24 June 2011

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

Okay, so we read this in Literature class sometime during middle school; probably my 8th grade year. I completely forgot that I had read it until a friend and I began discussing the books we'd been assigned in school. I guess I was underwhelmed the first time through.

That makes sense though. My 14 year old self could hardly have been interested.

Since that time I have: married, given birth to five kiddles, homeschooled, and moved a family from the Chicago area to the SW suburbs of London, and traveled to Paris twice. I can easily see that my life, well lived, has given me a greater ability to appreciate this classic piece of literature.

I was going to try to read this apace with our daughter as she read it for her Honors 9 English Lit class. I failed to keep up but then, I was reading over ten books at once. If the book had been assigned to me I would have struggled with reading it on the time schedule assigned. If I choose to read a book I don't struggle with it so. I also seem to glean much more from my reading when I have read by choice. My choice was, however, at least partially determined by the fact that I felt I should read the book.

This book is about the French Revolution, with its opening setting being 1780. What a bloody travesty it was. The actual Revolution was from 1789-1799 and consisted of the overthrow of absolute monarchy that was eventually replaced by government that formed upon the basis of citizenship and inalienable rights.

I don't doubt that revolution was an evil necessity; it's still very unfortunate though. Not all good came from it either. I find support for that belief in this quote from page 210:

"A revolutionary tribunal in the capital, and forty of fifty thousand revolutionary committees all over the land; a law of the Suspected, which struck away all security for liberty or life, and delivered over any good and innocent person to bad and guilty one; prisons gorged with people who had committed no offence, and could obtain no hearing; these things became the established order and nature of appointed things, and seemed to be ancient usage before they were many weeks old. Above all, one hideous figure grew as familiar as if it had been before the general gaze from the foundations of the world~the figure of the sharp female called La Guillotine. 

It was the popular theme for jests; it was the best cure for the headache, it infallibly prevented the hair from turning grey, it imparted a peculiar delicacy to the complexion, it was the National Razor which shaved close: who kissed La Guillotine, looked through the little window and sneezed into the sack. It was the sign of the regeneration of the human race. It superseded the Cross. Models of it were worn on breasts from which the Cross was discarded, and it was bowed down to and believed in where the Cross was denied."
~pg 210

Whew. If you are still with me then surely you see the despair apparent in those two paragraphs. In an effort to bring freedom to the masses the masses exculpated themselves as they made everyone live in daily fear and obeisance to the newly powerful...themselves. One is not really any better than the other; one is not a loftier ideal if both result in the same things, even temporarily. But, then, how does one manage a revolution without such things as bloodshed? It's a quandary for certain. Sacrifice of the innocent is more than regrettable though, even if ultimate good comes of it. As we lived in England for over two years we saw contemporary evidence of humanity's attempt to supersede the ultimate importance of Christ and his sacrifice for humanity. There is an abundance of beautiful churches all over Europe that are, today, used for a multitude of purposes other than worship of the Almighty.

This quote, toward the very end of the book laments my same concerns about revolution:

"Along the Paris streets, the death-carts rumble, hollow and harsh. Six tumbrils carry the day's wine (sacrificial blood) to La Guillotine. All the devouring and insatiate Monsters imagined since imagination could record itself, are fused in the one realisation, Guillotine. And yet there is not in France, with its rich variety of soil and climate, a blade, a leaf, a root, a sprig, a peppercorn, which will grow to maturity under conditions more certain than those that have produced this horror. Crush humanity out of shape once more, under similar hammers, and it will twist itself into the same tortured forms. Sow the same seed of rapacious license and oppression over again, and it will surely yield the same fruit according to its kind."
~pg 286

It seems that Dickens thought a lot about revolution. He appears to believe that there are certain inevitabilites...at least when certain conditions occur. Lamentable, indeed.

The novel's depiction of Christianity was, frankly, lost on me in middle school though I do recall the teacher trying to impress that theme upon us. I really hadn't a clue. Now I can see how beautifully Dickens orchestrated all of it. It is a much prettier novel, in that aspect, than I ever could have imagined.

It took me weeks and weeks to finish reading this book. (49 days; I checked) The first part was a little tedious as it took time to build momentum and to get to know all the many varied characters. I read much more quickly once I reached about the middle of the book. I am proud to say that I figured out where Dickens was going with the ending of the story about thirty five pages prior to the final page. I recalled nothing from my prior reading though, other than small bits about the theme of sacrifice and the setting of the Tower of London.

While reading A Tale of Two Cities I was reading no fewer than 10 other books some with intensity, others only in bits at a time and infrequently. 

Once again, this novel is an example of classic literature using a greater number of characters than most modern literature, as well as a very heavy topic. 

Back to characters for a moment. I was surprised that I grew to like Miss Pross and Jerry Cruncher much more by the end of the book than I did at the beginning.

I am glad I read it. (Okay, I am glad I REread it!)


Here are my favorite quotes from the book:

The air among the houses was of so strong a piscatory flavour that one might have supposed sick fish went up to be dipped in it, as sick people went down to be dipped in the sea.
~pg 14 of 297

...the time, half-past seven of the clock on a windy March morning, Anno Domini seventeen hundred and eight. (Mr. Cruncher himself always spoke of the year of our Lord as Anna Dominoes: apparently under the impression that the Christian era dated from the invention of a popular game, by a lady who had bestowed her name upon it.)
~ pg 41

Now, from the days when it was always summer in Eden, to these days when it is mostly winter in fallen latitudes, the world of a man has invariably gone one way~Charles Darnay's way~the way of the love of a woman.
~pg 99

If you could say, with truth, to your own solitary heart, to-night, 'I have secured to myself the love and attachment, the gratitude or respect, of no human creature; I have won myself a tender place in no regard; I have done nothing good or serviceable to be remembered by!' your seventy-eight years would be seventy-eight heavy curses; would they not?
~pg 239

It was in vain for Madame Defarge to struggle and to strike; Miss Pross, with the vigorous tenacity of love, always so much stronger than hate, clasped her tight, and even lifted her from the floor in the struggle that they had. 
~pg 284
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