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, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way....
With this paradoxical opening, Dickens arranges for the equally paradoxical characters and events that he creates in his narrative, "A Tale of Two Cities." For instance, Jerry Cruncher is an "honest tradesman" by day, yet at night he robs graves and returns home to his religious wife who "flops" in prayer for Jerry's sins. Meek and kind Charles Darnay is the son of a man who, with his twin brother, committed unspeakable crimes; the sinister Madame deFarge, who knits names into her death shawl, was once a young, innocent and happy woman. Sydney Carton, the dissipated lawyer who is the jackal for the brash Stryver, was once a brillant star that had romantic ideals.
Similarly, events become paradoxical. In the trial of Darnay in an early chapter, the witness against Darnay becomes a dual spy in England and in France. That the prisoner, "One Hundred and Five, North Tower," should become a hero in France is, indeed, apparently contradictory. That the shifless Carton should become a hero who saves the husband of the woman he loves is also an apparent contradiction.
In addition to the paradoxical nature of the opening lines comes also the parallelism of this passage, a parallelism mirrored in the pairs of characters who balance each other. For instance, Mr. Lorry, the orderly, old bachelor and "man of business" is patient and understanding of the pitiable Dr. Manette who is beleagued with tormenting ghosts of his past spent in the Bastille. Likewise, Sydney Carton and Charles Darnay are paired; they resemble each other physically and Darnay seems to Carton what Sidney has lost of himself. (Paradoxically, at the end of the novel, the balance of this duality tips to the self-sacrificing Carton.)
To accompany the parallelism and paradox of the opening lines comes the motif of redemption: Jerry Cruncher expiates his sins of stealing the dead when he identifies John Barsard/Roger Cly; paradoxically Sydney Carton redeems himself in death, and in climbing to his death, he expresses himself with paradox and parallelism just as Dickens does in the opening lines:
It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to, than I have ever known.