Tuesday, 9 March 2010

A Tale of Two Cities - Charles Dickens

For all I've read the beginning of this book at least seven times, I've only actually finished it twice.  I still love it though.  It's hard to summarize the story without retelling the whole thing.  It's really long, and it takes you from the very beginning, with Dr. Manette being "recalled to life" through the French Revolution.  It follows Dr. Manette's family and friends, including an old servant of his from before he was imprisoned.  Everything is connected, but it's not done so that things are glaringly obvious.  Minor characters in the beginning show up to play important roles in the end.  Major characters are connected with those who are only briefly mentioned having played a part of the book's history.

A portion of the book deals with the French aristocracy, their abuse of power (and everything else), their vulgarity (which is amusing in the way the word has changed meaning in the last 100 years), and the way they looked down on the common (vulgar) people as less than their dogs.  Though the commoners are starving, the Monseigneur has four men employed to feed him chocolate.  A marquis (duke, I think) catches sight of a common girl he wants and causes the death of her entire family.  Admittedly, I didn't study the French Revolution.  I know it happened, I know some details about it, but really nothing past that.  Still, that it happened makes sense.  Really what confuses me is why it took so long to happen.

Dickens really captures mankind at its worst near the end.  The revolution draws from these horrible crimes committed by the aristocracy, but once the king is taken down, once the nobles are all dead or in hiding, it doesn't stop, and the people don't seem to want it to stop.  For the sake of more bloodshed, a wife is contemplating turning in her husband for having sympathies in a completely unjust execution, even though that husband has played a key role in starting the revolution.  52 heads a day, and the people are crying for more.  Prisoners are released, cleared of their charges, and the crowds kill them anyway, or find new reasons to send the back to jail.  All in the name of freedom, even though, by the end, it seems less free than it was to begin with.

My favorite character is Sydney Carton.  He's a dead-look-alike for Charles Darnay, a marquis making his own living in London teaching French language and literature, but they couldn't be more different.  Lucie, Dr. Manette's daughter, marries Charles, and, at least I think, Sydney idealizes the family.  He spends days there, just sitting.  He specifically asks Charles's permission to, when he feels the need, just enter the house and be with them, and just knowing that he's permitted to do that helps him get by.  His life isn't particularly bad.  He's some kind of assistant to a lawyer, who, while being his friend also manages to get ahead of him at every turn.  We know he's hurting, and there are a few brief hints as to why, but it never comes out and says it.  Sydney believes his life is wasted and that the only good part of his life is Dr. Manette's household.  When Charles is arrested in Paris (crime being an emigrant, and also being part of the marquis's family who was particularly nasty to the family of one of the influential players in the revolution), Sydney follows the family and does what he can to save Charles... which is a really lame way of putting it, but if you haven't read it I really want you to and I don't want to spoil the ending!

It's not an easy book to read.  I tried about five times before I managed to read the whole thing through in high school (granted, I started when I was eleven...).  This time around, the edition I got on my reader (free Sony CLASSICS=suck) had typos, wrong words, and punctuation errors everywhere, so sometimes I had to go back and reread sentences before I could figure out what was supposed to be said.  Still, even without that, the first book, "Recalled to Life," is incredibly dry.  The second is better, and by the third, well I stayed up reading until 1AM even though I knew the ending.

I love his language.  I love how it sounds in my head, even if I probably couldn't read it out loud smoothly to save my life.  And the way everything ties together, the little things you'd forgotten about in the beginning, because they just seemed like scenery at the time, just dazzles me.  And I seriously love Sydney, and I love (and hate) the ending.

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