You know what we’ve read this summer? A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

Without meaning to disparage the fascinating tomes that other students get to read over the summer, it’s fair to say that it’s English students who have the highest chance of striking reading list gold.  This 19th Century epic is one such example.

While BBC Big Read voters might only have rated this as Dickens’ fourth best novel (behind Great Expectations, A Christmas Carol and David Copperfield), there’s a strong case to be made that this is his masterpiece.  The backdrop of the French Revolution lends an epic edge, the trademark comedic caricatures provide a dash of humour, and the central characters are invested with a humanity that is sometimes lacking in Dickens’ other works.

Fundamentally though, whether you are an English undergraduate or someone who hasn’t read a novel since Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the real strength here is the story.  The action builds steadily from an opening loaded with mysteries, culminating in a final third that is almost deliciously put together.  Whereas many Victorian novels fall back on absurd coincidences to resolve their plots (how many times can someone be secretly related to the hero without anyone knowing?), here the characters’ arcs fuse together in ways that are both comic and tragic, in all senses of the words.

Overall then, this is so much more than something to let everyone else on the beach know you’re a pretentious Oxford undergraduate.  It’s just a mystery why no-ones made a TV series of it recently…

You know what we’ve read this summer? is an ongoing series of articles for OxStu Online, giving you our top tips on books of all shapes and sizes that we think you should be reading this summer.  Check in soon for the next update, and if you have your own suggestions or opinions let us know in the comments!



  1. Seb

    25th July 2011 at 01:13

    Great novel, the most exhilarating and movingly tragic Dickens work I’ve read, yet I’d be very hesitant NOT to include Tale of Two Cities in the group of “Victorian novels [which] fall back on absurd coincidences to resolve their plots,” seeing as the whole plot is germinated, advanced and resolved by coincidence (the families of Darnay and Manette being enemies, the crucial similarity in looks of Carton and Darnay, Manette unknowingly testifying against Darnay etc.)

    Also Tale… is hardly a “19th century epic.” It may be argued as being epic but is not an “epic” regarding genre. In fact in terms of length its one of Dickens’ shortest novels compared to say the “epic” of Bleak House.

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  3. Joel Richardson

    7th August 2011 at 19:21

    Hey Seb, I guess what I mean about it not being resolved by co-incidences is that, while obviously those things drive the plot (but what story isn’t driven by co-incidence?), the resolution to the novel isn’t a massive deux ex machina, but instead it involves one of the characters choosing to make a sacrifice for believable reasons. I’d put that in contrast to Jane Eyre, where just happens to bump into her cousins and become rich and the woman in the way happens to die and she happens to hear a magic voice, or Little Dorrit where it’s all set up to go wrong until a house happens to collapse on the bad guy at the perfect moment.

    And I take your point about the epic thing though

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