Thursday, June 11, 2009

90. A Tale of Two Cities – Charles Dickens

September 2007
History: Written in 1859, and published in installments. The book is a state-of-the-nation novel, which aimed to highlight the social and economic pressures that some people were experiencing.
Plot: It is 1775. Jarvis Lorry, an employee of Tellson's Bank, is traveling from England to France to bring Dr. Alexandre Manette to London. At Dover, before crossing to France, he meets seventeen-year-old Lucie Manette and reveals to her that her father, Dr. Manette, is not really dead (as she had been told) but has been a prisoner in the Bastille for the last 18 years. Lorry and Lucie travel to Saint Antoine, a suburb of Paris, where they meet the Defarges. Monsieur Ernest and Madame Therese Defarge own a wine shop. They also (secretly) lead a band of revolutionaries. Monsieur Defarge (who was Dr. Manette's servant before Manette's imprisonment, and now has care of him) takes them to see Dr. Manette. Manette has withdrawn from reality due to the horror of his imprisonment. He sits in a dark room all day making shoes, a trade he had learned whilst imprisoned. At first he does not know his daughter, but eventually recognizes her through her long golden of hair.
It is now 1780. French emigrant Charles Darnay is being tried at the Old Bailey for treason. Two British spies, are trying to frame the innocent Darnay for their own gain. They claim that Darnay, a Frenchman, gave information about British troops in North America to the French. Darnay is acquitted when a witness who claims he would be able to recognise Darnay anywhere is unable to tell Darnay apart from one of the barristers defending Darnay, Sydney Carton, who just happens to look almost identical to him.
In Paris, the Marquis St. Evrémonde (Monseigneur), Darnay's uncle, runs over and kills the son of the peasant Gaspard; he throws a coin to Gaspard to compensate him for his loss. Monsieur Defarge comforts Gaspard. As the Marquis's coach drives off, Defarge throws the coin back into the coach, enraging the Marquis.
Arriving at his château, the Marquis meets with his nephew: Charles Darnay. They argue: Darnay has sympathy for the peasantry, but the Marquis is cruel and heartless.
That night, Gaspard (who has followed the Marquis to his château, hanging under his coach) murders the Marquis in his sleep.
In London, Darnay gets Dr. Manette's permission to wed Lucie. But Carton confesses his love to Lucie as well. Knowing she will not love him in return, Carton promises to sacrifice for her. On the morning of the marriage, Darnay, at Dr. Manette's request, reveals who his family is, a detail which Dr. Manette had asked him to withhold until then. This unhinges Dr. Manette, who reverts to his obsessive shoemaking. His sanity is restored before Lucie returns from her honeymoon; to prevent a further relapse, Lorry destroys the shoemaking bench, which Dr. Manette had brought with him from Paris.
It is July 14, 1789. The Defarges help to lead the storming of the Bastille. Defarge enters Dr. Manette's former cell, "One Hundred and Five, North Tower".
In the summer of 1792, a letter reaches Tellson's bank. Mr. Lorry, who is planning to go to Paris to save the French branch of Tellson's, announces that the letter is addressed to Evrémonde. The letter turns out to be from Gabelle, a servant of the former Marquis. Gabelle has been imprisoned, and begs the new Marquis to come to his aid. Darnay, who feels guilty, leaves for Paris to help Gabelle without disclosing his true identity.
In France, Darnay is denounced for emigrating from France, and imprisoned in La Force Prison in Paris. Dr. Manette and Lucie come to Paris and meet Mr. Lorry to try to free Darnay. A year and three months pass, and Darnay is finally tried.
Dr. Manette, who is seen as a hero for his imprisonment in the hated Bastille, is able to get him released. But that very same evening Darnay is again arrested, and is put on trial again the next day, under new charges brought by the Defarges and one "unnamed other". We soon discover that this other is Dr. Manette, through the testimony of his statement (his own account of his imprisonment, written shortly after he was taken to the Bastille); Manette does not know that his statement has been found, and is horrified when his words are used to condemn Darnay.
Darnay is confronted at the tribunal by Monsieur Defarge, who identifies Darnay as the Marquis St. Evrémonde and reads the letter Dr. Manette had hidden in his cell in the Bastille. The letter describes how Dr. Manette was locked away in the Bastille by the deceased Marquis Evrémonde (Darnay's father) and his twin brother (who held the title of Marquis when we met him earlier in the book, and is the Marquis who was killed by Gaspard; Darnay's uncle) for trying to report their crimes against a peasant family. The younger brother had become infatuated with a girl. He had kidnapped and raped her and killed her husband, the knowledge of which killed her father, and her brother died in the act of fighting to protect her honor. Prior to his death, the brother of the raped peasant had hidden the last member of the family, his younger sister, "somewhere safe". The paper concludes by condemning the Evrémondes, "them and their descendants, to the last of their race". Dr. Manette is horrified, but his protests are ignored—he is not allowed to take back his condemnation. Darnay is sent to the Conciergerie and sentenced to be guillotined the next day.
The next morning, when Dr. Manette returns shattered after having spent the previous night in numerous failed attempts to save Charles' life, he reverts to his obsessive shoemaking. Carton urges Lorry to flee Paris with Lucie, her father and "Little Lucie".
That same morning Carton visits Darnay in prison. Carton drugs Darnay, and Barsad (whom Carton is blackmailing) has Darnay carried out of the prison. Carton—who looks so similar to Darnay that a witness at Darnay's trial in England could not tell them apart—has decided to pretend to be Darnay, and to be executed in his place. He does this out of love for Lucie, recalling his earlier promise to her. Following Carton's earlier instructions, Darnay's family and Lorry flee Paris and France with an unconscious man in their coach who carries Carton's identification papers, but is actually Darnay.
Meanwhile Madame Defarge, armed with a pistol, goes to the residence of Lucie's family, hoping to catch them mourning for Darnay (since it was illegal to sympathise with or mourn for an enemy of the Republic); however, Lucie, her child, Dr. Manette and Mr. Lorry are already gone. To give them time to escape, Miss Pross confronts Madame Defarge and they struggle. In the fight, Madame Defarge's pistol goes off, killing her; the noise of the shot and the shock of Madame Defarge's death cause Miss Pross to go permanently deaf.
The novel concludes with the guillotining of Sydney Carton. Carton's unspoken last thoughts are "prophetic" (that is, they come to pass): Carton foresees that many of the revolutionaries, including Defarge and Barsad, will be sent to the guillotine themselves, and that Darnay and Lucie will have a son whom they will name after Carton: a son who will fulfill all the promise that Carton wasted.
Review: Now I love Dickens but this wasn’t my cup of tea at all. What I really love is the amazing characters he creates. This book disappointed in that respect. I also found the plot a little tame too, entirely predictable and all in all I was desperate for the end after about halfway when I realised that nothing major was really going to happen. Dickens is known for his superb descriptions of London life and his own surroundings. By branching out into France and revolutionary Paris, he made a bold departure. But after one of the most memorable and famous first lines in the history of English literature, it was ultimately a departure not just from his normal subject matter but also from his singular storytelling style, despite the ending.
Opening Line: “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. 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.”
Quotes: “The wind is rushing after us, and the clouds are flying after us, and the moon is plunging after us, and the whole wild night is in pursuit of us; but, so far we are pursued by nothing else.”
Rating: okay

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