It is generally accepted that the difference between writing reportage and writing a novel, or a story, is the use of characters and emotion. In A Tale of Two Cities we don’t just learn the facts about the disparity of wealth between rich and poor in 18th century Paris that led to the French Revolution; we see and feel it through people with names who laugh, cry and love. These people who in turn life, cry and love, with other people, and for other people.
The genius of Dickens is that he can create a work with such a momentous back-cloth as The French Revolution and can reflect it with the gravitas, but also the everyday, feelings and emotions of the characters he creates living through these events. He takes the general and momentous, but potentially abstract events of history, and breathes into them life. We can laugh, cry and love with characters through one of the most significant events in world history.
For the novel to succeed we must have a story and a balance that reflects these momentous events. Through the story of Madame Defarge we have an understanding of the cruelties and insensitivity that caused the revolution. Through the story of Dr. Alexandre Manette we feel the awful pain and injustice of the fledgling and emotionally driven First Republic. Through Charles Darney and Lucie Manette we have a story of love that finds itself at the mercy of this seemingly arbitrary system of law with the wonderfully described knitting ladies sitting beside the guillotine and enjoying the spectacle.
For Dickens to do this well is reason enough for ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ to be forever regarded as a masterpiece, but this isn’t the reason why I love this novel. As if the story of his characters living through the French Revolution was not enough, Dickens, as the master story teller he is, creates an ending that demonstrates how, in the most barbaric of times there is something in the human spirit that shines through. Sydney Carton could be seen as representing all that is a paradoxical in Christianity’s fallen man yet his final act is one of pure altruistic giving. It leaves you thinking that even The French Revolution was part of a bigger story. That Dickens pulls this off is his genius. Because of Sydney Carton I love A Tale of Two Cities.