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"A Tale of Two Cities" begins in 1775, with Mr. Lorry, a respectable London banker, meeting Lucie Manette in Paris, where they recover Lucie's father, a doctor, and mentally enfeebled by an unjust and prolonged imprisonment in the Bastille. This assemblage, on their journey back to England, meets Charles Darnay, an immigrant to England from France who makes frequent trips between London and Paris. Upon their return to England, Darnay finds himself on trial for spying for France and in league with American revolutionaries. His attorney, Stryver, and Stryver's obviously intelligent, if morally corrupt and debauched, assistant, Sydney Carton, manage to get Darnay exonerated of the charges against him. Darnay, a self-exiled former French aristocrat, finds himself compelled to return to France in the wake of the French Revolution, drawing all those around him into a dangerous scene.
Dickens portrays the French Revolution simplistically, but powerfully, as a case of downtrodden peasants exacting a harsh revenge against an uncaring aristocratic, even feudal, system. The Defarge's, a wine merchant and his wife, represent the interests of the lower classes, clouded by hatred after generations of misuse. Darnay, affiliated by birth with the French aristocracy, is torn between sympathy for his native country in its suffering, and his desire to be free of his past.
"A Tale of Two Cities" is a novel driven by historical circumstance and plot, much like the works of Sir Walter Scott, wherein the characters themselves assert less agency, finding themselves forced to deal with the tide of epic events. Richard Maxwell's introduction to this newest Penguin edition does a good job outlining the themes of doubling and literary influence that Dickens works with. One specific influence I discerned in reading "A Tale" that Maxwell doesn't metion is Edmund Burke's "Reflections on the Revolution in France," which if nothing else, gives the feeling that the rampant violence of the early revolution and the later Reign of Terror has brought about an irreversible change in human nature. While Dickens remains cautiously optimistic throughout the novel that France can recover, the tone of the novel speaks to the regression of humanity into a more feral, primal state, rather than advertise any real hope for its enlightened progress.
Despite the supposed dichotomy between England and France in the novel, Dickens seems to suggest throughout that there are no real differences, due to the way that human nature is consistently portrayed. With England in between two revolutions, American and French, Lucie's sensitivity early in the novel to hearing the "echoing" footsteps of unseen multitudes indicates a palpable fear that the "idyllic" or "pastoral" England he tries to portray is not exempt from the social discontent of America or France. In this light, stolid English characters like Miss Pross, Jerry Cruncher, and Jarvis Lorry appear to almost overcompensate in their loyalty to British royalty. In a novel that deals with death, religion, mental illness, I could go on and on for a week, but I won't. One of those novels whose famous first and last lines are fixed in the minds of people who've never even read it, "A Tale of Two Cities" demands to be read and admired.