This, one of Charles Dickens most iconic novel, provides a human-level perspective of the French Revolution. The story spans the two cities in the title (London and Paris) and shows how the impacts of the revolution were far reaching enough that people living in England could have felt their ripples.
As Dickens always does, he goes to great lengths to highlight the struggles of poor people. He’ll show people living in the absolutely worst levels of poverty, then contrast it against overly decedent affluent people, and illustrate how ignorant, or even downright unsympathetic they are of the people around them.
Of course, he shows us the poor people struggling in France before the revolution, but he also shows the struggles of the poor in England too. He doesn’t shy away from the terrible realities of the revolution, and how a lot of the worst off people ended up in equally horrible situations afterwards. He does a good job of illustrating the parallels with English life, and how the country can hardly be said to be any better.
I have come to associate Dickens with satire. A lot of what I’ve read by him before has shone a light onto social injustices, but with a smidgen of comedy. While I appreciate that style, A Tale of Two Cities is much grittier, and there’s significantly less humour that I expect from him. He is indignant about awful situations, and rightfully indignant too. It was different, but in no way worse off for it.
The main story is about a man named Dr. Manette who, after being imprisoned for years in France, is freed to live with his daughter in England, who then marries a man named Charles Darney. The circumstances of their birth, and their family history, all end up causing them significant problems. As changes begin to happen on the world’s stage, it’s ordinary people who are left to suffer. There are several other people in their life too, who all get a pretty decent amount of time in the spotlight, but it’s their story that everything else is built around.
I became invested in the whole cast, and as it built to its climax, I was genuinely anxious for the wellbeing of all of them. What actually happens at the end (which I won’t spoil) is one of the most emotionally powerful things I’ve ever read. I won’t deny that certain parts of the story were a little on the dry side, but it’s well worth sticking with for the profound human drama and the fascinating history lesson.