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Frank, L. (1979). Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities: The Poetics of Impasse. Am. Imago, 36(3):215-244.

(1979). American Imago, 36(3):215-244

Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities: The Poetics of Impasse

Lawrence Frank

A Tale of Two Cities has, for too long, been Sydney Carton's novel. The sheer melodramatic force of his last, unspoken words continues to obscure the significance of Charles Darnay's moral and psychological dilemma. Of course, Darnay is all too often a prig, a bourgeois pilgrim en route, like David Copperfield, to a secular celestial city. But he is, however ambiguously, the novel's hero. It is Carton, not Darnay, who is the foil. In the popular imagination, their roles are commonly reversed. For who can resist either the novel's insistence in that cadenced conclusion, “‘It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known’”; or memories of Ronald Coleman as Sydney Carton? Dickens himself had been fascinated by Carton's precursor, Richard Wardour, a character in Wilkie Collins' The Frozen Deep. He helped to fashion the part of Wardour and then portrayed it in private, and finally, public performances of the play in 1857: Richard Wardour, like Sydney Carton, is a man who dies saving his rival's life. A Tale of Two Cities does not specifically emerge out of Dickens' suspicious identification with Wardour, but The Frozen Deep undeniably works its subversive way through a novel whose subject seems to be the French Revolution.

Its ostensible subject, revolution and social change, suggests at once that A Tale of Two Cities is serious in ways The Frozen Deep is not. But its true seriousness is not that of the historical fiction it proclaims itself to be. There is a profoundly ahistorical thrust to the novel.

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