“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.”
Without question this is one of the most famous openings to a book ever written. Charles Dickens wrote it in 1859 in the manner of many of his books, as a weekly serial. For him and for his readers, the French Revolution which is the centerpiece of his novel A Tale of Two Cities occurred 70 years prior to his writing, which would correspond to the bombing of Pearl Harbor for us. In other words, an event distant enough that nearly every person who had experienced it themselves were dead, but near enough for living persons to still feel particularly keen about the event.
The novel is in most senses an ‘historical’ drama in that occurrences of history do measure in the novel, and Dickens wants to set the stage for those occurrences, and does so in the novel’s opening passages. He speaks about England and France, and about the conditions of both countries – briefly – at the year of the novel’s beginning, 1775. And it is only after all of this that the actual drama begins with the rushing of an English banker’s coach from London to the sea, setting in motion the love story between a French aristocrat and the daughter of an improperly identified French revolutionary. The general theme of the novel is, again and again, resurrection. Dr. Manette is resurrected from the Bastille, France is resurrected from its entombment under the Monarchy, the certain death of Charles d’Evremonde is resurrected so that it can continue and in the end Sidney Carton is resurrected from his utter worthlessness to something of a hero. There’s even a humorous scene with grave robbers in the middle of the novel, ‘resurrecting’ a body. It is generally supposed that the end is very sad, but in fact – read correctly – it is an astoundingly happy ending, and was recognized by audiences who made it the most successful play ever based on a Dickens’s novel in the 19th century.
Returning to the opening paragraph and its comma-splice mania that proves grammar isn’t everything if you understand when and how to break the rules; Dickens wants to put some very immediate ideas into the reader’s mind. In the first case, that disagreement about the period is rife and constant, and that he fully expects everyone to have an opinion about whether or not those were good times or bad. Dickens was a denizen of coffee shops, as all artists continue to be, and he was familiar with the thousands of ongoing arguments about the period (“noisiest authorities”) – as we are regarding the decisions surrounding the Second World War. He had heard the events referred to as wise, foolish, hopeless, hopeful and so on, without any resolution ever occurring among the debaters, and he wished to establish from the beginning that both were in every way absolutely right in that no one, clearly, had any real idea at all. This sets the stage beautifully for saying whatever he wants to say, while everyone else can go hang.
Moreover, in keeping with his theme of resurrection, he ends his series of oppositions with the emphasis upon the Heaven-slash-Other Way alternatives, and not by chance as people would reckon. Excellent writers do not, as is often asserted, do things by chance. It is emphasized again by repeating “good” and “evil” as opposed to good and bad. Dickens is announcing that, above all things, he is conveying a moral play, in which some of the characters will certainly be good in the sense of holy and redeemed, while others will certainly be evil in the sense of cast out and damned. With this one proviso: that the absolute nature of either is sullied in that the world is not fashioned of “superlative degrees,” but that it is made muddy. Charles d’Evremonde’s father is the extreme evil; Lucy Manette’s father is the extreme good (which is a statement of its own, I can tell you). And Lucy herself is rather lacking in damnable characteristics. But Charles and his twin Sidney are both as muddy as muddy gets, as is the truly interesting Madame Defarge and her not-necessarily-unique perception of the world. The events of good and bad that carry through the novel are painted in shades of gray, the same shades Dickens declares he’s going to use as his palette in the opening sentence.
From this and from my description of my own book I hope that the gentle reader begins to understand that from the first a novel must be more than an interesting series of sentences strung together to form a narrative. It is a work of intrinsic character, fashioned so that each part of the novel must influence and comment upon every other part of the novel, to elicit an emotional and intellectual response from the reader … to take the reader into a world and immerse them there until their former perception of truth or falsity is drowned out of them, leaving them awakened to something they did not previously understand. Most novels fail at this either by not having any conception of their purpose at all, or by drowning the reader so heavy handedly that the reader must fight back. What is required is the sort of sleepy somnambulance that one sinks into with pleasure and contentment, never realizing that the surface has passed over them long since and it is too far now to swim out before the last bubble of air escapes.
A Tale of Two Cities is not an easy book to read. It is heavy with description, dependent upon an understanding of people’s ideals in the time period and extremely dense in vocabulary and structure. Therefore many turn to an expurgated version, such as I read when I was in my teens. Having read the expurgated version, and having been quite young, I did not realize the content and purpose of the book and I was left with an empty, even angry feeling at the death of Sidney Carton. It was only by reading the correct book that my eyes were opened. Yet still I dreaded the end of the book, knowing what was coming, in spite of thoroughly enjoying the passages and their marvellous strength. Then I came to the end, and tightened up … only to be utterly surprised. As I read the last two pages of the book, I was crying – with happiness. It is something I can’t explain, even by assaying the last two pages word for word. It was a feeling. In confession, I admit that I’m a sensitive person, and I don’t imagine others would be likely to cry … but for me, I was changed by the ending of the book, and in my perception of things altogether. It is without question what I would consider to be among the best books ever written. And yet – a thing that does not surprise me – it is mostly ignored by the literary elite as a dismissible love story.
In a few days I shall write about themes, and about love. For now I am satisfied to warn the reader not to expect my response to the book’s end. I can’t promise that it will be “well worth it” if you read right to the end. It would have to strike you in just a particular way, I think. Still, if you feel you might get a sense of it from what I’ve written here, and tried the book, it would serve you well in some capacity, I’m sure.