A Tale of Two Cities: My Favorite Charles Dickens Novel

Classic Remarks


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Which one of Charles Dickens’ works is your favorite?

Star Divider

Spoilers for the end of A Tale of Two Cities!

Though I love many of Charles Dickens’ novels, often because of his witty characterization and tightly-woven plots, A Tale of Two Cities moves me profoundly in ways not all of his works do. In particular, I am moved by Sydney Carton’s story arc, which can be read either as a redemption arc, or as a final act of defeat. That is, does Sydney Carton redeem himself–a dissipated alcoholic who could be brilliant, but is too lazy to improve–by giving up his life for someone he loves? Or is his death a final act of desperation, a choice he makes because he despairs of ever bettering himself in life? Or, could it possibly be both? These questions, centered around Carton and his character, are, in part, what draw me to the story again and again, as I watch Carton’s life trajectory play out and constantly wonder–Could it be different, this time?

Many have criticized A Tale of Two Cities for having “flat” characters, from the beautiful and angelic Lucie to the upright Charles Darnay. However, I think that the seeming flatness of these characters is, in part, what allows Carton’s characterization to shine. In a world where everyone else seems to have it all figured out, where they seem to find goodness easy, where they think it perfectly rational to walk into a situation where they will not make it out alive–all because the truth must matter more than passions, right?–Carton struggles to fit in. He knows what goodness is. He knows he does not have it. He even recognizes that, though he loves Lucie, he could never marry her because he would be a terrible husband. But for some reason he simply cannot change. Carton is the intriguing enigma at the heart of the story, the man whose character is so complex and so dynamic that, in many ways, it drives the tale. While the others weather hardships and struggles with good humor and grace, Carton rails against life. His is the character that reminds readers of just how unfair life can be, when characters like Lucie and her father prefer to turn the page on the past, or characters like Darnay naively assume that honesty and goodness will always win.

And the beauty of Carton’s character is that, despite all his flaws, he feels wonderfully, fearfully human. Dickens writes of Carton, “Sadly, sadly the sun rose; it rose upon no sadder sight than the man of good abilities and good emotions, incapable of their directed exercise, incapable of his own help and own happiness, sensible of the blight on him, and resigning himself to let it eat him away.” Carton despairs of being able to change, and settles for inaction instead. But this does not make him any less sympathetic of a character. The power of literature is that it allows readers to see into the heart of a man who is lazy, struggling with alcohol, and seemingly incapable of bettering himself–and readers can feel pity instead of scorn.

I love many aspects of A Tale of Two Cities–the vivid historical backdrop, the drama of the plot, the way the pieces of the plot all neatly fit together. But it is Carton’s character in particular that always draws me back. His struggles illustrate the frailty of us all, the ways in which it can be so easy to slide into a bad habit, or into inaction, or into despair. Yet his choices also show the best of the humanity, as he gives the ultimate sacrifice to ensure the happiness of a family he loves. Maybe his final act is partly out of despair of ever being able to do better in life–but it also has a bit of hope to it. The hope that others will do the things in life that he was not able to do. The hope that he can help others–and find some value in being the one who lifted them up.

10 thoughts on “A Tale of Two Cities: My Favorite Charles Dickens Novel

  1. Alyson Woodhouse says:

    Lovely review, Sydney Carton is a fascinating character, and seems to be the heart of the book. I’ve found things to love about all Dickens’ novels, but probably have the most sentimental attachment to Dombey and Son. I read it more or less on a whim a few years ago, and it was a case of the right book at the right time. Objectively, I wouldn’t rank it among his absolute best, but I will always associate it with a particular time and place in my own life. The prose has a poetic quality, and there is even a spot of proto-feminism, which I certainly wasn’t expecting from Dickens.


  2. BookerTalk says:

    I’ve read many of Dickens’ novels – some are better than others but you picked the one I absolutely cannot get to grips with. I’ve tried it four times now and come to a halt almost at the same point each time. Sigh.


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