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...
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