Thursday, February 27, 2014

A Tale of Two Dickenses

An upcoming staging of a stage production of A Tale of Two Cities here in Chicago made me realize that I've not read it since high school, so, before I finally embark on The Old Curiosity Shop, my last unread Dickens, I'm turning to the Tale.

A Tale of Two Cities occupies an odd place in Dickens's oeuvre, at least in America. Huge numbers of students read it as a middle school or high school assignment, with only Great Expectations coming even close to it in popularity on syllabi. Presumably for most of those people, it's the only Dickens novel they'll ever read. Its choice as a textbook is understandable: it has a tie to important and (relatively) familiar and easily explained historical events, it offers easily (too easily) explored moral lessons, and its plot features moments of high drama.

For a Dickens fan, however, what's more important is what's missing. It's the only Dickens novel--even counting the books like Martin Chuzzlewit and Barnaby Rudge, that border on being failures--that doesn't offer any truly memorable characters, and it is also the only one that is utterly devoid of humor. Dickens himself described it as a sort of experiment in a letter to John Forster in 1859:
I set myself the little task of making a picturesque story, rising in every chapter with characters true to nature, but whom the story itself should express, more than that they should express themselves, by dialogue. I mean, in other words, that I fancied a story of incident might be written, in place of the odious stuff that is written under that pretence, pounding the characters out in its own mortar, and beating their own interest out of them. If you could have read the story all at once, I hope you wouldn't have stopped halfway.
It's hard not to admire Dickens for trying something new that late in his career, but the problem is that by going away from dialogue and self-expressing characters, he was going away from his strengths. The critical reception reflected that: in Charles Dickens: The Critical Heritage, Philip Collins calls the roll:
It "pleased nobody," according to the Eclectic Review (October 1861); for Adolphus Ward (1870) it was "one of the very few of Mr Dickens's works which require an effort in the perusal."
The only people, it seems who liked it initially were Forster, Thomas Carlyle, whose history of the French Revolution formed its ground and who deemed it "wonderful," and Wilkie Collins, who called it "Dickens's most perfect work of constructive art."

Reading it in high school was my first encounter with Dickens, and I loved it. I was utterly caught up in the drama, and in Sydney Carton's overcoming of his own bad nature. Even a terrible teacher and a classroom technique that consisted almost solely of having the students read aloud at their desks, one sentence per person, consecutively, couldn't dull the excitement it offered. Rereading it, however, I find myself less satisfied. I miss the fire of Dickens's prose at its most inventive, and I very much miss the twinkling eyes of his humor. Ultimately, I find I come down near where Claire Tomalin does:
It is true that the plot is too long drawn out and elaborate; . . and that the depiction of the ancien regime is somewhat mechanical in its horrors, the characters like emblematic puppets representing good and evil--virtuous doctor, perfect daughter and wife, wicked marquis, vengeful woman of the people.
And that not to mention that the "perfect daughter and wife" is yet another of Dickens's insipid, unbelievable, flawlessly dull female characters.

Yet Tomalin is right in how she concludes:
The climax of the action is preposterous and deeply sentimental, but the tension is so built up that Carton's famous last words before the guillotine--"It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done . . ."--make their effects on all but the most determinedly stony hearts. This is Dickens the showman, amusing his people and drawing their tears.
What's perhaps most interesting about A Tale of Two Cities--drawn, as noted above, with as clear lines of black and white, good and evil, as ever he would use--is that within a little more than a year Dickens would publish Great Expectations, his most morally complicated and interesting novel, the one book of his that fully acknowledges ambiguity. And after that, of course, we would have Our Mutual Friend, as brooding a book as he ever wrote, and the stump of Drood, whose shadows seem likely to have matched it. For all the violence and horror of the Tale, its moral certainties make it essentially an untroubling book, and give no hint of the complexity to come.

1 comment:

  1. No truly memorable characters? I feel called upon to defend the honor - and interest - of that true Englishwoman and unexpected heroine, Miss Pross. Even had she not been impersonated by Edna May Oliver, I think she would have to quality as interesting in a Dickensian way.