For the second week in a row, my post on an old favorite this week is inspired by a book I’m currently reading. I am still working my way through Our Mutual Friend, due partly to holiday chaos and partly to the fact that Dickens can be hell to read quickly. In any case, I wrote a post for the (thanks to Fresh Pressed!) newly-famous Book Blob last week that mentioned A Tale of Two Cities, my standard Dickens favorite. And since then, I just can’t get it out of my head.
Let’s just take a quick look at my academic background: English major with a focus on 18th- and 19th-century literature, and minors in French and history. Clearly, a Dickens novel about the French Revolution and subsequent Reign of Terror is a total lock for me. Schoolwork aside, I’d argue that Dickens’s well-utilized tragic element is at its best in AToTC. For me, the book starts off with a bang, and then really comes together in the last third. For the most part, I could do without Charles Darnay and Lucie Manette, who take up most of the middle of the book. They’re definitely reminiscent of a couple from another true favorite, Hugo’s Marius Pontmercy and Cosette Fauchelevant; they’re the two nice people that everything works out for in the end. All well and good, of course, but not nearly as interesting as the tragedy of various minor characters.
No, no—for me, it’s all about the finale. Charles Darnay, locked in the Conciergerie, meets an unnamed young seamstress, charged with “plotting” of which she knows nothing and condemned to die as well. The two exchange few words, maybe a page in total, but their emotion and pathos resonates throughout the ending and revitalizes the entire reading experience.
“I am not unwilling to die, if the Republic which is to do so much good to us poor, will profit by my death; but I do not know how that can be.”
And, of course:
“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.”
Never mind that Dickens appropriated a Bible verse for that last one. I know it’s a good book when a single page makes me cry like a baby.
If you’re not a sucker for tragedy or history (in other words, we have nothing to talk about), you still might love this book for the villians, namely Madame Defarge, who knits at every execution, encoding the names of those who die at the guillotine. I mean, how cool is that?