I spent some quality time last weekend finishing A Tale of Two Cities. The last time I read it was my freshman year of high school. I’m not sure how much I actually understood of it back then.

18 years later, I remember the ending. Madame Defarge knitting. And the literary symbolism that wine = blood. Which wasn’t exactly an insight, because Dickens pretty much beats you over the head with that:

Those who had been greedy with the staves of the cask, had acquired a tigerish smear about the mouth; and one tall joker so besmirched, his head more out of a long squalid bag of a nightcap than in it, scrawled upon a wall with his finger dipped in muddy wine-lees—BLOOD. The time was to come, when that wine too would be spilled on the street-stones, and when the stain of it would be red upon many there.

That’s a pretty dense paragraph, but even a freshman could get the gist of it.

I picked the book up for a lot of reasons. I was inspired by this post: (via Kottke) “How to Read a Victorian Novel.”

I was also inspired to pick it up again by, oddly enough, The Dark Knight Rises. The newest Batman movie makes several allusions to A Tale of Two Cities, from the mob uprising against the rich, to the sham tribunals against them, to the closing lines of the movie, which directly quote the closing lines of Dickens’ book. 

The truth is—and I have been somewhat reluctant to admit it because it seems a little snobbish and pretentious—I really like Dickens. 

I’ve read A Tale of Two Cities, Great Expectations, Bleak House, David Copperfield, and Oliver Twist. They are labors to start, but joys to finish. Dickens can end a story.

I like a lot about his books, but re-reading A Tale of Two Cities helped me put to words what I like: his audacity.

It takes a lot of courage and ego to write a sprawling 900 page book that practically requires note cards to keep the characters straight (Bleak House). To write a bloodthirsty revolutionary zealot into A Tale of Two Cities and name her … The Vengeance. Which author nowadays would try to pull that one off? It sounds hackneyed. But it totally worked.
Well, there is one … 

Stephen King is often considered to be a modern day heir to Dickens, and I think that’s about right. Same strength of storytelling and rich characters, same flaws of too many characters, and too much writing.

I wouldn’t recommend Dickens lightly. His books are often hard to get into. And you might find yourself re-reading the last page you just read more than normal. But I think the payoff for the work is well-rewarded.

Great Expectations and A Tale of Two Cities are definitely his two most accessible of those I’ve read. Great Expectations starts better, but A Tale of Two Cities ends better. I like David Copperfield a lot too, and it’s got some nice comedy.

Eventually, I’ll probably pick up his other famous books, ticking off another one every few years.

And I’ve been toying around with an idea for a play that is related to Dickens. But I have a couple other books in the hopper I need to finish first.