Saturday, January 21, 2012

A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens

Interesting literary fun fact: Charles Dickens was paid by the word to write.  This was a piece of information that I remembered only after finishing A Tale of Two Cities, but it explains a lot.  I’ve been trying to read this ‘great’ piece of literary zeitgeist for the better part of two weeks, and only just finished it.  Now, that’s a long time for such a short book.  My copy only runs about 370 pages – and when I finally buckled down and forced myself to finish it, it only took a few hours.  And, for those of you who take exception to my characterization of this work as ‘great’ above, don’t take offence.  I, personally, didn’t like it all that much, but I recognize the place it has in our literary tradition.

A Tale of Two Cities is…. well, it’s a little hard to explain.  For a 370 page book, only the last 150 pages have anything remotely close to readable pacing.  The first two-thirds are a long, drawn-out, morality exercise.  I flatter myself by considering that I have more than a passing knowledge of the French Revolutionary era and the Victorian era; Dickens was writing of the first during the second.  The purpose of the French Revolution (briefly) was to over-throw the traditional society and state structure that had driven everyone but the über-wealthy into abject poverty; the Victorian era is characterized (in part) by a sense of morality that would make Mother Teresa eager to throw off the shackles of convention.  Top all that off with the book having been written in 1859 – 10 years after a series of protests that for all intents and purposes destroyed the remaining traditional-core of Europe’s power bases and 20 years after the Corn Law Repeal movement in England, which really did away with any sense of an aristocratic power-base, and what you get it a novel that reads like it’s playing to today’s 99%.  The running sentiment to the first 200 pages or so is “Woe is me, I’m poor.  The rich suck.”  Blarg.  Too preachy, too long winded, too boring.  Worse, is that, as a historian, I was able to recognize various philosophies that were at play, and Dickens was anachronistic in using them as he did.  The only thing that kept me going was knowing I HAD to post SOMETHING on this blog soon, that this was a book on my reading challenge, and that it’s a pretty big piece of our literary history.

But then…. I don’t know, at one point, it got interesting.  It seemed as though Dickens realized he couldn’t drag out the writing of this work for too long and finally put the horse to the yoke (I did start typing ‘pedal to the metal,’ then thought the metaphor to anachronistic for this review) and started developing some plot.  When the action moves away from England, and into France, the reader is treated to various character and plot developments that are engaging and touching.  I’ll admit, I was tearing-up while reading the last page, and full-out sobbing when I got to the last line.  And no, I absolutely cannot tell you what happens.  The reader can take a good guess at what the ending will actually be by the start of the third book, but Dickens pulls out all the stops and engages you through the last part of the book, and I wouldn’t want to ruin that for you.

As I mentioned above, this book is part of a reading challenge I’m taking on in 2012.  A Tale of Two Cities was put on Entertainment Weekly’s list of 20 books with the best opening lines.  And this opening line is a doozy – everyone knows some iteration of it:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
See what I mean about getting paid by the word?  A ruthless editor would have cut that line, and this book, in half – if not more.  But, the true poetry of this book?  The true literary tapestry that everyone should know?  It’s the closing line:
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.
Still wordy, but emotionally painfully, not painful in an editorial sense. 

Now, someone writing a literary analysis of this work will point out to me the on-going dichotomy themes.  Thank you, Coles Notes, but I would have to seriously dumb to not catch that.  Both the opening and closing quotes reflect those themes, but I think they are reflective of the book as a whole: the first half requires a mental machete to hack your way through; the second half is emotionally poignant and elegant.

Should you read this book?  Sure, why not?  If you can find an abridged version for books 1 and 2, all the power to you, but try to read book 3 in its entirety.  However, I know one of my high school tutoring students was assigned this as class reading.  Do. Not. Force. Children. To. Read. This. Book.  There is no surer way of turning off a reader than expecting them to get through the first 200 pages of this book.  Wait until you’re mature enough to stick to a task, and don’t have a dozen other things clamouring for your attention.  I can’t insist everyone put this on their bucket list of books to read before they die, but you should give it at try at some point, if for no other reason than to say that you’ve read it.

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