“A Tale of Two Cities” by Charles Dickens

SPOILER WARNING: The following does not dwell upon the plot of A Tale of Two Cities, but inevitably, some elements of the plot are revealed.

It goes without saying, I know, that anyone is entitled to like whatever book they want, and for any reason they want, without having to answer to anyone for their preference; but nonetheless, I do, I admit, find it somewhat dispiriting when a writer I particularly admire is widely celebrated for a specific work that I don’t.

I last read A Tale of Two Cities in my teenage years, and, not thinking much of it at the time, hadn’t returned to it since. However, I do enjoy reading a bit of Dickens around this time of the year, and, noticing that this novel is sandwiched (chronologically, that is) between Little Dorrit and Great Expectations, two novels I love deeply, thought it might be time to give it another chance. Surely a great novelist at the height of his powers would, at the very least, produce something that is not entirely without merit. So I picked it up, and started with that celebrated opening:

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 …

Yes, those repeated rhythms build up a fine head of steam (“anaphora”, I believe it’s called); but they seem to serve no discernible purpose other than to start the work with an incantatory rhythm. And then, having come this far, Dickens seems to have no idea how to finish the sentence:

—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.

What’s going on? Dickens normally had a splendid ear for the rhythms of the English language, but here, right in the opening sentence, having built up a rhythmic momentum, he lets it slip at the very end into bathos. Neither what he says at the end of that sentence, nor his manner of saying it, seems a fitting conclusion to the rhetoric that had come earlier.

I gather that Dickens was, personally, going through a bit of a bad time when writing this novel, but, as a reader, I don’t know that I can admit that as a mitigating factor. And anyway, whatever bad time he was going through, he seemed to have pulled himself together for Great Expectations, which was published just one year after this. But where Great Expectations seems to me among the finest examples of the novelist’s art, this, frankly, isn’t: even his rhetoric – an area in which he normally excelled – seems tired. It seems hard to avoid the conclusion that his heart just wasn’t in this one – that he was merely going through the motions.

Dickens is popularly known as a Great Storyteller, but it has long struck me that this was one of the things he wasn’t. In Oliver Twist, for instance (which I read this time a couple of years ago, and reported on here), he not only makes use of highly unlikely plot devices to move the novel on, he actually repeats them. But Oliver Twist had many elements to relish other than the plot: here, on the other hand, Dickens has up his sleeve a splendid plot, but his prodigious invention seems to have run dry: he has nothing to offer but the plot.

That wouldn’t in itself have been a problem if he had been adept at handling the plot: one imagines someone like Dumas, say, would have made a splendid job of a storyline like this. But Dickens had an imagination which soared when he didn’t have to focus on something so mundane as a storyline. Fagin has a life of his own that exists outside the demands of the plot, and he is tremendously vivid and memorable; Monks, in the same novel, is introduced purely to move the plot forward, and he is neither vivid nor memorable. In this novel, each character exists only in terms of the mechanics of the plot: none has an independent life outside that plot; and the results seem to me distinctly pallid.

In something such as, say, The Count of Monte Cristo, which, for me, is a masterpiece of pure storytelling, Dumas gives us only as much as we need to know about any character to make the plot believable (in its own terms, at least); he never gives us more, but he never gives us less either. Here, the plot depends almost entirely on Sydney Carton’s self-loathing, and on his passion for Lucie Manette. So, to make the plot believable, Dickens needs to tell us why Sydney Carton loathes himself, and why he is so passionately in love with Lucie. Dickens tells us neither. Sydney Carton is self-loathing simply because he is; Lucie inspires a passion in him simply because she does. These are brute facts that  need to be taken for given. But in the context of the story, that really doesn’t satisfy, especially as, with Lucie Manette, Dickens had returned to old habits that, in his immediately preceding novels at least, he had appeared to have left behind: she appears throughout pure and virginal (even after years of marriage), angelically good in everything, unfailingly meek and gentle, and in the habit of swooning every now and then when things get a bit rough. On the page, it becomes difficult to believe in her as a living, breathing character. And this makes Sydney Carton’s passion for her particularly unbelievable. One might as well fall in love with a ceramic doll.

Contrary to popular opinion on this matter, it isn’t as if Dickens wasn’t capable of portraying interesting female characters, or of portraying erotic obsession: in his very next novel, he does both, with a novelistic brilliance that still takes my breath away. Of course, Pip and Estella have about them an emotional complexity that would have been out of place here, but some depth of characterisation, at least enough to make the story credible, would have been more than welcome.

Even in small matters, things go wrong. For instance, consider the scene where Madame Defarge visits Lucie accompanied by a friend, and Dickens has to tell us explicitly who this friend is:

Both the women followed; the second woman being The Vengeance.

This is clumsy. The woman known as The Vengeance had been introduced earlier, and any decent storyteller would have given her at her first appearance a distinctive characteristic, and impressed that characteristic on the reader’s mind, so that when she later re-appears, the author would need only to mention that characteristic, and the reader will be able to pick up who is being referred to. This ain’t, as they say, rocket science. But even here, Dickens fails.

Similarly with the revelation of Madame Defarge’s relationship with the murdered peasants we hear of in Dr Manette’s story. Something like this should have been a climactic point in the tribunal scene, surely, rather than a passing detail revealed in a private conversation afterwards. One need not be a Master Storyteller to figure out something so obvious.

I won’t labour the point. There are many other such examples, small perhaps in themselves, but they all pile up, and point to the inescapable surmise that Dickens’ heart wasn’t in this, that he was merely going through the motions.

So are there any redeeming points? Well, I suppose the story remains good, even though it is not too well told. There is the occasional touch or two that suggests the author is capable of better, but frankly not much. And yes, the pace does pick up a bit in the third of this three act structure, but given how badly that pace had sagged in the middle act, that’s not really much of a compliment. There’s nothing here of the incidental humour, or of the gallery of colourful eccentrics and grotesques, that livens up even lesser Dickens novels. However, for all my strictures, it cannot be denied that, for Anglophone readers at least, it is this novel more than any other book, fiction or otherwise, that has fixed in the mind the image of the French Revolution. And I guess that’s no mean achievement.

But even taking that into consideration, in this instance, I think my estimate of some forty-five or so years ago remains intact: this really isn’t Dickens at his best. Or anywhere near.

But I shouldn’t complain. When you’re a completist like me, you take the misses with the hits. And Dickens did, after all, follow this up with Great Expectations, and then with Our Mutual Friend: when your favourite uncle has given you so many wonderful presents, it’s a bit churlish to complain about the odd dud or two.

It still leaves me puzzled, admittedly, on what his admirers see in this one, but to each his own, as they say!

9 responses to this post.

  1. It’s decades since I read this and it was possibly my first Dickens – so I guess I can give no real comment now! Bearing in mind, however, how my sympathy for the aristocrats has probably moved, my views could well be quite different!

    Reply

  2. Posted by Janet on December 12, 2020 at 11:14 pm

    I always say of TTC, it was the best of Dickens, it was the worst of Dickens. What explains S. Carton’s passion for sitting for hours at a time in the parlor of L. Manette? Clearly, his self-loathing is most satisfactorily renewed in the fresh hell of her company. Okay, kidding aside. I think TTC has some of Dickens’ most breathtaking passages, and truly his worst.

    Lucie and Charles are the most dismally colorless and unsympathetic of all Dickens’ characters. Which is interesting because, while Dickens didn’t always hit the bull’s-eye, he was generally aiming at something. So it’s worth wondering what the heck he was up to. The two protagonists are surrounded by grotesques–some of them seriously, horrifyingly grotesque–the more horrible, somehow, the more attractive and, in contrast to the two primary ciphers, more real. In fact all the other characters are only enhanced by their proximity to L&C. Sydney, for example–the only human being in the book–is Charles’ mirror image, but while Sydney’s side of the mirror is vivid, Charles’ is, um, empty. The book is not about two virtuous lovers united in adversity, but rather about a man, much like Dickens was himself, I suppose, divided against himself. Poor Sydney is trapped by an existential doom he can only escape by appropriating the redemption of one who does not deserve it–the nonentity that resembles him polished up with a veneer of virtue but lacking the depth of feeling that leads Sydney to the ultimate act of goodness? His ghastly doppelganger walks the earth (and gets the girl), the incarnation of superficial niceness Sydney recognizes by its absence in himself, and like his fellow human creatures, he values this ornamental goodness above his own extraordinary qualities.

    Sydney Carton basically is that opening paragraph–as you describe, the inflating rhetoric of promised greatness punctured and reduced to bombast and false flourishes by self-knowledge. The train wreck at the end of the sentence is very deliberate, a caution against romanticizing the natural consequences of moral failure. But I would argue that discordant crash is what makes the opening one of Dickens’–or anyone’s–greatest. But wait. It’s complicated. As it would be in a Dickens novel.

    Dickens ends that first sentence declaring that all the superlatives of a historical moment are no more appropriate applied to the horrors of the Terror than to the present day. As if to deflate their significance. But that is only the set up, because the rest of the book explores suffering and terror as an undiminishing constant of human life. The book ends not on a scene of marital bliss beside some hearth in good old England, but on Carton’s hopeful suicide–death by mistaken identity–and the comforting thought that the world will be better without him. You’ve read the book. Just which of these guys was the more beneficial member of society? How much delusion is there in self-knowledge?

    I read somewhere that Dickens took the Weep for It bit on tour and that it was a popular piece of melodrama. Well, he knew his audience. I suspect it’s much more watchable as a performance than it is readable on the page. For me, it’s extremely painful to read. I have to keep averting my eyes until I can find the end of the passage. Maybe Dickens really threw himself into writing it and couldn’t anticipate how horrible it would wear over a century or so. Maybe. I doubt he was being broadly ironic. But he had such extraordinary intuition I can’t help searching for his purpose, conscious or subconscious. It seems to me a naked expression of despair, of “virginal” emotion thrown out for inevitable contamination by the “real world” to form yet another kind of grotesque, an unbearable one because we construct it ourselves out of the repulsion we feel toward “overblown” virtue. Or maybe we are repelled because, like Lucie, anything that undilutedly good can’t be really human but only a creepy facsimile.

    Certainly, Biddie, Miss Havisham, and Estella–and even Pip’s horrible sister–are all the more sympathetic for their suffering interiors, where virtue is either tempered or annihilated by the contingencies of life. It was bad times for Dickens. I think he was learning to navigate in the dark, which never lifted for him after this. TCC is exploratory and experimental. He’s done with the fumbling around when he writes Great Expectations, in which there are no ciphers and no one is spared.

    Reply

    • Hello Janet, and thank you for this. This seems a prime example of a comment putting the original post in the shade.

      I am very interested in your thesis that Dickens was trying something “exploratory and experimental”, as it would be hard otherwise to explain why, in a series of masterpieces, he should produce something so inferior. (I have similar views on Hard Times too, but let’s not go there now.) But I can’t in all honesty see what end Dickens was experimenting towards.

      Are Charles and Lucie the “the most dismally colorless and unsympathetic of all Dickens’ characters”? What about all those dismally colourless and unsympathetic young lovers from all his earlier novels- Nicholas Nickleby and Madeleine Bray, Martin Chuzzlewit and Mary Graham, or even Agnes Wickfield and the adult David Copperfield? Dickens had a problem with young lovers in his earlier works: by insisting on purity, he couldn’t make them interesting. He overcame this to a very great extent in the novels immediately preceding A Tale of Two Cities, but when they re-appear here with such a vengeance, a return to old habits does, frankly, seem to me a likelier explanation than exploring new domains. For what does it achieve to present Charles and Lucie as so pallid? Charles, it should be noted, need not have been a pallid figure at all: he has renounced his aristocratic birthright and makes a point of earning his living: that suggests strength of character. He returns to the danger zone knowing well the risks he runs, in order to help an old friend. Dickens had every opportunity to present him as a heroic character, and if his refusal to do so is part of his experiment, I am left wondering, yet again, what this experiment had been designed to achieve.

      This colourless couple aren’t really surrounded by grotesques, though. If we look through novels such as David Copperfield, Bleak House Little Dorrit, etc, the canvas is gloriously overfilled with grotesques of all kinds: there is not a single empty square inch of the canvas. But what do we et here? Madame Defarge is a fine melodramatic figure (though even here, there seem to me opportunities missed); and we have Jerry Cruncher and Miss Pross – hardly in the class of the wonderful grotesques in the earlier novels.

      In short, given my admiration for Dickens, I would dearly love to believe that this is Dickens in an experimental mode, seeking out new areas for his genius. But if so, I cannot discern what these experiments have as their aim – what,, in short, he had wanted to achieve. But all I can see, to be entirely honest, are reversions to his earlier manner in presenting his central couple of Lucie and Charles, but with none of the compensating energy and vitality and eccentricity that made those earlier novels so marvellous despite their all-too-obvious shortcomings.

      But I shall read your comment a few more times, because I have no doubt there are things here that I am missing.

      Reply

      • Posted by Janet on December 16, 2020 at 4:14 am

        Hamadri, if I cast any shade at all it was merely from standing in the sunshine I always get from your posts. There is nowhere better to dither away an afternoon than in your comments section.

        I didn’t mean to imply that Dickens intentionally made L&C dull characters. I’m sure he began with a couple of amazing heroes in mind–they both have ambitious profiles. It just didn’t work. In your original post you proposed that his heart wasn’t in this book, that he fell back into a previous mode for some reason. You also say that he was at the height of his powers as a writer. Here’s my utterly unproveable million dollar theory: He was Charles Dickens at the height of his powers, coming off Little Dorrit, and he was feeling a lot of pressure, from himself mostly, to somehow get the Daleks and the Cybermen to almost destroy the world and each other while composing All Along the Watchtower and getting Jimi Hendrix to cover it. Hmm, he thought, maybe it’s time for a mid-season throwback special. So, as with Hard Times (oh, yes, let’s go there), he opened the rusty filing cabinet of his brain and pulled out some old tropes that were proven crowd pleasers and didn’t take a whole lot of effort. He could rattle off Miss Prosses by the dozen without breaking a sweat. But being at the height of his powers, “phoning it in” just wasn’t going to satisfy.

        So he noodled around.

        Contributing to the noodling were a number of external factors–Dickens’ political convictions; marital discontent; True Love; and the theater. There are a number of tableaux in TTC that were pretty obviously written for performance–Dickens writing his own stage material. It’s mostly ghastly but it made sense at the time. I imagine Wilkie Collins loved it. Dickens for sure wanted to use the French Revolution to make some political arguments. I suspect he was wrestling with how to throw the blame for the failure of his marriage on Catherine. He was, of course, the one fooling around with an actress while his wife juggled a million kids. Explaining this to himself would quite naturally result in a novel about split personality–that is, opposites, mirror images, and doppelgangers. If he couldn’t fill out the virtuous Charles Darnay maybe it was because he didn’t have anything to fill him up with. Whereas Sydney, with his ringing head in the sink makes a lot of sense. It was an idea, an experiment. I don’t think it was very successful, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t learn anything.

        He couldn’t quite shape an ideal woman out of the materials in his head either–he didn’t dare make Lucie independent and erotic like Ellen Ternan, his real life love interest, which I think is where is head was at at the time. But his alternative models didn’t work either–he slaughtered poor Doro rather than condemn her to ridiculous middle age as a Flora; and Agnes, well, the less said about Agnes the better, though Lucie certainly must be said to fall into the sad, gray Limbo of Dickensian maidens who live, of which Agnes is queen. He couldn’t very well give pockmarks to every noblehearted gal, though Esther foreshadows a willingness to decouple looks from worth in female characters. And though Little Dorrit might be a thinking creature with an incipient backbone, am I the only one who says her horrible sister has more on the ball? So, consider, after a long career of unimpressive heroines, Dickens hits a trifecta in Great Expectations–what happened? Boring old Lucie Manette, that’s what. Oh, and also Becky Sharpe. And of course L’il Em’ly.

        Think about it now. Who was David Copperfield’s real soul mate? That’s right. The sublime child of the seashore. But because she goes feral, she must be driven forth to Australia and as a proof of the true nature of her inherent, if technically vaporized, virtue, she must volunteer herself an everlasting spinster so as not to contaminate even a desperate Australian with her stain. It might have been a conventionally acceptable ending, but even at the time, did that really sit right with anybody? Becky Sharpe comes along and, well, she’s just way better than that milksop Sedley chick. It takes a bit of digesting, but Dickens must have looked at Ellen and looked at Catherine and cringed at Lucie and thought what if…? He knew that if you take an intelligent, brave and sensible woman and impose a standard childlike demeanor and blushing helplessness on her instead of a personality you get Lucie Manette. But, wait, what if you make her warm, friendly, approachable, ambitious for learning, open-minded, and unwilling to break her heart over an ungrateful scamp when a better man comes on the market? Or perhaps instead of imbecility one could infuse a faded Flora with brains, a stock portfolio, and earth scorching fury. What if Tatty Corum had the luxury of believing that everything she had been taught was a lie and no one had the power to control her once she had seized it for herself?

        Yes, I know Estella is more or less conventionally punished with a violent husband and a wasted fortune. But unlike L’il Em’ly she doesn’t have to go to Australia. Wrung out, she must make her dreary way into an uncertain future, but a future it is. And, so must Pip. In fact, on reflection, Pip and Estella are each others’ doppelgangers. Dickens has thrown out the jerky machinery of people looking alike for no better reason than to switch places. Pip and Estella are so reflected in each other they can walk away in opposite directions without a shadow of parting.

        In other words, when we get to Great Expectations, Dickens has worked through the belabored goofiness of earlier work. His heroes are no longer genetically gentle. His women are no longer children with boobs. His grotesques and caricatures are more lifelike. He’s made refinements in imagery and setting that are hinted at in the knitting of Madame DeFarge and the bleeding of the wine barrel. The dialog is somehow both exquisite and natural–compare Lucie’s contrived “Weep for It” with Pip’s rhapsodic “Out of my thoughts! You are part of my existence, part of myself. You have been in every line I have ever read since I first came here, the rough common boy whose poor heart you wounded even then. You have been in every prospect I have ever seen since,—on the river, on the sails of the ships, on the marshes, in the clouds, in the light, in the darkness, in the wind, in the woods, in the sea, in the streets. You have been the embodiment of every graceful fancy that my mind has ever become acquainted with. The stones of which the strongest London buildings are made are not more real, or more impossible to be displaced by your hands, than your presence and influence have been to me, there and everywhere, and will be. Estella, to the last hour of my life, you cannot choose but remain part of my character, part of the little good in me, part of the evil. But, in this separation, I associate you only with the good; and I will faithfully hold you to that always, for you must have done me far more good than harm, let me feel now what sharp distress I may. O God bless you, God forgive you!” Dang!

        I enjoyed the post Tom linked to. It mentions the other noteworthy experiment that comes to mind–Jerry Cruncher. I found Jerry utterly fascinating, a crowning achievement among Dickens’ grotesques. We can disagree about that, but the thing to note is that Jerry is a prototype in TTC. As a type, he turns up, completely reworked, stripped of everything but the nature of his work, in Our Mutual Friend. What I find interesting is that Dickens chose to portray two men whose occupation is to find rotting corpses and turn them to profit without making either of them villains. In TTC, the grave robber is a thing of interest, a weird envelope to push. Dickens can get away with it if Jerry is grotesque enough and it helps that the resurrection man is redeemed by the end with a comic turn. The opening of Our Mutual Friend is something else altogether–it says something that Dickens’ audience trusted him enough to stay with him through that first chapter. But he felt around in the dark corners with Jerry Cruncher first before putting readers’ fingers in the pockets of an inflated dead man rolling in the Thames.

      • Hello Janet, and thank you for that fascinating post. There is so much there I would like to address – more in a spirit of agreement than otherwise – but I think it’s best to keep it for a new post, rather then the comments section where it will easily become lost.

        Among other things ,I think you’re absolutely right that Pip and Estella are each other’s doppelgängers: the characterisation of these two is among Dickens’ greatest triumphs. And as for Little Em’ly – she is in many ways an early prototype of Pip: she wants to be a lady as much as he wants to be a gentleman. But once again, the differences are as striking as the similarities: Em’ly wants to be a lady merely for the sake of being a lady, whereas Pip’s desire to become a gentleman is, like all his desires really, has as its aim a greater and all-consuming desire – that for Estella. Quite astonishing that the man who wrote A Tale of Two Cities should, the very next year, write this.

        But there is much to ponder in your comment. A post on it will follow … but don’t expect anything before the Christmas season is over! 🙂

      • Posted by Janet on December 17, 2020 at 8:16 pm

        Enjoy the holidays, Hamadri. Take some time out for some ghost stories. I’m looking forward to another year of posts!

  3. “exploratory and experimental ” exactly! Always true for Dickens. In this novel he is responding to Hard Times, for example. And finally really looking directly at his great influence, Thomas Carlyle. Himadri, you’ve read The French Revolution? Magnificent stuff.

    Dickens’s weekly serials are always his weakest novels, with one exception, the next one, so you can give Tale of Two Cities credit as practice for Great Expectations. Finally, he figures it out.

    I was unusually explicit about what I enjoyed in the novel (reminder that one post leads to another). The short answer, though, is specific passages and images, which does not seem all that puzzling. Maybe it depends how willing you are to smash a work of art to pieces.

    Reply

  4. Ha! Every time you comment here, I am reminded of yet another major gap in my reading! Sadly, no, I haven’t read Carlyle. I guess, I should, right?

    I enjoyed reading your posts on A Tale of Two Cities. Yes, perhaps I should have appreciated Madame Defarge more. But a single memorable character in a Dickens novel does make me feel that I’ve been short-changed!

    The plot indeed is good, as you say. But Dickens had to build a novel around the plot, and I really don’t think that was quite his forte.

    However, as Janet says above, this is written by a great novelist at the height of his powers, and perhaps I should think a bit more carefully before being so dismissive.

    Reply

  5. Dickens does not experiment towards. He does not know what he is looking for until he finds it. He is definitely not seeking out “new areas for his genius,” but working on specific aesthetic problems.

    He is Cézanne, not Picasso, if that is any help. Here is a reasonably clear development of this idea.

    Maybe “explore” is more helpful than “experiment”? Dickens is not testing a hypothesis, but rather messing about in the lab. Occasionally he sets something on fire or ruins an apparatus that had worked in the last novel.

    Carlyle, man, The French Revolution is a sight to behold. Reading it may well diminish Tale of Two Cities even further.

    Reply

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