The first line of A Tale of Two Cities is a line that I will never forget; ‘it was the best of times, it was the worst of times’. It is a poignant phrase with so much hidden meaning and transcending truthfulness. It basically sums up the setting of the book; during the French Revolution some people, such as the peasants and labourers, thought it was an amazing time to be alive because they felt as if they were being liberated but others, including a large proportion of the aristocracy, felt threatened and endangered. This was accompanied by the overhanging sense that something could go wrong and turn events against the revolting peasants, resulting in punishment and perhaps death.The contrast of this first line, and the further contrasting phrases which complete the primary paragraph, help the reader to identify with the transitions that are occurring; the year of the main Revolution was 1789 which many historians mark as the point where modern history begins as people are trying to overturn the old order and make way for a new type of society. Throughout the next few centuries this happens across much of Europe, with society campaigning for greater equality and widespread change. These changes were great but they were also scary; Dickens captures these emotions in the simple line at the start of his novel. The majority of the contrasts he highlights are between Britain and France, London and Paris but this explores a wide geographical range in regard to the events of a revolution.
The final line of A Tale of Two Cities also offers a contrast; ‘it is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known’. The mysterious manner that Dickens applies leaves it open to interpretation yet, in light of the many juxtapositions in the book, it seems that Dickens is continuing his theme to the very end and showing that good can come despite bad things happening. This line also makes it clear that Sydney is succumbing to death in order to let Lucie and Charles live together as they desired; one can compare this to the love triangle in Les Miserables by Victor Hugo between Marius, Cosette and Eponine where Eponine sacrifices herself on the barricade in order to save Marius.
Furthermore, at the end of the novel, the reader is left with the death of Sydney and a sense of sadness rather than a picture of Lucie and Charles living happily ever after, despite being aware that they have both survived and will most certainly be living safely together in England. This can be seen to elongate the theme of the French Revolution being the best and the worst of times but it could be to remind the reader of the terror induced by the guillotine, that many lives were ruined despite the large number being saved.
This idea of saving lives links to the theme of resurrection which is prominent throughout A Tale of Two Cities. The first part of the book is called ‘Recalled to Life’ which provides vivid imagery of saving someone and bringing them back to full existence. Here, Lucie saves the life of her father whom she thought was dead and Charles Darnay avoids being condemned to death in court due to Sydney’s thought-provoking comment. The theme of resurrection continues to the end where Sydney’s death saves Charles, recalling him into full vitality.
Dicken’s also presents the idea of the resurrection of society. The French Revolution succeeds a period of hardship which could be seen as a form of economic and political death and the result is a revival of society where power is given to the people and the corrupt elite are overthrown. English society also offers a new life to Dr. Manette where he is free from the terrors he experienced in France and a similar thought can be applied to Charles who has a different identity in England to the one he holds in France.
The theme of relationships is also prominent in A Tale of Two Cities; one can study Lucie and her father, Lucie and Charles, and Sydney, Charles and their love for Lucie . The relationship between fact and fiction is also strong here; in my opinion, this is one of Dickens’ most historically accurate novels. In some ways, this means that the reader does not develop such a strong bond with the characters as can happen in his other novels such as Oliver Twist or David Copperfield but this does make the novel more realistic. One can feel like they are learning as they read and get a more authentic experience of the French Revolution and humanity; it helps to show that the events were real, that people did die and the effects were positive and negative for everyone involved. The French Revolution was a monumental event in the history of Europe, if not the world, and Dickens has created a very realistic and accurate microcosm of events in A Tale of Two Cities.