Great Novel No. 17: “A Tale of Two Cities”

A Tale of Two Cities

by Charles Dickens


A Tale of Two Cities

When I sat down to pick and choose which titles would make it onto my 100 Great Novels list, there were two main criteria (besides that of being a so-called “classic”). The first: I had never read the book before and wanted to. The second: the book was too wonderful to be ignored. Here we have an example of the latter category.

I’m sure there’s a reason why A Tale of Two Cities is my favourite Charles Dickens novel. I’m just not sure what the reason is.

It could be the compelling unity of every story element towards its themes. Plot, characters, setting, and language all revolve around the motif of pairs, doubles, repetitions, and reflections of one kind or another. Two men who look almost exactly alike. Two classes of society at war with each other. We begin the story with one man being recalled to life, and end it with one man willing to die. From the famous opening prose poem to the equally famous concluding soliloquy, it is a parade of contrasting mirror images.

Or it could be that the book itself stands in contrast to the rest of Dickens’ work. Unlike most of his other famous novels there is far less humour; characters are drawn more realistically and with less outrageous personalities; the storyline is more direct and less convoluted, which consequently leads to the novel being roughly half the length of a usual Dickens book. There’s something attractive to me when an author chooses to step out of his own conventions and go against the expectations of his audience, all the while never losing his own style or creative power in the process.

A Tale of Two Cities is one of those books I find it difficult to say anything about — the book itself has already said it all. There are some novels that everyone who at least mildly enjoys reading need to put under their belt. Going through the classics can sometimes feel like nothing more than making notches on a Colt .45, and sometimes you feel like blowing the book away with just such a weapon. Whatever your final reaction to it may be, A Tale of Two Cities has earned its place on many lists like mine. It deserves your attention at the very least.

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,

we had everything before us, we had nothing before us,

we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—

in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

One thought on “Great Novel No. 17: “A Tale of Two Cities”

  1. You explained this book so well. I also feel it is his best work. This is one book I can read over and over. I first read it when I was a teenager. I loved it but probably didn’t grasp the depth of the book. It should be on everyone’s list!

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