The book to read on July 14th, Bastille Day? Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities, of course. Never have liked the characterizations of Lucie Manette or Charles Darnay in that one, but I excuse the author because he was writing at top speed for serialization. He even concedes, in her name (Manette), that Lucie wasn’t meant to be anything more than a stick figure, a puppet, or (in our terms) a trophy wife.
She should have been more. There has to be, after all, something substantive in her to make Sydney Carton fall in love with her, although I concede at once that men can and do become enraptured with women because of their beauty alone. It happens. Usually, though, there has to be more in the woman than the way she looks. Perhaps there is. Miss Pross does fight for her in the end, and the fight appears to be based as much upon Pross’s love for her as it does Pross’s pride in the dignity of her station as Lucie’s guardian. Even so, I think Dickens could have done more with Lucie.
Where Dickens did not shortchange any of us is in the breathtaking speed of the final chapters. Most of us know what’s coming, yet we’re turning those pages as fast as we can to confirm our suspicions. Carton’s sacrifice is one of old-fashioned heroism and sentimentality, completely out of favor in this era of Game of Thrones bloodletting and the (admittedly wonderful) deceptive turn Christopher Nolan takes with Dickens’s ending during the final scenes of The Dark Knight Rises (2012).
But note, if you will, that Nolan plays that deception absolutely straight. He doesn’t wink at the audience, and he gives us credit for remembering that Bruce Wayne often appeared to be, to the entire world, what Sydney Carton actually was–a handsome drunkard and playboy who had wasted his life. Yet Dickens (and Nolan, for that matter) wants us to see something else besides deception. He wants us to see that genuine heroism does, upon occasion, require the laying down of our own lives. Yes, Carton takes the place of Charles Darnay, but he does so knowing he’s going to die. For Bruce Wayne to have performed an equivalent act, Batman would have had to perish willingly in the Bat as it flew out over the bay. But he doesn’t. Batman’s heroism, thrilling as it is, extends only to fighting for his city. Carton will actually die for it–a sacrifice that Dickens and every soldier who’s ever fought or every police officer who’s ever served knows must often be made.
A Tale of Two Cities resonates in one other way for us. It reminds us as compellingly as a novel can that no human life is worthless. Leaving aside for the moment the great evil of which men and women are capable, the plain truth is that the vast majority of us simply struggle. We’re not out to do harm to ourselves or others, even as we live shamefully or criminally. Every life matters. It was Dickens who drove home this truth to me when I was a boy, and it was the extraordinary movie Seabiscuit (2003) which reinforced it, in that quiet but powerful campfire scene when horse owner Charles Howard (Jeff Bridges) takes a chance on the down-on-his-luck horse trainer Tom Smith (Chris Cooper) and hires him to run the Howard stables, giving Smith a last-chance opportunity to redeem his life.
The storm of humanity that swept over the Bastille on this day in 1789 is usually viewed as being driven by rage at their poverty, and the panorama itself is usually considered to be an economic event. It was, and neither Dickens nor Nolan nor Gary Ross ignores the dislocations of the eighteenth century, the Great Depression, or the enormous downturn of 2008 in telling their stories. But greatness is achieved not only through focus on the moment but also through depth, and a sense of the larger scale of things. That larger scale will become known to us the moment we understand that no life is worthless, even among the millions we might contemplate. That is what the French were saying centuries ago. Every life matters.