The Books: “A Tale of Two Cities” (Charles Dickens)

Daily Book Excerpt: Adult fiction

TaleOf2Cities.jpgA Tale of Two Cities – by Charles Dickens

One of my favorite books ever.

The interesting thing to me is: You know how you’re forced to read books in high school? And sometimes you’re like: WHY am I being put through this TORTURE? Because you’re 14 years old, and you don’t get why an angry sea captain MUST track down a whale over 600 pages and what does it have to do with me??

Well, some of those books got through my self-involved teenager haze … a lot of that had to do, I think, with my teacher (Mr. Crothers!!) …. Even Mr. Crothers couldn’t help me like Billy Budd!! But Tale of Two Cities was on the curriculum in 10th grade – it was on the summer reading list – and I remember just DIGGING it. I had already read Dickens – for pleasure – Christmas Carol and also Oliver Twist. So he wasn’t like, oh, Thomas Hardy – who was completely unknown to me and a little bit more difficult to latch onto. (Very glad I went back and re-read Tess – it’s a terrific book, a total page-turner, actually! But in 10th grade, it was TOUGH, man, to finish that damn thing).

Here’s an old post I wrote about my high school literature curriculum – I have no memory of writing that, but it describes pretty well what I’m talking about.

And I re-read Tale of Two Cities earlier this year (posted about it here) and had SUCH a good time – It had been years since I read it. Here’s a post I wrote about Sydney Carton – one of my favorite fictional characters.

I mean: I LOVE him. You know? I think about him and I get a lump in my throat. I LOVE him.

Great great character. You think you know him. Then you read this and you realize: Oh God. His humanity. His loneliness. All else is a facade.

I love this book. I love it because of the characters – I mean, Madame defarge? She is everything that is despicable about our human race. And yet she is not a stereotype, or generalized. She is very very specific. She LIVES. Because evil people ilke her DO live. She is what makes a revolution. She still lives. She is among us. That “type”. She’s everywhere. We’ll never get rid of Madame Defarges. She’s part of us. She’s not an “aberration”, or a mistake. shivers. And weirdly: I remember getting that about her in high school. I don’t think I got all of it – but I got most of it. She terrified me. My friend J. and I would make jokes about Madame Defarge – and joke about how we would sit in the cafeteria at school and knit the names of people we hated into a scarf … we would laugh about how funny and weird that would be. Some bitch walking by that we hated, and she and I would snarl, and clack our knitting needles, putting the bitch’s name down … For what purpose? (shivers) Great creation – a great great character. Stalin would have loved her. And then would have killed her. Because that’s what always happens to fanatics like her in a revolution. That fanaticism you helped create, that rigid unforgiving unhuman atmosphere you helped promote – will turn around and get YOU. And you have no one to blame but your own evangelical fervor.

It was good to read it this last time, too, because I know a lot more about the French Revolution now than I did in high school – and the relationship between the French and the English at that time – and the whole “American” question, which really fucked everything up. So the panoramic sweeps across the English Channel – from one of the cities to the other – make a lot more sense to me now, at least in terms of the wider context.

I have so many favorite scenes, it’s hard to pick.

— when the wine bottle breaks and goes into the cobblestones outside the defarge shop
— the whole section about the increasing sound of footsteps outside the London house (great great section)
— the famous opening
— the whole chapter called “the Jackal”
— the two chapters about “knitting”

Dickens outdoes himself.

I decided to go with one of my favorite bits of writing in the book – where the sun comes up over the Monsieur the Marquis’ stone home. It’s funny – there were no motion pictures in Dickens’ day – he couldn’t have a “summer blockbuster” in his head as he wrote. But to me there is something very cinematic about his writing (I know this isn’t an original observation – many others before me have made it) His books usually translate very easily into movies … because he has already done half the work for the adaptation. This section about the sun coming up over the stone house is a perfect example. Dickens’ audience would obviously have not thought about “moving pictures” … but the thing about the prose is: You can SEE it. He is so so so good at description. You can SEE it, and you can see the slow camera pan over the objects he describes. It’s just so marvelous. And very very creepy. The house itself is alive. Look how Dickens starts the image – and brings it to its inevitable conclusion. Everything is deliberate. He’s a maestro here.

So. Finally. The excerpt.

EXCERPT FROM A Tale of Two Cities – by Charles Dickens

The stone faces on the outer walls stared blindly at the black night for three heavy hours; for three heavy hours the horses in the stables rattled at their racks, the dogs barked, and the owl made a noise with very little resemblance in it to the noise conventionally assigned to the owl by men-poets. But it is the obstinate custom of such creatures hardly ever to say what is set down for them.

For three heavy hours, the stone faces of the chateau, lion and human, stared blindly at the night. Dead darkness lay on all the landscape, dead darkness added its own hush to the hushing dust on all the roads. The burial-place had got to the pass that its little heaps of poor grass were undistinguishable from one another; the figure on the Cross might have come down, for anything that could be seen of it. In the village, taxers and taxed were fast asleep. Dreaming, perhaps, of banquets, as the starved usually do, and of ease and rest, as the driven slave and the yoked ox may, its lean inhabitants slept soundly, and were fed and freed.

The fountain in the village flowed unseen and unheard, and the fountain at the chateau dropped unseen and unheard – both melting away, like the minutes that were falling from the spring of Time – through three dark hours. Then, the grey water of both began to be ghostly in the light, and the eyes of the stone faces of the chateau were opened.

Lighter and lighter, until at last the sun touched the tops of the still trees, and poured its radiance over the hill. In the glow, the water of the chateau fountain seemed to turn to blood, and the stone faces crimsoned. The carol of the birds was loud and high, and, on the weather-beaten sill of the great window of the bedchamber of Monsieur the Marquis, one little bird sang its sweetest song with all its might. At this, the nearest stone face seemed to stare amazed, and, with opened mouth and dropped under-jaw, looked awe-stricken.

Now, the sun was full up and movement began in the village. Casement windows opened, crazy doors were unbarred, and people came forth shivering – chilled, as yet, by the new sweet air. Then began the rarely lightened toil of the day among the village population. Some, to the fountain; some, to the fields; men and women here, to dig and delve; men and women there, to see to the poor live stove, and lead the bony cows out, to such pasture as could be found by the roadside. In the church and at the Cross, a kneeling figure or two, attendant on the latter prayers, the led cow, trying for a breakfast among the weeds at its foot.

The chateau awoke later, as became its quality, but awoke gradually and surely. First, the lonely boar-spears and knves of the chase had been reddened as of old; then, had gleamed trenchant in the morning sunshine; now, doors and windows were thrown open, horses in their stables looked round over their shoulders at the light and freshness pouring in at doorways, leaves sparkled and rustled at iron-grated windows, dogs pulled hard at their chains, and reared impatient to be loosed.

All these trivial incidents belonged to the routine of life, and the return of morning. Surely, not so the ringing of the great bell of the chateau, nor the running up and down the stairs; nor the hurried figures on the terrace; nor the booting and tramping here and there and everywhere, nor the quick saddling of horses and riding away?

What winds conveyed this hurry to the grizzled mender of roads, already at work on the hill-top beyond the village, with his day’s dinner (not much to carry) lying in a bundle that it was worth no crow’s while to peck at, on a heap of stones? Had the birds, carrying some grains of it to a distance, dropped one over him as they sow chance seeds? Whether or no, the mender of roads ran, on the sultry morning, as if for his life, down the hill, knee-high in dust, and never stopped till he got to the fountain.

All the people of the village were at the fountain, standing about in their depressed manner, and whispering low, but showing no other emotions than grim curiosity and surprise. The led cows, hastily brought in and tethered to anything that would hold them, were looking stupidly on, or lying down chewing the cud of nothing particularly repaying their trouble, which they had picked up in their interrupted saunter. Some of the people of the chateau, and some of those of the posting-house, and all of the taxing authorities, were armed more or less, and were crowded on the other side of the little street in a purposeless way, that was highly fraught with nothing. Already, the mender of roads had penetrated into the midst of a group of fifty particular friends, and was smiting himself in the breast with his blue cap. What did all this portend, and what portended the swift hoisting-up of Monsieur Gabelle behind a servant on horseback, and the conveying away of the said Gabelle (double-laden though the horse was), at a gallop, like a new version of the German ballad of Leonora?

It portended that there was one stone face too many, up at the chateau.

The Gorgon had surveyed the building again in the night, and had added the one stone face wanting; the stone face for which it had waited through about two hundred years.

It lay back on the pillow on Monsieur the Marquis. It was like a fine mask, suddenly startled, made angry, and petrified. Driven home into the heart of the stone figure attached to it, was a knife. Round its hilt was a frill of paper, on which was scrawled:


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11 Responses to The Books: “A Tale of Two Cities” (Charles Dickens)

  1. steve on the mountain says:

    Yeah, just yeah. I was Dickens obsessed as a teen. Read ’em all. And the movies? Saw ’em all.
    For me, Ronald Colman is Sidney Carton, Alastair Sim is Scrooge, Alec Guinness is Fagin (and Herbert Pocket), W.C. Fields is Micawber, etc. and so forth and so on and on.

  2. Ted says:

    I so agree with you about Dickens translating to film, not only because you can see it off the page – and wow can you, I so love him for this too – but also because he creates actual dramatic scenes to frame his pictures so that you care to see! Isn’t he amazing? Have you seen the BBC Bleak House? I haven’t yet and was waiting to read it until I did, but I can wait until you’ve finished it too if you want to try to watch it together. I think it’s 6 episodes.

  3. Sharon Ferguson says:

    I think thats one of the reasons why I fell so in love with the book in high school, being very involved in the theatre then…reading Dickens was like being in it. I could never picture myself in TOTC, but I wanted to be very badly, even if it was just as Invisible Bystander.

    I LOVED Ronald Coleman, but James Wilby in the Masterpiece Theatre version darn near tops him. The only thing I didnt like about the MT version of TOTC was that it always felt like they only wrote half the script. All too often a two or three characters would show up in a screenshot, only ONE of them would speak, and have a whole monologue in doing it, and then the scene would switch. This REALLY didnt work when it came time for Sydney to fess up to Lucy (She wants him! WANTS. HIM. BAD. Why else does she let him hang around????????). There’s Sydney pouring his heart out and all she can do is stand there and cry. Bleh.

    But James Wilby *sigh*…I always did have a thing for the Tall, Blonde, and English…

  4. red says:

    //reading Dickens was like being in it.//

    Yes, that’s so true.

    I can taste the food, smell the filth in London, feel the chill in the air – and he does it seemingly so simply. Like – without any “Ooh, I’m a lyrical writer” fanfare.

    But he actually IS a very lyrical writer!

    And sharon – that last scene – when Sydney sort of confesses his sacrifice to the woman next to him …

    I just can’t even think about it without getting all trembly. Her response!!!

  5. Sharon Ferguson says:

    OH I KNOW!!! Kinda erotic isnt it? LOL

  6. Sharon Ferguson says:

    *blush* and I did NOT write that, okay???

  7. Sharon Ferguson says:

    Guess I was thinking the whole scene was so vastly intimate to the very end…

  8. red says:

    Ted – I have heard only MARVELOUS things about that BBC Bleak House – my parents saw it and raved about it.

    I still have so far to go with the book – no time to read these days – but I will get back to it – I imagine I will finish it by the end of this month.

  9. red says:

    Oh and Sharon – you should know by now that I would only applaud you thinking a scene from literature was erotic and that you had a crush on Sydney Carton!! hahahaha Go, you!

    I agree, though. I wonder: to me there’s something special about Carton, in terms of the rest of Dickens’ work. Like; he was strumming a very very deep chord within himself (I’m projecting) – and that’s why Carton came out the way he did. I don’t know – perhaps it was just his powers as an observer – but to me, Sydney Carton is one of his fullest and most EMOTIONAL characters.

    And I agree that he is sexy.

    It’s rare that a character from literature is actually sexy. I’m trying to think of some other examples. And he’s not sexy because of what he looks like, or any romantic scenes we get to live vicariously. He is sexy because he LIVES and what is in his heart is so hidden to most of the world but fully revealed to US.

    And isn’t that sometimes what falling in love feels like? You see something in that other person that maybe the rest of the world doesn’t see … and it seems PERSONAL … like that revealed heart is meant for YOU.

    It’s really hard to do that in literature because so many writers either give away too much or give away too little.


    I’m trying to think of other characters who affected me on such a visceral level as Sydney Carton and I’m having a hard time. I’ll keep pondering, though – I know they’re out there.

  10. Ted says:

    I can’t imagine I’m going to be able to have that much leisure time until christmas break, but we could aim for then?

  11. 2007 Books Read

    (in the order in which I finished them, understanding that very often I read many books at the same time). I count re-read books, by the way. I’ll include links to any posts or book excerpts I might have done…

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