By Chet Yarbrough
A Tale of Two Cities
By: Charles Dickens
Narrated by: Simon Callow
(1812-1870, English Author and social critic.)
As most know, “A Tale of Two Cities” was first published as a series in the U.K. in the 19th century. Its formal publication date was 1859. In comparison to some novels, “A Tale of Two Cities” is difficult to follow because of the many characters who play important roles in Dicken’s story.
The setting is in two cities, London and Paris before, during, and after the French revolution of 1789.
The famous beginning of Dicken’s story of the French revolution is “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times….” Most of the tale is about “…the worst of times…” in France.
The picture of the London and Paris cities is dismal because of its citizens who were either very rich or very poor. The seat of power in Paris is teetering on the edge of a coming revolution. The focus of the story turns to its main theme with Alexandre Manette, a French physician, heard to be alive after being unjustly imprisoned for 18 years in Paris. The story of Manette’s imprisonment is revealed to Jarvis Lorry, a London bank manager. Lorry arranges a meeting with the jailed Manette in Paris with his daughter who lives in London.
Manette’s daughter is Lucie. She goes to Paris with her governess, Miss Pross. Lucie meets with her father whom she thought was dead. Lucie brings her father back to London, but he suffers periodic mental lapses that return him to a shoemaking trade he learned while in prison. We get a glimpse of London on Manette’s return but it is of a trial that reminds one of the gaps between haves and have-nots in London. There is a trial for a spy named Charles Darnay, the nephew of a French aristocrat.
London in the 18th Century.
Lucie is a witness to Darnay’s alleged spying. She knows nothing about Darnay’s activity, but he had helped her in some minor way when he was accused of being a spy. Because of her testimony, Darnay’s character seems less spy-like and more gentlemanly. Darnay is acquitted because his defense attorney notes one of his colleagues, Sydney Carton, looks much like Darnay and could have as easily been the person accused. Darnay is released. The person, Sydney Carton, looks like Darnay but is loosely characterized as an undisciplined young bon vivant.
London court 18th century.
The main characters of the story are Dr. Manette, and Darnay but each character noted in these first chapters play important roles in the story. Dr. Manette had been unjustly imprisoned in the Bastille because of the death of a son and his mother caused by two French aristocrats. The remaining story largely takes place in Paris.
Dickens brings Darnay and Lucie together as husband and wife in London before the revolution in France. They have a son and daughter. The son dies, which reflects upon child mortality which is rather common in that time of the world’s history.
The reasons for the French Revolution, inferred by Dickens, are from harsh, unfair, and unequal treatment of the poor by the aristocracy. The examples given range from an aristocrat’s comment to the poor and hungry to “eat grass”, to the murder of a young boy and his mother by two “bon vivants” who hide their crime, to a murdered boy killed by an errant carriage accident caused by Darnay’s French Uncle.
Dickens creates the story of Darnay’s uncle flipping a coin to the father of a boy killed by his carriage’s collision. Darnay’s uncle is later murdered at his home by the father of the boy.
The table is set for the French Revolution of 1789. Dickens introduces the Defarge’s, Madame and Monsieur Defarge. They are republicans planning to kill as many of the French aristocracy as they can. Interestingly, the strongest and most violent of the revolutionaries is Madame Defarge.
As they storm the bastille, Monsieur Defarge demands a visit to Dr. Manette’s former cell. He knows of a secreted letter that explains why Manette is jailed and wishes to recover it. That letter incriminates Darnay’s Uncle and, by association, blames anyone that is part of that family.
Two years after the 1789 revolution in Paris, Darnay receives a letter from a servant of his murdered uncle asking for his help to be released from the Bastille. Darnay journeys to Paris and is imprisoned in the Bastille because of his association with French aristocracy. The remainder of the story is about the effort to get Darnay released. As true of other Dicken’s novels, there is a bitter-sweet happy ending.
Dickens is a masterful writer but to this reviewer, “A Tale of Two Cities” is not his best work. It is easy to lose the thread of the story because of its many characters. On the other hand, the characterization of Madam Defarge is one of the most terrifying written descriptions of revenge for social inequality. The terror of the French revolution and its causes are frighteningly vivified by Dickens’ creation of the Defarge’s.