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Monday, December 19, 2011

 

First sentences: A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

Requested by kisekileia.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

Except, actually, no. That's what's usually quoted as the first sentence, but it's really an extract. The real first sentence is this:

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 is no authority noisier than Dickens, especially when he's slapping down a rival authority.

Why is this sentence so often misquoted? The limits of memory are one reason, but the extract is not just the first sentence condensed. It carries an entirely different connotation - and one that's more palatable to readers seeking a story. The first two phrases imply epic sweep and forthcoming drama. Take the rest of the sentence, though, and it becomes something else.

Dickens is, if nothing else, a writer willing and eager to declare himself the voice of an age. The evils he inveighs against are what one would expect of a strong, domineering personality: a mixture of genuine contemporary injustices, out-of-date issues, and personal gripes (people who make plays out of authors' novels without permission, for example). Similarly, even most of his fans will agree that, perhaps because of his productivity, perhaps for other reasons, he is a writer of varying quality, swinging from the cynical to the maudlin, the brilliantly witty to the clunkily humourless, the highs to the lows. There is something in this opening sentence that evokes Dickens as much as it evokes the French Revolution: the sweep is so wide that it takes in variations in quality and tone as much as variations in circumstances.

The position Dickens has taken up here is one that perfectly suits his natural voice. The era of which he is going to speak, he tells us more or less explicitly, is so similar to the era in which he writes that he is free to make points about contemporary bugbears without worrying too much about historical accuracy. Universal humanity is his theme, and it doesn't vary from era to era. Dickens is about to give his opinions free rein, and they will range far and wide.

It is, above all, a confident opening line, to the point of audacity. Few writers have the boldness to make so sweeping an assumption before they begin. In A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens is telling us, we are in the hands of a writer who will touch upon whatever subjects he feels like and take whatever perspective he chooses. It's extremely ambitious, but it also frees the reader to be, if not unambitious, then to put in as much thought and feeling as they choose. Dickens is not a writer who encourages reader ambiguity: his characters can be complex, but there is seldom more than one correct opinion about them. By telling us that he will unite history and present, though, Dickens also tells us that we can bring our own preconceptions to a supposedly historical novel. We will not be asked to imagine ourselves into the mindset of a culture different from our own: reading A Tale of Two Cities, we need only be ourselves.

And this, I think, is the secret of the sentence's appeal. It combines a grandiose sweep with a lack of demands upon the reader, a compelling mix indeed. And this too, I suspect, may be one reason why it's so often misremembered. In a sense, it invites us to refashion it in our own minds: it's a sentence all about seeing whatever one wishes to see. It's been said that science fiction is a genre that writes of the present while claiming to write of the future, and in A Tale of Two Cities Dickens is explicitly going in the other direction. Writing of ourselves while supposedly writing of others is a traditional way to capture the popular imagination - and the popular imagination in all genres tends to enjoy the epic. The condensed version is, in a sense, merely completing the work Dickens has begun by seeing what one wishes to see. It may not be a repurposing that Dickens would have wished, but it is one that the sentence allows for nonetheless.

Comments:
Seems to me that Dickens is also saying "famous men were making all sorts of outlandish claims, but really, it was just a time like our own, with real people trying to do real things". (I'm stretching a bit for that last, but it seems a reasonable opposite to the extremophilia that he's decrying.)
 
I think I agree with Firedrake -- it seems to me that Dickens is saying "It was one of those times that was so chaotic that a lot of people had very extreme opinions about it". And I think this interpretation ties in with what you said, Kit -- "Why is this sentence so often misquoted? ... It carries an entirely different connotation - and one that's more palatable to readers seeking a story. The first two phrases imply epic sweep and forthcoming drama. Take the rest of the sentence, though, and it becomes something else." -- When you condense it to the first two phrases, it sounds like Dickens is echoing those opinions in an agreeing sense: "Ah yes, that time, it was the best of times and the worst of times!" Whereas when you look at the whole thing, it's clear that Dickens is subtly mocking those opinions as being overly dramatic, which is a tone that doesn't quite fit with the popular conception of the book. The grand sense of drama from just the first two phrases does fit with that conception, so that's what people go with.
 
Thank you for posting this! I had missed the mockery that kbeth in that sentence, which was probably partly because I read the book in high school.
 
:D
 
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