10.31.2007

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times...

Dickens' famous novel, A Tale of Two Cities, opens with one of the most memorable lines in literature, and the tale is as rewarding as these opening words are compelling. It took me a while to finish this book; but it always takes me a long time to finish Dickens because Dickens forces me to be still. I can't read Dickens quickly, nor can I skip sentences; I have to read each word and give the reins over to him. I find that reading Dickens is the best at night. I'm nuts after a long day, and slowing down to a Dickens novel makes me remember that there was a time when multi-tasking had never been uttered, and going 30 miles an hour was considered breakneck speed.

Dickens, it seems, took a while to write this book. By the late 1850's, Dickens was ready for something new in his literary life; he had spent years writing novels from the Fielding and Smollett school: large novels with many characters and meandering plots. His friendship with Wilkie Collins, who believed that precise plot and characters directly participating in that plot was the key to good fiction, was a tremendous help to Dickens as he crafted A Tale of Two Cities. In fact, Dickens got the idea for his novel while working on Collins' play, Frozen Deep, about a love affair set in the Antarctic, in 1857. A Tale of Two Cities would be published in 1859, with only three more novels - Great Expectations, Our Mutual Friend, and the unfinished The Mystery of Edwin Drood - to follow before his death in 1870.

Dickens' idea to set the themes of love, self-sacrifice, and retribution against the backdrop of The French Revolution is due to his obsession with Thomas Carlyle's work on the subject that Dickens had read "500 times." Yet, here Wilkie Collins may have been helpful, too; Collins' Sister Rose, a novel set during and after the French Revolution, had been published to Dickens', and others, great critical acclaim. At that time only a handful of other historical novels had been published to the backdrop of the Revolution, and most, excepting Collins', had been a failure. Dickens had an opportunity to create a novel in a relatively new imaginative and fictive sphere, and it turned out to be a masterpiece.

High schoolers used to be required to read A Tale of Two Cities, but now many opt for easier fare. In one sense, I can see the point: there are parts, one in particular, that is very slow going. Chapter 3 in Book 2 depicts a trial, and Dickens refers, provides synopses, distills information through the character to the narrator to the reader - anything than tell the story straight from the hilt, or as straight from the hilt as Dickens can. Reading this section aloud to myself helped to slow my eye and focus my attention. Once you go very slowly, it isn't difficult in the slightest. Yet, there is great peril here because this section hits before you are enamored entirely with the characters and before the plot has ripened enough that you just have to be there for the picking at the end. Many people, I have heard, just stop here. Don't! Persevere! The ending is well worth it.

In general, this is a wonderful novel of love and sacrifice told against one of the most bloody events in history. The twin themes of love/sacrifice versus vengeance/retribution play out against the geographies and activities of Paris and London. (Being a Londoner himself you can no doubt guess which city gets the gold star in this novel!) This is a wonderful book, and one that I plan to read again and again.

3 comments:

  1. This one has been on the to-be-read shelf for almost two years. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

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  2. I remember reading critics that doomed this book to be one of Dickens' worst. But I'm glad I haven't listened to the critics because it turns out to be one of my favorites of his.

    The retribution, love/sacrifice themes play it out at the end after slow building up of gorgeous details of the Revolution. It's a witty novel, and I agree with you that it is the kind of book that requires a bit of digesting.

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  3. This is my favourite Dickens! I did a book report on it in ninth grade where I had to dress up as Lucy; it was so much fun. :)

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