"A Tale of Two Cities" by Charles Dickens

La Revolución francesa arrasó con instituciones centenarias como la monarquía y el feudalismo, sembrando las semillas de las que florecerían las democracias del futuro. En este violento contexto transcurre este clásico de Dickens.

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A tale of two cities

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In 1859 English writer Charles Dickens published A Tale of Two Cities, a serialised page-turner set in London and Paris during the French Revolution. The protagonist is a French doctor called Manette who, after spending nearly two decades in prison in Paris, is reunited with his lost daughter Lucie, who lives in London. The book begins with one of the most famous paragraphs in English literature.

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“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.”

“Eran los mejores tiempos, eran los peores tiempos, era el siglo de la locura, era el siglo de la razón, era la edad de la fe, era la edad de la incredulidad, era la época de la luz, era la época de las tinieblas, era la primavera de la esperanza, era el invierno de la desesperación, lo teníamos todo, no teníamos nada, íbamos directos al Cielo, íbamos de cabeza al Infierno”.

REUNITED AT LAST

It is England, 1775. Both French and English society are plagued by social ills. Lucie Manette believes she is an orphan, but discovers that her father, Doctor Manette, is alive in Paris. She travels there to find he had spent eighteen years locked up in the Bastille, a notorious state prison. She takes him to England.

Meanwhile, in a poor suburb of Paris, desperation is reaching its tipping point. In a foreboding scene, wine from Monsieur Defarge’s shop spills onto the street and peasants dive in to lick it up. They become stained blood red.

“The wine was red wine, and had stained the ground of the narrow street in the suburb of Saint Antoine, in Paris, where it was spilled. It had stained many hands, too, and many faces, and many naked feet, and many wooden shoes. The hands of the man who sawed the wood left red marks on the billets; and the forehead of the woman who nursed her baby was stained with the stain of the old rag she wound about her head.”

“El vino era tinto, y se había derramado en una angosta calle del arrabal de Saint Antoine de París, manchando el suelo, y también muchas manos, caras, pies descalzos y zapatos de madera. El aserrador iba manchando de rojo los troncos que manejaba; la mujer que daba el pecho a su hijo llevaba en el rostro manchas rojas dejadas por el harapo que se había quitado de la cabeza para emplearlo como esponja”.

A LASTING PHILOSOPHY

It is London, 1780. French emigré Charles Darnay has been acquitted of treason against the British Crown. Relieved, he travels to Paris to visit his uncle, the Marquis St. Evrémonde. Darnay is shocked when his uncle treats a peasant cruelly, justifying his actions with the following words:

“‘Repression is the only lasting philosophy. The dark deference of fear and slavery, my friend,’ observed the Marquis, ‘will keep the dogs obedient to the whip, as long as this roof,’ looking up to it, ‘shuts out the sky.’”

“—La represión —dijo el marqués— es la única filosofía real y permanente. El oscuro respeto del miedo, amigo mío, seguirá haciendo que los perros obedezcan al látigo, mientras estos techos nos tapen la vista del cielo”.

Disgusted, Darnay renounces his identity, and returns to England. That night, the Marquis is murdered.

THE KNITTED REGISTER

It is London, a year on. Darnay has received permission to marry Lucie. Meanwhile, in Paris, Madame Defarge sits in her husband’s wine shop knitting a secret registry of those who will be executed in the Revolution. Her husband is proud of her skills.

“‘Knitted, in her own stitches and her own symbols, it will always be as plain to her as the sun. Confide in Madame Defarge. It would be easier for the weakest poltroon that lives, to erase himself from existence, than to erase one letter of his name or crimes from the knitted register of Madame Defarge.’”

“—Jaime —contestó Defarge.— Si mi mujer tomase a su cargo conservar el registro en su memoria, no olvidaría una palabra ni una sílaba, pero si lo teje en su labor de calceta, con sus señales particulares, siempre le resultará tan claro como el sol. Confiad en la señora Defarge, pues nadie es capaz de borrar una letra de los nombres que ella inscribe en su labor”.

It is Paris, 1789. Peasants storm the Bastille and the French Revolution is underway. While revolutionaries kill aristocrats in the streets, Madame Defarge continues to knit.

THE REIGN OF TERROR

It is Paris, 1792, during a notoriously bloody period of the Revolution. A man known to Darnay writes to him to beg for help. Darnay arrives in Paris, but is arrested there by revolutionaries. Lucie and Manette go there in the hope of saving him. At Darnay’s trial, damning evidence leads to his being condemned to death for the crimes of his ancestors. However, Madame Defarge also plots to have Lucie and their daughter, little Lucie, executed too. Can the Manettes escape in time — or will they all go to the guillotine?

Written in brilliant yet sometimes difficult to follow Victorian prose, A Tale of Two Cities has been adapted for the screen many times. It has also inspired many productions, including Christopher Nolan’s Batman movie The Dark Knight Rises (2012).

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Este artículo pertenece al número de october 2023 de la revista Speak Up.

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