Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Modern Tale of Two Cities

I just finished reading Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. It took me a while (I am not a fast reader) but I really enjoyed it. It is not exactly easy to get into this novel – I guess the 1859 English (the year that book was written) did not help but overall it is a great read. Dickens is very effective at using personal stories (those of a French family having settled in England and of a couple of Paris-based tavern owners mainly) and weaving them into that time’s events.

Tale of Two Cities has become the book of reference about the French Revolution in the English-speaking world even though Dickens himself never claimed his novel related actual stories collected from witnesses. The 60+-year difference between the time he wrote the novel and the French Revolution would not have made that easy anyway.

There are a couple of things that I found remarkable in the book, some of which turned out to be very “modern", i.e. be relevant today:
1) The first few chapters describe the condition of France’s common people in the 1770’s and 1780’s and Dickens suggests masterfully that the abuse they are taking – they are considered less than human beings - cannot last forever. For instance, the accidental death of a child (son of some peasant) that is run over by a Marquis’s carriage is viewed as a nuisance (to him…) by that Marquis. It causes him inconvenience. No feelings there whatsoever for the child and his parents because that kid is a lesser human being at best. It does not sound hugely different from the way slaves were treated in this country's plantations…

2) Dickens portrays the French Revolution as a terrible thing frankly. The end – and climax – of the book takes place around 1793-94 at the worst of the so-called Terror (no picture needed there) and thus, makes little mention of the few years between the time the Bastille was seized in 1789 and the era when the Terror began. By then, the whole thing which was at first a huge and successful liberation movement had become a bloodshed.

3) With that preamble, it is not surprising that horror seems inevitable in the second half of the book. That era seems marked by chaos and indiscriminate murder supported by the populace who seems to have lost any sense of what life is worth. Increasingly, the entire population is at risk actually and anyone irrespective of his/her social class can be brought to the Guillotine and executed.

4) That leads me to the last remark about the very modern nature of the book. While I was reading the last 50 pages that describe the heyday of the Terror period, I got a sense of what massive killings, indiscriminate bloodshed, and civil war could be. One of the main characters, Madame Defarge, the wife in the couple owning that tavern, becomes more and more obsessed with vengeance and fascinated with the Guillotine (that takes a quasi sacred place for her). She wants as many folks as possible to be executed, under the premise that they are all enemies of the Republic. Another central character, Dr Manette, becomes her target even though the guy is almost a saint, having been a prisoner at the Bastille under the Old Regime (which gained him a great reputation) and served as a doctor in prisons, honoring the Republic. She gets to a point where she can not trust her husband himself (who took care of Manette many years before but is like his wife full of hatred and resentment) and talks to friends of hers about her plot against Manette, admitting that she sadly cannot rely on her husband to bring Manette to justice…
Next thing I thought (and the book ends shortly after) is that one day she would start having suspicions about her husband and in her eyes, he too would need to be executed as an enemy of the Republic... Very interesting to see how that slippery slope can work and how one can turn against his/her very loved ones when the level of madness and fanaticism (because it is fanaticism right there) reaches a high.

In sum, an enjoyable read that resonated with some of today’s realities.

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