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?

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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.

What A Tale of Two Cities’ Sydney Carton Can Teach Us about the Power of Literature (Discussion)

Spoilers for Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities follow.

Imagine that your best friend told you that a man had just declared his love for her.  This man is a known alcoholic who has no ambitions in life and seems destined to remain in a cycle of self-loathing ambivalence as he repeatedly spends his days using his talents so others can get ahead while he remains behind–all from pure laziness.  He has good intentions and someday means to pick himself up, push aside the wine bottle, and start working in earnest.  But that day never comes.  Would advise your friend to marry this man?  Probably not.  Anyone who did not outright despise such a man would at least recognize that a relationship with him would only lead to unhappiness.

In Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, this man is Sydney Carton, and generations of readers have come to love and admire him despite his faults.  And not only become of his final redeeming sacrifice.  Rather, Charles Dickens manages to depict Carton so empathetically because he can show readers the man’s heart.  The “idlest and most unpromising of men” “rumored to be seen at broad day, going home stealthily and unsteadily to his lodgings, like a dissipated cat” is depicted not simply as a drunkard or a slacker, but as a man who sometimes feels the pull of a better nature, but can never find the energy to pursue it. His desire to do better is not simply a line he gives to others to excuse himself, but a real struggle he experiences everyday.  He pities himself so much that readers feel pity for him, too.  And his conflicting feelings of jealousy, self-hatred, desire, hope, and despair all make him too human to dismiss.

Part of readers’ ability to pity Carton comes from Dickens’ remarkable ability to place readers in his shoes.  Take this scene from the start of the book.  Carton has just arrived home after a long night of drinking and doing work for Mr. Stryver, instead of using his powerful intellect to advance himself.  Dickens writes: “He threw himself down in his clothes on a neglected bed, and its pillow was wet with wasted tears.”  And he continues: “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.”  In this scene, readers do not need to have experienced the same life as Sydney Carton, only the same emotions.  Readers who have spent long lonely nights crying into their pillows, readers who know what it means to arrive to a “neglected” home, readers who have felt hopeless, readers who have felt frustrated and useless, and readers who have felt despair can all identify with Carton.  Preconceptions of who he is and why he does what he does melt away as readers are able to enter into this intimate moment with him.

This is the great power of literature.  Stories can help readers empathize with people they might never empathize with in real life.  The drunkard, the “scary” homeless or muttering woman, the “weird” kid at school, the lazy good-for-nothing–all become people in the pages of a story.  They have thoughts, relationships, histories, dreams, and desires.  They are not mere labels or the “other.”  They are all of us, struggling to work through what they have been given.  When we ask ourselves why we read, one of the major reasons that we continue to give is that stories help us understand others.  They make us kinder, more open, more patient, and more understanding.  At least they have the potential to do so.  What we do with that potential is up to us.

Your Entertainment Outlook 5/10/15: The Classics Edition

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The famously reclusive Emily Dickinson is about to break out of her shell. A new biopic of the American poet is going into production. Director Terence Davies first announced the film, A Quiet Passion, in 2012. Actress Cynthia Nixon will be playing Dickinson.
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Love's Labors LostThe future is also looking bright for Shakespeare productions. Some “lost lines” from Love’s Labor’s Lost were recently discovered. Scholars have found the lyrics for a song that, up to this point, they only knew the title of. The song, apparently, is a joke; Moth uses it to mock the sexual prowess of Don Armando.
The Welsh town of Llandudno marked the 150th anniversary of Alice in Wonderland by attempting to break the world record for the longest line of jam tarts. Participants have to wait a few days to see if their attempt was successful.
Death and Mr PickwickOn May 21, Random House will release a novel based on Charles Dickens’s illustrator Robert Seymour. Death and Mr. Pickwick by Stephen Jarvis explores the relationship between the two men, and whether Dickens passed off some of Seymour’s ideas as his own.
Mark Twain researchers have uncovered a group of letters from 1865-1866 that suggest the revered American author may have been having an “identity crisis” and considering suicide. They are considering curating the letters for a book, in hopes of showing a different side of Twain to the public.
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A happy birthday to Dante, who is celebrating his 750th. Pope Francis marked the occasion by praising Dante’s works and knowledge.

What entertainment news are you most excited about this week?

Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens

Oliver TwistInformation

Goodreads: Oliver Twist
Source: Purchased
Published: 1838


Orphaned at birth, Oliver Twist has grown up starved for food and for love.  He has nothing more to look forward to in life than an apprenticeship where he can expect the same ill treatment.  Alone and scared, Oliver sets off for London, no plan in mind.  A boy known as the Artful Dodger promises he can have a home, but Oliver does not realize he will be expected to earn his keep as a pickpocket.  Other kindly souls take notice of his plight, however, and thereafter ensues a struggle for Oliver’s very soul.


Oliver Twist has permeated popular culture to such an extent that I thought I had a vague idea of its plot.  After all, everyone knows the famous line, “Please, sir, I want some more.”  This, combined with snippets I have seen of the musical Oliver! as well references in literary criticism to the thief Fagin, gave me the impression that the book followed Oliver from the workhouse to the streets of London, where he subsequently lived a merry life with a gang of pickpockets led by a singing and dancing leader who was some sort of latter-day Falstaff.  What I read was actually much more Dickensian than that.

Oliver Twist was Charles Dickens’s second published novel and his preoccupations with the poor and the unjust laws that keep them so are already clear.  Oliver’s mother dies at his birth, so readers can follow him from his early days in the workhouse (where the officials purposely keep the orphans underfed and the local impoverished unprovided for so that they will eventually cease requests for more handouts) to the streets of London where he is introduced to the children who must steal to survive.  Dickens has plenty of blame to throw around.  He directs most of his biting humor at the government officials, but ordinary people receive personal censure for not extending the kind word or the helping hand that might have saved a child from being forced to sin in order to live.  The thieves do not get off free, either, however–the portraits Dickens draws are various, and one or two illustrate characters who delight in, rather than shrink from, the sordid lifestyle they lead.

Readers can never know if some of the characters they meet were once like Oliver–young and innocent and repulsed by the notion of doing wrong even to save themselves.  Fagin’s observations about women like Nancy–that they take interest in orphans like Oliver until they go to the bad, so to speak–suggest that some of them were.  Thus, even in depicting the thieves in their worst moments, Dickens suggests that they could, they might, be better.   He may even seem to hint that society is remiss in offering opportunities of repentance and freedom only to those they deem worthy.

Ultimately, Dickens refuses to romanticize the thieving lifestyle.  Nancy may repent, but her desperate cries to save the others fall on deaf ears and she herself does not know how to leave the only life she knows.  Fagin tellingly reveals his character when he reveals how he keeps boys in the business–he traps them in their own sense of sin and shame so they feel they can never get out.  And, no matter how the boys may delight in the “game”, eventually they will all end up either at the gallows or on a ship to be deported.  The group talks about giving it to society when they make their final speeches at their trials, but the gesture is ultimately meaningless, and the readers know it, even if the boys do not.

Of course, Dickens was not above romanticizing a good deal of his book, even if he refused to do it for criminals (excepting, of course, Nancy–Dickens’s requisite angelic woman).  The main plot line actually follows the fortunes of Oliver as he falls into various kindly hands and a “mystery” surrounding his birth soon develops.  It is not hard to figure out where that mystery is headed–both because the device is familiar and because Dickens is such a careful craftsman.  Already in this book he shows his beautiful economy, never wasting a scene or a character.  Everything and everyone comes back full circle and readers get a snugly wrapped-up conclusion to reward their interest.

I do not think Oliver Twist is Dickens at his best, even if it seems ever-present in our culture.  It does, however, showcase many of the author’s great strengths and talents–his social commentary, his dry humor, and his ridiculous characters.  Though it was not what I expected, it certainly was classic Dickens.