Review: A Tale of Two Cities

The classics are always difficult to meaningfully comment on. A Tale of Two Cities is primarily Dickens commenting on the Reign of Terror, as he commented on other injustices.  His literary chops are impeccable, so the work is brilliant.

Two things stand out to me.  First, he takes the position that the Reign of Terror was a predictable and natural reaction to abuses of power. It’s one thing to take that position academically.  Dickens constructed evocative characters and scenarios that bring these ideas home.  I wouldn’t say he creates believable characters and scenarios; there is quite a bit of high melodrama here.  High melodrama can be as much fun and have as much influence as more three dimensional construction.

That strong representation of how individual actions build to historic upheavals is enlightening and frightening. The feeling of both seeing how history happens and not being able to change it feels like a truth.

The greatest part of the book is the redemption of Sydney Carton. Again, this is melodrama of the first degree, including the uncanny likeness of Carton and Darnay as well as the relative merits of their characters.  And I know what happens – I’ve read Tale before. But Dickens’s ironic, mordant, determined prose moves me every time. The feeling of both the need for redemption and the seed of that redemption growing from that bad life is palpable and reassuring.  The allusions to Christ are not misplaced, despite them being a bit heavy.

That pure demonstration of the redemption of a man, and perhaps a nation, is what draws me back to A Tale of Two Cities.

Strongly recommended.

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