“So does a whole world, with all it`s greatness and littleness, lie in a twinkling star. And as mere human knowledge can split a ray of light and analyse the matter of it`s composition, so, sublimer intelligences may read in the feeble shining of this earth of ours, every thought and act, every vice and virtue, of every possible creature on it.”
A Tale of Two Cities is probably one of the most accessible novels by Charles Dickens; he is not campaigning for a better, more just society, to reach down and lift the poor and weak out of the gutter, or shining the light of moral righteousness upon political, religious and social evils. He is writing an adventure story of people caught up in the upheaval of big ideas being put into practice in a revolutionary Paris poisoned by paranoia; small, personal stories helplessly thrown into the churning mix of huge, bloody social change. No one is left untouched by the whirlwind which is about to engulf them all in it`s ravenous maw……….The Great Terror has come to town, and it`s hearty appetite needs to be fed…….
“We`ll write blood across the face of this whole nation.”
The novel glows with sublime prose, every page seems to have a memorable quote; this is Dickens on holiday from his social crusade, and loving it. As always, Dickens engages the reader emotionally with his characters by sympathetic identification with them…..The Crunchers, the Manettes, the Defarges, Sydney Carton and Charles Darnay are our eyes and ears in this tale told against the backdrop of great historic events, but never an historic character do we hear from; Dickens distrusted the revolutionary idealism of a Robespierre or a Marat; he preferred to weave his tale through the reflection of imaginary lives to give us a personal story, not an historical one.
“That, they never could lay their heads upon their pillows; that, they could never tolerate the idea of their wives laying their heads upon their pillows; that, they could never endure the notion of their children laying their heads upon their pillows; in short, that there never more could be, for them or theirs, any laying of heads upon pillows at all, unless the prisoner`s head was taken off.”
We are left in no doubt where the author`s sympathies lay, he would not allow his story to be hi-jacked by the high priest of Terror, Jean-Paul Marat justifying his monstrous actions in the name of Liberty. So we follow Sydney Carton, a man who has wasted his life searching for personal redemption, and the son of a deceased French Marquis, Charles Darnay who is drawn into the revolutionary maelstrom in an attempt to save a former servant.
The novel is about the human spirit, distorted and perverted by systems which produces the distortion of dictatorship, an anvil upon which the human spirit is crushed; because individuality is the enemy of totalitarianism of all shades, and must be eradicated at all costs. And so the Terror is born, the bastard child of a moral perversion which has itself been distorted from it`s original aim of universal freedom from the tyranny of the aristocracy.
Against this historical backdrop Dickens weaves his tale of ordinary people thinking extraordinary thoughts, and doing extraordinary things; for everyone has within themselves the capacity to rise above the mundane and become and do something extraordinary given the right circumstances. Dickens` inspiration for the novel largely came from reading Thomas Carlyle`s The French Revolution: A History, which had at it`s heart the revolution as an elemental, primal explosion of human emotion having been pushed too far. When people are reduced to eating grass while the rich eat off of silver plates, and a loaf of bread is worth more than a human life, there is a moment when there is no further step back.
Circumstances finally allow Sydney Carton to find meaning, direction and a purpose to his life by ending it to save others; his quest for personal redemption easily makes Carton a more interesting figure than Darnay and his beatific wife, and provides us with one of the greatest, and most moving closing speeches in literature.
“I see the lives for which I lay down my life, peaceful, useful, prosperous and happy, in that England which I shall see no more. I see her with a child upon her bosom, who bears my name. I see her father, aged and bent, but otherwise restored, and faithful to all men in his healing office, and at peace. I see the good old man, so long their friend, in ten years` time enriching them with all he has, and passing tranquilly to his reward.
“I see that I hold sanctuary in their hearts, and in the hearts of their descendants, generations hence. I see her, an old woman weeping for me on the anniversary of this day. I see her and her husband, their course done, lying side by side in their last earthly bed, and I know that each was not more honoured and held sacred in the other`s soul, than I was in the souls of both.
“I see that child who lay upon her bosom and who bore my name, a man winning his way up in the path of life which once was mine. I see him winning it so well, that my name is made illustrious there by the light of his. I see the blots I threw upon it, faded away. I see him, foremost of judges and honoured men, bringing a boy of my name, with a forehead I know and golden hair, to this place–then fair to look upon, with not a trace of this day`s disfigurement–and I hear him tell the child my story, with a tender and faltering voice.
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.”
Each time Darnay is threatened by the revolutionary authorities, the Englishman Carton is on hand to rescue his alter-ego, so that he might live another day. Although the novel is shared between the two cities of the title, London and Paris, it is towards the revolutionary inferno of Paris that the novel slowly begins to pull itself, as respect for order and common humanity collapse under the crushing weight of Madame Guillotine`s insatiable appetites. As in all of Dickens, there is contrived coincidence and lip smacking melodrama to speed the plot along, but there is also a profound concern for the decency of humanity; even in a satanic hellhole run by blood crazed killers, feeding their murder lust under cover of acting for the public interest of Liberty and freedom from tyranny, there is a spark of the innate goodness within the human spirit.
At the moment of death, Sydney Carton finds his purpose in life; to help others, and from personal redemption he finds his soul. A wasted life had found true meaning at it`s end.
All the teeming life of Dickensian invention can be found within A Tale of Two Cities, exuberant, acute in it`s observations, descriptively outrageous and colourful, it`s a book that has a mighty, beating heart at it`s centre. A heart which beats for human survival against the odds and the triumph of the individual`s spirit. The right to be different, to buck the trend, to be human and not an animalistic cog in the machine.
“Nothing that we do, is done in vain. I believe, with all my soul, that we shall see triumph.”