Goh Wei Zhong 4M/08 7 October 2006 Book Review

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times
A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens Oxford 361pp S$11.95 “For the love of Heaven, of justice, of generosity, of the honour of your noble name, I supplicate you, Monsieur heretofore the Marquis, to succour and release me. My fault is, that I have been true to you. Oh Monsieur heretofore the Marquis, I pray you be you true to me!” So desperate was the call of Gabelle, Charles Darnay’s old servant, that Darnay was drawn to revolutionary France, sparking off a chain of events that weaved together forming a compelling tale of true love, profound hatred, and the ultimate sacrifice. A fictional classic by Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities is a story set in the latter half of the eighteenth century. The Defarges and the other revolutionaries exact terror on the French Republic, and Lucie Manette and her friends and relations were not spared. La Guillotine threatened to take away Darnay’s life after his arrival in Paris, but to Sydney Carton, that same instrument was the promise of renewal, and the hope of a better life for his love. The text, containing many literary expressions and biblical references typical of classical texts, mocked the French revolution as a haphazard and blind process. The consistent descriptions of the chaotic political situation and arbitrary taking of lives made it even more convincing, not the least of which was the terse comment, “The whole jury [trying Charles Darnay], as a jury of dogs empanelled to try the deer”. Yet, some speculate that Charles Dickens might have penned the novel to celebrate his seeking true love, after he met and fell in love with his mistress when his marriage was on the rocks. Indeed, Dickens embodies this true love in Carton’s sacrifice for the happiness of Lucie. Love between a man and a woman was not the only form of love explored in the novel. The text also delves into the relationship between kinship and marriage, “If my marriage were so arranged as that it would part us … I should be more unhappy and self-reproachful now than I can tell you.” Marked by vivid imagery, a portion of the text describes Lucie’s deep concern over reassuring her father of their being as close to each other after her marriage. This suggests the possibility of love between husband and wife not compromising the love between father and daughter. The love present in the story contrasts with the profound hatred that Madame Defarge had against the Evrémondes, epitomised in her relentless pursuit to kill his descendents, and eventually, all his descendents’ relations. Her hunger for vengeance drove her to try taking the life of Charles Darnay repeatedly (an attempt that led her to her death), even when the latter had no part in the quietus of Madame Defarge’s

kindred. Therefore, it seems that Dickens suggests that hatred, like love, is an immensely powerful force. Ironically, it was both love and hatred that were responsible for the perishing of Carton. In all, Dickens’ exploration of these major themes was inspiring and gripping. Yet, the author seems to be slightly biased in his ideology and handling of history. For example, the necessity of the revolution for a better France, although readily interpreted from the novel, was not covered in the text itself. In the novel, Dickens chose to highlight the atrocities committed by the revolutionaries and the fear and suffering of the common folk, and ultimately centred the plot in the darker side of the revolution. He did not mention that cruel as the revolution was, the people would have been continually oppressed under the aristocratic administration without it. Thus, it can be said that Dickens portrayed one-sidedly the negative side of the revolution without duly acknowledging that the ‘beautiful city’ and the ‘brilliant people rising from this abyss’, as Carton saw in his prophetic utterance, was one of the revolution’s positive ramifications. Moreover, historically speaking, the middle class’ rallying the peasants to rise against the aristocrats was a major factor for the occurrence of the revolution. However, this was not portrayed in the book; in fact, the words middle class hardly appeared within the text. Instead, the book favoured the peasants’ suffering as the cause of the revolution. For example, Monseignuer’s having four men to feed him chocolate was starkly contrasted to the people’s abject poverty and abysmal suffering. Nonetheless, a reader would be able to gain a keener appreciation of the revolutionary context after going through this book, even without being a History aficionado: the engaging plot and writing would carry the reader through to the end. In all, A Tale of Two Cities is an insightful exploration of love and hate, good and evil, morality and selfishness set against the French revolution—an approach that explained the opening line, ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times’. 800 words Originally written only with reference to the text, Steps for Writing a Good Book Review, Book Review rubrics and the two sample book reviews Wisdom muddles through and Not worth dying for.