What is the meaning of the first paragraph of A Tale of Two Cities?

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The opening two paragraphs describe the condition in England and France in 1775, the year the novel begins, establishing this as a historical novel (it was published in 1859). Dickens points out that the condition he describes is very much like the "present period," or his own times, too, universalizing his theme.

Therefore, using a series of antitheses or oppositions, Dickens describes what times are like universally, but also, more particularly, what they were like in Britain and France in 1775, fourteen years before the French Revolution. Times are the "best" and, simultaneously, the "worst." They are filled with wisdom, belief, light, and hope but also with foolishness, incredulity (disbelief), darkness, and despair, all intermingled. Using anaphora, or repetition at the beginning of lines, Dickens establishes a sense of litany, giving his opening the timeless quality of religious authority.

From the start, Dickens is setting up the oppositions that will define this novel about the French Revolution. While it might seem, too, that Dickens is setting up an opposition between London and Paris, he is at pains to show the similarities between both cities, each filled with corruption, darkness, and despair. The opening anticipates such themes as the antithesis between the hopes and realities of the French Revolution, as well as the way life can simultaneously look very differently depending on where you stand on the social, economic, and political ladder. From this opening, we can expect the novel to be a broad commentary on society and social ills.

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Dicken's first paragraph in "A Tale of Two Cities" is perhaps the most famous opening paragraph of all time. It beautifully sets up the themes that Dickens intends to explore in the novel. England is in the midst of the Industrial Revolution, and France is in the middle of a revolution. The time was glorious for some and horrific to others. The literary technique that Dickens is using in the first paragraph is called anaphora. This is the repetition of an opening phrase in multiple sentence clauses. It's an excellent way to illuminate paradoxes, which is what Dickens is doing here.

Why is this opening paragraph so well-known? Some of it has to do with Dickens's fame as a writer and the exceptional quality of A Tale of Two Cities. However, I also think that this paragraph has stuck with us for all this time because of the universality of its applicability. Modern society is defined by paradoxes. The richest of us have more than ever, while the poorest of us continue to struggle mightily just to get by. Dickens might as well have been describing our society with his famous opening line:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. It was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness.

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What Dickens is trying to establish in the opening paragraph are the various paradoxical themes that he will explore in the book and which found such vivid expression during the French Revolution. This historical epoch was the Age of Enlightenment, but it was also an era of darkness and tyranny; it was a time of great hope and of great despair. Dickens uses a literary technique called anaphora, which is the repetition of the phrase at the beginning of clauses. For example,

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.

The use of anaphora emphasizes the paradoxical elements of contemporary society and how they are locked together in a ceaseless struggle. That struggle will form the basis of much of what happens in A Tale of Two Cities. In that sense, the famous opening paragraph gives us a taste of what is to come.

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The first paragraph in the story of A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens seeks to bring out the nature of similarity and contrast that existed between England and France at that period, and presently when the author was working on the novel. The first paragraph paints an image of chaos due to the opposite extremes that existed among the different localities and the people. This would further form the basis of the story, showing the differences between the wealthy and the peasants. The wealthy enjoyed a period of abundance while the poor suffered a period of deprivation and poor living conditions. In France the clergy was responsible for the inhumane practices against the masses, while in England the state of security was at its lowest, with the authorities unable to rise up to the challenge. The first paragraph thus brings the issue of juxtaposition of the two countries to the fore, and forms the basis of events that followed in the story.

The sense of turmoil in the two countries is best captured by the opening line, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness."

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This first paragraph of Dickens is a beautiful example of paradoxes, paradoxes to which each reader can relate.  For, no historical period is without its benefits and its deficiencies.  Also, Dickens sets up parallels between the time period of the novel,the 1780s, and his own time period, the 1850s.

In England, there were social changes being made by the Industrial Revolution as well as from influences across the English Channel in France with such men as Robespierre and Danton.  Dickens wished to portray the danger of radical thinking as this thinking wrought death and destruction.  He feared that "the age of incredulity" might effect even more destruction than those caught in "the age of foolishness."  On the other hand, Dickens perceived that children and adults both suffered under cruel working conditions; people were suspicious of one another, and other inhumane acts were committed in England as well as in France.  So, some social changes were necessary. 

This theme of duality presented in the exposition of "A Tale of Two Cities" is prevalent throughout the entire novel as characters have their "doubles" and the two cities reflect each other in several social dilemmas and possible consequences.

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