A Tale of Two Cities – a very short review of a book I didn’t like one bit

Everyone said Dickens is great, and many people told me that A Tale of Two Cities is one of their favorite books. So I read it. When I was done, I felt just like the Liberté person in the last two panels of this review from 3-Panel Book Reviews.

Dickens

Please go to 3-Panel Book Review for more fun. They are a hoot!

Actually, I wasn’t quite that well-off. I still had my head and remembered what I’d read.

What didn’t I like about ATOTC?

  • The prose is turgid and purple.
  • There are no three dimensional characters; there aren’t even any two dimensional characters; every single person in it has a character as flat as a pancake.
  • And it’s not that I think there’s no place for pedantic writing, but this one runs you over and leaves you ground in the cobblestones (just like the nobleman’s carriage does to the peasant in one of the opening scenes).

So are there any saving graces to Dickens’ novel? You tell me, please. Comments pro and con are quite welcome.

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31 Responses to A Tale of Two Cities – a very short review of a book I didn’t like one bit

  1. Deanna says:

    I have not attempted to read that since high school! When I was a freshman, we were given the option of reading either that or Great Expectations. I initially chose A Tale of Two Cities, but after several attempts and never being able to get past the first couple of pages (I don’t really remember why, whether it was boredom or something else-my tastes in literature were not very refined at that point!), I asked to switch to Great Expectations. Thankfully my teacher let me, since I did end up liking Great Expectations. Or rather. I didn’t dislike it which is all I would’ve said about any classic at that point in my life! I should attempt it again now!

  2. Mary Anne says:

    OK, I’ll start. ATOTC isn’t what people really think of when they use the term “Dickensian.” It lacks many of the qualities that a Dickens fan values and yes, it can be a slog.

    Nevertheless, I’ll stand by it for that beautiful concluding chapter as Carton comforts the girl in the cart with him:

    “Do you think:” the uncomplaining eyes in which there is so much endurance, fill with tears, and the lips part a little more and tremble: “that it will seem long to me, while I wait for her in the better land where I trust both you and I will be mercifully sheltered?”

    “It cannot be, my child; there is no Time there, and no trouble there.”

    As for the final paragraphs that contain the famous “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known,” don’t ask me to read those out loud. I’d never make it through. Even reading it silently makes my eyes fill.

    For ten righteous men, Sodom and Gomorrah would’ve been spared. For one righteous chapter I’ll keep this book on my shelves! 😉

    • Tim says:

      Those last lines were actually among the most turgid in my apparently wacky opinion. Oh well!

      • Mary Anne says:

        *shrug* Matter of taste. Some things hit that sweet spot and some things don’t–for instance, I hear a lot of people trash Uncle Tom’s Cabin as sentimental and syrupy, but I know we’re both moved by it. Reading over some of the especially florid passages, I can sort of see where they’re coming from, but it doesn’t change the way I react. Mysterious, sometimes, what works for a reader and what doesn’t . . .

  3. Abby says:

    It’s the only Dickens I’ve read all the way through more than once (twice). I liked it far better than Great Expectations, I’ll just say that.

  4. EricaM says:

    Eh, I read the first chapter and found myself getting rather bored. I thought it was just that book, and tried The Mystery of Edwin Drood, thinking that sounded much more to my taste; but no, I gave up on that as well. I might go back to both at some point, but right now, I figure I have a large TBR list to get through, and I’ll revisit them once I’ve pared that down a bit. 😄

    • Tim says:

      Bored is right, Erica. I kept reading thinking there had to be something there worth my slog. By the last sentence I realized there wasn’t!

  5. Ruth says:

    We all have such different tastes, fascinating! I love Tolkien etc, but Dickens, austen, get me in too. Love anything NOT modern. By that I mean like 1970s films are modern, pedestrian and life with a small L, petty and humdrum. Love Dorothy L Sayers the most, Agatha Christie, Nathaniel Hawthorne, but modern writers who stay out a sad, tired life of a down trodden, miserable character with no colour gets me into a good read. I don’t want to know about tatty motel rooms, tired cars, life in the miserable lane, drugs, drink and other unhappy activities etc.
    That being said, I can’t read Uncle Toms Cabin, Les Miserables, Tom Browns School Days or any book without hope, where fate twists and turns to nobody’s benefit, and nothing is gained.
    Loath torture, over the top cruelty and gratuitous sex and violence.
    Just finished reading the saddest book of all time…an autobiography by Steven Fry about his childhood and school days…..so deeply painful and full of self loathing and confusion I felt I had to try and make his life better!!! Um..no….but that’s how it hit me, actually praying for him! Oh dear, the reader who feels it all is a basket case after some books, and on cloud nine after others.
    Best of times, I’m a speed reader. Worst of times, I run out of books unless I make my self silently say every word in the text, a new twist on Dickens perhaps?

    • Tim says:

      I’m reading The Gospel According to Tolkien right now and it is opening up new understanding for me, even though I’ve read and re-read The Hobbit and LOTR more times than I can count. You might like it, Ruth.

      • Ruth says:

        That sounds interesting. I’ve heard several positive comments about the book, I think I will buy and readit. Thanks for the suggestion, Tim.

    • Mary Anne says:

      “I can’t read Uncle Toms Cabin, Les Miserables, Tom Browns School Days or any book without hope, where fate twists and turns to nobody’s benefit, and nothing is gained.”

      Now that’s interesting, because for me, Les Miserables is all about hope and new life and redemption. The twists and turns of fate aren’t necessarily what we would call kind to Valjean, yet he becomes a completely new person because the Bishop reaches out to him in mercy and forgiveness. Poor Javert, who is so insistent on the letter of the law, is another story–for me, he’s a real figure of tragedy in the novel. An antagonist to Valjean but not a villain . . . though if I fell foul of him, it’s possible I wouldn’t be so charitable.

  6. lauradroege says:

    Oh, I loved Tale of Two Cities! I read it as a high school senior, and I think I fell in love with Sidney Carton (two-dimensional or not!) I had read a synopsis of the book prior to the actual book reading, so I knew he’d die, but I almost cried when I read the last chapter.

    It’s funny how people have such different tastes in books. For example, I loved Moby-Dick, but some of my classmates (all college seniors, all English majors/minors) couldn’t even make it through the book. They resorted to Cliff Notes. Oddly enough, I’ve read authors who admit to being influenced by Melville, but they can’t stand Hawthorne (whom Melville adored). They’ll try to appreciate Hawthorne’s works, try to see what Melville saw in them, but they can’t. I love both authors.

    Tolkein’s one that I never understood. I read The Hobbit and the first book in the trilogy, but I’ve never been able to finish the other two books. I just didn’t like them. (I’m not big on fantasy. It’s too much hard work trying to understand the fictional world for me to enjoy the story.)

    • Tim says:

      The only Melville I’ve read is Billy Budd, a novella. It was part of a short course in literature and judicial reasoning, which was actually a small seminar of judges talking through literature. Billy Budd centers on a shipboard court martial so it gave us a lot to talk about. Plus it’s a great story.

    • Ruth says:

      I think watching the original films of these books made them come alive that bit extra.
      Sidney Carton was to fall in love with…dirk Bogart if memory serves….I was a bit smitten with his character too. 🙂

  7. I wonder if what sounds “purple” to us is sometimes more traditional speak for people past. I think anyone trying to write like C.S. Lewis today likely sounds purple. It doesn’t excuse Dickens, but maybe he deserves a historical cushion?

    • Tim says:

      A historical cushion is a great idea, Nick. On the other hand, writers such as Jane Austen and Arthur Conan Doyle (who wrote in the same century and country as Dickens) avoided the type of prose he uses in ATOTC. Then again, there is a certain following Mr. Dickens has, even for ATOTC, so I am willing to allow that he must have some merit – even if it escapes my notice somehow!

  8. Bev Murrill says:

    So, yes, it’s true that there is a certain pancake-like quality to Dickens’ characters, not just in this book but Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, and even A Christmas Carol. The truth is two fold – it was reasonably common to write one-dimensional characters (note my ancestor, John Bunyan’s characters) in those centuries.

    The real point of writing for Dickens was not literary excellence but social commentary. The common thread on most of his tales (though not so much on ATOTC) is the injustices of the poor. We have Disneyised A Christmas Carol, but it is really a very bleak novel that points out the evil of a society that purported a belief in a loving God but which left orphans and widows to die of hunger and cold. The same goes for Oliver Twist, which is a horrible story about a young woman of good background being cast out by her family because of falling in love with someone beneath her. She dies in childbirth and her son is brought up in horrific cruelty and is dragged into a life of crime. He is helped by a woman who is later murdered by her abusive partner and by the skin of his teeth he lives happily ever after.

    Dickens is a voice of justice to his generation… we don’t like his style maybe because it’s quite turgid, however, back in the day, he did his bit to awaken ‘good’ folk to the horrors around them, just like Harriet Beecher Stowe did, and many others.

    so… it’s not really about liking him or not. It’s about looking beyond the flat characters into the point that he was putting across…

    BTW I don’t like his writing either.

    • Tim says:

      It’s interesting you mention Stowe. Her social commentary was draped with wonderful writing. I’ve got a couple posts on Uncle Tom’s Cabin on this blog somewhere.

  9. Laura says:

    I like to read classic lit that I didn’t back in high school or college, or re-read a classic. Never read A Tale of Two Cities. Recently found a nice copy at the thrift store, but I couldn’t read more than the first several pages and quit! I’m usually not a quitter with reading. But even the first several pages made me not want to keep reading.

    However, I did read Bleak House by Dickens last year, and appreciated it. I also made it through Moby Dick. Etc.

  10. Rich Below says:

    Spoiler Alert. Sheesh. I was going to read that…. some day…. maybe….or at least keep imagining that I was going to read it.

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