Wednesday, March 27, 2013

A Tale of Two Cities - Grace in Fiction

The Storming of the Bastille
Whether I will re-read a book depends on the middle. Having a good beginning and a good end are just half the battle if the journey between is mediocre. I read and re-read my favorite trilogy: The Lord of the Rings because it is about a quest, a battle against evil, and every bit of it is essential to the ending.

Upon finishing Charles Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities, something unique happened. I mean, other than the fact that I bawled my eyes out, which rare enough in itself. But as I turned the last pages, I wanted to sit down and read the whole thing again. Right there. Right then. Several times. I’ve actually had to force myself not to do so, in the month since, because I have other things to do.
What about it appealed so deeply to me? That’s not exactly the best question. The best question is: what about it appeals to hundreds of millions of people worldwide? According to Wikipedia, it’s the number one bestselling fiction book of all time, with approximately 200 million sales. (Fun fact: Lord of the Rings takes second places with 150 million – The Hobbit fourth with 100 million.) This book obviously appeals to more than just one blogger in Appalachia. It caters to more than just Americans. There is something about this book, and Rings, that speak to the depths of human desire. It touches on themes that transcend culture and time. 

Christopher Lee in A Tale of Two Cities (1958)
The first of these is love. In some ways, it’s a sappy romance, complete with love triangle (or quadrangle if you count a certain lion). Two Cities is a historical novel, set about a hundred years before it was written, during the lead-up to the French Revolution (France and it rulers seem to be the number one catalyst for drama - see Hornblower, the Pimpernel, Aubrey and Maturin, Les Miserables).

In a classic Dickensian fashion, the tale starts in the fog, with darkness and distrust, but quirky characters and a beautiful heroine. Mr. Jarvis Lorry—of Tellson’s Bank—travels to meet young Lucie Manette, with news of her long-lost father. Their subsequent journey intersects with that of Charles Darnay, a Frenchman suspected of treason. Throw into the mix Lucie’s father, Dr. Manette, who has some pretty dark secrets, Jerry, a wild-haired bank messenger, and Sydney Carton, a tragic ne’er-do-well lawyer. Their path careens onward into the dark days of the revolution, punctuated with the interweaving of old secrets, long-held vendettas, and new romances.

I hesitate to detail more of the plot, as the gradual unfolding of mystery after mystery is part of the fun. But that’s not the final word on its success. After all, if the solutions to the mystery were the best part, I would only read it once. However, despite the fact that I’d already had the most important plot twist spoiled, I finished it a week earlier than scheduled. I devoured it. It’s a masterpiece of plotting and organization alone. There’s not a stray sentence, not an unnecessary chapter or character—it all ties in. Though it was written in 1859, it reads like it was written yesterday, with the caveat that some faults are just Dickens being Dickens. Some have said the novel lacks humor, but I found it quite hilarious at moments, despite the over-arching melodrama. The prose dips and soars with far better metaphors than I can think of at the moment, and the symbolism is rich and intricate.

Ronald Coleman in A Tale of Two Cities (1935)
So, a great page-turner, a love story, a mystery, the French as bad guys—these things tend to appeal universally, but I still don’t think that’s the whole story. There are some things that the world desperately wants, even if it won’t admit it: redemption, sacrifice, and resurrection. Two Cities has these things by the boatload, just as Rings does.

Amid the black bloody dancing evil of the revolution is the purity of love, the nobility of sacrifice, and the promise of ultimate renewal. But unlike the covert symbolism of Tolkien’s masterpiece, Dickens overtly ties these ideas to Christianity, taking as his theme the verse from John 11: “I am the resurrection and the life.” He works the theme throughout the entire story, both figuratively and literally.

As I said, I don’t want to spoil it, but once again I’ve discovered the way that the glory of the Gospel can shine through stories of grace. It should be the purpose of all Christian fiction to point people to Christ, directly or indirectly. I think that Two Cities, and Rings, for that matter, both do that. And while I come away with a resounding respect for Dickens’s prose and plotting, I was more moved by the beauty of this idea of resurrection which pervades the story, despite the horrendous carnage of the Revolution—I wept for the fact that there is an afterlife to write about. I came away having been pointed to Christ. Fiction slipped under the door and made these two books the best-selling novels of all time. The world knows what it needs.

Happy Easter,


  1. Oh great. Now I have to move Two Cities up my list, in front of all those other ones I just put there.... But thanks for the review! Now I know it will definitely be worth reading, and not simply for the fact that it's a classic. (And a Dickens). Sigh...all these books I'm trying to read!

    1. I guess it's not everyone's cup of tea, but it immediately jumped onto my favorites list. Great tale of good and evil and grave-robbery. ;D

  2. I'm even more intrigued.... ;D And honestly--it's so odd to see Christopher Lee young!! I saw you put that it was him, and I was like, "W-what?!" and had to look. It's so interesting!

    1. The movie was good, but not as good as the book. I'm meaning to look up the other adaptations when I have time. Christopher Lee was extreeeeeemely young in that 1958 film, and he didn't have The Voice. Ian Bannen was in it too, one of my favorite actors, and Dirk Bogarde, who was much cuter than in A Bridge Too Far (which I watched right before that).

  3. A wonderful review of my favorite novel!

    Personally, the 1958 movie is my favorite adaptation. Ronald Colman is a very good Carton, but (in my opinion) he can't hold a candle to Bogarde.

    1. The 1958 is the only one I've seen so far, and it was pretty good. Bogarde was very smooth and sarcastic a la Richard E. Grant's Scarlet Pimpernel, but didn't really cover the deep sadness of Carton imho. Coleman (from the clips on YouTube) did seem a little bit more sober and tragic, but for some reason the production reminded me of A Wonderful Life. I kept expecting Jimmy Stewart to dash across the screen.

      In the mean time, I want to read the novel again. It was one of the last novels of my senior year, and I just graduated, so I'll have some free time.


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