A Tale of Two Cities
~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp ~
Charles Dickens’ superb historical novel, A Tale of Two Cities, is set in the late eighteenth century, before and during the bloody French Revolution. It was first published in 1859 and has long been a mainstay of English literature.
The French Revolution wasn’t called the Reign of Terror for nothing. It was what today might be called “class warfare.” The ordinary people of France had long been poor and oppressed. They saw the aristocracy as a blood-sucking class of soulless degenerates who spent lavishly and lived extravagantly, without regard for anybody of an inferior class. It was natural that the poor should rebel, but when they did, it was without all reason. They killed indiscriminately, anybody that for any reason they didn’t like, or anybody who had had any suspicious alliance with anybody they didn’t like. Ordinary rules of fairness and decency were tossed aside. The bloody Guillotine, used without restraint, became the dreaded symbol of the Revolution.
The plot of A Tale of Two Cities is driven by a handful of characters caught up in the tragic tide of events that is the French Revolution:
- Alexandre Manette, a French physician wrongly imprisoned in the Bastille for eighteen years because he knows too much about a certain aristocratic family.
- Lucie Manette, his daughter who believed he was dead.
- Miss Pross, faithful companion/guardian of Lucie Manette.
- Monsieur Defarge, the former servant of Dr. Manette who facilitates his release from the Bastille after eighteen years.
- Madame Defarge, wife of Monsieur Defarge, virulently anti-aristo She personifies all that’s wrong with the Revolution.
- Charles Darnay, heir of the aristocratic Evrémonde family who relinquishes his birthright and becomes a teacher in England under an assumed identity. He marries Lucie Manette and they are happy together for a while but, of course, the Revolution threatens to ruin their lives.
- Jarvis Lorry, an elderly banker, a “man of business,” who befriends Alexandre Manette, Lucie Manette and Charles Darnay, and lends a helping hand to them throughout their ordeal.
- Sydney Carton, a lawyer and drunkard who befriends Charles Darnay, Lucie Manette and Alexandre Manette. He appears to be a wastrel and a disenchanted cynic, but in the end he is the noble hero of the story, making the ultimate sacrifice for those he has come to love.
A Tale of Two Cities is about a radical political ideology that grew out of conditions of poverty and suffering and, while discarding the rule of law, disregarding decency and fairness, destroyed many lives and nearly destroyed a country. It’s a story that would be played out many times and in many places, in many different forms, up to the present day.
The 1936 black-and-white movie version of A Tale of Two Cities with Ronald Colman as Sydney Carton comes highly recommended. It’s moving, entertaining, engaging, perfectly cast, intelligent, and faithful to Charles Dickens’ great novel.
Copyright © 2021 by Allen Kopp