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Charles Dickens’ novel A Tale of Two Cities

Many have grown fond of the tale involving the noble, former French aristocrat, who had virtually unmatched (except maybe in books) good fortune. First, his life was saved by the pitiful testimony of a beautiful young woman (who doesn’t stand a chance at ever being a women’s-lib poster girl). Anyone would gladly have married this beautiful too-good-to-be-true-woman he wedded. It is later seen, however, that this man should have married her even if she were ugly as sin.

This was not the case though, and he married a beautiful woman, who had an admirer who was a dead ringer for her husband, was a loser, and would give his life to keep her from pain, all of which really comes in handy when her hubby is on his way to the guillotine. This is not the story of a man with multiple guardian angels, but rather that of a character in Charles Dickens’ novel A Tale of Two Cities. A skeptic could easily see this as an unbelievable, idealistic and overrated novel that is too far-fetched.

An unbiased reader, however, can see that this is a story of love and hate, each making up the bare-bones of the novel so that one must look closely to see Dickens’ biases, attempts at persuasion, and unbelievable plot-lines, some of which are spawned from Dickens’ love and hate, and some of which love and hate are used to develop. The more lifeless of the characters we are supposed to like–the Manettes, Darnay, Lorry– play their parts in the idyllic fashion Dickens and like-minded readers want, a fashion made inflexible by circumstances and purposes.

Circumstances and purposes” refers in large part to Dickens’ state of mind and objective. Dickens’ intrusive, unusually editorial point of view, with references to “I” and deviations from narration for monologue, reveals the novel’s slavery to the teachings of his morals–or perhaps his own slavery to the morals of his time and Protestantism. Therefore, can Lucie be any different from the supportive, wholly feminine wife and mother she is? Not if Dickens’ is to stick to his obligation, or perhaps obstinate purpose, of moral teachings. With that aside, what is to be said of Dickens’ teaching, his presentation of love and hate?

They both have one thing in common: the characters representing each are unmistakable at a mile away. The moment Lucie Manette is put before the reader’s eyes, her tumbling blond locks, her bright blue eyes, her seventeen-year-old, slight, pretty (but not sexy! ) figure and all, he knows that, not only will she not be a villainous, unlikable character, but she will be the epitome of the good, beautiful woman (and later housewife), the one Dickens thought every women should be. At this young woman’s introduction with Mr. Lorry, she curtseys to him, and Dickens wastes no time in pointing out that “young ladies made curtseys in those days”.

The introductory scene climaxes at fair Lucie’s fainting, one that, to some, puts her unflawed position into question, although to Dickens, it reinforces it. At the other side of this moral lecture are the Defarges. Call Dickens a master for embodying qualities, but here are another flawless pair–flawlessly evil, and sentenced to evil from the moment we see Madame Defarge’s “watchful eye that seldom seemed to look at anything, a large hand heavily ringed, a steady face, strong features, and great composure of manner”, a stark contrast to the slight, fainting figure of Mada– or rather, Miss Manette.

To further turn us against good old Madame Defarge, Dickens has her using a toothpick publicly in her opening scene, an activity dainty Miss Manette wouldn’t dream of. Finally, we mustn’t forget the setting. Lucie may have been born in France, but she defected to England, and traveled from London to meet Mr. Lorry. Madame Defarge was a Frenchwoman, born and living amongst peasants who drank wine scooped off of mud. She probably was not taught Dickens’ (and his primary English audience’s) Protestant morals in her Catholic nation, and certainly did not manifest them.

In arguably the book’s first touching scene (some say it’s the one where Carton is on his way to the guillotine), Lucie goes through much trouble to coax her father from his insanity, laying her head on his shoulder, and trusting a man she had never met. When Madame Defarge sought vengeance for the cruel injustice committed against her kin, she looked to destroy not only the innocent descendent of the culprit, but his family– an old man, a young woman, and a little girl. These two characters’ love and hate are unconditional and total.

Did this have to be so? Could not Madame Defarge have showed one bit of femininity, of human kindness? Could Lucie not have stolen a contemptuous glance at her persecutors? Not with Dickens at the helm. Lucie and Defarge are created with a conviction, and once Dickens’ plot was laid, the blinders he put on his characters allowed only one route. Perhaps it was a primitive style, but modern characters are painted more realistically, with human weaknesses and more variability. Did it have to be so?

Could Dickens have captured more readers, especially in the long run, if he had pursued more varying actions in his characters, as well as more humanness and believability? Does this point to Dickens as a flawed writer, with little imagination and ability? Another factor that must be considered is our inability to criticize an English–or English-living–character, or to find a modicum of respectability in a French one, with two exceptions. One is the young woman who is beheaded just before Sydney Carton.

She is the enemy of an enemy, she is going to be killed, and she allows Dickens to teach another moral using Sydney Carton. Why not have her happy to die for the benefit of her countrymen, while not trembling as she ascends to her death, thereby depriving the common enemy of a small victory? With the modern trend of political correctness and anti-racism, a Tale of Two Cities written today would never leave the word processor. Jerry Cruncher is about the most sinful of the English (aside from a spy but, remember, he defected to France), and he repents by the end, which counts for another moral from Dickens.

In Dickens’ time, racism was not regarded as it is today, and so if he wanted to use the French Revolution to send a message to the population, it was his right, but he may have taken this too far for some. Today, Lucie Manette would by no means be taken seriously as a believable, even likable character. She persists in fainting at particularly stressful moments, but when her husband is before a heartless, bloodthirsty jury, she looks brave and strong just for him. In context, this was a screaming contradiction, but one that Dickens required to portray his Eve.

It is much easier to believe Madame Defarge’s hate than her opposition’s love. Defarge’s sister was raped and murdered mercilessly and her brother was killed by a pair heartless “noblemen”. It is much easier to understand Defarge’s taste for blood than the condition of Manette, who, after practicing as a competent doctor and acting normally for years, experiences a recurrence of his mental condition simply because his wonderful daughter has left for two weeks, although he has two dear friends nearby.

Charles Dickens has built an enduring story enjoyed by millions, which is loved by experts and critics today although it would be immediately butchered if written by a modern author. It is a love story loved by its creator, but wholly unbelievable. It is actually doomed by its own idealism and unrealistic characters. As a hate story, it is much more competent, although also using this for its own purposes. One can draw one’s own conclusions and ideas from such a book, but facts are facts.

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