It’s been days now since I finished Tale of Two Cities, but still having a hard time shaking it. The opening of the book – “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times …” foreshadows up the conundrum to come – how can a story of so much horror also be a story of so much love, nobility, and self-sacrifice?
I postponed reading the book much longer than I should have because, frankly, I worried for my emotional well-being. Having barely survived the death of Little Nell, I wasn’t sure I had the intestinal fortitude to handle a Dickens novel set during the horrors of the French Revolution. The inescapable irony, of course, is that great love/nobility/sacrifice can only exist in the midst of horror. And so it is in this riveting, heartwarming/heartbreaking tale of (with apologies to The Princess Bride) “true love” in all its forms – selfish, platonic, filial, romantic, unrequited.
As I expect most folks already know, the tale centers around a triumvirate of characters – the beautiful, virtuous Lucie Manett, her psychologically fragile old father Doctor Manette, and Charles Darney, an honorable young French nobleman who has moved to England in order to renounce any association with the atrocities of the Revolution. And since this is Dickens, they are kept company by a bakers dozen other brilliantly imagined and realized characters, from the coarse but faithful Crusher to the stolid-businessman-with-a-heart-of-gold Lorry, from the ambitious French revolutionary DeFarge to his ghastly wife Madame DeFarge, from self-aggrandizing lawyer Stryver to perhaps one of Dickens’ most tragic characters, the self-destructive university student Sidney Carton.
Inevitably, our young lovers Charles and Lucie end up in the hands of the Revolution, whereupon I headed for the tissue box, foreseeing the tragic end. But because this is Dickens (again), I should have expected that the tragedy would be a complex thing: that heroes would turn out to be flawed, that villains would turn out to be less heartlessly villainous as they may at first have appeared, and that otherwise ordinary people would turn out to be capable of extraordinary acts of courage and sacrifice. As in many other Dickens novels, the author doesn’t shy away from realistically portraying the cruelty and brutality of which human society is capable. Some of the people and scenes depicted in this tale are simply appalling. And yet, somehow, Dickens always manages to pilot us through the morass to a place where human decency ends up triumphing over all the obstacles set against it.
Am not sure why Sidney Carton doesn’t get the press that other literary greats – Gatsby, Ahab, Heathcliff, Atticus Finch, etc. – have garnered, because I feel like he more than deserves a spot in the pantheon. Be that as it may, he’s definitely earned a spot in my list of great characters in literature, and whether or not he’s enjoying the far, far better rest he wholeheartedly deserves, I know I’m a far better and richer person for having met him and for allowing Dickens, once again, to whisk me away on an unforgettable journey