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How and why does Dickens change from the past tense to present tense and from...

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james101 | eNotes Newbie

Posted August 19, 2010 at 1:25 PM via web

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How and why does Dickens change from the past tense to present tense and from third-person to first-person narration in A Tale of Two Cities?

What do these changes accomplish?

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lit24 | College Teacher | Valedictorian

Posted August 19, 2010 at 11:01 PM (Answer #1)

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Dickens'  twelfth novel "A Tale of Two Cities" appeared in weekly installments between April 1859 and November 1859.  The novel uses the French Revolution as a backdrop to foreground Sydney Carton's unfulfilled romantic attachment and love to Lucie Manette. Dickens researched all the details of the French Revolution meticulously before starting to write "A Tale of Two Cities." His main source for the historical information was Thomas Carlyle's "History of the French Revolution."

Being an historical novel it was inevitable that Dickens intertwined the historical past with narrative present of the main plot of the novel. The novel is divided into three sections - Recalled to Life, The Golden Thread and The Track of a Storm.

Dickens begins his novel in the first chapter with a narrator giving his readers the necessary historical information in the past tense:

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,

The plot of the novel begins in Ch.2  with a dramatic incident in the vivid present which serves to immediately capture the attention of the readers - Jerry Cruncher's heroic and successful attempt in giving the note to Mr.Jarvis Lorry at the nick of the moment. The chapter ends with Jerry Cruncher wondering aloud what Mr.Jarvis Lorry's reply to the note - RECALLED TO LIFE -  meant. The dramatic incident which is played out then and there right in front of the eyes of the readers concludes with

"he [Jerry Cruncher] turned to walk down the hill.]

This sentence is in the third person past .

But the very next chapter begins with the narrator directly addressing his readers  in the first person present as he wonders what secrets lie hidden in the bosom of each citizen of a metropolis:

A solemn consideration, when I enter a great city by night, that every one of those darkly clustered houses encloses its own secret; that every room in every one of them encloses its own secret; that every beating heart in the hundreds of thousands of breasts there, is, in some of its imaginings, a secret to the heart nearest it!

This rapid change of tense from past to present and objective third person narration to the first person present foreshadows the most important incidents of the novel - Dr. Manette's grim past and Charles Darnay of the Evremonde family becoming coincidentally his son in law in the sequence of incidents in the plot being enacted in present time.


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