The first time I read A Tale of Two Cities, in my teens, it was a fun romp, and adventure novel by an author who didn’t quite seem to know how to write one. The second time I read it, probably during Obama’s first term, it still felt like that to me.
This time, A Tale of Two Cities is a dire warning. Why did I think I should assign it to a 14-year-old? What was I thinking? Had I forgotten the long, bitter accounts of the guillotine and its victims? Had I forgotten the excruciating descriptions of life among the French poor, and the experiences that persuaded them that the guillotine was the best available solution?
I’ve just finished the chapters about the September Massacres. After the January 6th hearings and those of the riot trials that have reached verdicts and sentences, I could probably name a hundred specific people who have actively worked to bring about mob violence on that scale or larger in my own country within the last three years. A Tale of Two Cities isn’t an adventure story anymore, not even a failed one.
And yet, Dickens is funnier this time around than he’s ever been.