It is a far, far better thing . . .

. . . that I was listening to A Tale of Two Cities in the privacy of my home because when the famous last line was uttered I completely lost it. All the tension of the escape from Paris and the horror of the guillotine broke through my readerly detachment and I wept. It’s not often that a book makes me cry, but Dickens got me. It wasn’t so much Sidney Carton’s noble sacrifice as the historical setting, especially the terrible blood lust that was the Reign of Terror.

I understand that Dickens was greatly influenced by Thomas Carlyle’s history of the French Revolution. Obviously I will have to read that, and something more recent to compare it with. Does anyone have any suggestions? I wonder if Tolstoy would agree with Dickens’ (and Carlyle’s) sense of the inevitability of the revolution and Reign of Terror. I am nearly three quarters of the way through War and Peace and have been fully apprised of Tolstoy’s theory that historical events are caused not by great leaders but by the sum of all of the moving, individual wills involved, and ultimately by Providence (thought he is a bit sketchy about that part). I don’t know if he would agree with Carlyle’s view on the cyclical nature of history, but I think he would approve of the way Dickens applied a microscope to a great upheaval and showed one of the individual stories that contributed to it. Take Madame Defarge and Monsier Gaspard, multiply them by a million, and you have the French Revolution and la guillotine.

La Guillotine

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13 comments on “It is a far, far better thing . . .

  1. Stefanie says:

    Carlyle seems to be everywhere these days πŸ™‚ I have not read Tale of Two Cities–yet. My husband read/listened to it early last year and wept at the end too. He finished just as the bus dropped him off at the stop near our house and he walked in the front door crying. He sobbed out “book” and needed no other explanation.

  2. Sylvia says:

    Ha! I'm glad I'm not the only one. πŸ˜€

  3. Legendumst says:

    My girlfriend's history professor recommended Twelve Who Ruled by R. R. Palmer. She finally bought it last July and was absolutely stunned by the brilliancy of the writing. She said it's narrative history at its best. So there. πŸ™‚
    Reminds me that I must read up on the French revolution. (And every other subject written upon, ever.) Tale of Two Cities, Carlyle, Burke, Paine, you name it. Might help me rediscover the passion I had for history before university killed my belief in historical narratives. Damn you, seminar on 20th century war economy!

  4. wil says:

    Sounds like a powerful story. I'm still interested in Dickens (I'll get around to him one of these days), but I've never had much interest in the French Revolution (partially because I've never had all that much interest in big-event history…I tend to prefer quieter/less-visited histories).

  5. JCR says:

    Hey, JCR here… down in the colonies. I think your illustration in the post is frightful… with all that of the loss of political discourse, Culture Wars, etc., it seems the colonies down here might explode into secession again. As always, I love your blog. JCR

  6. Sylvia says:

    “Reminds me that I must read up on the French revolution. (And every other subject written upon, ever.)”
    LOL! Well said, Legendumst! And thanks for the recommendation, I will check it out.
    Wil, I hope I didn't give the impression that A Tale of Two Cities is about the French Revolution because really it is character-centered. Dickens doesn't exposit theories like Tolstoy does, he sticks with the characters and everything is seen through their eyes.
    JCR, I too worry about “the colonies” with the campaign rhetoric getting so nasty on the Republican side. I have no respect for McCain now because he is doing nothing to stop it and is in fact encouraging it, as is his moronic running mate. If they win it will be a victory for lies and hatred.

  7. wil says:

    No, no…I assumed it was character-driven. I'd probably just start with a different Dickens cuz I'm picky.

  8. Sylvia says:

    Fair enough. I just started Nicholas Nickleby. πŸ™‚

  9. erica says:

    there's a good (IMHO) blog that i visit by a lady who writes alot about marie antoinette…some really great stuff there about the revolution and lots of links too…teaattrianon.blogspot.com

  10. Sylvia says:

    Thanks for the tip, erica!

  11. Anonymous says:

    I have taught TOTC for the past twenty-five years. I always assign out the final chapter (15) after the first time I read it in class and began to cry in front of them. It's a beautiful story.

  12. Sylvia says:

    Yes it is, Anonymous! I must be wonderful to introduced the book to a new generation.

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