I generally do not consider myself to be a fan of Charles Dickens. I’ve read a number of Dickens stories including Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, and Great Expectations and can’t claim to have especially enjoyed any of them. For my twenty-first century taste, Dickens can be boring and longwinded. Still, A Tale of Two Cities is the book I’m encouraging my wife to use as the novel for her literature course.
A Tale of Two Cities takes the best of Charles Dickens—his ability to capture humanity—and makes it succinct. Even though the story spans decades, the plot moves fast, and because the story takes place during the French Revolution the narrative carries more weight and resonance than the typical Dickens story.
Meanwhile, the author’s wit is at peak performance, especially when it comes to descriptions and characters. While Dickens’s characters are often amusing, in A Tale of Two Cities the characters we laugh with or at are also deeply human, relatable, and often heroic, and there are a number of them on display here providing variety and amusement to a story that is somber at its core. I believe the lightness of some moments actually deepens the resonance of others, particularly as relates to the villains, who are strikingly human while terrifying. The contrast between this spectrum of characters leaves the reader with a wider understanding of humanity’s great potential for good or evil.
At the same time, the overall writing in this novel is incredible. Simply consider the opening lines:
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.
These simple yet jarring words set the reader up for the core purpose of this book, which is to showcase how differently people can react to similar injustices and how vengeance leads to destruction of life while forgiveness leads to the creation and regeneration of life. That complex point is stated immediately in the introduction in a beautiful and almost startlingly discordant manner that signals to the reader that these brief lines are significant and warrant reflection. Like all quality books, A Tale of Two Cities is worth reading for the journey rather than the ending. A reader who rushes from sentence to sentence, paragraph to paragraph, and page to page is liable to miss beautiful language and insights.
A Tale of Two Cities also includes the most natural moment of Christian witnessing I have ever read in a book of literary quality (barring the Bible). Toward the end of the book, when one of the main characters is contemplating his impending death he reflects on the crucifixion and resurrection and at no point does it feel unnatural or forced, rather the philosophical contemplation fits the story perfectly. There’s nothing subtle about it, but the inclusion fits perfectly.
For those who have read Charles Dickens and been disappointed, I would encourage them to give A Tale of Two Cities a chance. Take the time to get past the antiquated manner of speaking, enjoy the humor and language, and search for meaning in what was a dark period of human history. This is a journey worth taking.