I have been hanging out a bit with Charles Dickens here in the first quarter of 2024; first with a re-reading of the massive David Copperfield and then, more recently, with another rewarding re-read of A Tale of Two Cities. Both novels were wonderful challenges with important and fresh value.

David Copperfield is classic Dickens — exquisite descriptions, the vivid creation of emotion and mood, enlightening analyses of both social conditions and individual character, a bountiful cast of intriguing personalities, occasional moments of high comedy and satire, and elaborate plot lines full of surprise and drama and moral lessons. It was rich reading through all 682 pages.

But A Tale of Two Cities? That book is, in all the voluminous Dickens canon, absolutely one-of-a-kind. This striking description of the French Revolution is unrelentlessly intense. And the scenes, the spirit, the villains, the mad violence of the mobs, and then the bloodshed issuing from beneath guillotine, are unforgettable. The outrageous nihilism and irrational injustice which fed the Red Terror are presented by Charles Dickens in raw detail, making it impossible for the reader to ever again be swayed by arguments that the French Revolution was, in any way whatsoever, noble or measured or justified. 

And when I say unrelentlessly intense, I mean just that. For completely unique to Dickens novels, there was not one comic character in A Tale of Two Cities, not one comic scene. And even when the reader finds a witty or wry comment, it only serves to underscore the blasphemy and vile wickedness of which man, unmoored by Christian values, is capable.

And yet, set against the depth of depravity which was the French Revolution, A Tale of Two Cities is also the most Christian, and thus most hopeful, of all of Charles Dickens’ novels. Yes, Dickens demonstrates the profound and enduring values of Christianity to the social order in almost all of his books. Those values provide the foundation for the powerful criticisms in his work of both individual baseness and social rot. But it is in A Tale of Two Cities where Dickens openly (even boldly) presents the power of the gospel in transforming an individual. Indeed, the finale of the novel not only presents a selfish, sardonic, wastrel becoming a forgiven and elevated hero, but it repeatedly points to the reason for that transformation being the character’s his meditations on and acceptance of Jesus momentous claim, “I am the resurrection and the life; he that believeth in Me, though he were dead, yet shall he live. And whosoever liveth and believeth in Me shall never die.”

I have long maintained that A Tale of Two Cities was my least favorite of the Dickens novels. But, after reading it again — for the 4th or 5th time by now — I have raised it higher, much higher on the scale. 

But be doers of the word,
and not hearers only.