On this day before returning to campus for three days of back-to-back meetings, I’m going to register a few thoughts about rereading A Tale of Cities, of which I am two-thirds through. Sometime in the last six months, I thought it would be a good idea to integrate a French Revolution segment into my upcoming world literature class. A Tale of Two Cities came to mind with some ambivalence. We’ll undertake it early in the semester, and after that we’ll examine Hugo’s Notre Dame de Paris to look for additional reverberations. I think I’ve read A Tale about a half-dozen times, and I’m sure this is the first in which I am thoroughly riveted. Perhaps those other times I read under too much duress or simply without sufficient engagement; whatever the case, it’s never been among my favorite Dickens. It is excellent to discover, though, that one can come back to books and find them refreshing in ways one never experienced before.
Okay, I still find the first chapter heavy-handed, but thereafter I’ve been utterly engaged and have found many scenes thought-provoking, especially those of social and political oppression. Overall, the novel is replete with suffering, its causes and effects. My goal is to have students find relevance in understanding the dynamics of revolution through the emotional impact of the novel. I’m finding relevance myself and am thinking hard about ways to get students on board, especially when I’m certain most will need much guidance on the context. Understanding some things about the French Revolution will be a good learning outcome, though, right?
Perhaps the most memorable figure in the novel for me, stemming from way back to early college days, is Madame Defarge and her knitting. Now, I eagerly anticipate her in the Parisian scenes. She is a fascinating figure, and I love the moments when she communicates in code, such as the rose she wears when Barsad the spy enters the wine shop, alerting all of the patrons to curb their discussions. In fact, all of the scenes of intrigue with the Defarges come to me now with a great deal of power. They will deserve some attention in class.
Then there is the terrible scene when the Marquis runs over a child in his carriage. Dickens excels at such scenes of oppression, creating as much emotional effect as possible. I keep thinking about the politics at home and abroad over the past year, and this scene, indeed the whole novel, resonates.
Compelling, too, is the emotional depth of Dr. Manette’s trauma of imprisonment. His shoemaking is another memorable image, but this time I find it less trite. In fact, I continue to appreciate more and more the psychological depth of Dickens, in general, something I didn’t always used to see.
So, I am feeling much less ambivalent now about A Tale.