Inspiration in a tragic city


Bantam Classic cover of A Tale of Two Cities (from Dickens’ historical novel “A Tale of Two Cities” is what it says it is–a study in contrasts.

It is a tale of polarities, of evil and good, of fear and calm, of cowardice and heroism, of hate and love, of revenge and forgiveness. And its famous beginning sets the tone for it all.

It is a tale where the physical mimics the emotional and the social. A protagonist emerges one night into “the heavy mist of the heavy streets, with a heavier heart.”

Much is made of the “stony business” of a marquis’ chateau, whose stone courtyard, staircase, terrace, and statues are as hard as the heart of its master.

And the raging and rumbling of the sea is in fact a mass of angry Parisians storming the Bastille prison.

Only after college did I have time to fully read what I first found abridged in elementary.

Reading it now reacquainted me with the distant characters of a vaguely familiar story. Revisiting its style, I realized why the English author was one of my favorites. And reliving its period reminded me of the interest it first gave me for 1700-1800s Europe.

All happens in a space of three “books”–evidence of Dickens’ adjectives and long sentences that outline scenery, detail, his inserted musings, or his penchant for repeating words and alliterating sounds.

Read how with jest he precisely portrayed the period’s grimmest symbol:

La Guillotine (from“It was the best cure for headache, it infallibly prevented the hair from turning grey, it imparted a peculiar delicacy to the complexion, it was the National Razor which shaved close: who kissed La Guillotine, looked through the little window and sneezed into the sack. It was the sign of the regneration of the human race. It superseded the Cross. Models of it were worn on breasts from which the Cross was discarded, and it was bowed down to and believed in where the Cross was denied.

“It sheared off heads so many, that it, and the ground it most polluted, were a rotten red. It was taken to pieces, like a toy-puzzle for a young Devil, and was put together again when the occasion wanted it. It hushed down the eloquent, struck down the powerful, abolished the beautiful and good.”

But I liked best how Dickens let the scene and the conversation convey the emotion, as the best storytellers do. At times you laugh or smile at his irony or sarcasm.

Near the end, two ladies–one on the hunt, the other to defend–talk and fight in their own tongues:

“You might, from your appearance, be the wife of Lucifer,” said Miss Pross (to Frenchwoman Defarge), in her breathing. “Nevertheless, you shall not get the better of me. I am an Englishwoman.”

Other times you yell out in anger at the actions of democracy gone haywire, of a crowd that knows not what it does, yet all the while reasons out why.

The melancholy air leads to a bitter sweet climax. You feel it need not end that way, but history says it has to.

At best, it is a tale of redemption. The scion of a family of oppressors rejects his heritage, and an indifferent man looks beyond himself to find purpose.

Contemplating his life, the man, Sydney Carton, yields all:

The prayer that had broken up out of his heart for a merciful consideration of all his poor blindnesses and errors, ended in the words, “I am the resurrection and the life.”

Carton secretly switches with the first man, Darnay, who is condemned to the guillotine despite his choice.

"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." -Carton, in the novel's final line

Following the duo of practically everything in the novel, evil reigns in the end–if only for good to even clearly stand out.

E-text downloaded from Project Gutenberg


4 comments on “Inspiration in a tragic city

  1. If I were a high school lit teacher, I’d grade this with a 100%. Hahah! Do I remember it right that you were the one I was talking to about being disillusioned the moment I learned the the Great Illustrated Classics of our childhood were abridged versions? Haha.

    • Thank you Mimi! Reading it again, I wondered where did the writer who did that go? Its points were clear, flowing, and inspired. Now I dunno why I can’t write another review again. I need that inspiration badly!

      Yes, I remember finding someone who got introduced to the greats with Great Illustrated Classics. Albeit abridged, they sparked many a kid’s imagination. Thank you to my school for requiring Grade 5 students to donate such copies to the library as English projects! 🙂

  2. Pingback: The Bookshelf: Intro to Christie | PinoyJourn: Stories behind the Stories

  3. Pingback: The Bookshelf: Great expectations, great discontent | PinoyJourn: Stories behind the Stories

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