Friday, April 3, 2015

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

Wow. I'm looking at my old post on Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities and I think I'm going to have to do remove some parts to make it publish-worthy. Not only was I missing a few sentences, I think my recent BA in English had given me a License to Critique that was not quite approved. Here it is, the newly edited post on TOTC

Because I cannot possibly commit to reading Twilight (huzzah! 2015 me is still proud of that), I moved on to A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. Partially, because I love Brit lit. Partially, because I read it in the most traumatizing high school English class, and I thought it deserved a second go. But mostly because Dickens has to appear on the Subject GRE for Literature some how, and this is a classic. 

Verdict: GREAT BOOK. So many people hate it, and I don't know why. The story is compelling, the characters cover a broad range of good, evil, Christ-like, and badass, and the French Revolution is so damn interesting. I was in a page-marking frenzy with this book, like many Victorian novels before it, and I therefore have lots of thoughts to share.


Dickens is one funny guy. Take, for instance, this passage, which describes Jerry Cruncher's hair.
"It was so like smith's work, so much more like the top of a strongly spiked wall than a head of hair, that the best of players at leap-frog might have declined him, as the most dangerous man in the world to go over." (10)
This is more of a reflection of what I personally find comical, but can't you just hear this at the beginning of Dragnet:
"The scene was Mr. Cruncher's private lodging in Hanging-sword-alley, Whitefriars; the time, half-past seven of the clock on a windy March morning, Anno Domini seventeen hundred and eighty." (48)
Little Cruncher's flight from the graveyard sounds just like a Mel Brooks scene.
"He had a strong idea that the coffin he had seen was running after him; and, pictured as hopping on behind him, bolt upright, upon its narrow end, always on the point of overtaking him and hopping on at his side--perhaps taking his arm--it was a pursuer to shun. It was an inconsistent and ubiquitous fiend, too..." (148)
Some of Dickens' descriptions of La Guillotine were lighthearted, despite the serious subject.
"It was a popular theme for jests; it was the best cure of a headache, it infallibly prevented the hair from turning grey, it imparted a peculiar delicacy to the complexion, it was the National Razor which shaved close" (255)
female characters

Madame Defarge knows her stuff. She is a genius with her secret knitted code, and she totally wears the pants in the Revolution. Her husband gets antsy and is worried they won't see progress. Not only does she never doubt, but she goes so far as to say she does not care if it is not seen in their lifetime--it's the change that matters, not their gratification. Then she hits him with all these examples of earthquakes and lightening ( 164) to tell him to stop whining. Bam! She even makes plans to act outside her husbands knowledge. But this does not happen, for Miss Pross kills her.

Miss Pross is just very comically drawn. A loud, brash and rather boastful Englishwoman, her culminating moment is the showdown with Madame Defarge. The scene is brilliantly written, with each woman speaking her own language and simply reading body language and tone to decipher the situation (343). What's interesting about her is that despite being such a strong character (and an important component of getting Charles out of France), she ends up deaf. Is this punishment for being too strong of a woman? Can the same be said for Madame Defarge? Why are the two strongest female characters in the novel injured, while innocent and beautiful (paragon of womanhood?) Lucie remains unfazed?

La Guillotine and La Force are the weapon of mass killings, and the waiting chamber for her. What is the significance of the guillotine being feminine? The book's afterward states that this emphasis is 'quite unhistorical' (361). For real? I am so surprised by that. Perhaps, simply because I am a h-u-g-e fan of the musical The Scarlet Pimpernel, a French Revolution musical that includes the graphic (and way-to-fun-to-sing) song Madame Guillotine: "Now gaze on your goddess of justice/ with her shimmering, glimmering blade/ as she kisses these traitors she sings them a last serenade."

final thoughts 

I would like to pose a question that I cannot answer: Why end the novel with a 'fictional' account of what happened? Does this save the narrator from making their own statement on the Revolution? Could it not have eerily ended on 'Twenty-Three'?

Stephen Koch wrote an afterward, and it largely focused on his reiteration of the reason behind the turmoil of this story--rape. Koch is quite right that I (and most readers) looked past the hideousness of rape and its importance in this story. However, I don't feel terribly bad about this. Should I? Do I miss it because Dickens clearly created more drama in other areas of the story? Is this discussed and studied academically? Of course in high school I didn't--but in college is this a thing? Huh!

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