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A Tale of Two Cities

by Charles Dickens

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Critical Overview

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A Tale of Two Cities is perhaps the least characteristic of Charles Dickens's works. Unlike both his earlier and his later novels, which are largely concerned with events within the Victorian society in which he lived, A Tale of Two Cities is set during a period some seventy years earlier. It shows both France and England in an unflattering light. Perhaps because the novel is so uncharacteristic of the author, it remains among the author's most popular works with readers who do not generally enjoy Dickens. On the other hand, it is often rated the least popular Dickens novel among Dickens fans.

While A Tale of Two Cities was immensely popular with the reading public on its original serialization in 1859, its critical reception was mixed. "One feature that appears from the outset," explains Norman Page in his essay "Dickens and His Critics," "is a polarisation of responses, the novel being found either superlatively good or superlatively bad." According to Ruth Glancy in A Tale of Two Cities: Dickens's Revolutionary Novel, most contemporary critics routinely dismissed the type of popular literature that Dickens wrote as being unworthy of ranking as art. The most famous and the most caustic of the early critics of A Tale of Two Cities was Sir James Fitzjames Stephen, who wrote a very harsh review of the book in the December 17, 1859, issue of Saturday Review. "After condemning the plot—'it would perhaps be hard to imagine a clumsier or more disjointed framework for the display of the tawdry wares which form Mr. Dickens's stock in trade'—Stephen dismissed A Tale of Two Cities as a purely mechanical effort, producing grotesqueness and pathos through formula writing and trickery," explains Glancy. "He objected particularly to the 'grotesqueness' of the speech of the French characters, whose French-sounding English he considered 'misbegotten jargon' that 'shows a great want of sensibility to the real requirements of art.'" "It has been suggested," continues Page, "that … Stephen was motivated more by political than by literary considerations, and it is true that one line of his attack is directed at Dickens's disparagement of eighteenth-century England in relation to the present, and his hostile portrayal of the French aristocracy of the same period."

Stephen's attack, politically motivated or not, sums up most of the criticisms that later scholars have levelled at the novel: (1) as history, it is flawed; (2) it is mechanical and unrealistic in its construction; and (3) it is very uncharacteristic of Dickens. Many late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century critics, including the important Dickens scholar George Gissing and Dickens's fellow-journalist and novelist G. K. Chesterton, followed Stephen's lead in criticizing the novel. According to Page's essay, Chesterton objects to Dickens's portrayal of the Revolution as an elemental act of emotion rather than recognizing the importance of intellectual ideas. Page also reveals that in Gissing's review of the novel, construction has "ceased to be a virtue and has become a constraining and excluding factor." After Dickens's death in 1871, writes Page, "the novelist Margaret Oliphant dismissed it as unworthy of Dickens and suggested that it 'might have been written by any new author, so little of Dickens there is in it.'" Other critics considered its characters and its staging unrealistic and objected to its lack of humor.

Stephen's opinion, although influential, was not universally accepted. Favorable reviews of A Tale of Two Cities appeared in London newspapers, including the Daily News, the Daily Telegraph, the Morning Post and the Morning Star, throughout the month of December, 1859. Many of Dickens's own literary friends, acquaintances, and contemporaries, including John Forster, Thomas Carlyle, Wilkie Collins, and Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens) also praised the novel. Modern critics also largely praise the novel, concentrating on its psychological portraits and its status as historical fiction. Glancy reports that the work "has achieved new status and new serious study," and concludes that "its continuing presence on school reading lists and in films and plays … attests to its lasting popularity … with the many readers who find in A Tale of Two Cities the full range of Dickens's dramatic and narrative power."

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A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens

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