I finally understand why people like Dickens. It only took me my whole life. But I got there.
Charles Dickens is one of those authors everyone has either read or feels they should read sometime. I was among the latter group for a long time. Not for lack of trying either. I attempted Hard Times I think? It was during high school, and it didn’t go well. I got a chapter into Little Dorritt, the Pickwick Papers, and Great Expectations before quitting them all. I just couldn’t do it. I finally decided I just wasn’t a Dickens person. No big deal. There were so many other books to read and enjoy.
Then I read ‘The Unlikely Escape of Uriah Heep’. In the book, which is a great romp of imagination by the way, the main character adores Dickens. He talks all the time about Dickens books and their greatness. Well, I was inspired to try again. But this time, I would research first! So I googled the shortest book Dickens wrote… Hey, I don’t have hours to spare people!
I don’t think I ended up reading his shortest book first. But ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ is one of the shorter ones, and I remembered listening to a dramatized audio version many years ago. So why not! Also, it helped that I got it at a used book sale…
I was hooked right off the bat.
Basically, the book is a chronicle of Doctor Manette and his daughters lives. He is a victim of the oppression of the French monarchy who eventually escapes to England. His daughter, Lucie, cares for him and brings him back to health after a his solitary imprisonment.
At the same time they are creating a life in England, the characters in France, notably Monsieur and Madame Defarge, are plotting a revolution amid the tyranny of the French court. Every death is fuel to their cause, and every name recorded by women who will never forgive or forget.
While the characters were interesting, I felt as though they were pale shadows on a rich backdrop of France at the cusp of a revolution. The characters did not matter as much as what they represented, a downtrodden people ready to boil over. Or an innocent hurt and killed in the terror of the Revolution.
Personally, I thought quite a few of Dickens characters to be caricatures. A couple of traits enlarged until they constituted one person. Sydney Carton, the man who loved Lucie but did not feel worthy of her, was the most rounded character of the bunch (and quite honestly my favorite).
However, what blew me away every time was the way Dickens described characters. I don’t know if I can explain it. He describes their appearance, their mannerisms, their quirks of character, in a way that shows the real person underneath. He tells us how Mr. Lorry talks so we get to know what motivates the character. He shows us Lucie’s intense look to describe how deeply she thinks through things. We are not told Sydney Carton is a good man, we see his actions that prove it to us. Through their mere outward appearance we know who they are as well as if their hearts were turned inside out for us.
In the same way, Dickens describes a place, a crowd, a feeling. He shows us the outside to explain the inside. I found myself reading the same sentences over and over again, in awe of his words. How he describes a person or a place is where I found my appreciation of Dickens. He knew how to use words to not only convey a setting, but also to convey a feeling and an idea.
Another thing I found interesting was how Dickens handled the French Revolution. First, he does not hide the fact that the French monarchy was corrupt. If you had enough money, or were born to the right family, you could do whatever you wanted. If you had neither, you scrabbled for survival. Men were locked away, killed, and stolen from in the name of selfishness and greed. The French people were oppressed, and so of course eventually enough was enough. They had to revolt, or watch their children suffer the same fate.
However, Dickens does not romanticize the Revolution after. He does not pretend that because the people were oppressed anything they did was natural and perfectly fine. Just because they had a right to revolt does not mean the way they did it was right. The French Revolution, and specifically the Reign of Terror, killed thousands of innocent people. He does not spare words to describe the French peoples cruelty and bloodlust. Guilty heads tumbled alongside innocent ones. Unnecessary blood was spilled in the name of freedom.
All this to say, I loved this book. I don’t know if I will read anymore Dickens. (They are all so long!) But I am glad I read this one. If you are new to Dickens, I would definitely suggest giving this one a try first!
Have a great day.