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NAX35912 - DICKENS, C.: Tale of Two Cities (A) (Unabridged)

Charles Dickens
A Tale of Two Cities


‘I set myself the little task of making a picturesque story…with characters true to nature, but whom the story should express more than they should express themselves by dialogue…’ Thus wrote Charles Dickens in a letter explaining his intentions when he began to write A Tale of Two Cities, and describing how it differed from his previous novels.

The second of the eight children of John and Elizabeth Dickens, Charles John Huffham Dickens was born on 7 February 1812 at Portsea near Portsmouth. An intelligent young man, Charles particularly enjoyed reading works such as Smollet’s Roderick Random and Fielding’s Tom Jones. These were both at least partly written in the picaresque tradition, which chronicles the travels and adventures of the hero, together with a companion. Not surprisingly then, Dickens adopted a similar style for his own work and it is evident in many early works such as The Pickwick Papers and Nicholas Nickleby. However, A Tale of Two Cities demonstrated, as Dickens stated, a deliberate departure from that style and became known as the novel which was the least characteristic of Dickens.

Like Dickens’s other works, A Tale of Two Cities was published in episodes. The opening instalment was timed to attract readers to the first edition of Dickens’s own new weekly periodical, All The Year Round, published on April 30th 1859, with the final instalment of the story appearing on November 20th that same year. The introduction of All The Year Round was one change in Dickens’s life and followed the cessation of Dickens’s previous periodical, Household Words, which he had started in 1850. However, this was a time of numerous other upheavals in Dickens’s life and may go some way towards accounting for his decision to depart from the style of writing to which his readers had become accustomed.

Another upheaval in his life at this time was his separation from his wife Kate to whom he had been married for twenty-two years and with whom he had ten children. Never a passionate love match, its end was precipitated by Dickens’s preoccupation with Ellen Ternan, a well-known actress of the time. However, the affair caused bad publicity for Dickens and also lost him friends.

Change is also evident in the fact that A Tale of Two Cities, together with Barnaby Rudge, represents Dickens’s only attempt at historical novel writing. Since he did not personally possess sufficient background knowledge, he turned to Carlyle’s The French Revolution for the required information. However, he did not have the nature for further serious research and consequently, with no references to genuine personalities of the time, either English or French, A Tale of Two Cities may be viewed more as an historical romance or melodrama.

Further change in Dickens’s life came from his decision, at this time, to give public readings of his works. These proved very popular and provided Dickens with opportunities to indulge his enjoyment of acting, since his performances were very theatrical and dramatic. A Tale of Two Cities was the first of Dickens’s novels to be published after the readings began and he may well have decided on its melodramatic style and pacy narrative with his performances in mind.

After an education disrupted by a spell working in a shoeblacking factory due to the family’s fluctuating finances, young Dickens eventually embarked on a career as a journalist. His journalistic skills are evident in A Tale of Two Cities where, although fewer characters and less dialogue are in evidence, the plot speeds the reader through rapidly changing scenes, and with fewer digressions than in Dickens’s other novels, to the story’s climax. Precise choice of vocabulary and perfectly clear sentence structure paint vivid word pictures for the reader. References to footsteps and shadows are significant, and create visions of something dreadful to come. Similarly, the repeated references to the colour red in, for example, the scrawled word ‘Blood’, and in the descriptions of the spilt wine and the crimson setting sun, are also intended as significant and ominous.

As a reporter Dickens would have frequently travelled by stagecoach and his graphic and atmospheric descriptions of coach journeys undertaken by some of his characters in A Tale of Two Cities reflect this. At the start of the novel, Mr Lorry’s journey through the mist to Dover, later the journey of the Marquis as his coach careers over the cobbled Paris streets and subsequently labours up the steep hill to the chateau, and the agonising final homeward flight of Lucie with her father and husband, particularly as they pass the barriers, all add to the atmosphere of the story. Courtroom scenes and prisons were also familiar to Dickens from his days as a journalist and these, too, figure strongly in A Tale of Two Cities.

The theatre played a prominent part in Dickens’s life and for a while he was manager of an amateur theatrical company. His readings of his own works were always dramatic, with the passages being chosen for greatest effect. Not surprisingly, then, he included many theatrical elements in his novels. In A Tale of Two Cities these include the use of contrasts, suspense, mystery, surprise and reversals of fortune.

Contrasts are apparent in the novel’s opening sentence where, in order to establish this theme, we are told. ‘It was the best of times: it was the worst of times…’ Further differences are described in the settings, with hard, turbulent France contrasted with genial, staid England. The personalities of good and gentle Lucie and bloodthirsty, violent Madame Defarge contrast, as do the self-destructive Carton and the upright, hopeful Darnay; contrast between the latter being further increased by the fact of their having such similar physical appearances. Even in death, differences are apparent when we compare the death of Carton—dignified and, as he wished, in public—with that of Madame Defarge, who does not achieve the public death she would have preferred in order to further her cause.

Melodramatic surprises figure heavily throughout the novel in, for example, the assassination of the Marquis and the explosion of Madame Defarge’s pistol. Suspense is also much in evidence, as in Darnay’s fifteen months in prison and in the family’s passage past the barriers on their escape to England at the conclusion of the story. Although mystery surrounds many incidents in the novel, from its opening in mist and uncertainty, to Darnay’s unexplained journeys, all is eventually revealed and unravelled. Reversals of fortune are seen, meanwhile, in Darnay’s sudden acquittal from court when his remarkable likeness to Carton renders the witness unable to positively identify him, and also in Dr Manette’s return to sanity.

The theme of resurrection features strongly in the novel as the story chronicles the actions of the morally depraved and self-destructive Sydney Carton—‘The Fellow of No Delicacy’, who is finally redeemed by his love for a good woman. He himself utters the words ‘I am the resurrection and the life, saith the Lord…’ as he plans his final act of self-sacrifice. The change in Dr Manette from crazed prisoner to happy father and physician, ‘Recalled to Life’, is yet another example of resurrection, whilst Dickens’s only touch of humour in the novel, Jerry Cruncher, the resurrection man, is himself reformed, turning from the dishonesty of robbing graves to the honest occupation of digging them.

Dickens stated that his readers would learn about the characters in A Tale of Two Cities from the events of the story itself and this is especially true of Madame Defarge. She is the most memorable of a cast of characters fewer in number than in most of Dickens’s other works and, through her, Dickens illustrates the power of revenge, itself another theme of the novel. With her knitting suggestive of the weaving of the threads of Fate, she is also the symbol of Death itself, which is finally defeated by heroic love in the person of Miss Pross.

A man with a social conscience, Dickens often drew the attention of his readers to public wrongs and shames. Perhaps with his own experience of poverty in mind, in A Tale of Two Cities he particularly highlighted the grinding oppression of the poor, contrasting it vividly with the opulent, luxurious lifestyle of the rich aristocrats.

During his lifetime Dickens was a prolific novelist. Following the publication of The Pickwick Papers in 1836–7, Oliver Twist in 1837 and Nicholas Nickleby in 1838–9 he produced The Old Curiosity Shop in 1840–41, Barnaby Rudge in 1841, A Christmas Carol in 1843, Martin Chuzzlewit in 1843–44, Dombey and Son in 1846-48, and David Copperfield in 1849–50. Bleak House followed in 1852–53, Hard Times in 1854, Little Dorrit in 1855–57 and A Tale of Two Cities in 1859. Great Expectations was published in 1860–61 and Our Mutual Friend in 1864–65, whilst at the time of his death on 9th June 1870, Dickens had been working on The Mystery of Edwin Drood. His death resulted in much public mourning and he was buried in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey.

Notes by Helen Davies

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