#ReadMyOwnDamnBooks: “A Tale of Two Cities” by Charles Dickens

I’ve been meaning to read A Tale of Two Cities for ages … or, at least since October. Thanks to #ReadMyOwnDamnBooks, this title has finally been moved onto the “read” list.

Cue the confetti!

If you’ve never read it, A Tale of Two Cities – London and Paris – is set before and during the French Revolution and follows the fates of three intertwined French families. How exactly they’re connected isn’t revealed until the final climactic chapters, which makes this a tricky novel to talk about spoiler-free.

Here are a few things to know about the story:

The larger narrative of the French revolution, told through the diverse experiences of the three families, explores how abuse of power creates a destructive cycle. Dickens writes,

“Crush humanity out of shape once more, under similar hammers, and it will twist itself into the same tortured forms. Sow the same seed of rapacious license and oppression over again, and it will surely yield the same fruit according to its kind.”

The brutality and inhumanity of the French revolution is appalling and horrific, but no more so than the aristocracy’s behavior. They failed to honor the humanity of the “lower” classes and, in that way, chipped away at their capacity for human empathy. When the aristocracy falls to them, their rage and desire for vengeance fuels a grotesque bloodlust that transforms victim into victimizer.

Within that larger story lies a more personal and, in my view, more intensely portrayed one about the power of sacrificial love. This storyline feels very personal, very heartfelt in its rendering. We can’t entirely overcome our flawed natures. but sometimes, for a brief moment, we can transcend them. And if it happens at just the right moment, it can be profound. Since this happens at the end of the novel, I will say no more about the plot itself.

I will say this about the characters, though: I found the most compelling, deeply felt characters to be the English ones, Mr. Carton, Miss Pross, and Mr. Cruncher. They’re the characters who feel most infused with life. They also happen to be the only characters who give us comic moments, and very few at that.

Here’s my favorite featuring Mr. Cruncher:

“Mr. Cruncher himself always spoke of the year of our Lord as Anna Dominoes: apparently under the impression that the Christian era dated from the invention of a popular game, by a lady who had bestowed her name upon it.”

And here’s one featuring an exchange between Mr. Cruncher and Miss Pross:

“‘[T]hem poor things well out o’ this, never no more will I do it, never no more!’

‘I am quite sure, Mr. Cruncher,’ returned Miss Pross, ‘that you never will do it again, whatever it is, and I beg you not to think it necessary to mention more particularly what it is.’”

I’ve written time and time and time again about the terrifying genius of Dickens’s sentences. The overall effect on me while reading a Dickens novel: I can almost feel the book pulsing in my hand, sort of like a horcrux but without the evil bits. As my eyes move across the pages, a feeling of euphoria steals over me, and I’m taken quite out of myself. It’s sublime.

Here’s are two of my favorite (spoiler-free) examples of this from A Tale of Two Cities:

“His surname was Cruncher, and on the youthful occasion of his renouncing by proxy the works of darkness, in the easterly parish church of Hounsditch, he had received the added appellation of Jerry.”

I had to read this sentence twice before I understood that it was telling me baby boy Cruncher received the name “Jerry” when he was baptized as an infant. Between reading Dickens’s description and it making sense, I was transported back to my own son’s baptism. As his godmother, my mom had, with great solemnity, to renounce Satan on my son’s behalf (“renouncing by proxy the works of darkness”). At the time, I found this inexplicably hilarious and had to choke back a formidable case of the giggles. Anyway…

My other favorite isn’t even a sentence; it’s a phrase:

“[…]when the waves of four months had rolled over the trial for treason, and carried it, as to the public interest and memory, far out to sea […]

What a vivid image to communicate the passage of time and, along with it, human interest! We might think it’s technology’s fault we have such short attention spans. Yet here is Dickens revealing, long before the invention of smartphones, how we’re all paying attention until we’re not.

Which is to say, he shows us how little we humans change, for worse and for better. Here’s the worse:

“The sort of interest with which this man was stared and breathed at, was not a sort that elevated humanity. […] Whatever gloss the various spectators put upon the interest, according to their several arts and powers of self-deceit, the interest was, at the root of it, Ogreish.”

“Sadly, sadly, the sun rose; it rose upon no sadder sight than the man of good abilities and good emotions, incapable of their directed exercise, incapable of his own help and his own happiness, sensible of the blight on him, and resigning himself to let it eat him away.”

And here is the better:

“Miss Pross, with the vigorous tenacity of love, always so much stronger than hate […].”

Spoilers redacted. 🙂 Just know this: If you were to hire a governess, you’d want to find yourself a Miss Pross.

Tale of Two Cities

Welcome to my “read” pile, A Tale of Two Cities!