A Tale of Two Cities – The Reading Experience


Book 1 Chapter  1                                                                                         

So I decided to read Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, a novel set in the historical background of 1775 in England and France. Reading the first chapter was a pain in the bottom, for the first time, and for the second time. It demanded a lot of concentration to really grasp the social situation of the times just before the outburst of the French Revolution. After reading the First Chapter for the second time, I decided it was time to refer to Sparknotes Summary for the first chapter. And boy, that was the best thing to do. Once I was aware of the summary of the first chapter, suddenly Dicken’s lines made a lot more sense!

Charles Dickens used the first chapter of Book 1 to build the back ground of the novel, and gave us a glimpse of the times when the novel was set. The following lines (the starting lines) in fact is the best summary of the first Chapter –

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…

In this Chapter, we come to know the contrast in the life of people in France and England, For example while in England, the spiritual revelations were conceded and people enjoyed discussing supernatural events with passion, France walked on much stricter lines, and anything spiritual or supernatural beyond Church was not favored. While laws were stricter in France, and people were punished harshly for simpler things like, not bowing to a group of monks… the law and order in England was quite lax. Theft, burglary, prison revolts were common. And the punishment to petty thieves and hardened criminals was often the same.

Book 1 Chapter 2

We are introduced to one of the characters of the novel, Mr. Lorry, a banker from Tellson’s Bank amidst the eerie setting of dark night full of mistrust, suspicion and fear as is clear from the below lines –

In those days, travellers were very shy of being confidential on a short notice, for anybody on the road might be a robber or in league with robbers.

The Dover mail was in its usual genial position that the guard suspected the passengers, the passengers suspected one another and the guard, they all suspected everybody else, and the coachman was sure of nothing but the horses;

They had stopped when the coach stopped, and they kept close company with it. If any one of the three had had the hardihood to propose to another to walk on a little ahead into the mist and darkness, he would have put himself in a fair way of getting shot instantly as a highwayman.

The purpose of Mr. Lorry’s travel to France is a mystery. The message that he received from Jerry to wait for a woman at Dover is a mystery as well. And most of all, Mr. Lorry’s answer to Jerry – “Recalled to Life” is a mystery as well.

Book 1 Chapter 3

Why does Dickens use such a flowery language, sometimes flowery to the extent of being tedious? That was the question that crept up in my mind as I was reading the third chapter. In the very next moment, I realized that it was not only Dickens who used such language. For example, look at John Milton’s Paradise Lost. There is a wonderful discussion going on at Quora regarding this very question.

Anyways, in to the Third Chapter we realize that Dickens is continuing with developing the mystery and mistrust, and dropping a few clues while doing so, within the dreams of Mr. Lorry. We realize that someone is going to be recalled to life after eighteen years of being buried alive. We realize that this person is probably somehow related to the lady whom Mr. Lorry was supposed to meet at Dover.

In this chapter we witness some of the finest lines in literature about human psychology when Dickens wrote:

…every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other.

…that every beating heart in the hundreds of thousands of breasts there, is, in some of its imaginings, a secret to the heart nearest it!

Book 1 Chapter 4

The chapter opens with Mr. Lorry reaching the Royal George Hotel in Dover in the late morning. He relaxes in the hotel, thinking about his business and waiting for the arrival of the lady with whom he was supposed to meet who arrived in the hotel later that evening. Mr. Lorry introduces himself to Miss Lucie Manette and divulges his business and her involvement in the business. Apparently, Lucie was led to believe by her mother that Dr. Alexandre Menette, Lucie’s father was dead. While is father was actually imprisoned in France by the authorities for eight years, and was recently released. Mr. Lorry’s business was to identify and ring back Dr. Manette, a client of Tellson’s Bank, to England, while Lucie’s responsibility would be to care him back to health. All this comes as a shock to Lucie and after failing to console her, he calls fall help.  A wild looking woman dressed in red runs into the room. Concerned about Lucie’s well being, she shoves Mr. Lorry away from Lucie and yells at hotel’s servants to bring smelling salt.

In this Chapter, Dickens fills us in with several physical details about Mr.Lorry’s person signifying the details of his character and importance of his business. Mr. Lorry tries to sound like a professional, insisting that he is a man of business however his concern for Lucie is apparent from the fact that he tries to explain the business to Lucie as gently as he could. Also Mr. Lorry’s dreams about digging out Mr. Manette, signifies that he was troubled with Mr. Manette’s situation as well.  Finally Dickens shreds some light on the suspense that was building up since Chapter 2, as we realize the purpose of Mr. Lorry’s business in Dover, and the involvement of Miss Manette in the business. However it only raises a new question – What caused Dr. Manette’s imprisonment in France?

Book 1 Chapter 5 (The Wine Shop)

A large barrel of wine has been dropped and broken in the street in a poor neighborhood in Paris, and it has attracted the interest of people nearby, who have stopped their business or the lack of it, to drink the wine, from the puddles of wine on the street. Men, women and children all bent over the pools of wine – using broken earthenware, handkerchiefs to sip the wine. The short lived game of wine sipping and dancing soon ended with the end of wine. People rejoined the activities they were at. And the street was cleaner than it was earlier. The owner of the wine shop, a good humored man of thirties, with a unstoppable attitude was keeping an eye on the entire scene. His wife, Madam Defarge has been defined as a woman with watchful eyes with steady face and strong features and great composure of manner, who would rarely make a mistake. As Mr. Defarge enters the wine shop, Madam Defarge signaled him about the presence of two new customers in the shop – Mr. Lorry and Miss Manette. Mr. Defarge soon takes Mr. Lorry and Miss Menette into the building where Dr. Manette was kept.

The wine shop is in the suburb of St. Antoine, in Paris. As per Wikipedia, St. Anthony is the patron saint of finding things or lost people. The titles of the chapters in this book are relevant, and going by that trait, it seems that Mr. Lorry and Miss Manette might find Dr. Manette somewhere in this suburb. Dickens uses the word Wine and Blood interchangeably in this chapter as it is clear from the following lines while referring to the revolution that was soon to occur:

The time was to come, when that wine too would be spilled on street-stones, and when the strain of it would be red upon many there.

Dickens has also personified cold, dirt, sickness, ignorance and want as powerful lords (members of nobility) and most powerful lord being the “want”, who would force the people to submit to its whims. He indicates that the times were like a grinder or a mill that grinded young people to old age and weakness, and left them without happiness. He personifies hunger as an omnipresent entity that is everywhere. It seems that people used to allow babies to drink wine in those times, probably because wine was cleaner and drinkable than water in those times. In those times, streets of Paris lacked proper drainage system, and people used to dump their wastes on the street. The fact that people were happy to drink the wine from the street where the wastes had mixed and decomposing in the soil indicated the severity of hunger people were suffering from.  We get to see the unhygienic living conditions of people in Paris, again in the following lines:

… the room or rooms within every door that opened on the general staircase – left its own heap of refuse on its own landing, besides flinging other refuse from its own windows. The uncontrollable and hopeless mass of decomposition so engendered would have polluted the air, even if pollution and deprivation had not loaded it with their tangible impurities;



P.S. – What was your experience while reading A Tale of Two Cities? Do share.

About Bleiz C.

Lazy| Dorky | Otaku | Bibliophile | MovieBuff | Absolute Foodie | Techie | Fictionizta
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