A Tale of Two Cities
A book review for parents
This historical fiction by Charles Dickens is published by Puffin Books, an imprint of Penguin Young Reader's Group and is written for adults but is sometimes studied by high school classes.
During the French Revolution, Dr. Alexandre Manette is released after two decades of imprisonment in the Bastille. Shocked to learn he's alive, his daughter, Lucie, retrieves him. Years later, Lucie and Dr. Manette take part in the trial of Charles Darnay, who is found innocent (in part because he so closely resembles his counsel, Sydney Carton), and Darnay seeks Lucie's hand in marriage. When revolutionaries learn that Darnay is related to an evil aristocrat, they imprison him the next time he is in France. Sydney Carton determines he can bring value to his life by rescuing Darnay.
A key theme is resurrection; several characters who have been imprisoned (literally, or in figurative prisons by virtue of their choices and behaviors) are "recalled to life." Dickens further emphasizes this theme in the book's final climactic moments, when Sydney Carton repeats to himself the John 11:25 passage, "I am the resurrection and the life" for comfort and talks about going to "a better land." Dickens alludes to the de-Christianization of the period by demonstrating the growing love of violence. He shows the excess, greed and godlessness of the aristocracy and talks of the guillotine having replaced the Cross in the French culture. Dickens also pairs several sets of characters as opposites (Lucie with Madame Defarge, Darnay with Carton) to contrast good and evil, peace and violence, love and hate.
Several noteworthy aristocrats belong to the family Evremonde (ironic, because it means "every man" — they certainly don't see themselves that way). Their disregard for human life, demonstrated in their brutal raping and thoughtless killing, exemplifies the ruling class of the time. Madame Defarge, a leader in the revolution, also acts with excessive violence, driven by her desire for revenge against the Evremondes and their kind.
Other Belief Systems
In a time of revolution, vengeance and violence become a religion for many of the French.
The word d--ned appears a few times. Violence and blood fill the pages, but the depictions are fairly tame compared to what 21st-century audiences are accustomed to.
Several innocent, nonromantic kisses pass between friends and family. Carton kisses a seamstress solemnly before he is killed.
If your children have read this book or someone has read it to them, consider these discussion topics:
- What do anger and a thirst for revenge do to us in our day-to-day lives?
- Mobs frequently appear and create havoc in the book.
How can getting swept up in a crowd impact those around you?
- In what ways is our society like that of France during the revolution?
- What do you think about Carton's dying actions and statements?
Note: This classic was first published in 1859.
Book reviews cover the content, themes and worldviews of fiction books, not their literary merit, and equip parents to decide whether a book is appropriate for their children. A book's inclusion does not constitute an endorsement by Focus on the Family.