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Book Review: A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens

A story of the French Revolution.



Published 1859, Approximately 136,000 words., Available for free at Project Gutenberg.


A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens is one of the most popular books of all time, with over 200 million copies sold to date. The novel is set in London and Paris before and during the French Revolution and depicts the plight of the French peasantry demoralized by the French aristocracy, and many unflattering social parallels with life in London during the same period. The main characters are Charles Darnay, a French aristocrat who falls victim to the indiscriminate wrath of the revolution despite his virtuous nature, and Sydney Carton, a British barrister who endeavors to redeem his ill-spent life out of his unrequited love for Darnay's wife, Lucie Manette.



A Tale of Two Cities

One of Charles Dickens's most famous novels, A Tale of Two Cities is also one of his shorter (and better) ones. It begins with an unflattering portrait of an England overrun by highwaymen and courts which are almost as rapacious, and soon shows us a France where things are even worse. Nowhere does Dickens demonstrate his marvelous ability to capture moods and sentiments better than in his depiction of a seething, oppressed populace on the verge of boiling into violence.


And now that the cloud settled on Saint Antoine, which a momentary gleam had driven from his sacred countenance, the darkness of it was heavy—cold, dirt, sickness, ignorance, and want, were the lords in waiting on the saintly presence—nobles of great power all of them; but, most especially the last. Samples of a people that had undergone a terrible grinding and regrinding in the mill, and certainly not in the fabulous mill which ground old people young, shivered at every corner, passed in and out at every doorway, looked from every window, fluttered in every vestige of a garment that the wind shook. The mill which had worked them down, was the mill that grinds young people old; the children had ancient faces and grave voices; and upon them, and upon the grown faces, and ploughed into every furrow of age and coming up afresh, was the sigh, Hunger. It was prevalent everywhere. Hunger was pushed out of the tall houses, in the wretched clothing that hung upon poles and lines; Hunger was patched into them with straw and rag and wood and paper; Hunger was repeated in every fragment of the small modicum of firewood that the man sawed off; Hunger stared down from the smokeless chimneys, and started up from the filthy street that had no offal, among its refuse, of anything to eat. Hunger was the inscription on the baker's shelves, written in every small loaf of his scanty stock of bad bread; at the sausage-shop, in every dead-dog preparation that was offered for sale. Hunger rattled its dry bones among the roasting chestnuts in the turned cylinder; Hunger was shred into atomics in every farthing porringer of husky chips of potato, fried with some reluctant drops of oil.


After spending eighteen years in the Bastille, a French country physician is released and allowed to emigrate to England, where he is reunited with the daughter he has never met. Lucie Manette, typical of Dickens women, is a pure-hearted angel who is instantly devoted to him despite never having known him. Through various plot twists, Lucie marries Charles Darnay, who turns out to be the expatriate nephew of the Marquis who had Doctor Manette imprisoned, in a backstory eventually revealed to us with an even more improbable plot twist.

Once the Revolution begins, Charles Darnay is lured back to Paris to save the life of one of his former servants. Naturally, he is promptly imprisoned and put on trial. His family, including Lucie and their daughter, as well as pretty much the entire cast of the novel thus far, follows him, and are all put in peril of meeting Lady Guillotine.

It was the popular theme for jests; it was the best cure for headache, it infallibly prevented the hair from turning grey, it imparted a peculiar delicacy to the complexion, it was the National Razor which shaved close: who kissed La Guillotine, looked through the little window and sneezed into the sack. It was the sign of the regeneration of the human race. It superseded the Cross. Models of it were worn on breasts from which the Cross was discarded, and it was bowed down to and believed in where the Cross was denied.


Dickens's stories are full of improbable plot twists. Characters who met once will always meet again. The coincidences in A Tale of Two Cities almost defy the reader's suspension of disbelief -- but it's Dickens, and Dickens can be forgiven a lot. He shows the pitiless brutality of the French aristocracy and the suffering of the people until your sympathies are entirely with them, and when the tumbrils begin rolling through the streets you can't but think that the aristos had it coming and then some. But then the Terror is unleashed -- and personified in the form of Madame Defarge -- and the oppressed turn just as brutal and pitiless. This is the only way Dickens could have brought our sympathies back to the main characters, who after all, have lived pretty safe and privileged existences even if they weren't the evil "Monseigneur" who ran children beneath the wheels of his carriage. And let's face it, Charles Darnay really picks up the Idiot Ball when he goes back to Paris.

I doubt there are many people who don't know how the novel ends, but while it's a story of redemption and self-sacrifice, I was not nearly as touched by Sydney Carton's heroism as I was by the Madame Defarge vs. Miss Pross smackdown, which I think is one of Dickens's best climaxes ever, and which none of the film adaptations (below) did justice:


"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."

Madame Defarge looked at her scornfully, but still with something of Miss Pross's own perception that they two were at bay. She saw a tight, hard, wiry woman before her, as Mr. Lorry had seen in the same figure a woman with a strong hand, in the years gone by. She knew full well that Miss Pross was the family's devoted friend; Miss Pross knew full well that Madame Defarge was the family's malevolent enemy.

"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.


Memorable Characters and Quotable Lines




"Then tell Wind and Fire where to stop," returned madame; "but don't tell me."

-Madame Defarge


Every Dickens novel has an assortment of characters who distinguish themselves by their quirks and occupations, often signified by their names and figures of speech.

The best character in A Tale of Two Cities is unquestionably the tricoteuse Madame Defarge, bloodlust personified.

The other main characters are really not very interesting -- Charles Darnay is a privileged, oblivious would-be do-gooder, Doctor Manette is a long-suffering Good-Hearted Old Man, and Lucie Darnay née Manette is a Victorian angel of unblemished womanhood. Sydney Carton is the only one with any real complexity. But a few of the other secondary characters are worth remembering, not because they figured largely in the story, but because they're the ones Dickens brings alive most entertainingly.


"Miss Manette, I am a man of business. I have a business charge to acquit myself of. In your reception of it, don't heed me any more than if I was a speaking machine—truly, I am not much else. I will, with your leave, relate to you, miss, the story of one of our customers."

-Mr. Lorry



"Saying your prayers! You're a nice woman! What do you mean by flopping yourself down and praying agin me?"

-Jerry Cruncher


Film Versions



As usual, I compared the book with all the available movie versions. According to Wikipedia, there were four silent film versions made of A Tale of Two Cities before the first version available on Netflix.

The 1935 Film



A Tale of Two Cities (1935)

This 1935 film, unsurprisingly, reminded me a great deal of director David O. Selznick's David Copperfield, filmed that same year. Edna Mae Oliver, who was the doughty Aunt Betsey in David Copperfield, returns as the doughty Miss Pross. (I think Edna Mae Oliver was Hollywood's designated Doughty Old Broad for most of the 1930s.) Just over two hours long, it's a good film that takes the time to preserve most of the book, although it's far more anvilicious than Dickens's novel. Selznick added a layer of schmaltzy religiosity, and he even has Miss Pross go on a rant about her suspicions of Sydney Carton being an atheist. (Showing him drunken and dissolute apparently wouldn't have made the point adequately that Carton is a fallen, immoral wretch.) Dickens didn't write that, nor did he mention Voltaire in the novel, nor did Charles Darnay, aka Evremonde, actually declare that he intended to "return to the peasants the land that was stolen from them."

Despite these liberties taken with the exact sentiments expressed by Dickens, it's a close call between this one and the 1958 version as to which was best.




The 1958 Film



A Tale of Two Cities (1958)

The 1958 film looks visually very much like the 1935 one (especially since the director, who now had the option of filming it in color, still chose black and white). This was a British film, not a Hollywood production. It's a grimmer, slower film than the 1935 version. It dumps the entire history of Doctor Manette and the Marquis St. Evremonde right in the beginning of the film, narrated to Lucie by Mr. Lorry, but otherwise follows the book more faithfully than the older one. One suspects that a British filmmaker really wanted to do justice to Charles Dicken, but while it was truer to the novel, it dragged at times. David Selznick, more willing to take liberties with Dickens, was also more concerned with keeping the story moving and visually appealing.




The 1980 TV Miniseries



A Tale of Two Cities (1980)

A full-color, 2 1/2 hour Golden Globe-nominated production with a cast of B-list actors -- how could this 1980 TV adaptation be so boring?

Well, the acting is flat and wooden, the pacing is lazy, and it seems adapted from the Classics Illustrated version rather than the original novel -- obviously the producers assumed the audience was stupid and unable to pay attention and needed everything spelled out for them. Those plot points that aren't changed are delivered in a ham-handed fashion. Usually I prefer modern adaptations to old black & white classics, but in this case, both of the older movies are more exciting and true to the book than this mediocre production. The storming of the Bastille looked like they dressed a bunch of extras from the Walmart parking lot in funny hats and handed them axes, and even Madame Defarge, who should have been visually scary dressed as a redcap, just kind of walked around sneering at everyone. In the other versions, she was a screeching demon of vengeance; here, she just seems like a woman who likes watching heads roll for the fun of it.

The Dickens Family Classic



A Tale of Two Cities (Dickens Family Classic)

So, I just had to be a completist and watch the Dickens Family Classic cartoon. A German animation studio produced these some time in the 1980s. They're low-budget productions that look pretty crappy even by the standards of 80s cartoons, and the David Copperfield adaptation was terrible. But I just had to see how they'd adapt a story in which the climax involves hundreds of people being guillotined in the streets for a children's cartoon.

Okay, so the scene where a wine barrel falls off a wagon and splits open in St. Antoine and everyone gathers around to drink up the wine? Can't have that in a children's cartoon, so they change it to... a potato. Yes, a potato falls out of a potato sack, prompting a fight over the potato, and Monsieur Defarge gives everyone a Care Bear lecture about sharing.

Then he says "Hush, woman!" to Madame Defarge. Are. You. Kidding? Monsieur Defarge "hushes" Madame Defarge? Did the scriptwriter even read the book?

So, it's generally a stupid watered-down children's version. One interesting thing I did notice (which was also true of the David Copperfield cartoon) was that there were a few minor scenes and lines of dialog which were taken from the book (so I guess someone actually read it) that don't appear in any of the film adaptations.

Of course the violent confrontation between Madame Defarge and Miss Pross was completely omitted. Hush, wimmins!



See also my review of David Copperfield.


Verdict: Dickens is always worth reading, and all his prose skills are on display here, with a sprinkling of his usual memorable characters. A Tale of Two Cities is also a good "starter Dickens" since it's shorter than most of his other novels, and has more action and suspense. It's not exactly an authoritative historical account of the French Revolution, but probably nobody has captured the emotions and drama of that period better.

I did not read this for the books1001 challenge, but it is on the 1001 books list.
Tags: books, books1001, charles dickens, literary, movies, netflix, reviews
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