Though its opening line is among the most famous in all the Western canon, it’s the closing lines of Charles Dickens’ revolutionary classic A Tale of Two Cities that resonate with unshakable beauty. (For what it’s worth, we don’t even seem to know that opening line quite as well as we like to think because there’s actually quite a bit more to it than shown in the image above.)
Like most of Dickens’ books, A Tale of Two Cities contains a multitudinous cast of memorable characters, some humorous, some serious, all engaging in their own way. Of all the varied ensemble players in Tale, including the strong but conflicted Monsieur Defarge, the impeccably proper Mr. Lorry and the pompously obtuse Mr. Stryver, the story’s most critical role falls to Sydney Carton, an 18th century anti-hero.
Modern anti-heroes are shown to have good hearts even as they continue to do terrible things and that’s certainly the case with Carton though Tale does little to actually show us the bad things he’s done, instead repeatedly telling us that he’s a bit of an underachieving alcoholic and leaving it at that.
Despite his shallow credentials as a ne’er-do-well, as Tale continues, Carton becomes increasingly committed to an honorably dire act that is powerful no matter the character’s background. That force becomes the driving factor of Tale and the way that Dickens describes Carton’s commitment and uses it to explore the human capacity for compassion, sacrifice and self-realization culminates in a closing passage that is, for me at least, the single greatest passage in English literature.
The book’s first hundred pages can be a bit of a slog and there’s no doubting that Dickens’ may have elongated his stories for his own financial benefit but in its final few pages, A Tale of Two Cities proves to be worth every minute spent with it.