Monday, October 29, 2007

Books: A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens

Dickens writes the kinds of novels that are filled with twists and turns, surprise identities, and revealed secrets that we can see coming from quite a distance. Perhaps the past century and a half has given us a road map, but the author helps with his interminable set-ups and seemingly-random but all-too-lengthy descriptions, not unlike Hugo's Hunchback of Notre Dame.

A Tale of Two Cities localizes the French Revolution to the microcosm of its affect on one couple; as is typical for mainstream novels of the time, the couple is terribly uninteresting: blond, blue-eyed, and innocent, victimized partially by circumstance and partially by their own naivete. Lucie, a beautiful young woman who thought herself fatherless, is reunited with her father in the opening chapters; he has lost his mind in the Bastille prison, but with her aid and succor regains it. They emigrate to safety in London. Here, she marries Charles Darnay, another French immigrant, who also has a secret past; he is of nobility, but has renounced his title and wealth.

Meanwhile, in Paris, the much more interesting couple, the Defarges, are stirring up the revolutionary pot, and Madame Defarge (one of my favorite literary villains, ever) keeps a lengthy hit list coded into her knitting. Darnay, without realizing the state of affairs in Paris, returns at the behest of an old family servant who's been imprisoned, and is quickly imprisoned himself. Thus, Lucie and her father set off for Paris, where her father, a hero for his sufferance in the Bastille prison, is able to inspire the release of Darnay. The next day, though, Charles is arrested again, this time by the denunciations of both the Defarges and Lucie's father, Dr. Manet! The good doctor is as shocked as we are, until the Defarges produce a lost memoir, written by the doctor while he was in prison, and heretofore suppressed in his memory. The letter explains the occasion on which he was sent to prison (two evil royal brothers of the house Evrémonde picked him up one foggy night and forced him to provide medical care to a peasant brother and sister who died at their hands; afterward, they tried to silence him with gold, but his silence couldn't be bought) and in it, he condemns the Evrémonde house and all of its heirs. Furthermore, we find out that Madame Defarge was the sister of the slain peasants, explaining why she refuses to release Darnay.

All this time, though, we are certain that Darnay will be returned to his family and the safety of London; we simply wonder how. Dickens does not disappoint; he has all along been laying the seeds for the flower of his coup d'état: a man, Sydney Carton, lovesick for Lucie, but a depressive alcoholic without hope, who bears a striking resemblance to Charles Darnay. When Carton finds out that Darnay faces the guillotine, he sees that self-sacrifices is his calling; he blackmails a guard to allow him to switch places with Darnay, whom he drugs and has whisked away to safety (knowing that such an upstanding man would never willingly allow another to die in his place). The next day, Darnay, his wife, daughter, and father-in-law, are safe in London when Carton dies; Madame Defarge misses the execution, having been killed herself the day prior in a struggle with Lucie's bulldogish nurse Miss Pross.

Aside from the famous opening paragraph ("It was the best. . . it was the worst. . ." and so forth), which really is one of the best opening paragraphs I've ever read, the books isn't so very much a must-read. It is, though, one more classic under my belt.

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