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Literary Corner: A Tale of Two Cities (review)

13 Years Ago


Having one of the most famous opening paragraphs in Literature notwithstanding, this long tale stands on three solid pillars… along with a whole host of decorative posts. Pillar one is the historical detail, accurate to the very last aristocratic cruel glare above a laced, starched collar. The strong, ever-moving plot follows and stitches the bits of London and Paris history together into a finely woven story, one that echoes long-forgotten epic ballads, though in true literary form. The last pillar is the drama itself… not overly done, not poured so fast that the plot drowns as a spindly seedling in a lake; Dickens caught up fistfuls of the rampant emotion present during that tumultuous time, hearkening forth the bloodcurdling bawls of long-maligned peasants whipped into a frenzy by the madness of mob rule. This review will not reveal all but merely attempt to incite curiosity in readers to entrench themselves in this classic book.

It is difficult to remember throughout this story that this is indeed a 'Dickens' book… an author known for his rather hopeful stories, whose plots tend to lean heavily on the milk of human kindness. Though Dickens excelled in painting humans as they are with his pen, this tome is by far his most macabre in flavor... yet, I knew as I read it that this was due more to the actual events than to the writer, for historical accounts show that despite one or two literary straying from known paths into storytelling, this piece may have almost been a chronological account of the revolution in question.

The tale begins as most great stories do, with an innocent person suffering an enormous wrong by greedy overlords bent by decades of excess, wont to do as they please. This ‘beginning’ is gradually revealed as the plot goes along similar to now movies use flashbacks to give background filler. I digress: a young peasant girl falls victim to a particular, tyrannical aristocrat; as she is laboring to give birth to the nobleman's b*****d a local doctor, Alexandre Manette, is called in to assist. Tragically, he is unable to save her or the child, and for some reason instead of merely warning the doctor into silence about the scene he's just witnessed, the aristocrat ushered the good man into a waiting, blanketed carriage and hustles him off to the worst place in all France: the Bastille prison. Though the man wishes to decry his chains, his name is written down in the prison ledger and he is closeted away in one of the foul, stinking cells of stone. There he remains for many, many years, not knowing how his servants and young daughter are, or how to contact them. Eventually, one of his former servants Defarge finds him and is allowed charge of the prisoner. Defarge and his oddly cold wife Therese run a wine shop and secretly nurture a blossoming secret revolutionary group referred to as ‘Jacques’, a name taken from an actual French Revolution group, the Jacquerie. Therese has her own dark reasons for zealously provoking rebellion, which are revealed later in the book.

Time goes on; Dr. Manette’s daughter Lucie (a lovely, sweet-tempered girl) is cared for by the capable, motherly housekeeper, laboring under the delusion that her father is dead. Eventually Tellson’s Bank in London gets word somehow of Manette’s real condition and in order to verify the information (the reason involved money) sends an astute and dedicated employee named Jarvis Lorry to Lucie, explains that her father is alive and enlists her help; normally, a young girl (that that time) would have been a traveling liability, but Lorry is clever enough to know that a decade-plus years in the Bastille may have thrown a damper on Manette’s reasoning ability, and that seeing his daughter may slowly snap him out of it. This thinking proves correct.

Somehow they find Defarge, whom leads them to a cell where a half-catatonic, wasted Manette sits, making shoes in a compulsory manner, having severely withdrawn into his own mind. Eventually, the sight of his daughter’s golden tresses stirs a small memory in his mind, and he grows to recognize her and know himself again. Lucie and Lorry liberate him and carry him back to England to convalesce in the arms of family and devoted servants. Thus ends the first third of the book, and one of the few happier moments. The next two parts of the book lead these characters into a web of mystery, revulsion, love and finally, resolve.

Not only for readers but necessary for writers, this tome is well worth the time and energy required to read and enjoy the historical drama, well-developed characters and genteel intrigue overshadowed by the hideous wraith of revolution. Few today write as well or as honestly as Dickens.