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A Tale of Two Cities

by Charles Dickens

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What does the phrase "nothing was represented in a flourishing condition" mean?

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The quoted line appears several pages from the beginning of chapter 5, “The Wine Shop.” The chapter opens with a description of the street outside a wine shop after a large cask of wine was dropped and broken open in the street. Charles Dickens describes the people scrambling to drink the wine from the fragments of barrel or right out of the street. Dickens follows the bizarre scene of people occupied in what he calls “the wine game” with a description of what this city block and the people in it usually look like. He says that the spilled wine causes a bright interruption, a “momentary gleam” that distracts people from their normal, dismal reality. That reality is covered by a dark cloud of “heavy cold, dirt, sickness, ignorance, and want.” Poverty has made people old before their time; even

the children had ancient faces and grave voices, and upon them, and upon the grown faces, and ploughed into every furrow of age and come up afresh, was the sigh, Hunger.

Dickens continues with about fifteen more lines about Hunger personified, and in the next paragraph he tells the reader where that Hunger lives: everywhere. “Its abiding place was in all things fitted to it.” He goes on to describe how people look as they constantly think about the scarce food, and how the tradesmen ration the little food they have, such as the baker with his “meager loaves” and the wine shops with their “scanty measures.” About two-thirds of the way into that paragraph comes the quoted line: “Nothing was represented in a flourishing condition, save tools and weapons.” With “nothing was... flourishing,” he uses understatement for emphasis (called meiosis). He continues by describing how all the tradesmen and artisans keep their tools as sharp and well-maintained as possible.

On one hand, Dickens means that each person who makes a living selling food has to keep his tools in excellent condition; the butcher has to be sure he can cut the poor-quality meat. On the other hand, in that sentence Dickens also refers to the blacksmith and the gunmaker. In the earlier discussion of the wine, he mentioned how one “joker” had dipped his finger in the wine and written “BLOOD.” Referring now to the gunmaker, he says his stock is “murderous.” The intent here is to describe the desperate situation in Paris, where people are starving and food is so scarce that riots are imminent. More generally, the outbreak of violence is a constant danger, and every person who has a tool makes sure it will be instantly ready to use as a weapon.

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