Discussion Post: A Tale of Two Cities
Those interested in entering the drawing for the beautiful Penguin Clothbound Classic must participate in at least one discussion before February 25. You can answer my questions below, ask your own, or just talk about what you liked and what you didn’t — anything counts. Our last classic will be The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, so start reading!
Last week, one of the questions focused on why Charles Dickens is found on more reading lists than Wilkie Collins. After reading A Tale of Two Cities, do you have a different answer for this question?
Yes, I do. I mentioned last week that I thought Dickens is favored solely because of his political commentary, but the truth is that Dickens is just a freaking genius. Collins is amazing, but Collins is amazing because he was the best of his particular form. Collins appears to be at his best when writing exciting romances about heiresses and lost fortunes, and his position as the possible forefather of the mystery genre is certainly deserved.
But Dickens can write romances as well as Collins, but simultaneously transcends and transforms the genre. A Tale of Two Cities combines historical fiction, political commentary, social commentary and Victorian romance in one absolutely beautifully-written and perfectly-constructed novel. Collins at his best has some neat little metaphors and some pleasingly convoluted plots; Dickens at his best gives me chills down the spine and makes me want to laugh and cry at the same time.
Jerry Cruncher the elder has a rather interesting relationship with his devout wife. What do you think is the real reason behind this dynamic? Is this relationship similar to others within the novel? How so?
Jerry Cruncher’s relationship with his wife is rocky at best, and while he constantly accuses her of praying against him because of his occupation as a grave-robber, probably Jerry is responding more to his own guilt about his occupation and is taking it out on her.
As for parallels, there is no exact parallel, though I was thinking at the time that possibly it could be compared to the relationship between the revolutionaries and the upper-class. The revolutionaries are striking out against the aristocrats because they feel (and often are) oppressed — but the people they harm are not the people responsible for the oppression. Here, too, there can be a tinge of guilt read into the actions of the Patriots.
Another possible comparison can be made between the relationship of the Crunchers and that between Sydney Carton and Lucie Manette, but only in the way that, at the end, a formerly shady character is redeemed by the Love of a Good Woman. Jerry comes to appreciate his wife, gives up his occupation, and even hope that she is in fact praying for him; Sydney finally finds a purpose to his formerly aimless life. Both the men are disappointed regarding the women through the book (Jerry because of his wife’s “flopping,” Sydney because he isn’t good enough to marry Lucie), but the novel ends with both of the men coming to terms with the women in their own ways.
The theme of the perfect, innocent child-woman is a prevalent one in Victorian literature. How does Lucie Manette fit this mold? What effect does this stereotyping have on the modern reader’s view of her character, and does she ever transcend this type to become more human?
By the end of this novel, I was praying that Madame Defarge would strangle Lucie with her bare hands. Lucie is variously referred to as “the golden thread,” “everything to everyone,” and everlastingly devoted to every one and everything. She is threatened with death in childbirth, which only adds to her angelic quality in Victorian terms, and her having buried a perfect, innocent, Christian child basically makes her a candidate to sainthood.
Not once does Lucie transcend this stereotype. I hoped she would; I looked for it constantly. But I couldn’t find anything human in her constant swooning, her trembling, her blind submission to husband and father, or her wide-eyed, Bambi-esque acceptance of the affection everyone heaps on her.
Lucie’s character is a victim of her time; she’s the quintessential model of the Victorian domestic angel. She’s the ideal every woman would have wanted to be, but whom no one actually was. Dickens has a tendency to essentially canonize his young female characters, and Lucie is no exception. Dickens has his strong female characters — Estella with her heartlessness, Biddy with her sarcasm or Miss Pross with her quirks and unexpected ferocity — but Lucie is just a glorified milk-sop.
Sorry this post is kind of lengthy — this is what happens when I like a book and finish it on time! See you all next week for Dorian.