Tuesday, July 18, 2006

A Tale of Two Cities

The past few days have found me unhappier than I have been in some time. The fact is that I think I might never be happy again. There are certain things that can happen in a man's life that will insure that happiness never again crosses his path, and I fear one of those tihngs has happened in mine.

Anyhow, today I thought I would discuss one of my favourite novels, A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens (for those who have not read it or seen any of the movie adaptations, I have to warn you that there are spoilers ahead). Its title comes from the two cities in which the novel is set--London and Paris. A Tale of Two Cities takes place during the French Revolution, and Dickens pulled no punches in describing the horrors committed by both the revolutionaries and the French government (he drew upon The French Revolution: a History by Thomas Carlyle). Set in a two cities in a tumultuous time A Tale of Two Cities centres on two men who are nearly exact doubles in appearance, but quite unlike in personality. Sydney Carton, arguably the hero of the novel, is a cynical English lawyer with a bit of a drinking problem. Charles Darnay is a romantic French noble with as much elegance and class as Carton lacks. It is their misfortune that they both fall in love with the same woman, Lucie Manette, daughter of the prominent Doctor Manette.

The central theme of A Tale of Two Cities is perhaps duality. This is even seen in its opening words, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times..." It can be seen in the two settings of the book, London and Paris. London is the relatively peaceful, civilised centre of the British Empire. On the other hand, Paris is positively in chaos, this being the height of the Reign of Terror. It is also seen in the two primary female characters. Lucie Manette is gentle caring, and loving, while Madame DeFarge is the French Revolution personified--brutal, sadistic, and vengeufl. The theme of duality becomes much more obvious in the book with the introduction of Sydney Carton and Charles Darnay, two men who look very much alike but differ in their characters. Initially, Carton seems to be the inferior of the two. Although he could have been a truly great man (and one has to wonder if he wouldn't have been had he won Lucie), as a lazy, alcoholic barrister Carton seems a stark contrast to Darnay's honour and courage. Ultimately, however, it is Carton who performs the ultimate act of heroism in the novel. When Darnay is captured by the revolutionaries and sentenced to the guillotine, it is Carton who takes his place and ultimately dies in in his place (his final words, "Tis a far, far better thing that I do than I have ever done..." are perhaps the most famous final words of any character in any medium). There have been those who have read into Carton's sacrifice a continuation of the novel's themes of redemption and renewal. They interpret Carton in his sacrifice as having become a Christ-like figure dying for the happiness of others and in effect becoming immortal himself. I disagree. Carton's act was not so much Christ like as it was romantic. Carton died at the guillotine to insure the continued happiness of the woman he loves; his sacrifice was the ultimate expression of his love for her. In the case of Carton's death, Dickens was using the theme of redemption and renewal to show how even the most pathetic charcter (in this case, Sydney Carton) can be transformed by love into something more.

Carton is not the only character who experiences redemption and renewal in the novel, and the theme of redemption and renewal runs throughout the work. Dr. Manette is impisoned for eighteen months, during which time he has very nearly become a vegetable. Once released, however, Manette once more becomes a respected citizen and a man of distinction. Indeed, emphasising the theme of redemption and renewal in the novel, one character makes the statement that Manette has been "...recalled to life."

Another theme in the novel is that acts of evil can sometimes be committed in what otherwise just causes. Dickens clearly had some sympathy for the French people of the time. The evil Marquis Evremonde is clearly the sort of corrupt noble who thinks of nothing of the exploitation of the common man. It is not only nobles like Evremonde who commits atrocities, however, as Dickens also portrays the degradation commmitted by the revolutionaries during the Reign of Terror. Madame DeFarge is the personification of these atrocities. She thinks of nothing of sending innocents to the guillotine, simply because they are part of the aristocracy. In many ways, she is Evremonde's double--as sadistic and overbearing as he is.

A Tale of Two Cites is arguably one of Dickens' greatest novels and it was a change of pace for him. While many, if not most of Dickens' novels were set in his present day, A Tale of Two Cites is a historical novel set at the time of the French revolution. It is also one of Dickens' most tragic works--there is no happy ending to behad in A Tale of Two Cites. It is certainly well worth reading.

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