A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

A Tale of Two Cities When I decided to take part in the Classics Club Spin last month, in which a book would be chosen for me from a list of twenty, A Tale of Two Cities was not one of the titles I was hoping would be picked. I have to be in the right mood to want to read Dickens and I wasn’t really in that mood. Expecting it to be a long and boring read, I thought it would be a good idea to start immediately so that I would have a chance of being finished by the end of December…

I actually finished it within a week and despite my lack of enthusiasm when the spin number was announced, A Tale of Two Cities is one of the best books I’ve read this year!

The novel is set before and during the French Revolution; Paris and London are the two cities of the title. The story begins with Doctor Manette being released from the Bastille after eighteen years as a political prisoner. Reunited with his daughter, Lucie, and returning with her to England, the lives of the Manettes become entwined with the lives of two young men who are both in love with Lucie. One of these is Charles Darnay, a former French aristocrat, and the other is Sydney Carton, an English lawyer. We follow these characters and others as they return to France where they become caught up in the dramatic events of the French Revolution – and the scheming of wine shop owner, Monsieur Defarge, and his sinister wife, who is never seen without her knitting!

This is the sixth Dickens novel I’ve read and my favourite so far. I find it interesting that everyone who reads Dickens has different favourites and least favourites; there doesn’t seem to be one book that is universally regarded as his best. I think part of the reason I loved this book so much was that in many ways it was very different from the others I’ve read but I know that some readers will probably dislike it for that same reason, so it’s really a matter of personal opinion.

One of the things that struck me about this book was the absence of humour, in comparison to the other Dickens novels I’ve read – and as Dickens and I don’t usually share the same sense of humour, this was definitely a positive thing for me! Of course, the French Revolution is a serious subject, so the more serious tone of the writing was quite appropriate. I also thought the characters felt more realistic and well-rounded than usual (if there is a comedy character in the novel, it’s probably Jerry Cruncher). My favourite character, which probably won’t surprise anyone else who has read this book, was Sydney Carton – although I didn’t fall in love with him until the last few chapters. I hadn’t guessed when we first met him that he would turn out to be so heroic and self-sacrificing.

I was also impressed by how tightly plotted the book is. The focus stays firmly on the main storyline which makes it easy to follow, unlike Bleak House or Our Mutual Friend which have more complex structures with lots of subplots and lots of long descriptive passages. In A Tale of Two Cities, everything feels relevant and helps to move the story forward. The novel begins with some of the most famous lines in literature (It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…) and closes with some that are almost as well known (It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known). I’ve seen those final lines quoted many times before but out of context they didn’t mean much to me; now that I know who and what they refer to they have much more significance. I don’t want to say too much and spoil the story for anyone who hasn’t read it yet, but the ending is heartbreaking. This is the first Dickens novel that has made me cry!

The Classics Club spin was a success for me this time, then. I do have some other Dickens novels on my Classics Club list and feel much happier about reading them now!

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14 thoughts on “A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

  1. Sam (Tiny Library) says:

    I was exactly the same as you – I’m not the biggest Dickens fan and I wasn’t exactly looking forward to this book when I picked it up, but boy did I love it. Absolutely beautiful and heart-breaking all at once.

  2. heavenali says:

    I read A tale of two cities years ago during my one Dickens binge the only Dickens I have reread is Great Expectations. I remember it as being (along with Hard Times) the one I liked least. You make it sound marvellous. I have forgotten almost everything about it apart from those famous lines. I thinkI need tp revisit Dickens sometime.

  3. Lisa says:

    I also read this years ago (decades, really). I remember the opening and the closing, but really nothing that comes in between. You do make me think it’s time to try it again.

  4. Ruth @ An Experiment With The Well-Educated Mind says:

    I JUST finished Tale of Two Cities last week – my first time reading it. I was intimidated by it, but I ended up finding it easy to get through, and I loved it. Agree with a lot of what you said, and I, too, did not want to give up too much in my post in case anyone had not read it, yet. It’s just one of those books you HAVE to read yourself to find out.

  5. Alex says:

    I’m another who has difficulties with ‘A Tale of Two Cities’. It is not my least favourite Dickens (that would be ‘Pickwick Papers’) but it come close. However, I can’t think of those last pages without coming close to tears myself so it must still have some effect on me.

    • Helen says:

      It does seem that this is a book people name either as a favourite Dickens or a least favourite with not much middle ground. I haven’t read The Pickwick Papers yet and am not sure if I really want to – it has never sounded very appealing to me.

  6. Fleur in her World says:

    I liked the beginning of this one, but it lost me somewhere along the way. It may not have helped that I knew how it would end, after catching the end of the film, and seeing that you loved it and seeing many other positive comments encourages me to try again one day.

    • Helen says:

      It’s a shame you had found out how it ended; I thought the ending was the best part of the book and while I did guess what was going to happen, I wasn’t completely sure and was desperately hoping for another plot twist!

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