“Troubled as the future was, it was the unknown future, and in its obscurity there was an ignorant hope.” (259). Charles Dicken’s A Tale of Two Cities begins its tale in the year one thousand, seven hundred, and seventy-five—the best of times, and the worst—as it is famously known. The story starts before the French revolution, when the idea of change is growing. It follows a French doctor, wrongfully imprisoned 18 years before for witnessing something he shouldn’t have. His daughter, Lucie Manette, finds him in Paris after his release, and they go to England together. Haunted by the shadows of his past, Dr. Manette desperately tries to suppress them. Six years later, his daughter marries a French marquis who had renounced his title, and who is also trying to cast away his past. By this time, 18 years after the book began, the French revolution was at its most horrific.
To start, the chapter titles in this book are very fun. They connect, they lead up to things, and help carry a topic. One of my favorites is the “Knitting,” “Still Knitting,” and “The Knitting Done,” chapter names. These chapters mostly follow Madame Defarge, the wife of a wine-shop owner who helped put the first momentum into the revolutionary uprising. The chapter names follow the idea of knitting because Madame Defarge is always knitting, or brewing hatred. In “Knitting,” Monsieur Defarge consults his comrades about the death of an aristocrat that they were involved in. During “Still Knitting,” monsieur talks to his wife about the revolution. Madame Defarge gives good advice about waiting for the right time to strike. She says, “It does not take a long time. . . for an earthquake to swallow a town. Eh Well! Tell me how long it takes to prepare the earthquake?” (180). She’s saying that the change that they want won’t happen overnight. It takes time, patience, and planning. Yet, it is interesting because the French revolution does seem to happen almost overnight. This conversation reminds me of Mrs. Lovatt from Sweeney Todd telling Sweeney to wait for his revenge. Mrs. Lovatt says, “Don’t you know, silly man/half the fun is to plan the plan.” These characters are very similar in that they seem like docile, ordinary ladies, who bake and knit, until stirred with meaning. It is interesting how these outwardly different people, one English, and one French, can both be roused so effectively by their need for vengeance as to become cold-hearted killers. This shows that revenge is a powerful motivator, no matter who you are or where you live. Appearances often hide unknown vigor. The book says, “Madame’s resolute right hand was occupied with an axe, in place of the usual softer implements, and in her girdle were a pistol and a cruel knife.” (217). She carries these weapons with her throughout the whole book, just like how she carries her hatred for aristocrats throughout the whole book. It just goes to show that when someone is passionate about something, like Madame Defarge is about revenge on the class of people who hurt her, people are capable of almost any wild transformation. She always did say that knitting was just to bide the time. Madame Defarge, and all the other Paris women who would knit, were just waiting for the right time to strike.
To add on, the two cities of this book are Paris and London. While Paris was still planning revolution, there was still a whole cast of characters in England. Lucie and her father, Doctor Manette, were French-born, and so was Lucie’s husband, “Charles Evremonde, called Darnay.” It is important to mention that Lucie and her husband first met when he was on trial for being a French spy. Sydney Carton, Mr. Darnay’s look-alike and defense council, got him out of a brutal sentence. This is really amazing foreshadowing, because almost 200 pages– and 20 years later, Charles Darnay is back on trial, this time in France, and is once again saved by the innocent Sydney Carton. Sydney is a really interesting character, mostly because although he isn’t talked about so much, he does an awful lot for Lucie and Charles Darnay. What happened was that Mr. Darnay was put in prison for a year on the charges of “being an emigrant,” in France. When he was brought to trial, it was only by the good reputation of Doctor Manette that he was set free. The relief that a reader feels when he is finally out of prison is astounding. This is because Charles and Lucie are the type of characters that are so wholesomely good, that you are always on their side, and want the best for them. Maybe that is why Sydney gives his whole life to them. Accordingly, when a few pages later, and barely 2 hours later in the book, Mr. Darnay is arrested again, your heart as good as breaks. This time, he is on trial for a crime that his father committed, and on evidence that his father-in-law provided unwillingly. This is an amazing example of how Charles Dickens ties all of his characters together, and in ways you would never expect. It is so because Doctor Manette was originally thrown in jail so that he couldn’t testify against Charles’s father about a wrong done to the family of the now-bloodthirsty Madame Defarge. What’s best is that none of them knew how they were connected. Isn’t it crazy how so many people can be so horribly affected by one evil deed? And it’s an amazing twist of fate that they would all be thrown together again more than 40 years later for the final act of justice. It’s interesting how nobody guilty is ever really punished. Charles’s mother had said wisely at the time of the crime four decades ago, “I have a presentiment that if no other innocent atonement is made for this, it will one day be required of [Charles].” (336). She was right. And now, even after the original offender was dead, someone else would have to pay.
Last, only after reading this book will the reader really understand why the Reign of Terror was called such. It was terrifying. There were several times in the book that actually makes the reader feel disturbed and unsettled. For instance, Charles Dickens describes a dancing mob that ran through the streets and said, “There could not be fewer than five hundred people, and they were dancing like five hundred demons. . .They danced to the popular Revolution song, keeping a ferocious time that was like a gnashing of teeth in unison. They advanced, retreated, struck at one another’s hands, clutched at one another’s heads, spun round alone, caught one another and spun round in pairs, until many of them dropped.” (283). This quote gives off an essence of madness. Lucie, who witnessed it, was definitely struck back in horror. It shows the pure raging energy of the French people, and is one of the scariest things to be found in the book. The French people were so suppressed, and for so long, that when the time finally came to get some payback, they couldn’t handle it. Their emotions ran too high, and they ended up bathing the city in blood. It is like how Madame Defarge wanted revenge so badly that “It was nothing to her, that an innocent man was to die for the sins of his forefathers. . . that his wife was to be made a widow and his daughter an orphan. . .” (367). She didn’t care who died or if they deserved it! She only cared about taking what she felt to be hers. This must be what many other Frenchmen and women were feeling as well. Charles Dickens often calls the revolution a fever. Page 351 states, “Physical diseases, engendered in the vices and neglects of men, will seize on victims of all degrees; and the frightful moral disorder, born of unspeakable suffering, intolerable oppression, and heartless indifference, smote equally without distinction.” This quote illustrates how the people in Paris felt. They felt sick, overcome with a fever they never knew they could feel until then, and were swept away by it. They were lost in a powerful blur, as if in a real illness. Everyone caught it, and felt it keenly. In the chapter “The Knitting Done,” Madame Defarge meets her end. She died just as angry and vengeful and malign as she was during her life. Long, long before the revolution, Madame Defarge had been smitten with the fever.
All in all, not only is this A Tale of Two Cities, but it is also a tale of revenge. It is a tale about how the past never really dies. There are always people who are affected by your actions, and you never know when they will come back to bite you. Most importantly, it is a tale about people who would do the craziest things for reasons even they might not understand. This book should be recommended to anyone who likes a good story with surprising twists, and subtle suspense. “And all of us have like wonders hidden in our breasts, only needing circumstances to evoke them.” (287).
- Dickens, Charles. A Tale of Two Cities. Bantam Classics, 2003.
- Sondheim, Stephen, and Angela Lansbury. “‘Wait.’” Highlights from Sweeney Todd, RCA Red Seal.