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A Tale of Two Cities


FROM: Appreciations and Criticisms of the works of Charles Dickens, by Gilbert Keith Chesterton

As an example of Dickens's literary work, A Tale of Two Cities is not wrongly named. It is his most typical contact with the civic ideals of Europe. All his other tales have been tales of one city. He was in spirit a Cockney; though that title has been quite unreasonably twisted to mean a cad. By the old sound and proverbial test a Cockney was a man born within the sound of Bow bells. That is, he was a man born within the immediate appeal of high civilisation and of eternal religion. Shakespeare, in the heart of his fantastic forest, turns with a splendid suddenness to the Cockney ideal as being the true one after all. For a jest, for a reaction, for an idle summer love or still idler summer hatred, it is well to wander away into the bewildering forest of Arden. It is well that those who are sick with love or sick with the absence of love, those who weary of the folly of courts or weary yet more of their wisdom, it is natural that these should trail away into the twinkling twilight of the woods. Yet it is here that Shakespeare makes one of his most arresting and startling assertions of the truth. Here is one of those rare and tremendous moments of which one may say that there is a stage direction, "Enter Shakespeare." He has admitted that for men weary of courts, for men sick of cities, the wood is the wisest place, and he has praised it with his purest lyric ecstasy. But when a man enters suddenly upon that celestial picnic, a man who is not sick of cities, but sick of hunger, a man who is not weary of courts, but weary of walking, then Shakespeare lets through his own voice with a shattering sincerity and cries the praise of practical human civilisation:

If ever you have looked on better days,

If ever you have sat at good men's feasts,

If ever been where bells have knolled to church,

If ever from your eyelids wiped a tear

Or know what 't is to pity and be pitied.

There is nothing finer even in Shakespeare than that conception of the circle of rich men all pretending to rough it in the country, and the one really hungry man entering, sword in hand, and praising the city. "If ever been where bells have knolled to church"; if you have ever been within sound of Bow bells; if you have ever been happy and haughty enough to call yourself a Cockney.

We must remember this distinction always in the case of Dickens. Dickens is the great Cockney, at once tragic and comic, who enters abruptly upon the Arcadian banquet of the ęsthetics and says, "Forbear and eat no more," and tells them that they shall not eat "until necessity be served." If there was one thing he would have favoured instinctively it would have been the spreading of the town as meaning the spreading of civilisation. And we should (I hope) all favour the spreading of the town if it did mean the spreading of civilisation. The objection to the spreading of the modern Manchester or Birmingham suburb is simply that such a suburb is much more barbaric than any village in Europe could ever conceivably be. And again, if there is anything that Dickens would have definitely hated it is that general treatment of nature as a dramatic spectacle, a piece of scene-painting which has become the common mark of the culture of our wealthier classes. Despite many fine pictures of natural scenery, especially along the English roadsides, he was upon the whole emphatically on the side of the town. He was on the side of bricks and mortar. He was a citizen; and, after all, a citizen means a man of the city. His strength was, after all, in the fact that he was a man of the city. But, after all, his weakness, his calamitous weakness, was that he was a man of one city.

For all practical purposes he had never been outside such places as Chatham and London. He did indeed travel on the Continent; but surely no man's travel was ever so superficial as his. He was more superficial than the smallest and commonest tourist. He went about Europe on stilts; he never touched the ground. There is one good test and one only of whether a man has travelled to any profit in Europe. An Englishman is, as such, a European, and as he approaches the central splendours of Europe he ought to feel that he is coming home. If he does not feel at home he had much better have stopped at home. England is a real home; London is a real home; and all the essential feelings of adventure or the picturesque can easily be gained by going out at night upon the fiats of Essex or the cloven hills of Surrey. Your visit to Europe is useless unless it gives you the sense of an exile returning. Your first sight of Rome is futile unless you feel that you have seen it before. Thus useless and thus futile were the foreign experiments and the continental raids of Dickens. He enjoyed them as he would have enjoyed, as a boy, a scamper out of Chatham into some strange meadows, as he would have enjoyed, when a grown man, a steam in a police boat out into the fens to the far east of London. But he was the Cockney venturing far; he was not the European coming home. He is still the splendid Cockney Orlando of whom I spoke above; he cannot but suppose that any strange men, being happy in some pastoral way, are mysterious foreign scoundrels. Dickens's real speech to the lazy and laughing civilisation of Southern Europe would really have run in the Shakespearean words:

but whoe'er you be

Who in this desert inaccessible,

Under the shade of melancholy boughs

Lose and neglect the creeping hours of time.

If ever you have looked on better things,

If ever been where bells have knolled to church.

If, in short, you have ever had the advantage of being born within the sound of Bow bells. Dickens could not really conceive that there was any other city but his own.

It is necessary thus to insist that Dickens never understood the Continent, because only thus can we appreciate the really remarkable thing he did in A Tale of Two Cities. It is necessary to feel, first of all, the fact that to him London was the centre of the universe. He did not understand at all the real sense in which Paris is the capital of Europe. He had never realised that all roads lead to Rome. He had never felt (as an Englishman can feel) that he was an Athenian before he was a Londoner. Yet with everything against him he did this astonishing thing. He wrote a book about two cities, one of which he understood; the other he did not understand. And his description of the city he did not know is almost better than his description of the city he did know. This is the entrance of the unquestionable thing about Dickens; the thing called genius; the thing which every one has to talk about directly and distinctly because no one knows what it is. For a plain word (as for instance the word fool) always covers an infinite mystery.

A Tale of Two Cities is one of the more tragic tints of the later life of Dickens. It might be said that he grew sadder as he grew older; but this would be false, for two reasons. First, a man never or hardly ever does grow sad as he grows old; on the contrary, the most melancholy young lovers can be found forty years afterwards chuckling over their port wine. And second, Dickens never did grow old, even in a physical sense. What weariness did appear in him appeared in the prime of life; it was due not to age but to overwork, and his exaggerative way of doing everything. To call Dickens a victim of elderly disenchantment would be as absurd as to say the same of Keats. Such fatigue as there was, was due not to the slowing down of his blood, but rather to its unremitting rapidity. He was not wearied by his age; rather he was wearied by his youth. And though A Tale of Two Cities is full of sadness, it is full also of enthusiasm; that pathos is a young pathos rather than an old one. Yet there is one circumstance which does render important the fact that A Tale of Two Cities is one of the later works of Dickens. This fact is the fact of his dependence upon another of the great writers of the Victorian era. And it is in connection with this that we can best see the truth of which I have been speaking; the truth that his actual ignorance of France went with amazing intuitive perception of the truth about it. It is here that he has most clearly the plain mark of the man of genius; that he can understand what he does not understand.

Dickens was inspired to the study of the French Revolution and to the writing of a romance about it by the example and influence of Carlyle. Thomas Carlyle undoubtedly rediscovered for Englishmen the revolution that was at the back of all their policies and reforms. It is an entertaining side joke that the French Revolution should have been discovered for Britons by the only British writer who did not really believe in it. Nevertheless, the most authoritative and the most recent critics on that great renaissance agree in considering Carlyle's work one of the most searching and detailed power. Carlyle had read a great deal about the French Revolution. Dickens had read nothing at all, except Carlyle. Carlyle was a man who collected his ideas by the careful collation of documents and the verification of references. Dickens was a man who collected his ideas from loose hints in the streets, and those always the same streets; as I have said, he was the citizen of one city. Carlyle was in his way learned; Dickens was in every way ignorant. Dickens was an Englishman cut off from France; Carlyle was a Scotsman, historically connected with France. And yet, when all this is said and certified, Dickens is more right than Carlyle. Dickens's French Revolution is probably more like the .real French Revolution than Carlyle's. It is difficult, if not impossible, to state the grounds of this strong conviction. One can only talk of it by employing that excellent method which Cardinal Newman employed when he spoke of the "notes" of Catholicism. There were certain "notes" of the Revolution. One note of the Revolution was the thing which silly people call optimism, and sensible people call high spirits. Carlyle could never quite get it, because with all his spiritual energy he had no high spirits. That is why he preferred prose to poetry. He could understand rhetoric; for rhetoric means singing with an object. But he could not understand lyrics; for the lyric means singing without an object; as every one does when he is happy. Now for all its blood and its black guillotines, the French Revolution was full of mere high spirits. Nay, it was full of happiness. This actual lilt and levity Carlyle never really found in the Revolution, because he could not find it in himself. Dickens knew less of the Revolution, but he had more of it. When Dickens attacked abuses, he battered them down with exactly that sort of cheery and quite one-sided satisfaction with which the French mob battered down the Bastille. Dickens utterly and innocently believed in certain things; he would, I think, have drawn the sword for them. Carlyle half believed in half a hundred things; he was at once more of a mystic and more of a sceptic. Carlyle was the perfect type of the grumbling servant; the old grumbling servant of the aristocratic comedies. He followed the aristocracy, but he growled as he followed. He was obedient without being servile, just as Caleb Balderstone was obedient without being servile. But Dickens was the type of the man who might really have rebelled instead of grumbling. He might have gone out into the street and fought, like the man who took the Bastille. It is somewhat nationally significant that when we talk of the man in the street it means a figure silent, slouching, and even feeble. When the French speak of the man in the street, it means danger in the street.

No one can fail to notice this deep difference between Dickens and the Carlyle whom he avowedly copied. Splendid and symbolic as are Carlyle's scenes of the French Revolution, we have in reading them a curious sense that everything is happening at night. In Dickens even massacre happens by daylight. Carlyle always assumes that because things were tragedies therefore the men who did them felt tragic. Dickens knows that the man who works the worst tragedies is the man who feels comic; as for example, Mr. Quilp. The French Revolution was a much simpler world than Carlyle could understand; for Carlyle was subtle and not simple. Dickens could understand it, for he was simple and not subtle. He understood that plain rage against plain political injustice; he understood again that obvious vindictiveness and that obvious brutality which followed. "Cruelty and the abuse of absolute power," he told an American slave-owner, "are two of the bad passions of human nature." Carlyle was quite incapable of rising to the height of that uplifted common-sense. He must always find something mystical about the cruelty of the French Revolution. The effect was equally bad whether he found it mystically bad and called the thing anarchy, or whether he found it mystically good and called it the rule of the strong. In both cases he could not understand the common-sense justice or the common-sense vengeance of Dickens and the French Revolution.

Yet Dickens has in this book given a perfect and final touch to this whole conception of mere rebellion and mere human nature. Carlyle had written the story of the French Revolution and had made the story a mere tragedy. Dickens writes the story about the French Revolution, and does not make the Revolution itself the tragedy at all. Dickens knows that an outbreak is seldom a tragedy; generally it is the avoidance of a tragedy. All the real tragedies are silent. Men fight each other with furious cries, because men fight each other with chivalry and an unchangeable sense of brotherhood. But trees fight each other in utter stillness; because they fight each other cruelly and without quarter. In this book, as in history, the guillotine is not the calamity, but rather the solution of the calamity. The sin of Sydney Carton is a sin of habit, not of revolution. His gloom is the gloom of London, not the gloom of Paris.

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Recent Forum Posts on A Tale of Two Cities

Why does Sydney Carton despise himself so much?

I have read suggested somewhere that Sidney Carton had syphilis. Dickens could not be explicit about sex matters. I suspect often when people hate themselves it has something to do with their sexual proclivities. Sydney Carton is heterosexual, so maybe his problem is that he cannot keep himself away from the prostitutes. If that was the case he may have contracted French disease. Or he may just despise himself for seeing prostitutes, particularly if he has had a religious upbringing. Sydney Carton is clever (he's another lawyer, isn't he), he has enough money, and if he looks like Charles Darnay then he's handsome too. Why doesn't he think he can get himself a nice, young lady like Lucie Manette?

guessible ending

I think I have guessed what the ending is, and I am only at book 2, chapter 14. I was pretty sure of it before, having heard hints of 'sacrifice', but it is pretty well telegraphed now. If I am wrong, I will inform you.

How lawless was England in 1775?

Just started reading A Tale of Two Cities. The first thing that strikes me is that it is slightly different in style to both Great Expectations and Hard Times. The second thing to strike me was what a dangerous place England appeared to be in 1775! The guard of the mail coach was armed with a blunderbus, numerous pistols (single shot flintlocks I suspect) and cutlasses. And this was to protect themselves in that most dangerous of all counties, Kent. Was England really such a lawless place back then?

What was the point of Stryver and his advances on Lucie?

I finished Tale of Two Cities last night, and thoroughly enjoyed it. Each character seemed expertly crafted to fulfill some kind of purpose toward the end. Miss Poss had her scene with her brother, and the final showdown with Madam Defarge. Mr. Lorry was useful and interesting throughout. Even Mr. Cruncher had a couple fantastic redeeming monologues at the end, and though the book seemed to want me to dislike him through most of the novel (and I did) I ended up very much liking him after all. But Stryver seemed to drop off the face of the novel. The whole chapter of his advances toward Lucie seems totally pointless, and never went anywhere. I was expecting his acceptance of the fact that Lucie wouldn't marry him to be a ruse. That he actually hadn't accepted the fact, and was going to try again in some nefarious way later in the novel. But that never happened. Maybe every character doesn't need to have a major purpose. Maybe being Sydney's boss, and the guy who says a couple mean things to charles at Tellson's was enough of a purpose for him. But even then, his advances on Lucie weren't necessary. Maybe those were there just to show that Lucie is desired by everybody, but that still just doesn't seem necessary. Is it possible that, since he wrote and published the book chunks at a time in a paper, that he meant to do something more with him but never did? Am I looking at this the wrong way in expecting there to be more than there is? Or did I miss some point, purpose, or meaning somewhere?

Female characters.

I don't know if anyone else agrees, but I loved the scene near the end between Miss Pross and Madame Defarges! I thought it was amazing: funny and dramatic at the same time. I found Miss Pross to be the best female character on the book, since the others could be classified under two categories: the sweet, dull, innocent and pretty Lucie (who always seemed to me like an annoying damsel in distress); and the strong, yet sociopathic women like Madame Defarges and The Vengeance. Miss Pross is at last the example of a good woman who is also strong and brave. On a side note: Sydney Carton seemed form the very beginning a much more interesting character than Charles Darnay. He has en edge, he is dark, mysterious, self-destructive, reflective, moody, tormented, and far more intense than any other character in the book. In fact, he's the only one whose love for the insipid Lucie I get: she's sunny, cute, sweet and balanced; the opposite and complement to his own character (which he himself despises) and the representation of everything he is not and everything he knows he will never be.

Stryver's Secret

Just finished this book today! Dickens is a genius! There's one question that's left me hanging though. In Chapter 12 "The Fellow of Delicacy," Stryver is ready to propose to Lucie, but Lorry advises him otherwise. After leaving the bank in a huff, Stryver says, "You shall not put me in the wrong, young lady... I'll do that for you." He then busies himself with some books and leaves Lorry (and me) puzzled. I thought he was plotting revenge on Lucie, but nothing happened. I just don't get why he's so blase at the end of the chapter when he was the opposite at the beginning. Why was he "lying back on his sofa, winking at his ceiling?"

Relation between violence and revolution in "A Tale of Two Cities"

Maybe the most meaningful quote dealing with the relation between violence and revolution is: "Good could never come of such evil, a happier end was not in nature to so unhappy beginning". I infer from this quote that Dickens wanted to say that if you want to change something positively, you have to be aware how do you to it. A major motive in this book is vengeance. Vengeance is not rational and serves to satisfy one's bad tribe but not the goal "revolution" or a better society. But the question which arouses right now is: Is violence in general the wrong way to achieve a better world? I would go so far and say not but, a big but, violence is not supposed to serve as a valve of aggression or sadism. It must be always reasonable and of course the last choice of every possibility. The good intentions are poisoned by the wish for vengeance: "Nothing that we do, is done in vain. I believe, with all my soul, that we shall see th triumph. But even if no, even if I knew certainly not, show me the neck of an aristocrat and tyrant, and still I would-" "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, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us" - these are the first word from this novel. It shows in wonderful way the ambivalence of this revolution.

Favourite qoutes from the book

"Above all, one hideous figure grew as familiar as if it had been before the general gaze from the foundations of the world - the figure of the sharp female called La Guillotine" A question to those people who speak English as a mother-language: Does "sharp" have a sexual connotation like in German?

Is it normal to have difficulty reading A Tale of Two Cities?

This has got to be the hardest book I've attempted to read. I'm at chapter 3 now and from what I understand Both France and England have there problems and there are 3 dudes in a "mail" which I assume is some sort of horse drawn carriage who are going to Dover. Some dude shows up on horse back to deliver a message and the message he gets back confuses him. Am I on the right track? I plan on re-reading the chapters before I go to sleep tonight and now I have the convenience of having a dictionary at my side. The opening line ofthe book is pretty good.

What lesson can be learned from Lucie Manette's influence or love?

In what way does Lucie Manette influence the following characters? - Doctor Manette - Carton - Darnay - Mr. Lorry And, what lesson can be learned from this? Or, if influence doesn't work then what lesson can be learned from her love?

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Charles Dickens