A Tale of Two Cities
by Charles Dickens
Analysis: Narrator Point of View
Who is the narrator, can she or he read minds, and, more importantly, can we trust her or him?
Third Person Omniscient
Dickens likes to play the Voice of God. His narrator tends to know it all. Not in a bad way – it’s more like the voice of your favorite high school teacher and Oprah all rolled into one.
See, for example, the sweeping statements of the first chapter of the book:
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 [...]. (1.1.1)
As you can probably tell from his opening foray, Dickens’s narrator is a big-picture sort of guy. We’re going to get the whole world packed into one novel, which is why it’s lucky that our narrator seems to know exactly what’s going on. All the time.
This, friends, is no modernist text. There’s a clear (if complicated) plot. It develops in exactly the way that our narrator expects it to do. And believe us, we’re going to need all the help that we can get to navigate through the complicated web of historical social uprisings, long-kept family secrets, and unspoken allegiances. Luckily, Dickens’s narrator knows exactly where he’s taking us. He lets us into the minds of characters whenever it seems prudent for him to do so.
Once we’ve said that, though, we’ve got to wonder: why do we get to hear so much about what’s going on in Carton’s head and so little about Darnay? We understand why it’s important to be inside the doctor’s head (if only because then we get just how crippling a long prison stay can be), but why do we hear almost nothing at all about Lucie’s thoughts? Dickens seems to be strategically making some characters more accessible to us than others, and we’re pretty sure that he has reasons for his choices.
These are all good – and big – questions. Unfortunately, we don't have Dickens around to give us the answers. We do think, however, that our narrator is playing with our emotions just a little bit. That letter from Doctor Manette? It’s like when Oprah pulls out that big, tear-jerking surprise at the end of a family reunion episode. How can we know so much about Dr. Manette and still not know this?
It’s almost as if Dickens is playing a big game of "Gotcha." Just when we think we know it all, his narrator manages to pull a few tricks out of his sleeve. That’s why we’re saying he does a pretty decent job of playing God. It’s his world. Make sure you remember it.