Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities is full of dark Victorian romance. Muddy roads on a dark night. A secluded house on a corner that echoes footsteps. Cemetaries at night. And, of course, Paris streets that run with wine and then blood because of La Guillotine. It is a sinister world for the upper class, yet Dickens also manages to capture a sweet side of horror of the French Revolution by giving us some memorable characters that think of others. Truly, his novel is appropriately described in the first phrases:
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”
Why, then, did I struggle so much in reading it?
In October, after reading a few novels by Gaskell , Collins, and Dickens, I picked up Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. Eventually, though, I decided that I just couldn’t get into yet another Victorian novel, so I set it aside after about 100 pages. This month, I was determined to get through it, so I began again. Yet, the first 100 pages still almost derailed me. Once again, I was bored. I was confused by the sheer number of characters introduced. I felt confused because of my ignorance about the French Revolution.
What was different this time? Why did I not give up? The first reason is completely superficial: The book I checked out from the library was a brand new copy. It had a crisp paperback cover and the pages were newly printed, with a strong “new book smell.” I’ve been reading lots of books with old covers lately, and that new book just kept calling to me from my library loot pile.
The main reason I was able to get through the novel, though, was I kept reading. I forced myself, and I gave myself plenty of time to dedicate to the task. After the initial hump, I was engaged in the story. To balance my lack of understanding of the French Revolution, I referred to the timeline at the front of my copy, which highlighted both the actual history of the Revolution and the novel’s story as it progressed. By the end of the novel, I was sincerely interested in the story, and I felt emotional engaged when it ended.
Was Dickens at all to blame in my overall disinterest in A Tale of Two Cities? I don’t think so. I fully accept that my lack of engagement in the novel was mostly my fault. I am not normally interested in dark and sinister stories, and the imagery in the beginning section really did not bring me in to the novel; in fact, it kind of made me shiver, exactly the wrong reaction needed for me to enjoy a novel. I also was ignorant of even a basic outline of the French Revolution, an issue Dickens’ original readers would not have had, since they lived just 60-70 years after it.
Ultimately, what finally did bring me in to the novel was the human interest: the characterization. Once I understood how all the different characters fit together, I found myself engaged in the novel. In the end, my favorite character was Miss Pross, who turns out to be more important than we realize at first.
In the end, I found A Tale of Two Cities far superior to Oliver Twist. No, I didn’t enjoy it as much; it was a difficult and somewhat uncomfortable read for me. But Dickens’ craft is far more refined in Two Cities than in Oliver. He seems to have a wide vision of the story from the beginning, unlike Oliver Twist which just seemed to go whereever Dickens wanted, with some nice convenient plot twists. Dickens held his focus in Two Cities from beginning to end, in ways that Oliver Twist did not. It was a superior novel, but not my favorite of the two.
What was the last book you finished that you knew was well done but you just did not like it?
What is your favorite Dickens novel?