Many critics consider Dickens the greatest novelist of the English-speaking world. Historically he is probably the most popular. Dickens is one of those rare writers-like Shakespeare-who has always appealed to a wide variety of readers. When each installment of a new Dickens novel appeared, people of all social and economic classes rushed out to discover what had happened to their favorite characters. Scholars estimate that for every copy sold, ten people read or heard the story. Often while the rich laughed over a Dickens novel upstairs, the servants were downstairs in the kitchen hearing the same story read with equal enjoyment. In America herds of people would wait on the docks for the boats carrying a new installment of Dickens’s latest book.
Dickens’s novels are still amazingly popular among a wide range of readers. Scholars publish articles and books on Dickens at a rate second only to that of Shakespeare criticism. Yet his stories and characters still delight readers of vastly different ages, backgrounds, and experience.
A Tale of Two Cities is probably the least typically Dickensian of all Dickens’s novels. This is probably why many critics have called it either his best work or his worst. Shorter than most of his greatest achievements, A Tale of Two Cities lacks what Dickens called “elbow room.” It includes few of the grotesque comic characters that populate his longer works, and it does not pause in its rapid pace to fill pages with humorous situations, pleasing descriptions, and hilarious details.
On the other hand, A Tale of Two Cities is certainly more direct and unified than many other Dickens novels. Its plot moves quickly toward climax, it contains few extraneous details, and everything serves a clear thematic purpose. Many passages create considerable suspense, and Dickens’s language in this novel, written at the peak of his powers, amazes the sensitive reader with its aptness and power to make one seem to see and feel the events and people it describes. A Tale of Two Cities also provides particularly good opportunities to study such novelistic tools as allusion, foreshadowing, symbol, characterization, plot structure, repetition, tone and irony, and point of view.