A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

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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?

Reviewed on February 25, 2010

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  • Well, I didn’t FINISH it, but I read over half and gave up Love in the Time of Cholera the other day. I know it’s well done and a very important book and yet I just couldn’t read it any further.

    Periodically I find classics that are well done and important and that I just don’t enjoy. Like Madame Bovary, for instance. I hated that book as I read, but I kept going, and afterwards studying it and why it was important was actually an interesting experience. But I wouldn’t read it again if you paid me.

  • I *loved* Tale of Two Cities, and I still think about Sydney’s final act and the young girl before him. I’m going to have to read it again someday, because it took my a while to get into it and I know I missed things that I would now appreciate much more.

    .-= Lezlie´s last post on blog ..I Couldn’t Resist Sharing This =-.

  • I tried to read Tale of Two Cities a number of years ago and got bogged down after the first 20 pages and never finished it. My husband had the same problem. But then he tried again and ended up loving it. I have yet to try again but he keeps urging me to. One of these days!
    .-= Stefanie´s last post on blog ..Lists and Free E-Books =-.

  • I still have my mom’s old high school copy of this one. It has been well thumbed. 😉 I need to get back to the Dickens I started and put aside for review books. His large novels are such a delight to sink into and just absorb through your pores for days and days.
    .-= Kristen´s last post on blog ..New exercise…in futility =-.

  • I also thought A Tale of Two Cities very refined, compared to his two others that I’ve read (Great Exp. and David C.) but it was the one I found the least enjoyable. My fave is Great Expectations.. looooved it.
    .-= claire´s last post on blog ..Tar Baby =-.

  • The Great Gatsby. Part of me loathes it and the other appreciates it. Also, I didn’t enjoy Love in the Time of Cholera but it is beautifully written (and I want to curl up and fall asleep in GGM’s writing); it was disappointing because I have loved everything else I have read of his.

    Bleak House and Great Expectations are my favourite Dickens’ novels; A Tale of Two Cities never appealed to me. David Copperfield is also very good.
    .-= Claire (Paperback_Reader)´s last post on blog ..The Girl With Glass Feet =-.

  • This has been the year where I am really attempting to read books that enrich me and that I find fulfilling as I read. Consequently, I’ve stopped reading a few partway through because they just weren’t doing it for me… such as Great Expectations! 😀

    I’m not sure that I have it in me to force myself through 100 pages of a book, although I suppose in some sense I did that with A Hero of Our Time… Still, I’m glad to hear that you did find some redeeming elements to the book in the end. Personally, I’m still batting zero when it comes to Dickens, and I have no idea if that will ever change!
    .-= Steph´s last post on blog ..“American Rust” by Philipp Meyer =-.

  • What was the last book you finished that you knew was well done but you just did not like it?

    That would be Sebald’s “Austerlitz”. I admire it and think it extremely well done. I love the fact that he did not go for an easy, happy ending. But…it did nothing for me. I finished it, thought about writing a post on it but could not come up with anything. I kept saying I would come back it and say something, anything. At some point I realized it just didn’t strike a chord or even a single note within me.

    As far as Dickens, that is an area I am sadly lacking. What little bit of him I had to read in school turned me off…something I definitely need to revisit and re-evaluate.
    .-= Chrees´s last post on blog ..Friday dreaming =-.

  • I’m smiling as I type because I know what you mean about brand-new books — I love the sparkly shiny ones. And I’m also writing my review of Oliver Twist, so I had to go back and read yours. I agree a lot with what you wrote, but I still love Oliver Twist — I think it’s close second for me, just behind Bleak House, which is still my favorite. It is so interesting to see Dickens’ progression as a writer — his later books are so much more complex and well-plotted. OT is good but I think he was making it up as he went along. I do like A Tale of Two Cities but it’s not my favorite Dickens. Besides Sydney and Miss Pross, I’m not that fond of the characters — Lucie is so bland!

    When I read AToTC, I was also listening to the audiobook in the car, which I think really helped. The narrator was excellent and it really helped me slow down and pay attention to the writing, which is really excellent.

    The last “good” book I read that I didn’t really like was Native Son by Richard Wright. An imporant book, absorbing, but it was also painful because of the subject. I still feel kind of icky thinking about it.
    .-= Karenlibrarian´s last post on blog ..The Face of a Stranger by Anne Perry =-.

  • Hi Rebecca! I really love this space you’ve created I’m really a book lover but I have a little trouble, it’s hard for me to organize myself to read all the things I want to but since I knew your blog I truly believe that it is possible to get time. Now here is my question, how do you do that? what’s your method to read a lot? please some advices would help me, I want to read more and use de computer less =) Greetings!

  • A Tale of Two Cities is my least favorite Dickens I’ve read, actually, so maybe it’s not just you. I don’t know why it’s the one high school students are always made to read; I think the characterization is FAR less well-done than Great Expectations, it’s not funny like Dickens’s lighter works, it involves all the French Revolution stuff, and it’s not like it’s particularly short. I think it’s just because of that famous first paragraph, honestly. I liked the paragraph but strongly disliked the book. Turned me off of Dickens for years.
    .-= Emily´s last post on blog ..Essay Mondays: Stevenson =-.

  • Books of Charles Dickens are all great. Most people love it.
    We love all his books to, but for this “A Tale of Two Cities”, we were also not done reading this yet but we do have a copy of it.

    Great post!

  • My favorite Dickens is Bleak House. It’s totally unrealistic, but I adore it! I started A Tale of Two Cities for a book club last year, but the club was disbanded after I’d read only 50 pages (not because of the book, but because it was a work book club and we had layoffs right after we started and people couldn’t continue the club). I do intend to restart and finish it at some point, but I had so much trouble getting into it. It was completely un-Dickensian to me. I kept thinking, “where are the characters?” Then they appear, but it just seemed off to me.
    And the last book I finished that I knew was well done that I didn’t like was To the Lighthouse. It’s just not my style. I could appreciate the language and style, but I just didn’t enjoy it.
    .-= Lindsey´s last post on blog ..Missing in Action =-.

  • Dickens is so polarizing that sometimes it’s amusing. I’m so impressed that you really stuck with a book you weren’t enjoying! I’m not so good at that, so it’s a little difficult to answer the question about the last book I read that I knew was well written but that I didn’t enjoy. I think (this is terrible considering the upcoming Classics Circuit) that I may say Zola’s Nana. I read it all the way through because I had a book club about it, but some parts of it really annoyed me. Fortunately, of course, I then read Zola’s The Masterpiece and loved it.
    I can however, think of lots of books that I knew were great literature that I just couldn’t get into that I’ve set aside for another time.

  • I had a hard time coming up with a book I felt was well done yet I did not enjoy–one that I had actually finished that is. At this point in my life I have too many books that I have a strong desire to read, so if I’m not enjoying a book, I stop reading it no matter how important it is thought to be. As for Dickens–although I love movies based on his books, and in spite of being an experienced reader of classics, I have never been able to read him. At one point I read the first 10 pages of “A Tale of Two Cities” and thought “what exactly did I just read?” I never went back. My daugher’s English teacher says most people have to give a Dickens book a bit of time. He said the characters need to have an opportunity to stew. I guess I haven’t had the patience.

  • Amanda, I feel that way with Dracula: no one could pay me to revisit it. Of course, that wasn’t well written…

    Lezlie, yes, the ending was touching. But I never really felt CONNECTED with the characters before that. I felt I was looking at them from a distance. Did you get drawn into the characters before the events made it “touching”?

    WordLily, It may have been your comments earlier that encouraged me to try again!

    Stefanie, the beginning IS a drag. I can’t say if you’d enjoy it, but I did find it worthwhile reading in the end.

    Kristen, I have yet to read one of Dicken’s large novels. Which are you reading now?

    claire, I’ll have to try that one. I hear good things about it from lots of people. (Minus those that hate it, of course…)

    Claire (paperback reader), I remember enjoying The Great Gatsby in high school. I should revisit and see what I think now! Thanks for listing your favorites.

    Melissa, thanks for listing your favorites. I have so many to read, and it seems everyone has a different favorite!

    Steph, I guess there are some authors that just don’t work for us, huh!

    Aarti, I didn’t LOVE it, but I’m glad I finished it! There is something sweet about it, but the characters weren’t as engaging for me. If you like the French Revolution, that would be a big plus for this one!

    Eva, I’d be curious to see if you still liked it.

    Chrees, I tend to avoid stories of the Holocaust. That’s really too bad that after all of it, you had nothing to say in response!

    Karen, I’m with you on Oliver Twist being made up as he went along! I could really tell in this one, on the other hand, that it was carefully plotted before he began. I look forward to reading more Dickens so I can better place his novels in his development as a writer!

    Larizza, I read instead of watching tv or movies for one thing. I’m a stay-at-home mom, so once my son’s needs are taken care of and if my husband is out of town (most nights), I get an hour or two in after my days chores and work are done! But really, reading is a habit for me. A book is normally by my side as I dry my hair, as I eat breakfast and lunch, etc. If i get a break from my son’s demands, I read my books! Happy reading!

    Emily, it’s odd to me, because while I have to agree about the characterization, it seems the rest of the story is just so well plotted. It’s like he was so busy outlining his story that he forget the characters needed DEPTH. THAT was disappointing to me. I really need to read more Dickens.

    Phil-Am OSI, thanks! I hope you enjoy your reading.

    Lindsey, another vote for Bleak House! And as for To the Lighthouse: I can completely understand not getting it. I didn’t get it but I really did enjoy it in the end, i think.

    Maire, you’re post about The Masterpiece prompted me to choose it for the Circuit!

    Susanna, I tend to abandon books too, hence I abandoned this earlier. But a number of comment-ers on this site suggested they LOVED it and maybe I should give it another try. So I did and I am glad!

  • Rebecca ~ No, I was never really attached to any of the characters. I also felt that distance, but in my case I liked it. What was unfolding was so horrible (those icky ladies and their knitting were so creepy!!!) that the emotional cushion was something I didn’t notice or appreciate until it was all over. But I’m weird like that. 🙂

    .-= Lezlie´s last post on blog ..I Couldn’t Resist Sharing This =-.

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