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Monday, January 10, 2011

There is nothing to do until tomorrow. I can't sleep.

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
This Dickens novel straddles, as the title suggests, two cities: Paris and London. Our story begins with Doctor Manette being "recalled to life." He was imprisoned for an unknown cause for about 20 years in a Parisian prison, and in the opening chapters of the book, he is brought back to London and reunited with his daughter, Lucie, by a banker and family friend, Mr. Lorry. The next major event is Lucie and the Doctor serving as witnesses at the treason trial for Charles Darnay. He is accused of being a traitor and is about to be brutally murdered, but at the last minute, he is acquitted because the defense points out that another man, Sydney Carton, looks just like him. This is apparently enough for an acquittal; clearly they didn't have enough Law and Order episodes to teach them how to prosecute properly. Incidentally, Darnay was not really a traitor, but we find out he is actually a FRENCHIE, Charles Evrémonde. Charles falls for Lucie, they get married, they have a daughter named Lucie (because they're clearly unoriginal when it comes to naming) and all seems to be going swimmingly. The Doctor is all better from having been in prison (mostly - he regresses from time to time by going back to making shoes, the occupation he was allowed to perform in prison). Charles wants to tell the Doctor his real name, and the Doctor says he only wants to know on the wedding day. Charles tells him on the wedding day, and after the lovebirds go on their honeymoon, Daddy goes back to making shoes. UH OH! Oh, and Sydney professes his love for Lucie, but says he doesn't want to be with her, he just wants her to know that he would do ANYTHING for her. Really. Anything. So we store that nugget away and Charles gets a letter from his old servant - did I mention his uncle was killed because he's a really nasty rich Monseigneur who treats laborers like dirt and because the revolution is now RAGING in France? - saying that he has been imprisoned and that only Charles can save him. So Charles decides, HEY! why don't I go to France and help old Gabelle out. So he goes, and guess what - he is IMMEDIATELY imprisoned. Lucie finds out, comes to France with her dad, and daddy the Doctor is a hero in the new regime because he was a well-known prisoner in the Bastille. Charles is imprisoned for over a year, but the doctor is able to get him set free. The very same day, however, Charles is re-imprisoned, and we find out that the people who have charged him are Monsieur et Madame Defarge, who were the old servants of Doctor Manette but are now CRAZED REVOLUTION BLOOD-THIRSTY monsters. AND, in a surprising turn of events, we find out that the doctor's hero-status is no good at the second trial because... DUN DUN DUN... he wrote a secret letter in prison describing the people who got him put in prison (it was a pair of noble brothers who asked him to tend to a patient who turned out to be a servant woman one of them was sleeping with after he killed her husband, and these evil brothers were... DUN DUN DUN... the MONSEIGNEUR AND HIS BROTHER, aka, Charles's uncle and his daddy. Whoops! Charles didn't know about this history, he was only a baby at the time. He knew his uncle was no saint, but nothing about the history with the doctor) and he vowed to get revenge against the whole family, including, unfortunately, the descendants, being Charles. So Charles is getting ready to die and everyone feels bad that the Doctor knew ever since the wedding that his son-in-law's family led to his imprisonment after he told the government about what they had done to the servant girl and her husband. In yet another twist, we find out that Madame Defarge was the sister of the servant girl - EEk! So much connectedness. Anyway, Sydney Carton comes over from England and he stages a switchout, sacrificing himself in Charles's place. Charles, Lucie, the Doctor, little Lucie, and Mr. Lorry all go back to England, and Sydney is executed by guillotine.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

I enjoyed this book, though I felt at some points that the surprises weren't all that surprising, given how few major characters there were in the plot. There was also an intense amount of foreshadowing, which was simultaneously really cool and REALLY ANNOYING.

The first page has an amazing description that sets the scene. It, of course, begins with the famous lines, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times..." But it also contains the following lines, abridged here:

"...there were growing trees, when that sufferer was put to death, already marked by the Woodman, Fate, to come down and be sawn into boards, to make a certain movable framework with a sack and a knife in it, terrible in history...there were sheltered from the weather that very day, rude carts, bespattered with rustic mire, snuffed about by pigs, and roosted in by poultry, which the Farmer, Death, had already set apart to be his tumbrils of the Revolution. But that Woodman and that Farmer, though they work unceasingly, work silently, and no one heard them as they went about with muffled tread."

This is unbelievable - it definitely falls under the heavy foreshadowing section mentioned above, but how inCREDIBLE is that description? A-M-A-Z-I-N-G.

- Madame Defarge knits throughout the story, and we find out about halfway through the story that she is knitting a register of names and descriptions of the people that fit the names so that the revolution can properly EXECUTE them. Nice, right? I knit scarves for my buddies, Madame Defarge knits DEATH SENTENCES.

- Mr. Lorry works for Tellson's bank, which is crucial to the story in that the bank is one of the few organizations that continues to work in both cities during the tumultuous revolution. Dickens has a marvelous description of the Tellson employees here:

"When they took a young man into Tellson's London house, they hid him somewhere till he was old. They kept him in a dark place, like a cheese, until he had the full Tellson flavour and blue-mould upon him. Then only was he permitted to be seen, spectacularly poring over large books, and casting his breeches and gaiters into the general weight of the establishment."

- There were so many crazy plot twists that when the Doctor's secret prison letter is revealed and the Monseigneur and his brother are described as twins, I was like - I KNEW IT! Sydney and Charles are twin brothers, too! But guess what? They're not. Their freakish look-alikeness is just a Dickensian twist of fate.

- The doctor has an interesting role in the novel, in that he is pretty weak and wounded in the beginning of the book, then becomes strong, then really takes the lead when they go to France to save Charles, saves Charles, and then loses it completely when Charles is recaptured. The doctor goes out to implore higher ups to save Charles a second time, but when he comes back, he demands to know where his shoe bench is so that he can finish his shoes.

- Sydney knows full well that he plans to die, and the title of this post is from his musings to himself on the night before his death. He follows Lucie's path around the city, walking where she walked each day to the prison to stand in a spot where Charles could sometimes see her, and he thinks about his life and how it was meaningless until this moment. I love the simplicity of the title phrase.

- Sydney meets a seamstress who is also to be executed. She is terrified, and at first she thinks it is Darnay, because she met him in prison before, but when she realizes it is not, she whispers, "Are you dying for him?" To which Sydney responds, "And his wife and child. Hush! Yes." She then asks to hold his hand, and they go to their deaths, hand in hand until the very last.

- The BEST scene in this book (in my humble opinion) is the SHOWDOWN between Miss Pross and Madame Defarge. Miss Pross is Lucie's faithful maidservant who has been with her for life. She has stayed at home to cover for Lucie's departure, because at the end of the novel, Lucie and her child have a death warrant out because Defarge wants their heads. Miss Pross is a mostly comical character in the novel, but she is utterly devoted to Lucie. She also stoutly refuses to learn French because, as she says, she is "an Englishwoman." When Madame Defarge appears looking for Lucie and her daughter, the two face off. Miss Pross realizes that the longer she can get Mme Defarge to stay, the longer Lucie and her daughter have to continue their escape. Dickens notes that the two women are cursing each other in their separate languages; neither one understands the words, but they both understand the intent. Mme Defarge is outraged when she realizes the rooms behind Miss Pross are empty and Lucie and her daughter have gotten away. She lunges at Miss Pross, but Miss Pross grabs her around the waist, and after a few minutes of struggling, Defarge's pistol goes off and Miss Pross realizes that Mme Defarge is dead. She composes herself and then runs to the meeting point where she connects with Lucie. Mme Defarge's absence is noted by her friend, The Vengeance (I KNOW! amazing name, right? I think I'm going to start going by The Rancor. like it?) Mme Defarge's knitting waits for her at the execution, but she does not come.

All in all, this book definitely captured my attention. It is very different from Great Expectations, and it was certainly interesting reading them back to back. This one was much more plot-driven, whereas I feel that Great Expectations really enriched each scene, setting, and character. Fascinating back-to-back read.

I'm off to some time by myself. Back in a hundred years or so!
(HAhA. I am SOOOOO funny. Did you get it?)

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