Literary Qualities

A Tale of Two Cities, though not typical of Dickens’s writing in many ways, is a very strong novel. First, its remarkable use of language astounds the careful reader. The opening passage, beginning “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” has become justly famous. Throughout the novel Dickens creates powerful moods, manipulates tone brilliantly, and portrays characters with unusual but precise descriptions (such as Miss Pross, whose hat looks like “a great Stilton cheese”). He satirizes pomposity, as in his account of the legal document accusing Darnay of spying “wickedly, falsely, traitorously, and otherwise evil-adverbiously.” Dickens often describes characters metaphorically, then refers to them primarily by their metaphorical identifications thereafter. For example, he calls Carton the jackal for the lion Stryver, then refers to the two characters as jackal and lion for several chapters.

A Tale of Two Cities also provides excellent examples of literary devices. The novel abounds with symbols: spilled wine as blood, the knitting Madame Defarge as the classical Fates, the sunset making everything red and foreshadowing the aristocracy’s bloody end. Especially powerful are Dickens’s repeated references to water and storm imagery that foreshadows the approaching violence in France. Indeed, Dickens foreshadows events to come throughout the novel, and many students enjoy working out some of these patterns.

This novel also provides many examples of literary repetition. Numerous parallels ask readers to compare various characters and events. Such parallels include the trials, prisoners, and similarities between London and Paris or between English and French characters. Also, Dickens often juxtaposes chapters in such a way that he offers observant readers interesting contrasts or divergent treatments of similar subjects in consecutive chapters.

To fully appreciate Dickens’s achievement, readers should keep in mind that, as with all his novels, he published A Tale of Two Cities serially in a magazine, in this case, one or two chapters each week. This means that once an installment had been published, he could not go back and revise it. By this point in his career, however, Dickens had learned to plan his novels out in detail before he began writing. Given the constraints of serial publication, A Tale of Two Cities is remarkably coherent and unified.

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