Recently in my English class, we spent a little more than a whole entire class period just trying to dissect the probable meaning of the first paragraph in A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. (quoted below)
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.
This strikes me as incredible that a whole class can spend so long discussing possible patterns, meanings, implicit references, and literary devices in merely 120 characters, or 613 characters, contained in only one sentence. There are several different patterns, usages, and hints that our class THOUGHT Dickens meant to include that hints to future events or just clever placement and word choice.
Short Dissection: (This analysis isn’t professional, merely what I’ve observed or things I remembered from class discussion. If you think I left anything important out, corrections, or you noticed something I haven’t, feel free to comment below! I know some things are worded awkwardly (because “my thoughts are stars that I cannot fathom into constellations” -John Green) and I won’t list EVERYTHING that might be in this paragraph, but I hope it helps!)
In the beginning, Dickens uses “It was..time.,/ it was… age,/ it was… epoch [instant in time important to history],/ …it was… spring…, it was… winter…” three sets of contrasting phrases. He beings the paragraph with “time,” followed by “age,” preceding “epoch,” then “spring… winter.” As you read through the paragraph, slowly phrase after phrase, Dickens shortens the span of “time,” narrowing down to possibly reference a specific short period in all of time.
Next, I realized that he begins using “It was,” but later on, he says “we had,… us” and then, “we were all.” This brings up the question whether he was referencing people in both cities or whether it was a class of people.
Afterwards, he cuts it short, holds back on the “fluff” and says “in short…” The three different “periods” if you will, going from a period of time, to people (“we”), to “in short,” makes me think of three distinct factions– time, classes, rank, etc. (speculation)
Another aspect may be that the positive words may be what the people at the time thought the time was like, but the negative words could be what it actually was reflected on by the narrator. This may also bring up the idea that the paragraph contrasted the views and lives of two different classes– rich versus poor, high class versus low class, educated/enlightened versus illiterate/ignorant, or religious versus misled.
Also, the contrasting words leave no room for a “gray area.” The descriptions are absolute and that it was either one or the other and the paragraph also states “in the superlative [highest degree of comparison] degree of comparison only” (supporting the idea that Dickens was writing from a view of different classes; although the use of “we” and “us” may contradict this theory).
But ultimately, this paragraph shows us how much an author can say, imply, reference to, and lead an audience in very few words and sentences.
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