Although the first book sets up connections between characters and eventual plot developments, and sets the scenes in London and Paris before the French revolution, Charles Dickens’s “A Tale of Two Cities” starts off a little slow, veering inadvertently into socio-political commentary. Even so, the commentary is not entirely detached from the story, since characters and their actions reflect the circumstances of the period – “the best of times”, “the worst of times” – such as Marquis St. Evrémonde, in this first book, when he shows no remorse when his carriage runs over a little child, when he dismisses the grieving father with a gold coin, and when he is eventually stabbed in his bed. Details of his sordid past and crimes are later revealed, with grave, unintended consequences.
This element of foreshadowing – primarily for the imminent revolution in France, but also in the actions and the fate of characters – was only appreciated in hindsight. One of most significant was the spilling of red wine outside Ernest Defarge’s wine shop, where in the first book: “It had stained many hands, too, and many face, and many naked feet, and many wooden shoes … The time was to come, when that wine too [blood] would be spilled on the street-stones, and when the stain of it would be red upon many there”. And in the second book, “the breaking of the cask at Defarge’s wine-shop door” was alluded to, when the Defarges help to lead the storming of the Bastille. Others include the relationships between the Defarges and the Manettes and the knitting of Therese Defarge
And in the second and third book, the action really picks up. Unexpectedly, furthermore, it is the depressed Sydney Carton who is at the centre, and who delivers two of the best exchanges in the novel:
“Are you dying for him?” she whispered.
“And his wife and child. Hush! Yes.”
“O will you let me hold your brave hand, stranger?”
“Hush! Yes, my poor sister; to the last.”
“I see a beautiful city and a brilliant people rising from this abyss, and, in their struggles to be truly free, in their triumphs and defeats, through long years to come, I see the evil of this time and of the previous time of which this is the natural birth, gradually making expiation for itself and wearing out …
It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”
Some may lament the rushed climax and conclusion, especially vis-à-vis the slow, deliberate beginning, and perhaps also the need for deeper character development between books two and three. The inevitable role of Carton, who develops an unrequited love for Lucie Manette and who says he would do anything for her and her loved ones, might have been too obvious as well. Yet the final chapters – the very last, in particular – are beautifully written, and not only ties up the loose-ends of the characters, but also gives a balanced assessment of the revolutionary fervour, despite its violence and unfairness. “A Tale of Two Cities” was, in this vein, an engaging and meaningful read.