Counting Down Dickens’ Greatest Novels. Number 6: A Tale of Two Cities

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Forget for a moment that it has become one of the most clichéd passages in literature, and read the opening sentence of A Tale of Two Cities:

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.

Before I read the novel this fall, I assumed this sentence was a meaningless series of hyperboles, unworthy of its master. Imagine my mortification to find that, on the contrary, it is a perfectly tuned overture to the story that follows. With each crescendo and fall, it draws the reader into the rhythms of a plot driven by pairs, doubles and echoes, political contradictions and moral extremes. It is, in fact, a model first sentence, one for the ages, and I apologize to it on humanity’s behalf for our having so prodigally abused its conceit in college papers, headlines on the Internet and other venues unbecoming of its excellence.

(READ: Counting Down Dickens’ Greatest Novels. Number 10: Oliver Twist)

The two cities are Paris and London, and the year is 1775. Inspired by Thomas Carlyle’s influential 1837 study The French Revolution, Dickens conceived of A Tale of Two Cities as a historical novel dramatizing the ties between England and France during that tumultuous period. Naturally he uses family ties to do it, and the novel begins with a summons for Lucie Manette, a half-French girl raised as an orphan in England, to accompany her father’s longtime accountant to Paris, where Dr. Manette has been for many years a prisoner of the Bastille. Now “recalled to life” — which is to say, granted his liberty — Dr. Manette returns with Lucie to London, and could they only have avoided France for the rest of their existence, all would have been perfectly fine.Alas, Lucie falls in love with an expatriate Frenchman, Charles Darnay, who eventually returns to his family estate and gets himself on the wrong side of the Terror.

Like Hard Times, A Tale of Two Cities was published weekly, which in part accounts for its relative brevity. Dickens wasn’t any happier with the cramped installments than he had been before. But with that restriction in mind, he decided to try a new narrative approach; he prioritized action, and put character and dialogue in direct service to plot. The result is a potent, muscular narrative, free of digression and humor. The paragraphs are shorter and more efficient, each chapter a discrete burst of energy. The opening scene, a pell-mell journey by coach to receive the message that Dr. Manette is to be freed, lends the story a jolting urgency that underscores the entire narrative as events escalate to violence. It seems in A Tale of Two Cities that things are constantly being broken or spilled — from the cask of wine that shatters outside the Defarges’ wine shop in Paris, when we are first introduced to that infamous couple, to the bodies and blood of thousands of French citizens during the Terror, paraded to the guillotine with no hope of pardon or mercy.

It’s very hard to grasp Dickens’ politics in this novel; can you be surprised to hear that they hover between extremes? He’s clearly not on the side of the French aristocracy; he paints a picture of Darnay’s uncle, the Marquis, as dissolute, negligent and morally reprehensible — a man who gets what he deserves. But Dickens is no Jacobin revolutionary either. Once the Defarges and their crew have control of the guillotine, he portrays them as architects of a system even more brutal than that of the state they have supplanted. The execution scenes are shockingly gory (picture Paris full of heads on pikes), and Madame Defarge’s knitting is revealed as a chilling blood sport, in which she stitches the identities of those she would denounce. She, too, gets what she deserves.

(READ: Counting Down Dickens’ Greatest Novels. Number 9: Dombey and Son)

At the time it was published, opinion was divided on A Tale of Two Cities’ merits — yet another poetic manifestation of the novel’s opening highs and lows. The public embraced it, but some critics found it lacking, all bone and no flesh, though plenty of blood. This divide has continued to the present. A Tale of Two Cities is probably one of Dickens’ best-known novels, and a lot of people read it, but it’s less popular in schools and in criticism. (Anecdotal evidence: I got through high school and undergraduate and graduate degrees in English without ever being assigned it.) I can see why that happened — there’s something un-Dickensian about this novel, and when you’re putting together a syllabus or a survey or assessing a writer’s legacy, you usually go for the representative works, not the outliers. Of course, now that I’ve read it, its non-Dickensian quality is exactly what I admire about it. This was Dickens’ 12th novel. He had a formula that worked. He wanted to try something different. Was it a far, far better thing that he did, than he had ever done? Perhaps not. But A Tale of Two Cities is a wild ride, and I give him points for embarking on it.

READ: The Previous Entry in This Series—Number 7: The Pickwick Papers

MORE: The Secret of Charles Dickens’ Enduring Success