A Tale of Two Cities
Let me tell you two secrets about A Tale of Two Cities.
1. Dickens had a dope sense of humor. I dare you not to giggle, smirk, or guffaw.
a. Describing Jerry Cruncher’s head: “Except on the crown, which was raggedly bald, he had stiff, black hair, standing jaggedly all over it, and growing downhill almost to his broad, blunt nose. It was so like smith’s work, so much more like the top of a strongly spiked wall than a head of hair, that the best of players at leap-frog might have declined him, as the most dangerous man in the world to go over.”
b. Describing Miss Pross, the Great Protector: “A wild-looking woman, whom, even in his agitation, Mr. Lorry observed to be all of a red colour, and to have red hair, and to be dressed in some extraordinary tight-fitting fashion, and to have on her head a most wonderful bonnet like a Grenadier wooden measure, and good measure too, or a great Stilton cheese….”
c. Describing the employees at Tellson’s Bank (which always makes me think of Gringott’s): “When they took a young man into Tellson’s London house, they hid him somewhere till he was old. They kept him in a dark place, like a cheese, until he had the full Tellson flavour and blue-mould upon him. Then only was he permitted to be seen, spectacularly poring over large books, and casting his breeches and gaiters into the general weight of the establishment.”
d. This one sounds like something you’d hear in my house: “The time, half-past seven of the clock on a windy March morning Anno Domini seventeen hundred and eighty. (Mr. Cruncher himself always spoke of the year of our Lord as Anna Dominoes: apparently under the impression that the Christian era dated from the invention of a popular game, by a lady who had bestowed her name upon it.)”
e. Dickens even jokes about the guillotine: “It was the popular theme for jests; 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.”
2. One word: Symmetry: The novel begins in 1775, but immediately introduces a character who was unjustly imprisoned 18 years in the past, in 1757. The course of the novel, then, runs from 1775 to 1793, which is 18 years. You don’t even realize it starts precisely in medias res until you do the math at the end. Indeed, the novel is an arching ode to symmetry with its balanced cast of goodly pure and evilly destructive characters, of sin and redemption, of doubt and faith.
Take-Away: I know you hated this book in high school, but that was when you were impatient, busy with meaningless drama, and – let’s face it – a little self-centered. You’ve grown up since then, right? If you’ve become a person who has ever loved or sacrificed (or sacrificed for someone you loved), then it’s time to pick up this one again. And since we are indeed living in the best of times and the worst of times, A Tale of Two Cities is one of the most timely ways to spend your time.