A Lesson in Flexing Language: A Tale of Two Cities

When I first read A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, I was in high school, probably grade 10. I believe it was assigned reading, though I cannot be sure. Memory fogs when I dip into the high school period.

At any rate, I read A Tale of Two Cities, and was wholly captivated by the experience thanks to Dickens masterful telling. I was thrust into French Revolution from the very beginning and read with gusto to the very end. The story moves between London and Paris, and weaves a dozen or more characters through the political turmoil of the period. As young a reader as I was, I never felt overwhelmed. I rode the waves of love, treachery, brutality and intrigue to the book’s tragic, but hopeful, conclusion.

Dickens published A Tale of Two Cities in 1859. Story-telling styles have changed since his day. Dickens wrote with elegant flourishes, long asides, and used elevated language that seems out of place in our fast-paced age. And yet, the book is hailed as one of the best-selling novels of all time. According to Wikipedia, an estimated 200 million copies of A Tale of Two Cities have been sold since it was first published.

Many books about writing stress the importance of establishing a gripping opening using action to captivate readers. Many, too, talk about sentence structure – simple is better, variety is important for pacing and interest, and so on. One book whose title I cannot remember, even cited a hard and fast rule: sentences should be 15 words or less. Anything longer might confuse and discourage readers, and add unnecessary complexity.

Dickens’ opening to A Tale of Two Cities is not steeped in action. Sentences are not simple, nor brief. Dickens’ opening is but one long sentence. At 119 words, it surpasses the suggested limit by a long shot. Yet, the opening to A Tale of Two Cities remains one of the most evocative, cherished and remembered beginnings of all time.

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.

In his opening, Dickens gave more than just a memorable start to his book. He painted a vivid picture of the period and showed just what might be gained when a masterful writer flexes language.


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