Charles Dickens’ second historical novel is set in the late eighteenth century during the period of the French Revolution. Originally published in weekly magazine installments in 1859, its four-hundred-fifty pages make up one of Dickens’ shortest novels though it deals with many themes such as social injustice, revolution, and the various forms of love and hate.
I always approach Dickens with trepidation. Will a tediously angelic female like Esther in Bleak House grate? Yes, Lucie Manette serves, gives, nurses and amuses, “impeccably good and vacant” (Thomas Wolfe, LHA). Will the rough humor irk? Yes, the comic characters of Jerry Cruncher and Miss Pross come off just grotesque. Strangely, Dickens’ humor is little in evidence in this novel and he’s too often merely facetious. Alcohol use treated unbelievably? Yes, Sydney Carton drinks amounts of booze that would stupefy a bull and still manages to function, never has a hangover, and quits drinking cold turkey. Insufficient motivation? Yes, we never really understand the reason Syd drinks so much nor is the reason Darnay puts himself in grave hazard persuasive. Coincidences? You betcha, in spades.
I also recalled with a shudder Bleak House in which a major character was introduced on, like, page 500. Yes, again Dickens throws into the action a new character, whose role in the story is anything but defined. I could only mutter to myself, Patience, reader, follow the narrative. To compensate for these moments of despair , be confident that all roads will lead, to, well, two cities in this case. Then be grateful.
Gratitude, because I couldn’t stop reading it. To my mind, the faults mentioned above and aspects of it as a political novel take a back seat to the sheer power of Dickens’ ability to set a scene, to make us see. For instance, in the first chapter, a wine barrel is accidentally broken open and its contents flow into the street. The people of the poor neighborhood in Paris jostle each other to drink the wine out of gutters. Dickens describes Tellson’s Bank and the wine shop of Monsieur and Madame Defarge so that we understand the narrow worlds of stodgy bankers and political extremists. Dickens must have brooded on mob violence, since the scene in which the rioting mob dances the Carmagnole is ghastly and unforgettable. As is the scene when young Cruncher witnesses his father Jerry rob a grave. As is the holding cell stuffed with aristocrats when Darnay is checked into jail.
We post-moderns are apt to gripe that Dickens crammed his novels with too much pathos. A passionate guy, I don’t have a problem with narratives charged with emotion. The incidents, characters, all the unfolding story all worked on my soul. Such is my sense of Dickens’ epic and striking ability to write. After the contrasts of that well-known opening paragraph, he gives us all the feelings of people interacting: love and hate, despair and hope, misery and happiness , darkness and light, betrayal and friendship, mercy and humanity versus ruthlessness, cynicism versus the hope of a better tomorrow. Ah, Syd, you may have done stinky things working for that conceited shyster Mr. Stryver, but that doesn’t mean you were a stinker. Holding the hand of the seamstress was a far, far better thing than making Lucie happy.
To my mind, Dickens’ pathos is never tacky , overdone or cheesy. His sentimentality, if that must be word, comes out of his fabulous power to give life, to speak to our hearts with words. As Jose Chung said, “Still, as a storyteller, I'm fascinated how a person's sense of consciousness can be so transformed by nothing more magical than listening to words... mere words.”