A Tale of Two Cities | Study Guide

Charles Dickens

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A Tale of Two Cities | Book 1, Chapter 1 : The Period | Summary



In 1775, as in the 1850s, England and France can only be described in "the superlative degree of comparison," such as "best" and "worst." Both are ruled by "a king with a large jaw"; England's queen is "plain," and France's is "fair." England is fascinated by spiritualism, and her American colonies are causing trouble. France is dealing with economic problems. Both countries are facing social problems. In England, no one is safe on the roads, everyone suspects everyone else of plotting to steal from them, and a warning is issued to families to store their furniture when they leave their houses so that they will not be robbed while they're gone. Both countries employ capital punishment to discourage crime and quell unrest. In France, a youth doesn't kneel for monks passing 60 yards away; as a punishment, his hands are cut off, his tongue is torn out, and he is burnt alive.

All the while trees are growing that will be made into guillotines, and French farmers are using carts that will become the tumbrils that carry the condemned to their deaths.


A Tale of Two Cities opens with the oft-quoted line, "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." This litany of contrasts is one of the most famous first sentences in literature. It is made memorable by the extensive use of anaphora—repetition of the first part of the sentence—and antithesis—placing opposite ideas in the same sentence to contrast them.

The first chapter describes the environment in 1775 in both England and France, where the events in the novel will take place, without introducing any of the characters or beginning the plot.

The narrator makes clear that neither country is safe for the common people. People in England have to think about how to keep themselves safe from crime, constantly looking over their shoulders and defending themselves against theft. The hangman is kept busy but is "ever worse than useless"; crime continues to thrive everywhere in England. In France, however, commoners are in danger from the authorities, who punish them unreasonably and cruelly for the smallest crimes. The narrator gives the example of the torture and death of a young boy simply for not recognizing authority from afar. In 1775, French peasants and other working-class people are treated like animals, with no respect for their basic human needs. This context helps explain the intense pressure to act in extreme ways that characterized the popular uprising, which is essential to the plot of the novel. It also introduces the themes of violence and injustice.

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