Wednesday, December 07, 2005

A Tale of Two Cities

A Tale of Two Cities: High School Book Review

1. Book: A Tale of Two Cities

2. Author: Charles Dickens

3. Genre: Historical Fiction

4. Setting: The Book takes place in France and England during the late seventeen hundreds. Dickens probably described the mood of the book best himself when he wrote, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times...” The book shows both hope and joy contrasted with violence and hate.

5. Characters
Lucie Manette: A young English lady, with long golden curls. She has a forehead that moves when she thinks too hard, and most men find this attractive. Perfect in almost anything, she is extremely devoted to her father, and to a lesser extent her husband. She cries easily and doesn't take shocking news well.

Charles Darnay: A perfect gentleman. He is a French nobleman by nature, but lives in England. He is unique among his kind in that he cares for the poor. A very caring person, as evidenced by his attitudes towards Lucie.

Sydney Carton: He looks exactly like Darnay. He feels like his life has been wasted. He has an excellent memory, and is a valuable asset to his friend Stryver. Dickens frequently compares Carton to a Jackal

6. Theme: The theme is that all life is important. In the beginning, the aristocrats treat the peasants’ life as nothing. After the revolution, the peasants see the aristocrats life as nothing, but Sydney Carton, whose own life is wasted, makes the ultimate sacrifice to protect the life of his friend.

7. Rating: On a scale of one to ten, I would give this book an eight. Most of it was very interesting, such as the French Revolution bits and all the spies. I did, however, find some parts to be dry (described more fully in #8).

“A Tale of Two Cities” by Charles Dickens, was overall a good book. As Dickens himself states when the book first opens, these were turbulent and interesting times, and his story of lovers caught in them is fascinating. If this review ends up giving a negative impression of the book, that is only because it is easier to be negative than positive. I did like the book.

The book takes place in both London and Paris (hence the title) in the late seventeen hundreds. The French Revolution is the background against which the story unfolds, so the book is historical fiction. I suspect Dickens has taken a lot of liberties with the history involved. I haven’t done any research, so I can’t say for certain, but I’m pretty sure most of his characters are fictitious, and so the important role they played in the French Revolution in Dicken's book never actually occurred in real life.

Throughout the book, Dickens had an eye for detail that sometimes irritated me. I would be anxious to get on with the story, and Dickens would be describing something in more detail than I cared to know about. His lengthy descriptions about how old fashioned Tellson's Bank is, for instance, something I could have done without. It also seemed terribly inconsistent to me. Here Dickens would describe a few minutes in great detail, here he would cover six years in a few paragraphs (such as when he is telling about how Lucie and Charles had one daughter, and a son who died only a few years after he was born). But, better too much description than too little, I suppose. And compared with some other books I have read, Dickens wasn't really all that bad.

As too the plot, the ending was painfully obvious even from the beginning of the book. The fact that Sydney Carton felt his life was a waste was emphasized so much it became obvious he would perform some great act of self-sacrifice before the end of the book to redeem himself. Also, the fact that he told Lucie he would gladly sacrifice his life for someone he loves adds to the feeling of inevitability. And, of course, the incredibly coincidence that Carton and Darnay look exactly alike (which I felt was a bit of an unbelievable coincidence) was too big of a coincidence not to be used in some way that would affect the plot.

While I may have seen that part coming, Dickens did have plenty of other surprises that I did not expect. For example, I did not expect that Misses Pross's brother Solomon would turn out to be John Barsad. Nor did I expect that Roger Cly was still alive. Or the whole story about why Dr. Manette had been locked up in the Bastille in the first place. And finally, the biggest surprise to me was that Madame Dafarge was the last surviving member of the peasant family victimized by the Evremondes.

Without a doubt, my favorite sections of the book were those dealing with Defarge, Jacques, and the rest of the French Revolution. The secret signals the Jacques had, such as Madame Defarge putting a rose in her hair to indicate when a spy was present, and the way they had hidden contacts all over to obtain information, reminded me of cold-war era spy movies. The noble cause for which they worked made me feel sympathetic to them, and even near the end of the book when they become the antagonists of Charles Darnay I never quite grew to hate them. I think I would have enjoyed the book immeasurably more if it had featured the Jacques as its main subject, instead of Lucie Mannette and Charles Darnay.

As to those to characters, they were, in my opinion, the most boring of the whole book. Jerry Cruncher was humorous, Carton was a likeable scoundrel, even Mr. Lorry was amusing as a man who dedicated his whole life to business. Every character in the whole book has some sort of quirk to make them interesting except for the main characters Charles and Lucie. When they spoke, it was much too formal and polite, and not at all like real people talk. Also, they were much too perfect. They could always be counted on to do the right thing, and didn’t have any signs of human fallibles in their moral character. Take for instance Lucie’s extreme devotion to her father, or Darnay’s sense of responsibility. I guess the only time you could fault either of them was on Darnay’s unwise decision to return to France.

This decision reminded me of many of the horror movies I have seen. In a horror movie, the audience knows that great danger awaits a character if they go to a certain place or do a certain thing. And all logic seems to scream at the character not to go to this place or do this thing. However ultimately the audience knows that the character must make this choice, and suffer the consequences, if for no other reason than to keep the plot moving in its intended decision.

So it was with Darnay’s decision to return to France. From the moment the Defarges were talking about what great danger would await Darnay if he ever returned to France, I knew he would somehow end up back there. Darnay’s decision does not seem particularly logical either. The narrator states Darnay felt shamed by the remarks made by the aristocrats and Stryver, but Darnay never seemed worried about their opinions before. He had rejected his life with the aristocrats and his life with them, and he had turned down Styrver’s children as pupils. Sure, Gabelle was in danger, but as a member of the aristocracy Darnay must have realized there was precious little he could do to save him. Finally, Darnay was taken by surprise by the extreme political situation and the new laws in France. Why didn't he bother to find out more before he left England?

Having expressed the book’s faults, I think it wise to close the same way I started, restating that the book was very good, and I enjoyed reading it. The above negatives are but a slight complaint for an overall good thing.

Grade: A

Teacher’s Comments: Your review was delightful Joel! I appreciate your honesty and forcefulness. Well done!

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