A (sadly) abridged Puffin Classics edition, and a Charles Dickens portrait nicked off the web and printed as bookmark.
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…
The first lines of A Tale of Two Cities set up high expectations. It’s a beautiful and powerfully-worded opening – one that introduces us to the “two cities” of London and Paris, and presented to us dualities that will prove to be prevailing all throughout the novel. Dualities that are exhaustive such as life and death, love and loss, freedom and oppression – to exist, one must belong to one part of the other. You cannot have death without life, you cannot love without bearing great loss when your love finally goes, and freedom would not be as sweet without oppression (or the risk of it).
In Chapter 3, Dickens tells us a wonderful fact – that we are all mysteries to each other, “that every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other.” And with mad ingenuity, Dickens unravels those mysteries bit by bit, and neatly ties up all, and I mean ALL, ends into tiny little knots that are mind-blowing in their sophisticated complexity.
A Tale of Two Cities ended up being arresting and very, very memorable, but it didn’t quite start out that way. After the aforementioned first lines, the next 30 pages or so made me worry about wasting a perfectly good weekend over trivial Victorian descriptions of a coach and a mail and the perils of traveling from London to England in the year “one thousand seven hundred seventy five.” If I wanted to read about European travelling history, I would’ve picked up a non-fiction book written in contemporary language, not one that was published in 1869 and written fancily.
But alas, like all good things, this book needed me to bear patience, and afterwards, it rewarded me with a roller coaster of a story that deserves a thousand years of repeated telling. A Tale of Two Cities was well woven with the many intricacies of family drama, romance, social prejudice and a highly suspenseful plot set in the backdrop of the French Revolution. It was so good and so heart-felt that I stared at the ceiling a good hour after reading the last lines of the book, chewing over and over about all the plot twists, all the nuances, the neatly-tied ends, and the madness of Charles Dickens. What a wonderful writer, what a genius. He deserves the crown of being the most widely-read Victorian novelist of all time.
Charles Dickens ended the book as beautifully as he opened it. The last lines compete with popularity with the first. I’ve chanced upon it so many times (e.g. Dark Knight Rises). It is beautiful but it was made even more memorable with the context with which it was delivered.
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.
Yes, A Tale of Two Cities demanded concentration especially by a reader spoilt by contemporary fiction for so long – but it was concentration that was easy to give. The language was intricate yet full of imagery. Some words did need looking up and some paragraphs demanded multiple reads to get immersed into, but this is not a surprise. This book is a classic after all, and reading classics does not merely entertain, it also challenges.
Everyone (and their mothers) should read this.