It is hard to think of another novel that is famous for both its opening and closing lines: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”; “It is a far, far better thing that I do than I have ever done…”
Those two quotes also represent two poles in Charles Dickens’ 1859 novel: the pole of history and the pole of the individual, the public and private. The personal narrative of Charles Darnay and his family becomes entangled with the public history of the French Revolution, and both narratives play themselves out on a larger allegorical or mythic stage, if you will, of good vs. evil and redemption vs. tragedy.
The message of the historical narrative seems to be that the vengeance of the oppressed is no better than abuse of power by the oppressor, that violence and excess are worse enemies than any particular social class. At the individual level, the message seems to be that while love has the power to redeem, there are those in every social class who are unredeemable. At the allegorical or mythic level, while good may ultimately triumph over evil, there is a terrible price to be paid for that victory.
These broad themes are dramatized in Dickens’ inimitable style of caricature, melodrama, sentimentalism, colorful scene-painting, irresistible humor, and unforgettable pathos. It is easy to see why Dickens had, and has, both popular appeal and literary value. That combination is a rare talent.
One would expect Dickens to sympathize with the downtrodden, but in A Tale of Two Cities he shows the dark side of the French revolutionaries and Republicans as well as of the French aristocracy. He dramatizes the injustice of which both are capable when in positions of power. The Marquis who thinks almost nothing of running down a peasant child under the wheels of his carriage epitomizes the cruelty and arrogance of the ruling class before the Revolution, while the DeFarges and the woman called “the Vengeance” represent the viciousness of the street mobs bent on revenge during the Revolution.
These “unredeemable” characters are balanced by the redeemed: Charles Darnay, son of the aforementioned Marquis, who renounces his aristocratic heritage and goes to London, where he works for a living teaching French; Dr. Manette, who, after years of imprisonment by the ruling class is able, not only to accept Darnay as his daughter’s husband, but also to put himself at risk by defending Darnay in the Republican court when he is arrested simply because of his bloodline while on a trip to Paris to help a friend; and the drunken wastrel Sydney Carton, whose love for Darnay’s wife and Manette’s daughter becomes the redemptive power that enables him to replace Darnay in the prison cell and take his place on the scaffold.
Good and evil are equally to be found in each social class, and while “good,” in the form of democracy and the survival of a loving family, may ultimately triumph, the stage of history is littered with the bodies of good and evil alike who have died in the struggle for freedom and equality.
A Tale of Two Cities is a redemptive novel of political emancipation, personal atonement, and love triumphant, but it does not deny the dark side of human nature or of human history. The opening lines are no mere rhetorical flourish, for the novel vividly dramatizes the days of the French Revolution as, indeed, “the best of times” and “the worst of times…”