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A Tale of Two Cities

by Charles Dickens

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How is the first line of A Tale of Two Cities parallelism?

The first line of The Tale of Two Cities is an example of parallelism because it contains clauses that are nearly identical in structure. Also, each pair of clauses contains contrasting content. Within each couplet, the meaning of the first clause opposes the meaning of the second clause. In the line “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” for example, the clauses mirror each other in construction but oppose each other in meaning.

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Dickens's The Tale of Two Cities opens with the following lines:

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

This opening is an example of parallelism; its construction and content reflect a repetition of structure and a balanced opposition of meaning.

In terms of construction, these ten clauses are grammatically the same. Every clause starts alike (with “it was the ___ of”) and can stand independently. By linking them with commas (instead of semicolons or periods), Dickens allows the line to flow without hard breaks. Each of the first ten clauses contains six words. The matching structure and length of the clauses creates a steady rhythm.

Also significant of this parallelism is that each pair of clauses is linked by diametrically opposing content. The meaning of the first clause is the antithesis of the substance of the second clause. For example, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” illustrates this contrast. All words in both clauses are identical except for the adjective; “best” contradicts “worst.” In later clauses, opposite concepts are linked: wisdom versus foolishness or stupidity, belief versus incredulity or lack of belief, light versus darkness, and hope versus despair. This combination of positivity (in the first clause) and negativity (in the second clause) emphasizes the steady rhythm while generating a sing-song quality. For each pair of clauses, the reader’s voice rises with optimism and then falls with pessimism.

Dickens creates a similar effect with the four clauses that immediately follow:

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

Similarly constructed, these clauses are examples of parallelism. The first two clauses begin with “we had,” and the second two begin with “we were.” The first two of these four clauses contain five words; the third clause of this group has seven words (“we were all going direct to Heaven”) while the last clause has eight words (“we were all going direct the other way”). Each pair contains drastically different images, like everything versus nothing and heaven versus hell.

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