Monday, April 11, 2011

I enjoyed the plot of The Tale of Two Cities

By which I mean the construction of the plot, the mechanism, the solution to the puzzle.   All of which is mere metaphor, but I hope is clear enough.  A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens’s 1859 fantasy of the French Revolution, is well-plotted.

Many Dickens novels are not.  The Old Curiosity Shop (1841), which I wrote about back at the dawn of Wuthering Expectations, has, which is impressive in its own way, an improvised plot.  Many of his novels have quite good plotting up to some point at which Dickens begins to rely a bit too much on novelistic wood glue and duct tape.  One could blame serialization, except that A Tale of Two Cities was serialized, as was the cleverly plotted Bleak House.

I wonder where Dickens started with this book?  At the end, I would guess, by which I mean the last couple of pages – “’It is a far, far better thing that I do’” and so on.  Then he worked backwards – how did that particular character, who may be a bit vague at first, end up in that particular fix, which I will bet was vivid from the beginning.  He has to be in Paris, although he’s English, and the chronology is limited – mid-1792 through mid-1793.  Then he needs a love interest – she barely requires much invention, and, unfortunately, that’s about as much attention as Dickens gives her.  She needs a family, so that creates some more characters.  Perhaps a servant.  Similarly, a villain is necessary, and the French Revolutionary Mob is rather too blobbish for the purposes of a novel, so an actual character or two begins to emerge from the crowd.

Other scenes appear – some, perhaps, alive from the beginning.  A French nobleman murdered in his country house, dagger in his chest, wonderfully gruesome.  A trial, a spy, a smashed wine barrel.  Themes and imagery – red, red, red – waft up from the story, or the story is knocked about to fit the imagery.  An advantage of a “red” motif is that it can be slapped in pretty much anywhere.

Solutions, what do I mean by that?  About two-thirds in, most of the characters are in London, and Dickens needs them to be in Paris, which they really should not visit at this point in 1792.  Dickens has to find a way to spur each one to Paris.  He needs not just one solution but several.  None of his choices are entirely arbitrary, none of them are entirely implausible (although one fellow does have quite bad luck), all of them are prepared earlier in the novel, even if, looking back, I see that certain hooks were screwed into the wall only to await these particular bits of plotting.

It’s all, in other words, artificial, visibly artificial, but ingeniously, pleasurably so.  Dickens is constrained by the events of the French Revolution, but not much else.   Some oddities still protrude, particularly the unchanging agelessness of most of the characters, even though the novel covers an eighteen year span.  The geography can be strange, too, as a single village stands in for the French countryside, and a single neighborhood* represents impoverished Paris.

The story is not bad, either, but it’s the brilliant plotting that averts the gaze from the story’s nonsense, that makes the story look almost plausible.  Enjoyable stuff.

*  It’s Saint Antoine, home of one of Victor Hugo’s Surrealist 1848 barricades, the one that prefigures environmental art and the sculpture of Gordon Matta-Clark.


  1. It certainly is the plot in this one. Many people argue that Dickens' strength is his characters, but there are only a handful of memorable ones in Tale of Two Cities. Even those are more memorable for the ways they serve the plot than for themselves.

    But an excellent plot it is, even if it does nothing more than lead the reader to the famous last lines.

  2. It's certainly a nice bit of mechanical workmanship, and as you point out, you've got to admire Dickens' foreshadowing. But I write at some distance from having read the book so I don't remember a lot of the plot as much as I remember some of the big set pieces (all the red, and the knitting, and the guy who repaired the roads) and a few specific scenes (the flashback to the rape that sets the whole story of Charles Darnay in motion and that wonderful scene with Darnay and his uncle). Anyway, I agree that the constant forward motion Dickens manages mostly hides the melodramatic nature of the story and his thin characters. Or at least you're too busy watching all the action to stop and analyze the narrative closely. That might sound like criticism, but I really enjoyed Tale of Two Cities, which I read just when I was about to give up on Dickens.

  3. I actually found myself a bit annoyed by the plotting, simply because it seemed to me to be TOO plotted. All the things you say, yeah, those are the ways for a high school student to read it. It just seemed so superficial to me: I didn't love any of the characters because they were too plotted to be real.

    Not a bad novel, just not a favorite of mine.

  4. one more comment so I'll be subscribed to follow up...

  5. Good. We're mostly reading the same book. A good start!

    C.B. - I would not be surprised (I doubt it's true, but it would seem right) to learn that Dickens came up with the last lines first, and worked backwards from that. Who says them, where is he, etc?

    Scott - ah, yes, Darnay and his uncle, a scene so good that Darnay was in danger of becoming a real character! Anyway, calling something melodramatic is hardly criticism to me, but merely descriptive. Melodrama written with panache sounds good to me.

    Rebecca! That's, like, the meanest thing anyone has said to me here! All the things I say are like the way high school students read! Find me a high school student who says the French revolutionary mob is blobbish.

    Why does Not Real = Superficial? All of the characters in your favorite novels are also Not Real.

    I'm going to turn to characters tomorrow. There is one I truly love, in my own cold-hearted, aestheticized manner.

  6. oops, not trying to be mean, and I didn't mean you were writing like a high school student. Definitely not. I just felt that the novel was written with a formula that seemed too obvious, too "symbolic" to me...I felt the same way about Ethan Frome. But I loved Great Expectations and Oliver Twist which are also very "plotted." And I normally love symbolism, so don't know what's wrong with me with this novel. It's not you, it's me.

    I should just know better than to dislike these classic novels, I suppose. :)

    I know, none of Woman in White is "real" characters either, but I still love it....

  7. Not my favourite Dickens. I believe I said as such in my review, and I think your comment about the eighteen years explains it a little - it needed to be an epic to do justice to the storyline. Instead it feels a little... can anyone finish that entence for me?!

  8. Rebecca, I will confess that I did not really think that you were saying I was reading like a high school student, bless their awkward souls.

    By saying the novel is overtly symbolic, you are correctly identifying the type and purpose of the novel. A good place to start!

    You know how deeply I care about whether you, or I, or anyone, "likes" or "loves" the book, right? Dislike to your heart's content! It is neither me nor you - it is the book.

    And it's not even the book, which is nowhere near my favorite Dickens novel. But it contains passages, sentences, of extraordinary quality. It contains great writing.

    Tony - and, by the way, feel free to self-promote, and save me the work - why does this particular storyline deserve justice?

    You write as if you want Dickens to cover the history of the French Revolution, as if what his novel needs is more stories, about entirely unrelated characters. Why would he want to do that when Carlyle had already done so it well in an earlier novel, one he acknowledges in the dedication? That might be Wednesday's topic, actually.

  9. You're right - I just feel that the time gap leaves things unsaid, and hanging in the air a little (I was probably thinking a little of Les Mis more than Carlyle!).

  10. The weird thing to me about the gaps in time is not that we're missing something - that's how I take "things left unsaid" - but that everyone seems to be frozen. The world goes on around the characters(yes, definitely things left unsaid) while they sleep, until Dickens rouses them for the next episode. A clue as to what kind of fiction we're reading, what kind of fairy tale this is.

    I suspect Dickens was incapable of writing something like Les Misérables, despite his strong rhetorical resemblance to Hugo and their similar sympathy-based fiction. Dickens seems to have no Theory of History, no grand framework on which to build his fiction. At the level of ideas, Dickens is muddled.

    This is not a complaint about Dickens! Hugo's Theories of Everything, often boldly argued nonsense, are hardly his best feature.

  11. I think I know what Rebecca's getting at: the apparatus is maybe a little bit too visible. It's true that none of our favorite fictional characters are real (as in, literally alive and breathing or rotting in a coffin), but sometimes the illusion is convincing enough that we can forget that for a time. With Tale of Two Cities, the characters are so neatly constructed that we never forget they're convenient plot particles. Every character has his or her little metonymic icon, and you could almost say Lucie IS her high forehead, and Mme. Defarge IS her ominous knitting, etc. It's not the most illusionistic method of character development - more like pieces being shuttled around a game board.

    But then again, the last time I read this novel I actually was in high school. I'd get more out of it now. It certainly features a great opening line and a great closer.

    PS - As an extra tidbit from my other life, I've found that Tale of Two Cities is quite beloved among knitters, since it's rare that knitting gets to play such a badass role in any story!

  12. Right - A Tale of Two Cities is not illusionistic. The paintings of Hieronymous Bosch are not illusionistic. Do you want to use the word "superficial" to describe them?

    And haven't we all read novels with conventionally "rounded," "realistic" characters that would be flattered to be called superficial?

    I'm not so sure about the "plot particles". Lucie's forehead and Mme Defarge's knitting is not plot, but imagery. The forehead is too clichéd to be interesting, but the knitting gets some real metaphorical use.

    What I'm saying is, if the "too visible" construction is in service of not just the plot, but also of the imagery, the atmosphere, and the meaning of the novel, are we not in skilled hands? So it's not also a Henry James novel.

    The game board metaphor is good - but then what an ingenious game!

    Or: I know what Rebecca meant. I want her to work through her premises.