It is the best of tales, it is the worst of tales, it is for the age of foolishness, it is for the age of wisdom, it is an epic of belief, it is an epic of incredulity, it shines with Light, it shadows with Darkness, it springs with hope, it winters with despair, it gives us everything, it leaves us nothing, it goes direct to Heaven, it goes direct the other way—in short, A Tale of Two Cities is so far like the book everyone has read when they were too young to read it, that some of its noisiest authorities insist upon its being re-received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
There are no words to express how the French Revolution gathers and groans through the inimitable words of Charles Dickens. There are no words to express Dickens’ adoration of Lucie Manette, his admiration of Mr. Lorry, his amusement with Mr. Stryver, and his sympathy for Sydney Carton. There are no words but only Dickens’ words that could say Madame Defarge saw nothing as she knitted blindly in the corner while souls were selected for life or death, and yet communicate that Madame Defarge saw everything and knitted omnisciently like a fourth Fate. There are no words but those that Dickens could supply to portray the leering Marquis who trampled a child to death in the mud before going to bed, only to be pinned to it by an unseen assassin, adding another face of stone to those that leered in his ancestral architecture. There are no words but those such as Dickens and Dickens alone could wield and weave to tell of Jerry Cruncher’s “fishing trip” in a churchyard where he “fished” with a spade for an oblong box that somehow brought the comfort of vittles to his table. There are no words, no words at all, but those that Dickens could conjure up with ink, pen, and a wink to conceive that those very same vittles might ever in a hundred years be blessed clean off the table of the worthy Mr. Cruncher by the fearfully efficacious “flopping” of the suspiciously perverse yet pious Mrs. Cruncher. There are no words for the words that razed the Bastille. There are no words for the words that raised the guillotine. There are no words for the words of passion, pride, devotion, devilry, and death that pulse like blood and water and fire through the pages of this powerful and pathetic book. There are no words to put to the words of A Tale of Two Cities. They must speak for themselves.
And they have spoken. The echoing footsteps of the immortal characters that live and love and hate and die in this tale are faintly familiar to most, like half-heard, half-remembered ghosts of distant acquaintances—but the thunder that roars in recalling them to life is not always heard. A Tale of Two Cities is a book that well deserves to be recalled to life as most readers read it in days when they were not yet readers, it being, as has been said, one of those schoolhouse staples that most schoolchildren muddle their way through with some trouble. But that same book in those same hands, having grown and hardened with years, will elicit, instead of trouble, trembling. With its depth of feeling, its delight and despair, its fierce and fragile exuberance, A Tale of Two Cities is a book that every seasoned reader should read as a reader and be prepared to smile, to weep, to rage, to wonder at the heartbreak that is the beating heart of this storm of a story—a tragedy of human desperation and the bloodthirsty madness which hailed La Guillotine as a cure to people wallowing in disease and degradation.
One of the main points of difference in perspective that a re-reading affords later in life is that A Tale of Two Cities is really a tale of two citizens. One being a broken yet brave old doctor from Paris and the other being a broken yet brave young barrister from London. The tale begins with one going to prison against his will, and it ends with the other going to prison by his will. The former is a victim of evil enemies and evil times who would silence his heroic tendencies, the latter is a victim of evil inclinations and evil temptations that would silence his heroic tendencies. Neither of them fail to be heroic, but neither of them are spared the torments of love and thwarted love in the process. These two citizens embody the soul and spirit of the two cities, and also reflect inversely the two stages when their tale is typically encountered. The old doctor of Beauvais knows not what is at hand for much of the tale, while the young barrister of the Old Bailey knows precisely what is at hand as he cries, “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.”
A Tale of Two Cities is losing its voice and its volume in these days and for these many cities. The random fires of revolution yet rage and ravage in the libraries of man, and A Tale of Two Cities has been largely reduced to the drudgery of a mandatory classic that must be read in order to get it out of the way. The pall of cliché hangs all too heavily over the unworthy victims of time. The necromancy of nostalgia is all too repudiated, relegating much that is as good as gold and better to the gallows. The contempt of familiarity is all too well-bred. But that familiarity is precisely what must be challenged and charged, even as the proletariats challenged and charged the familiarity of the privileged. The result in these days and for these many cities may prove as terrific and as terrifying as it did in the year one thousand seven hundred and eighty-nine for those days and for those two cities. But to everyone is allowed the chance to find the golden thread that connects childhood to adulthood and makes all of life meaningful and memorable.
The tragedy of A Tale of Two Cities is what makes it tremendous, and it is one that becomes more sensible and poignant with years. Although children may enjoy the tale as it gallops and rears, those children who return to it once they have children of their own, will find the very soul of sacrifice and the sweet sickness of heartbreak. A Tale of Two Cities is for young and old alike, but it is not the same tale for each. It becomes a far, far better tale than it ever was, and a far, far better experience than was ever known. It is a tale that betters with age, like the wine that soaked the street outside the wine-shop of Saint Antoine. Though everyone has read A Tale of Two Cities, its power is released when everyone realizes that no one has read A Tale of Two Cities. Read it again for the first time.
Editor’s note: Pictured above is “Prise de la Bastille” painted by Jean-Pierre Houel in 1789.