Book Review: A Tale of Two Cities

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23/07/2012 by Siddiqui Fayesal

Charles Dickens‘ very articulate essay on the French Revolution is a major shift from his usual labour of writing about the apathy of children in England of his era. His usual writings almost always depicted the sorry state of affairs and the rampant poverty of the masses. His protagonists are, more often than not, a boy in his early teens, the exception being Bleak House where Esther leads from the front! A Tale of Two Cities is one where the reader will have a tough time looking for a protagonist per se.

Would you look at Charles Darney with his idealistic approach as the true hero or, maybe, Dr. Manette with his sagacious and a humanistic self and easily lovable nature? Or, his lovely daughter Lucie? Perhaps Sydney “jackal” Carlton would fit the bill too!

A Tale of Two Cities is a very graphic portrayal of the French masses around the Revolution and the severe ramifications of an uncontrolled mob. It is a clear instance of mob fury crossing its demarcated limits into territories unknown for the simple reason that they could. The revolution began with honest intents and honourable ideas and by the time it ended the reins of the land were back into the likes of before; just a tad subtle. Dickens is famous for his humour and it is seen very clearly in almost all his books but due to the seriousness of the topic and the seriousness of the characters there is very little in your face humour to be found though subtle humour is sprinkled across the expanse of the book. With the long narrative and description the book is lengthy and a little dry. But I say this not in a negative tone. The book is based on history and I’m glad he did not make it dramatic just for the heck of it. The book is smooth but when the jerks come they drop like a bomb and surprise you out of your chair!

Exactly when the reader has comforted himself into thinking that the story has reached a plain ground where surprises and shocks will be far and few, Mr. Dickens fires a volley which gets the reader straight backed and wide eyed! It personally happened to me at least four times. While I will leave the praises for the flourishes and dynamics of the language of the author for later, one thing needs specific mention. The reader needs to read very carefully the dialogues and the description because Dickens has given life to the French landscape and to the books characters. The idiosyncratic behaviour of the classes maybe drenched in clichés and the fickle minded masses maybe too fickle to gather but that is exactly what an author is meant to refute. Not by denial but by an unusual twist in the persona of the character which the author does with refined artisanship for which he is known and celebrated.

As and when the plot opens up the complexity of the situation and the confusion in taking sides come up insidiously. While the characters persona exfoliates, the madness of the masses takes new lows; sometimes beheading as many as 50 “enemy of the republics”! The fickle masses also forget old charities and point bloody fingers at old compatriots on the basest of ideas and at times forgive jailed Frenchmen with just as much tears as savagery. They weep for “enemies” who are pardoned and become blood thirsty for peasants who are not, sometimes at the whims of a single person!

Dickens has clearly shown how a single person in a strong position can change the course of tidings of an entire nation. Ernest Defarge and his wife are at the fore front of the revolution and have single handedly initiated it. The tiny group of spies called “Jacques One, Two Three…” is the one which is led by The Defarges’. Ernest Defarge is the noblest of them all with his true intention being the liberation of the French masses from the nobility and he also happens to be the former servant of Dr. Manette. He is civil, honourable and a wise man with true intentions, albeit a little scared of his wife, Madame Defarge, who is always seen knitting and maintaining a register which records the name of the people who are to face death once the rebellion is over and the new form of government is established!

La Guillotine

For me the most attractive character was, right from the start, Carlton, the English barrister. He is later proven to be much more than he is. While, Darney is also a good character but, like many have mentioned before, he has single emotions! He is a totally good guy, nothing like Carlton who is seen to be human with his weaknesses of drinks and totally introverted self. The same can be said about Lucie, the wife of Darney and the daughter of Manette. She’s absolutely loving and supportive. No questions asked!

While the characters are interesting what is more interesting is the story that they tell. Dickens tells us again the much famed power and responsibility equation with a lot of pomp and splendor. He tells us that it is a bane to give power to an unworthy person and in the hands of an unworthy person it can only end in a cataclysmic catastrophe. A good willed gesture can also end in ramifications unknown and the single reason for this is that mob fury and mob madness is almost impossible to quash! Sometimes sweet and endearing and noble, it can turn into a vicious battle between, not the right and wrong, but between the powerful and the powerless! There is not much that man can do about this.

As I believe it’s the planned and clinical execution of the Lord’s plan to bring upon us the famed Apocalypse! We can do naught!

-Siddiqui F.


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The review can be read here too!

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