Have you ever wondered what makes a classic novel a classic? Does it just have to be old? Well, there are plenty of old books that nobody’s ever heard of. Cross that off. Does the author need to be long dead? Hmm…not necessarily. Whatever the criteria, one thing that can be said about classic literature is that its themes and motifs are relatable and remain relevant throughout changing times. Even though they often depict time periods that are long gone, the issues faced by the characters parallel those we face in today’s culture.
Charles Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities is one of the most famous titles in the world. Originally published in 1859 and set in London and Paris (hence the “two cities”), it might seem like a stretch to relate it to modern society. To that I say: challenge accepted.
Here’s why A Tale of Two Cities is still relevant today:
1. We live in a World of Constant Comparison
It’s pretty obvious that Social Media has drastically changed the way we perceive ourselves and others. But the common thread that seems inescapable in modern American culture is that of comparison.
Two key central characters in A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Darnay and Sydney Carton, are portrayed almost as shadows of one another. They bare a striking resemblance (so much so that Darnay avoided a prison sentencing because of the high possibility that the guilty party could have been mistaken for him), and in many ways represent two different paths that the same person could take. Both fall for the same woman, but (obviously) only one wins her. While Darnay builds a life and a family, Carton remains on the fringes. Lonely, but resigned to merely be a friend of the woman he loves, he feels that his life is meaningless.
I see a lot of that type of crippling comparison today. It’s so easy to look at the lives of others from the outside, assuming that they have everything together. Not to mention everything you’ve ever wanted. But in the end, it’s untrue and unhealthy. In a way, Carton’s story serves as a warning: don’t become trapped in envy. Figure out who you are and write your own story.
2. Bias is Rampant
One of the major themes in A Tale of Two Cities is what I’ll call the clashing of the classes. It’s the rich against the poor. The aristocrats versus the street rats. The privileged pushing the underprivileged. The classic – yet timelessly relevant – story of what happens when people are oppressed by those who perceive themselves to be superior.
Without any spoilers, one of the central conflicts of A Tale of Two Cities – and its bittersweet end – is the result of injustice. The catalyst develops from an evil deed dealt by a squandrously wealthy (and equally uncaring) man towards lower-class citizens. His opinion of who they are is entirely built on the bias of his lifestyle. Therefore, his actions result in a nasty revenge quest, which no amount of spilled blood is able to satisfy. Ultimately, both sides lose.
Regardless of your opinions on modern day social justice issues, it’s impossible to deny that we’re still living in a world of upheaval and prejudice. Even if the events of pre-revolutionary France in A Tale of Two Cities might sound extreme, it’s not much of a stretch to say that proponents of hateful acts today are led by similar motivations.
3. We Are Not Defined by Our Lineage
Charles Darnay is the protagonist of A Tale of Two Cities. Although he was born into the wealth French society, he chooses to leave and live in England as an adult. He does this because he can’t stand to be associated with the cruelty and injustice going on in France, much of which was perpetuated by his own uncle. That’s why he initially keeps his identity a secret, and why returning to France was such a risk for him. Even if he *promised* that he was a good guy, the fact that he was related to such evil automatically disqualified him as someone to be trusted.
I don’t think it’s a far cry to say that most people have probably worried at some point in their lives about turning out just like their parents. Or a sibling. Or some other relative. Fill in the blank. Even if your fam is the absolute best, feeling like you have a legacy to hold up can be just as stressful as wanting to break free from a bad reputation. I appreciate the fact that this book doesn’t try to teach some lesson about us being carbon copies of our parents. Instead, it reminds us that we – each of us – defines who we turn out to be.
We may be influenced by how we are raised (of course), but there are steps we can take to change. Read books by authors from other cultures. Have kind conversations with people who have different opinions from you. Recognize why you have the opinions that you do, and when applicable, question them. You are your own person, and not defined by the bad – or good – deeds of your family.
What do I think makes a work of literature a classic?
A book that warrants rereading – and impacts you differently when you read it during different stages of life. It could be a book you pick up every year when the weather starts getting chilly, or one you get in the mood for once a decade. The key factor is that a classic is timeless.
What do you think – is A Tale of Two Cities still relevant today? Tell us in the comments!
You can learn more about this beautiful new fine edition of A Tale of Two Cities here!
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