Last Updated on February 25, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1084
The opening sentence of A Tale of Two Cities may be the best-known in the entire canon of English literature:
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—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
There are several reasons why this is such a famous and memorable opening. The initial comparison of seven polar opposites gives it a rhetorical force that is more like a rabble-rousing speech than a novel. Having begun the novel with such a fusillade of confident assertions, Dickens proceeds to undercut them with irony even before he has finished the sentence. It is not he, the subtle and nuanced author, who is burying the reader under this deluge of contradictory superlatives. These are merely a selection of the various prejudiced statements made with misplaced certainty by some of the “noisiest authorities” of the era in question.
A Tale of Two Cities appeared as a weekly serial in All the Year Round between April and November of 1859. Just over a year later, Great Expectations was to be published in the same periodical, and these two serials were the last of Dickens’s major works. While Great Expectations is often regarded as one of Dickens’s most characteristic novels as well as one of his greatest, A Tale of Two Cities is generally seen as an oddity in the Dickensian canon, despite its great popularity. There are numerous reasons for this. The first and most obvious is the setting: it is an historical novel, one of only two Dickens wrote, in which much of the action occurs in a foreign country. Another unusual feature was imposed by the practical constraints of writing a story in weekly instalments. Dickens preferred to release his work on a monthly basis and complained that the weekly format did not give him enough “elbow room” for his characteristic long digressions. His biographer John Forster writes that Dickens found it “more difficult to get sufficient interest” into each of the brief weekly instalments, meaning that Dickens had to use tighter, more disciplined prose and stick more closely to the story than was his custom.
A further very significant feature is the note of high tragedy on which the novel ends. In Great Expectations, Dickens was to defer to the critical judgment of his friend Edward Bulwer-Lytton in revising the end of the novel to render it less gloomy and allow the possibility of a relationship between Pip and Estella. In A Tale of Two Cities, it is quite clear that Sydney Carton can never marry Lucie Manette. His life is, by his own admission, so ruined that the best use he can make of it is to sacrifice it for her happiness. The best that the author can do in his turn is to dismiss his unlikely hero from this world with an expression that is not just peaceful but “sublime and prophetic.” Carton’s final prophecy includes both the political and the personal, concluding with the latter. He sees revolutionaries and spies perishing by the guillotine, Paris reborn as a peaceful and splendid city, and the lives for which he has given his flourishing. The final sentence is almost as well-known as the opening:
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.
The serenity and elevated diction of Carton’s final hours provide a sharp contrast to his snarling and self-pity earlier in the novel. As is so often the case in Dickens, it is a woman who resembles an angel who transforms his character and inspires him to lead a better life, even if he can only do so by dying. The second book of A Tale of Two Cities, “The Golden Thread,” is named for Lucie Manette, who is a nexus in both social and psychological terms between various characters in the novel. Although Sydney Carton dislikes Charles Darnay and envies him, he recognizes that their love for Lucie connects them more profoundly than their shared appearance, and they drink her health together even as Carton demonstrates and declares his hostility toward the other man.
In a long essay on Dickens and his works published in his 1940 essay collection, Inside the Whale, George Orwell discusses Dickens’s attitude to revolution, asserting that he was violently opposed to it. When Dickens was a boy, Orwell points out, the London mob was still a force to be reckoned with, and the Metropolitan Police Force had yet to be founded. The French Revolution was well within living memory, and the middle and upper classes were afraid of any indication that a popular revolt might be underway in England. At the same time, Dickens demonstrates throughout A Tale of Two Cities that he regards the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror as inevitable. This is not a matter of political doctrine, but of moral cause and effect. The proper solution to the problem of a cruel, wicked, corrupt aristocracy is not, in Dickens’s view, the overthrow of that class. It is for the aristocracy to start behaving decently. If they refuse to do this for long enough, revolution is bound to be the result. Within the structure of the novel, Dickens proposes an alternative moral solution to a political problem, in the goodness of his good characters. If only all aristocrats were like Charles Darnay, let alone the perfectly angelic Lucie Manette, there would be no need for revolution. Dickens has some sympathy for Monsieur Defarge and his fellow revolutionaries, but he regards the moral regeneration of Sydney Carton as a truer solution to the problems of violence and corruption than any political action.
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