Some books are famous for their beginnings and endings; that A Tale of Two Cities (a ‘Tale’) is one of these should not, nevertheless, take anything away from the sublime story Dickens weaves over the course of events leading to the French Revolution, between the still great cities of London and Paris. As a novel, Dickens sets a new aesthetic standard; posed via explicit antonymic poetry in the opening paragraph, Dickens confronts his reader with a logical contradiction: for how can it be both “the best of times” and “worst of times” simultaneously? As a book I hold dear to me personally, and for which I’ve read a second time as I perceive my life to be turning a corner, the answer to this lies in the remarkable events the book relates and the bittersweet symphony they give rise to. As Wittgenstein once said, the world of the happy man is a different one from that of the unhappy man: whilst the ending of the story may be viewed as tragic, it is also “no subject for regret or grief”.
Whilst the novel’s context is the political and social upheaval of the French Revolution and the evils therein, and whilst the politics of the novel remains firmly in the inequality-illustrating, humanist, and moderate/non-radical reformist nature of the rest of the Dickens canon, the symbols and beauty of the story, for me, transcend the worldly themes of the book. And, whilst clearly broadly Christian in its themes, of resurrection, forgiveness and rebirth, it is nuanced in that it is for Her — Lucie Manette — that Sydney Carton gives up his life. Carton stands as a giant in literature, for his marked humanistic singularity of purpose and intent, as a man wholly dedicated to giving everything he has for the happiness of others, and specifically for a man who might have been considered a rival. Dickens’ message is a Christian one — that there is redemption for everyone — but his agent is only placated by metaphysics. It is the thought of Lucy and Charles’ offspring, whose birth was only possible by Sydney’s sacrifice, and who wins his way through the lawyering profession Sydney could only practise with such disdain, which sustains Sydney in his final moments. Pure selflessness is demonstrated as a purity illuminating against but also outshining the much worse human traits Dickens is apt to show: vengeance, hatred and violence.
Happiness through the happiness of others is the small but potent light in Paris’s crucible of darkness, chipping away at an otherwise ever-lasting Carmagnole of evil begetting evil and a circle of revenge. Such a revenge story culminates in a pure form of the ever-knitting Therese Defarge, and it begins with the sexual rights over the peasant women the nobles regularly asserted — Defarge being the victim’s sister. Sydney should see such bad times ending, if he were a prophet; and Dickens, writing many decades later, notes that the violence and bloodshed does indeed end, as the great tide of hot blood comes to a rest once it has been all but entirely spilled.
The chip in the armour of family and love; the cause of Doctor Manette’s (Lucie’s father’s) repressed troubles; becomes known at a twist in the story near the end of the book. As Dickens weaves his characters — the best and the worst — between one another and between two cities — he lets loose the Doctor’s secret: that he did, in his youth, condemn with the same vigour he finds abhorrent in the revolutionary blood-lusting at Charles Darnay’s trial the entire race of French noblemen to death. With a stroke, Dickens unveils the fallibility of all and every character; with a stroke, the good doctor is revealed to have been capable — at least in feeling — of condemning innocent people to death. A Tale is indeed a tale of two broad sets of human action — good and bad — but it is a tale of a singular type of humanity: one subject to the great tides of emotion and the circumstances that produce them.
In this sense, analysing the characters, it is those who are capable of change and reform, especially in testing period of time, whom Dickens rises up, e.g. Charles Darnay (from his birthrights); Doctor Manette (from his youthful emotions); and Sydney Carton (from his hitherto wasted existence). It is, as often seems to be the case with Dickens, a question of character. By way of contrast, Madame Defarge is a constant: incapable of forgiveness and moderation, she seeks absolute vengeance and absolute vengeance alone, and whilst her one-dimensional nature may seem cartoonish today it is to Dickens’ timeless credit that she (all the better for it) is a striking and highlighted monument to the utter folly of the tireless and uncritical pursuit of a bloody end.
The revolution thereby comes to be seen for what it is: a macro umbrella for the micro grievances of the individuals acting underneath it. Thus shielded from the rain of precise analysis, every grievance is vindicated in the name of the indivisible Republic, and death is the alternative at every junction and test of patriotism/faith. In reading Dickens, it is easy to be swept up with the strength of negativity in this worldview; in reality, the dilemmas faced by the individuals in the book can only call up empathy — the rape and murder of Therese Defarge’s family is something which explains the character of Defarge but, according to Dickens, does not justify it. Whilst Dickens does not condemn entirely Defarge, he laments her; for she is as inevitable as the bloody end for those in the tumbrils rolling to their fates; “crush humanity out of shape once more, under similar hammers, and it will twist itself into the same tortured forms.” Nevertheless, it is the gun secured near her bosom which ends her; a symbol that her cold heart led to her undoing — Dickens is clear and sees Defarge as going much beyond what vengeance would have called for.
But, eventually, we will stop, learn, change and grow. That is the optimistic message and it proceeds forth like something strangely immortal at a time when people are getting their heads chopped off; it arises from scripture, as did Lazarus; it rhymes with the biblical proposition, as the nocturnal Carton repeated, over and over, on his final night alive: that “I am the Resurrection and the Life, saith the Lord: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: and whosover liveth and believeth in me shall never die.” Safe in the firm belief of this, Carton helps a young seamstress, another passenger on the way to La Guillotine, to come to terms with her near end. There is hope for those who believe in change, says Dickens; and these people effect change all around them, on everyone they touch. Such is the small connected Dickensian world, and such is the day-to-day beauty a Tale carries for each and every one of us.
Whilst Dickens begins his novel with a cynical dig at superlatives and users of such — of “best” juxtaposed against “worst”; of “wisdom” against “foolishness” — he ends it with comparatives: says Carton, “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.” To be better than ourselves is all we can reasonably strive for; the perfection of bests and worsts, indivisible republics and clean vengeance are unobtainable; better ourselves and we better each other, step by step, day by day, forgiveness after forgiveness, and selfless act after selfless act.