thoughts on books: a tale of two cities

Such a lovely book that captured the full range of emotions! I’m a fan of Charles Dickens – from my first read of Oliver Twist when I was in middle school and through Great Expectations, A Christmas Carol, and so on. The books often have elements of fun and adventure as well as unflinching views of poverty, oppression, injustice, and vulnerability. There is a reason why the word dickensian has entered the vernacular. And this is a fairly short book, especially for Dickens!

The book has its very well-known opening and closing lines that set the stage and wrap it all up …

  • It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way, ….
  • 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.

Although I enjoyed the characters in A Tale of Two Cities, I think I liked the plot more. The series of events forced the characters to grow and change – to become, in most cases, better, more responsible, and more responsive people. There is a theme of rebirth and renewal in the story, as people seek to change themselves and start new chapters in their lives. This happens to several characters in one way or another. Some pretend to be someone other than who they are, while some are in hiding or emerge from the shadows. They demonstrate their love, some in unexpected ways. The book serves as a reminder to have some humility and realize that one is not able to control everything – as more than one character comes to realize.

The juxtaposition of the two cities and what went on in them was striking – routine in one, chaos in the other. The Revolution played out in unexpected ways. My bias is usually “with the people” and the right to a decent life, so it was in some ways difficult to read about how the “citizens” started to treat one another. The poor and subjugated people in society were horribly treated by the wealthy and powerful. Their cause is understandable. But, revolutions are messy and innocent people get hurt – it’s a good reminder that there is a downside to all that energy! The story emphasized how the violence inherent in fighting the powers that be were turned against other people and personal vendettas led to vigilante actions. The bloodlust that can emerge when violence and mob rule become routine is difficult to watch, as it can replace the process of seeking justice and a better life with a focus on revenge for past sins, acts, and slights. We see these things happen today – in many ways, nothing changes.

The duality theme – two cities, two people who look alike, the duplicity of spies, and characters entering at the beginning and the end – was so well-done without being heavy handed. There is a parallel structure that makes it possible to see the flip side of actions, including freedom versus imprisonment. Some instances of hiding identities were good and protective actions, other instances allowed for sinister activities to take place. The life of calm versus the life of chaotic overthrow are played out, but with it the hope for something better.

When I read great books, I tend to come away feeling “respected” as a reader. It’s like the author knew that I would make the links without him/her having to do it for me. These books make me think and to consider events, topics, characters and the use of language. This is a 5/5 – pretty much knew that coming in, as it was a re-read, but it was nice to have it confirmed.

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