This is a book that juxtaposes many opposites: poor and rich, good and evil, selflessness and selfishness, weakness and strength. The arduous week-long journey that Nell and her grandfather undertake also reflects a journey through life: with all its good and bad sides, experiences, disappointments, surprises and temptations. During the course of the story Nell shows herself to be an angel living on earth, whom everyone loves and in whose heart there is only good. She never falls into temptation like her grandfather or other "older and wiser" characters we encounter.
In stark contrast to her stands Quilp, who seems to feed exclusively on the suffering of others, especially when he initiates that suffering. Both find death towards the end of the book - again in very contrasting circumstances. While the one finds a horrible lonesome end by drowning in a dark foggy night, the other passes contentedly surrounded by people who adore her and who will always remember her and her angelic character. Is Nell a real person, or does she represent kindness, of which we readers should take something to heart?
On our way, we see a lot of early 1800s life in England too: the poignant situation in industrial towns, the poverty in London, city and village life, the wandering entertainment scene, the relationships between societal classes. The numerous characters are very Dickensian - caricaturous, but it's Dickens who's created them and he does that for a reason, so he's forgiven. The one who I wouldn't call typical is Mr, Swiveller, for his character indeed develops from just a lousy young man enjoying life to someone who feels responsible for the faith of others.
Apart from the touching and teaching story, I always admire and love the way Dickens describes some of the simplest things and which makes his books such a joy to read - I wish I had some of his talent :)
I am still a dummy when it comes to reading Dickens. I have (of course) read A Christmas Carol, and did Oliver Twist earlier this year. But for some reason I think this was the first novel with which I could really get to know Charles Dickens’s work.
Admittedly, it was quite a task getting through the book. My concentration level had to be higher than with other books to be able to really digest everything and I had to scroll back more than once to reread a page. The first chapters were extremely long-winded and lacked all context one needed... At some point I was going to put the book down if it wouldn’t get better soon. Fortunately, it did get better.
What I’ve learned of Dickens so far is that his characters are brilliant and they really come to life turning the pages, and even their names fit to their traits. Likeable characters have lovely names (Lorry, Manette), and for example for someone named ‘Cruncher’ I imagine a rather poor, cantankerous and man with yellow teeth and dirty fingernails and exactly that’s how he’s described.
I LOVE the theme of the book – the French revolution, the Reign of Terror, the Guillotine, and a great deal of social commentary. Dickens was a child of the lower social class himself (his father even was in prison because of debts) and his novels all contain critics on social stratification in his time. But above all ‘A tale of two cities’ is a tragic novel about love – unrequited love, but a love so strong that the lover makes the greatest sacrifice of all. The last couple of chapters that have Sydney Carton in focus were really gripping, and those chapters are definitely worth 6 stars.
After finishing this book I am keen on reading more of Dickens's works, but I still will give this novel ‘only’ four stars for the effort it took me.
BTW I'm not sure if it was a good or a bad thing that the blurb of my edition already gave away the ending. It sure would have been a different reading experience when I didn't know how things would end, but I cannot say if it would have been a better or a worse experience...