Sunday, November 25, 2012

Reader's Diary #903- Charles Dickens: A Tale of Two Cities


At the risk of offending people with sharp pointy objects...

We've all been at boring meetings and presentations. I envy those that can focus for a long time. Or at least nod at just the right times to appear like they're focused. I am a doodler. I do it discreetly though. I look up periodically. "See, I'm so interested, I'm even taking notes." I know I'm not alone in this. Us doodlers, we play the game. We want to look professional, to not offend the speaker. The speaker probably knows. She must have drawn the occasional die or eyeball in her margins. But the game is tolerated. We'd all be horrified if someone took out their iPhones and started playing Angry Birds; that would be just rude. So why in recent years has it become socially acceptable to knit during presentations? I'm not paying any more attention to the speaker as are the knitters, but at least I'm discreet about it. Why hate on the knitters? Needle-spiders, that's why. When I was a young boy, a recurring nightmare that my parents still like to tease me about was of needle spiders. Something my twisted 6 year old mind conjured up. Hairy spiders, the size of cats, with 8 long knitting needles for legs, click-clacking across the floor, ready to jab me at any second.To this day tapping fingers can send shivers down my spine. It might even explain my hostility towards those who just want to knit a scarf on company time.

If you've ever read A Tale of Two Cities, you know the above isn't completely of topic. You'll also know that Madame Defarge has effectively destroyed any chance of my making my peace with the knitting folk.

The image of Madame Defarge and her knitting needles puncturing the air is just one of the reasons I found A Tale of Two Cities to be such a visual book. Often I'll read a novel and it's obvious what an influence TV and movies have had on literature. Authors will sometimes describe a scene in such a way that you can just imagine a camera swooping in or focusing on a particular detail. If the author didn't consciously hope someday to have Hollywood come a-knockin', it's still likely they've imagined it from angles we're accustomed to seeing on the screen. (I once heard Jay Ingram explain that it was only after colour TV was introduced that people began to argue that they they did, in fact, dream in colour.) But my theory is thrown out with Dickens. Clearly predating such media, you'd swear he wrote some of these scenes specifically for movie directors. Red especially plays a significant part; whether it's wine being spilled in the street, the sunset glow coming into a carriage, blood, the red hats. And there's a favourite scene of mine in which people are quietly gathered, looking out the window for an oncoming thunderstorm. I didn't realize this was such a common human experience. I love that feeling and Dickens captured it beautifully. How has Hollywood not given this the blockbuster treatment since the 30s?

I also quite liked the oh-so-famous beginning ("It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." Etc.) I think it really struck me as I found myself revisiting it a lot with different theories as to what he meant.Was it a comparison between London and Paris? Was it like two cities within a city? One for the aristocrats, one for the common people? Funny thing is, I kept finding new ways to interpret it and they all seemed to make sense. Perhaps the versatility of the introduction was intentional.

I read Victor Hugo's Les Miserables over the summer, and given the setting (A Tale of Two Cities being partially set in France with the French revolution playing a significant role) it was impossible not to draw comparisons. A Tale of Two Cities is full of melodrama and there are more than a few cliched characters. As is Les Miserables. However, A Tale of Two Cities is what Les Miserables could have been with all the historical notes and philosophy edited out. Take that as either a good thing or not. And it's not like Dickens book is pure soap opera. The idea of peasants revolting and then becoming corrupt and cruel in their own right is a common theme in literature (done best with the pigs in George Orwell's Animal Farm), and I felt a cynical undertone with Dickens. If you change the "was" to "is" in the best of times/ worst of times statement, you could easily prove that it holds as true today as it did then. For some people on Earth right now, it's the worst of times. For others, the best. The powerful and the exploited might trade places from time to time, but the message I took away from A Tale of Two Cities was that such groups will always exist, collectively and in the long run, no one is better than the other. On the personal level, A Tale of Two Cities has a brighter outlook. Perseverance, redemption, forgiveness, justice and love are also major themes. It's very much a sociology vs. psychology kind of book. I quite enjoyed it. Despite the knitting.




5 comments:

C.B. James said...

I know that Dickens was very involed in amateur theatre productions throughout his life, but I wonder if anyone has ever looked at how these might have influenced his work. It's not movies, but any means, but similar in a sense.

What he's very good at is manipulating his readers, which I enjoy when he's doing it and which he does a lot in Tale of Two Cities.

gypsysmom said...

I just listened to Bleak House and then I got the BBC mini-series from the library. I really enjoy listening to Dickens but I agree that his books make great movies too. I'm surprised that there hasn't been a modern video treatment of it too. Maybe now that Anna Karenina and Les Miserables and The Hobbit are coming to the big screen we'll see someone take on A Tale of Two Cities.

John Mutford said...

CB James: I definitely found A Tale of Two Cities to be more cinematographic.

Gypsysmom: Shamefacedly, this is only the 2nd Dickens book I've ever read (the first was A Christmas Carol).

Barbara Bruederlin said...

Interesting, your interpretation of the opening sentence. I have always taken it to refer to competing feelings within an individual. I like that it can have such an ambiguous meaning.

Of course now I am busy looking over my shoulder for needle-spiders...

John Mutford said...

Barbara: I think that's the beauty of it, it's such a versatile thought.