Saturday, November 20, 2010

My favorite Dickens

I feel like all lists of Classic Literature include at least one book by Charles Dickens, which draws mixed opinions from readers.  Some people love Dickens and read each and every work.  To those who fall in this category, I tip my hat to you in admiration of your devotion.  On the other hand, I know there are a lot of people who do not enjoy his writing style and tire of the long passages of description.  These people struggle to finish the lengthy novels and maintain their attention levels.  I fall somewhere in the middle.

I would not include Dickens on my list just because I felt like he is often included on these lists.  I am only going to write about the books that I believe deserve their positioning in the shelves of Classic Literature.  I don't love everything by Dickens, and I haven't read most of them, but I do think there is at least one of his novels that has secured its spot in timeless literature.  And for me, this is my favorite book by Dickens: A Tale of Two Cities.  It has an epic-feeling nature and fascinating plot, with many surprising twists to keep it interesting, along with a variety of characters and excellent writing skills.

One of my favorite things about this novel is its culture-crossing between France and England.  The characters are from both countries and move back and forth between the nations throughout the course of the story.  The languages are also frequently represented, although Dickens writes in English.  Perhaps the best example of this is the epic battle between Madame Defarge (French) and Miss Pross (English).  France has a particularly strong identity in the story because it is set during the French Revolution and the storming of the Bastille.  The historical dimension this provides is fascinating to me because I enjoy the different perspectives Dickens creates on the meaning of this war.  For some, it is deeply personal, and others are torn in loyalty between the two nations.

The variety of characters is another of my favorite aspects of this novel.  I don't know that Dickens was especially skilled in the development of individual characters, but he did offer enough different personalities to provide an interesting spectrum for readers.  Madame Defarge is one of the most intriguing to me; her strength and fierceness are quite intimidating.  At times, she seems "good" and in the end we view her as "evil," but she is nevertheless a pillar of strength in the story.  I also love Sydney Carton, the tragic yet lovable character and foil of the hero, Charles Darnay.  Some of the characters provide a little comic relief, which is much-needed in this heavy tale of war and suffering.  However, the humor is more subtle than in some of Dickens' other novels, which ensures that he doesn't cheapen the depth of the emotions he has established in the characters and setting.

Before I end, I have to note the narrative style.  In this book, I never tired of Dickens' descriptions, and the various moments of pure narration are often brilliant and memorable.  There are so many great quotes to pull from this novel.  Who doesn't know the opening lines?  "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity..."  There's a reason we all know this.  The pattern it creates, the rise and fall of the words and the meaning, breathes the message of the text before we even get into it.  It may seem simple, but mastering simplicity is one of the skills of great writing and is evident throughout this novel.


Adam said...

Hmm. A Tale of Two Cities was okay, but I have a hard time loving it because Victor Hugo's Les Miserables was astonishingly better - and they discuss many of the same things, particularly France and England during the Revolution. I would have to go with Great Expectations as my favorite Dickens. I haven't read most of his work, though - I've got three Dickens' books sitting on my shelf right now. I hear David Copperfield is great... what else have you read by Dickens?

Amy said...

Les Miserables is unquestionably better than A Tale of Two Cities, but I read the latter first so I could enjoy it without Hugo's shadow looming over it. I read Oliver Twist and wasn't a fan because it goes on and on for several more chapters after already having reached the climax. I've also read A Christmas Carol, which is good for the way it has infected pop culture but perhaps not remarkable on its own. I've also dabbled in Pickwick Papers, which is mostly just silly and not too deep. So I haven't read any other meaty ones and perhaps should try them out.

Eva said...

I am not a fan of Dickens (having read Oliver Twist, Great Expectations twice, parts of Pickwick Papers, and Hard Times), not because of his descriptions/long books but because I never connect with any of his characters. That being said, I read A Tale of Two Cities when I was 14 and loved it! I've been contemplating a reread to see if I still enjoy it. :)

Eva said...

Ugh, not 14, lol. I was 12...that's why I'm not sure if I'll enjoy it as much as an adult.

Paul said...

I've always enjoyed Dickens' characters. They are often sketched out more as caricatures than portraits, but his delightful British understatement and irony of description make them unforgettable.