Charles John Huffam Dickens was born February 7, 1812, in Portsmouth, on England’s southern coast. John Dickens, Charles’s father, was a respectable, middle-class naval pay clerk. His family moved several times during Charles’s youth, and the boy attended several schools, received instruction from his mother, and read voraciously. John Dickens received a reasonable salary, but he always spent more than he made. In 1824 he was imprisoned for debt. Two weeks before his father’s imprisonment, young Charles was sent to work in a blacking warehouse, pasting labels on bottles of boot polish. He lived alone in poverty in rented lodgings while the rest of his family moved into prison with his father-a common practice at that time. John Dickens was released after three months, and Charles returned to school. Dickens always remembered and hated this period of his life and the degradation it seemed to entail. Yet here he first became familiar with the lower-class people who appear throughout his novels. Dickens also returns again and again in his books to prison scenes.
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 sets A Tale of Two Cities primarily in Paris and London during one of the most turbulent periods of European history, the French Revolution. The novel covers events between 1775 and 1793, referring also to incidents occurring before that time. The French Revolution began in 1789 and continued in various forms through at least 1795. Dickens takes most of his historical perspective from The French Revolution (1837), a three-volume description and philosophical discussion by his friend Thomas Carlyle. Carlyle’s view was not objective or well documented; his intention was argumentative and dramatic. He portrays vividly the suffering of the poor and especially the Reign of Terror, best symbolized by the guillotine. Dickens greatly admired Carlyle and his work, and he read The French Revolution many times. Like Carlyle, Dickens cared less for accurate history and factual presentation than for vivid descriptions and the meanings he found behind the events. He did not concern himself with the revolution’s immediate political or economic causes but focused on the human suffering that he believed warped the very humanity of individuals on both sides of the battle lines.
Just before writing A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens acted the leading role in a play called The Frozen Deep written by his friend Wilkie Collins. Dickens played a man in love with a woman who rejects him in favor of a rival. The character Dickens played sacrifices his own life to save the rival he despises-all because of his love for the woman who rejected him. A Tale of Two Cities works out a similar theme of self-sacrifice. Sydney Carton, a brilliant young lawyer, wastes his talents in drink and cynicism. Carton helps another lawyer, the self-centered and unintelligent Stryver, to win cases and “shoulder” his way up in the world, but he will not work for himself. “I am incapable of all the higher and better flights of men,” Carton says. He describes himself as “a dissolute dog who has never done any good and never will.” Yet, rejected by Lucie Manette in favor of the handsome Frenchman Charles Darnay, Carton tells her, “For you, and for any dear to you, I would do anything…. There is a man who would give his life, to keep a life you love beside you!” At the novel’s end, Carton does exactly that, exchanging places with Darnay, who looks remarkably like Carton, just before his execution by guillotine. In willingly giving his life for Lucie-even to save the rival he dislikes-Carton performs a sort of Christlike sacrifice; he saves Darnay through his own death, and at the same time he redeems himself from his own sins. Carton dies with the famous last words: “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”
A Tale of Two Cities, though not typical of Dickens’s writing in many ways, is a very strong novel. First, its remarkable use of language astounds the careful reader. The opening passage, beginning “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” has become justly famous. Throughout the novel Dickens creates powerful moods, manipulates tone brilliantly, and portrays characters with unusual but precise descriptions (such as Miss Pross, whose hat looks like “a great Stilton cheese”). He satirizes pomposity, as in his account of the legal document accusing Darnay of spying “wickedly, falsely, traitorously, and otherwise evil-adverbiously.” Dickens often describes characters metaphorically, then refers to them primarily by their metaphorical identifications thereafter. For example, he calls Carton the jackal for the lion Stryver, then refers to the two characters as jackal and lion for several chapters.
It is difficult to imagine anyone objecting to A Tale of Two Cities. The novel does contain explicit scriptural references, especially near the conclusion. But these can easily be viewed as a means of making historically relevant comparisons.
1. How is Lucie Manette the “golden thread” in the novel?
2. Why does Monsieur Defarge keep the door to Dr. Manette’s room locked?
1. The idea of resurrection or rebirth pervades this novel. How does Dickens use this theme? What does Dickens seem to be saying with it?
A Tale of Two Cities has been adapted to film seven times. The most popular and enduring productions were released in 1917, 1935, 1958, and 1980. The well produced 1917 silent version was released by Twentieth Century Fox, directed by Frank Lloyd, and starred William Farnum, Jewel Carmen, Joseph Swickard, Herschell Mayall, and Rosita Marstini. The 1935 black-and-white film released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer was a huge commercial and critical success. Produced by David O. Selznick and directed by Jack Conway, the film’s fine cast included Ronald Colman, Elizabeth Allan, Edna May Oliver, Reginald Owen, Basil Rathbone, Blanche Yurka, Isabel Jewell, Walter Catlett, Henry B. Wathall, H. B. Warner, and Donald Woods. A 1958 British production remained true to Dickens’s story. Directed by Ralph Thomas, it starred Dirk Bogarde, Dorothy Tutin, Cecil Parker, Stephen Murray, Athene Seyler, Christopher Lee, Donald Pleasance, and Ian Bannen. A 1980 made-for-television movie starred Chris Sarandon, Peter Cushing, Kenneth More, Barry Morse, Flora Robson, Billie Whitlaw, and Alice Krige. Directed by Jim Goddard and produced by Norman Rosemont, this version seldom departed from the events in the novel.