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A Tale of Two Cities: A Timeless Classic

A Tale of Two Cities is a story of London and Paris, the contrasting existence of both; the ubiquitous tyranny of the lords of France pitted against the comparative deliverance of a peaceful existence in England during the advent of the French Revolution for Equality, Fraternity, Liberty and Justice. The most appealing part of this novel is how its conciseness is wrapped around the complex factors that led to the uprising of the common men and women in France and built into a personal story with very few named characters. Easy to follow yet containing fast-moving and well-constructed suspense, A Tale of Two Cities becomes timeless in its thrill and grip.

The Sea Rises, actual illustration

What happened to Doctor Manette, you wonder just as soon as you are introduced to the gentle prisoner in a French prison, delivered safely to London by his daughter. Here we meet the French nobleman who has christened himself Charles Darnay. Charles Darnay has skillfully given up his rights as a lord in France because oppression and tyranny of others like him is too much for him to bear. We also meet Sydney Carton, the unlikely hero of our story. He has wasted away his potential and his life. Both these men are in love with Lucie Manette, the doctor’s daughter and their love drives the pace of the story.

Shuttling between London and Paris, you realize that the Manette’s existence is at the core of the story. Their future and past is both yet to be determined. In France, the storming of the Bastille gives way to the French Revolution which redefines existence. But confronted with incomplete business, Charles Darnay is forced to return to the town of his childhood and with him, the Manettes will discover things they didn’t think possible.

Classics can require a lot of patience sometimes, but this one doesn’t Perhaps the reason for this is that Charles Dickens first brought out this story through installments in his weekly publication All the Year Around. He wrote the story with breaks and later built them into a cohesive novel. At no point in this classic will you feel bored or left out of the story because the pace never slows down and the drive to know what suspense is motivating the characters to act in the ways they do is at the heart of that incessant urge that will keep you reading.

Through it all, Dickens never loses his famous wittiness and for me perhaps the best example of his satire was in his description on La Guillotine, that infamous invention of the French Revolution which sought to separate heads from bodies and led to the doom of the French aristocracy:

It was the proper theme for jests; it was the best cure for headache, it infallibly prevented hair from turning grey, it imparted a peculiar delicacy to the complexion, it was the National Razor which shaved close: who kissed La Guillotine, looked through the  little window and sneezed into the sack.

Frontispiece, actual illustration

A Tale of Two Cities, then is at its heart a personal story but draws from true historical events, making it lean towards historical fiction. However Mr. Dickens has not gone into historical finesse, choosing instead to skim over the surface of events and fit the ones he saw best suiting his story and discard the parts he did not need. In that respect, this novel is a little broken but in four hundred pages it draws out grey shades for the uprising. As always showing a modern sense of justice and appeal, Mr. Dickens proves himself to be ahead of his times through his judgement regarding truth and the rights men deserve and the liberties they should be granted.

And while I read, I found myself wondering why this was the first time I was familiarizing myself with Charles Darnay and Dr. Manette and Mr. Lorry and Sydney Carton and Madame Defarge, the representative antagonist and all the rest  of them whilst they have, for so very long, been etched into literary memory through this delightful novel!

Next up: The Karamazov Brothers by Fyodor Dostoevsky


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