I listened to an audio version A Tale of Two Cities. It was awesome. Let me tell you, if the only thing you've read by Charles Dickens is A Christmas Carol, you don't know how good a writer he was.
(Confession: Until this audiobook, I was in that boat. I tried reading Two Cities when I was eighteen, but didn't get very far. It was too slow to start. Now, after having read a few of Jane Austen's books, I think I'd do better. But listening to a good voice actor is a treat.)
So: This book is about a Dr. Manette who was imprisoned by French aristocrats for eighteen years in the infamous Bastille. On his release, he meets his grown daughter Lucie who wasn't even born when he was locked up, and who was raised in London after the death of his wife. She marries another French ex-pat, Charles Darnay, an aristocrat who gave up his inheritance to be a good guy instead of an oppressor.
Meanwhile, the book also follows some very bad stuff happening in Paris, mostly related to the former servant of Dr. Manette. It paints a vivid picture of the oppression of the French people by their ruling class, and does it with magnificent language.
It's an epic book, spanning over eighteen years in the narrative and twice that time in total. The French Revolution breaks out, and the oppressed and oppressors swap roles. Madame Guillotine becomes a central character.
The construction of the story is superb, if long. Every event and scene, though seemingly unrelated, comes together at the end. The story preoccupied my thoughts, and since I listened to it in the car on the way to and from work, I found myself looking forward to going to work. (And coming back home, but that's normal.) The end was moving and satisfying.
"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."
That's the last line. (Captain Kirk quotes it at the end of The Wrath of Khan. I think that movie was partly inspired by this book, which makes an appearance at the beginning and end.)
Anyway, this is getting long and I'm not just reviewing a book that only needs endorsement. I want to talk about the violence. A Tale of Two Cities is fiction, but the violence in Paris really happened.
The worst period is called The Reign of Terror. More than 16,000 people were executed by beheading in about one year. Do the math, and that works out to--a lot, every day. These were public executions. As portrayed in the book, the condemned were hauled through the streets in carts and run through the guillotine one after another in front of crowds of people. Good citizens went out to watch the fun. It was the popular entertainment to watch heads roll.
But eventually, (and this isn't in the book,) people stopped going to see the executions. After that many thousands, it gets old.
I imagine the first time you see someone's head chopped off is quite a thrill. One second, there's a living, breathing, undoubtedly distressed prisoner, and the next, a body and a round object that was once a head, now a curiosity, perhaps held up by the hair or raised on a pike for all to see. There'd be blood. A lot of blood.
That happened dozens of times a day, for all kinds of crimes and non-crimes. Thousands, hundreds of thousands maybe, witnessed the spectacle.
How could so many people let it all happen? I don't know. The new government saw a need to keep people in line just as the old monarchy had, and they created a monster. It was actually a more humane form of execution than the monarchy had used.
One thing I do see is that an entire society--any society, I believe--can get so used to violence that it will tolerate anything and in any amount. The human heart can only witness so much without growing hard. Does it matter if the violence we consume as entertainment is actual or fictional? Probably. But when that violence ceases to make us cringe, we ought to be concerned. About ourselves, about our future.
It's history, and you know what they say about history.