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« Utopia it Ain’t: Modernism’s Lasting Influence | Main | Another ’Tale’ of woe »

July 11, 2007

Not so Great Expectations for ’A Tale of Two Cities’

Dickens Like most young kids, my first introduction to Dickens was A Christmas Carol. As a fourth-grader my legs dangled from the plush velvet theater chairs (the kind that you couldn't keep down with all the concentrated mass of your nine year-old body) of Ruth Eckerd Hall as I got my first taste not only of Dickens, but of real live theater. So when in ninth grade my English teacher told us that we would be reading Great Expectations, I dove in with delicious excitement. I remember liking the book in the beginning. Intrigued by the curious character of the "Conwict" and the sympathetic Pip and Joe, I found intriguing and well-drawn characters. By the time the book introduced the eccentric Miss Havisham and haughty Estella, I was even more fascinated. I couldn't wait for the story ahead.

But then something happened. The plot began to drag. There was chapter after chapter of unnecessary meandering, extra characters. I grew impatient. But mostly I grew sleepy. That was the year I got up at 4:45am to catch a 5:45 bus to school for over an hour commute to my magnet school that started at 7:15. After school was out there'd be theater practice til 5 pm, an hour long commute home, a quick family dinner, and then hitting the books until my eyelids couldn't stay open any more. That was the year I read Great Expectations. To try and stay awake during the middle of the book I began reading standing up or I'd move around our house looking for someplace uncomfortable, someplace where I couldn't fall asleep. My mom found me one night fully clothed and sitting in the bathtub; I had been trying to find some place uncomfortable enough that I wouldn't fall asleep reading Great Expectations. Somehow I managed to make it through. And the book did seem to redeem itself if you had the patience of Job and the caffeination of Jolt to make it to the third section.

That year I also learned that Dickens was paid by the word and published his novels in serial format (three chapters at a time). I decided that I too would have been verbose and circuitous if paid by the word and published this way, so I grew sympathetic, though still annoyed, by the highly esteemed Dickens. (Dare I disparage his revered name!) The next year I read Hard Times. Again I had to employ the uncomfortable reading strategy to make it through the novel.

In college I managed to pass for an English major without having to read much more Dickens--or at least if I did I've blocked out the painful memory. But I did learn that if you are an English major you must speak of Dickens in hushed and reverent tones or suffer the scorn of your profs and classmates. The heavens must have witnessed my inward distaste for Dickens. Because as a special curse from the literature gods when I taught high school English, what was on the course syllabus as mandatory for ninth graders? Yep, you guessed it... Great Expectations. Let's just say my enthusiasm was more quarantined than contagious and I was more than sympathetic to the complaints of the tortured freshmen, I "meantersay" poor lads.

The ghosts of English class past seem to have visited me once again this Christmas, when my friend (and fellow blogger Kristine) noting my (gasp) distaste for Dickens purchased me (and my other friend and fellow blogger, Lori) A Tale of Two Cities as a special wicked little Christmas gift. Scrooge that I am, I thought about trading in the book and putting the money in a special interest-earning investment fund. Anyhow, these past six months of the constant haunting, howling, and chalk-board scratching of the ghosts of English teachers past and friends present has been enough to convince me that I need to read A Tale of Two Cities for our blog-a-book challenge, if for no other reason than to vanish the specters and remain always a Scrooge when it comes to my Dickensophile friends. Well, anyhow, that's the long answer as to why I'm procrastinating tonight. Maybe I'll start tomorrow. The good news is that today I'm the owner of a very uncomfortable couch. Perhaps that will help. If not, there's always blogging from the bathtub.

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I don't remember reading any Dickens until after high school. (Although I loved Disney's take on "A Christmas Carol" with Scrooge McDuck).
I knew Dickens was 'important'.
I knew 'Classics' were 'important'.
I decided to read 'Great Expectations'.
Maybe the key here is that this was not in any way required reading (unless I wanted approval from English majors) - but I really enjoyed 'Great Expectations'. I remember the experience as a journey where I would look back and think "Wait a tick. That was funny." His subtle irony always made me smile. And, I was amazed at his insights into social responsibility. Perhaps because most of my reading at the time was non-fiction (Theology), I didn't find it difficult to get through. It cemented my appreciation of Dickens.
Next up was Oliver Twist - which, because of the 'Please, sir, can I have some more' cultural popularity, I expected much. It didn't seem like anything special, and felt like work to get through.
I really enjoyed 'Hard Times' and just in the last year or two first read 'A Tale of Two Cities'. I didn't know what the book was about or, for that matter, much about the French Revolution. Maybe it's this entanglement of fresh history with a wink that makes Dickens special - at least to me.

Sorry if this is re-hashed English major stuff... just my thoughts :)

- Funny story relating trying to stay awake.


I'm confident this is your year for Dickens, Catherine. :) I tried to read Anna Karenina twice--once in high school (literally, during classes) and once in college--but I kept getting bogged down. Finally, after college I picked it up again and flew through it, loving every page, and quickly devoured all things Tolstoy. May your imagination fly through this Dickens like the lightning-quick knitting needles of Madame Defarge.

Sarah Edwards

Of the four Dickens novels I've attempted, A Tale of Two Cities is the only one I managed to finish - and I enjoyed it very much. I've heard it described as the "least Dickensian Dickens novel," which may be why. There's more action and fewer characters. So, you might actually like it!


My favorite story about the Tale of Two Cities, is that when France celebrated the 200th anniversary of its revolution, Prime Minister Thatcher gave the premier of France a gift: a copy of A Tale of Two Cities.



Wow, Catherine, I never knew.

Of course, I loved Great Expectations (I have not read Hard times yet but will) but loved Our Mutual Friend more. What a great story and mystery.

When reading Dickens it always helps to get the Oxford version because there is a cast of characters and their description that you can refer to. When in doubt as to who is Mr. Turveydrop, just flip to the cast of characters and your mind will be refreshed.

Would you suffer some Wilkie Collins or some Thomas Hardy for my sake?


Dickens has been read in our family for years. Our Mutual Friend was my favorite and Great Expectations my least. I've not read A Tale of Two Cities as an adult. I'm going to hunt up a copy and check back with your blog this summer. Are you recommending any history books, biographies or articles to go with the reading?

Kim Moreland

Elizabeth should read G. K. Chesterton's, *Appreciations and criticisms of the works of Charles Dickens.* I found an online version which she might want to skim first. http://www.dickens-literature.com/Appreciations_and_Criticisms_by_G.K_Chesterton/0.html

Cheers, Kim

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