illustration of a guillotine

A Tale of Two Cities

by Charles Dickens

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"It Is A Far, Far Better Thing That I Do, Than I Have Ever Done"

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Context: In A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens employs a typically complex plot to show the horror of the French Revolution. Charles Darnay, freed in an English court for treason where Lucie Manette testifies and where he is released because of his resemblance to Sydney Carton, his lawyer's helper, marries Lucie. Carton, an alcoholic who is a "man of good abilities and good emotions, incapable of their directed exercise," also loves Lucie and pledges that he will always be willing to give his life to preserve any life that she loves. Later, Darnay, inheritor of the St. Evrémonde title in France and wrongly sentenced to the guillotine, awaits death. To fulfill his pledge, Carton succeeds in entering the prison, drugging Darnay, and taking his place as the condemned man. Dying peacefully, Carton might have said of his death:

"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."

"It Was The Best Of Times, It Was The Worst Of Times"

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Context: Dickens opens this historical novel of the French Revolution at the year 1775, and begins it with the paradoxical statement that it was at once the best and worst of times. In this manner he tried to express the fact that at times of unrest, when major human issues are beginning to take shape and momentous happenings seem to loom in the future, men react in confusion, some believing that great good is being achieved and others that great evil is inevitable, all holding their beliefs fervently. Dickens contrasts the belief of both the English and French rulers, that all was well, with the actual situation in both countries: oppression, injustice, and crime were rife; Britain was soon to lose her American colonies; and the French monarchy was to be destroyed in violence and bloodshed.

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 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. . . .

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