense. There was no defined main character. There was a doctor who wanted to be a shoemaker for no apparent reason. London (one of the 2 cities, the other being Paris) was hardly part of the story. And in the first few chapters, it features normal people doing normal things, such as reading the paper, drinking coffee, taking a walk or even talking about the weather. Those are the things that annoy me about it, setting the otherwise spectacular writing back a few steps. But I feel generous. I’ll say 4 out of 5 stars to A Tale of Two Cities
The plot is so well known I scarcely need to outline it. Set mainly during the French revolution, it's the story of a family indelibly touched by oppression and then haunted by its daughter, revenge. It's a story of a brilliant man who voluntarily chooses failure due to some innate defect of initiative and character—like one caught in a net who struggles only vainly and soon lapses back into its folds. It's a story of a nation fighting so violently to change itself that it does, but only into a mockery of the ideal it once espoused. A happy ending is snatched from the flames, but they burn up so much first.
Carton's sacrifice in trading his life for Darnay's is often compared to that of Jesus Christ, who took the place of condemned criminals so they could go free. There's an interesting reversal in Dickens' picture, however; Darnay, the condemned, is morally innocent of the crimes for which he is sentenced to die. He neither oppressed nor enslaved the French serfs, but only had the misfortune of descending from those who did. Carton, on the other hand, is not so virtuous. While entirely unconnected with the French aristocracy and its crimes, still his life, compared to Darnay's, seems almost a morally culpable waste. In a sense, it was he and not Darnay who was saved by that final, beautiful sacrifice.
Becoming a mother has sharpened the emotions I experience when reading novels or watching movies that depict suffering and loss within families. I think of my child being bereft of his father so cruelly like little Lucy almost was, for no good reason at all, and how hard widowhood and single motherhood would be (sadly, an all too common reality for many). Creation groans. And while the Darnays do escape and Carton does give meaning to his entire life through a courageous death, it is such a dreadful road to get there.
I love how Dickens can show us the hearts and minds of both the maddened peasants who have experienced and therefore commit unthinkable atrocities, and the pleasure-loving aristocracy who suddenly find themselves reaping the bloody harvest they have sown. Dickens is able to enter into the suffering of both sides and while his deepest sympathies are with the oppressed serfs, still he has a tear for those among the aristocracy who are so brutally handled by their former slaves. In between are so many people, caught up in the bloodshed without really having had any stake in it, like the seamstress executed just before Carton, or the simple mender of roads who accidentally becomes a revolutionary. Saddest of all is the children on both sides who suffer for things they had nothing to do with: both the children of the peasants and those of the aristocracy. It's a bit like original sin; you're born to it and all your choices spring from that circumstance.
Simply put, don't miss A Tale of Two Cities. It's grippingly good.
Although this is a departure from Dickens' usual style of writing it nonetheless contains his hallmarks of beautiful, descriptive writing that draws attention to issues of poverty whilst introducing quirky and memorable characters. He is very balanced in his approach to the French Revolution. He is scathing of the lifestyles of the aristocrats whose conspicuous consumption sat uneasily alongside the starving peasants. Something had to give and Dickens is supportive of the need for a revolution. However, he shows the revolution to have spiralled out of control with unfair trials, people suspecting their neighbours, new laws brought in and applied retrospectively, finally culminating in the arrival of the guillotine and the indiscriminate slaughter of men, women and children for the sins of their ancestors. Yes, the French Revolution needed to happen, but not like this.
The story centres around Lucie Manette, exquisitely pretty with a worried expression who is devoted to her father and husband. Not the most inspiring heroine but presumably everything a young lady should have been in those days. She marries Charles Darnay, a former French aristocrat who started a new life for himself in London. He is called to Paris to rescue an acquaintance from prison, seemingly unaware of quite how dangerous a place France had become. When he himself gets arrested the rest of the cast turn up in Paris to secure his freedom. Quite what possessed them all to go to Paris is beyond me, I can only assume the dangers were unknown to them. Also in Paris is Sidney Carton, a depressed alcoholic from London who is madly in love with Lucie and who is prepared to sacrifice everything for her happiness and to free himself from the tortures of unreciprocated love and the tyranny of alcoholism.
I loved this book. The story is so famous and yet so beautifully told that it came fresh to me. It is not perfect - a few convenient coincidences were needed to bring the story together - but it is a must-read for anyone and contains some of the most famous lines, and one of the most famous endings, in literature.
Pros and Cons: Despite knowing the famous first sentence of this novel for years, this is the first time that I have read it. I thoroughly enjoyed it, even struggling through the first half. What I found hard to read are the sentences and phrases that Dickens repeats throughout the book. In the forward, I found out that the book was published in installments, so I guess this makes sense. Also, I had trouble keeping up with time frame and minor character names. These are minor complaints to the story as a whole. The dark mood is present right from the beginning and he describes the mob mentality pushing fear and terror into all citizens. No one was safe from the guillotine!
Regardless of how true its representation of the revolution is, it depicts the suffering of many innocent people that happens in any revolution, where the tide of change sweeps the good and bad equally, and where the human perception of violent and brutal acts changes from outright condemnation to what can be described as enjoyment.
I can honestly say that I wanted to give up a few times as I started. The famous opening lines were interesting ("It was the best of times it was the worst of times…"), but as the story went on, it was a balancing act. For the first 50 or 60 pages, I had to readjust myself to Dickens style. I had to try to care about a myriad of characters without knowing who was going to be important or what their importance would be. I was tossed around between a few locations and seemingly random stories. The writing was gorgeous, the characters were full and the situations were interesting, but the overall pacing of the story felt like it was crawling very slowly. I felt like I was turning page after page and gathering data that felt insignificant. I felt as though I had no clear understanding of the overall plot or the prospective arc of the story and thus I had no way of knowing how quickly (or if at all) I was progressing along that arc towards any type of intrigue, climax or conclusion.
Still, I loved the language and I was intrigued by the characters and wanted to find out how they would interact and where their paths would lead. So, I pushed through. As I passed into the 100+ page mark, I had a clearer idea of the relations of the characters and could start to guess at upcoming events. Halfway through the novel, the intensity really took off and for the last 150-200 pages, I had a hard time putting the book down because I was so invested in what was going on and truly NEEDED to know what was going to happen.
I felt that Dickens did a wonderful job creating vibrant characters that I could intimately invest myself in. I felt great compassion for Doctor Manette and Lucie. I had genuine concern for Charles. I literally shuddered as I got closer and closer to Madame Defarge. Even the peripheral characters and their more minor stories were engaging. I was worried about Cruncher and Miss Pross as they tried to escape Paris. It was interesting the way seemingly minor characters would wind in and out of the story taking on larger roles at times and even becoming highly pivotal characters.
In addition to the wonderful tension in the story and the amazingly vivid characters, I think one of the amazing aspects of this novel is the portrayal of the French Revolution itself. I'm not a historian by any stretch. My knowledge of the Revolution is largely limited to a brief history lesson in High School and reading and watching The Scarlet Pimpernel and Les Miserables. (I kept expecting the Pimpernel to swoop in and save the day…alas, he didn't)
So I have no idea how accurate Dickens portrayal is. But I did find that his descriptions of the buildup and eventual explosion of the Revolution is amazing. I loved that he showed some of the actions that led up to the hatred. As the book went on, the atrocities of the upper class became more and more heinous to the extent that I could relate and empathize with the Revolutionaries to some degree. But as the powder keg erupted into the absolute thirst for blood and vengeance, it became frightening how all-encompassing the hatred was. I really felt the sense of the flood that flowed through Paris and the absolute horror of the thing. While this is a work of fiction, I think this portrayal of the Revolution was absolutely amazing.
Now that I've finally read this novel, I feel really bad that it took me so long to get to it. I also feel like, now that I know the trajectory, the first ~50-100 pages would be more intriguing. I can truly understand why this book is considered a classic and is so open for discussions. It provides plenty of conversation about humanity and history. It also displays lots of intriguing literary techniques that are very cool.
I absolutely recommend that everyone makes time to read this book at least once in their life.
5 out of 5 stars
After reading this literary work, you will understand Dickens' famous quote, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times..." The contrasting settings add an interest that I as previously stated did not initially latch onto. However, at nearly every moment of the book, this quote can apply to the situation at hand. I strongly recommend this book to anyone who stumbles upon this review and if you do read it, keep an extra close eye out for the character of Sydney Carton because the way in which Dickens develops him is truly miraculous.
The only character I cared for in the whole novel is Sydney Carton, who then disappears for most of the story. He is a wonderfully flawed romantic anti-hero who can carry off sentimental dialogue like: 'I wish you to know that you have been the last dream of my soul.' Unfortunately, the woman he falls in love with is the pathetic, golden-haired, Victorian fantasy child-bride, Lucie Manette, who is already married to a guy who looks just like Sydney, but lacks his personality. Lacks any personality. Charles Darnay and Lucie deserve each other, quite frankly - she is so good and pure and sweet, to the point where she spends most of the novel on the floor in a dead faint, and he is a nincompoop nobleman. I found myself siding with Madame Defarge, the psychotic tricoteuse baying for Darnay's blood. The only other character who didn't annoy me is Miss Pross, Lucie's companion - the battle royale between her and Madame Defarge is one of the best parts of the novel!
Needless to say, I probably stand alone in being unable to recommend this 'classic' novel of the French Revolution - Two Cities is basically the same old wordy and repetitive narrative ('weep for it! weep for it!'), interrelated characters and uninspiring heroines that Dickens is famous for. Only the opening paragraph - you know the one, 'It was the best of times, it was the worst of times' - and the last line from Sydney Carton - 'It is a far, far better thing that I do, that I have ever done' - make this a memorable work.
I think Dickens' real genius is in his characters and the world they inhabit. Although the plot details grow fuzzy between readings, the characters remain alive: Dr. Manette and his shoe bench; Mrs. Cruncher and her floppin'; Madame Defarge and her knitting; Sidney Carton, ever conscious of his moral weakness, yet capable of one great act of courage and sacrifice. This novel is on my top ten list, and it's one that I think everyone should read at least once.
There are some good characters (and also some terrible ones who exist purely to be noble or evil). About half the book is spent dwelling on Big Important Historical Tragedy in a way that guarantees the book is regarded as a Big Important Historical Work. A Tale of Two Cities is to Charles Dickens what Schindler's List is to Steven Spielberg.
A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens is a unanimous classic. But theres more to it. It is not only a masterpiece of the English language. It is a masterpiece of the human psyche. It delves into the deepest corners of the human mind and shows how even the most wretched creatures can possess an infinite source of goodness.