It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness. . . .See Important Quotations Explained
As its title promises, this brief chapter establishes the era in which the novel takes place: England and France in 1775. The age is marked by competing and contradictory attitudes—“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”—but resembles the “present period” in which Dickens writes. In England, the public worries over religious prophecies, popular paranormal phenomena in the form of “the Cock-lane ghost,” and the messages that a colony of British subjects in America has sent to King George III. France, on the other hand, witnesses excessive spending and extreme violence, a trend that anticipates the erection of the guillotine. Yet in terms of peace and order, English society cannot “justify much national boasting” either—crime and capital punishment abound.
On a Friday night in late November of 1775, a mail coach wends its way from London to Dover. The journey proves so treacherous that the three passengers must dismount from the carriage and hike alongside it as it climbs a steep hill. From out of the great mists, a messenger on horseback appears and asks to speak to Jarvis Lorry of Tellson’s Bank. The travelers react warily, fearing that they have come upon a highwayman or robber. Mr. Lorry, however, recognizes the messenger’s voice as that of Jerry Cruncher, the odd-job man at Tellson’s, and accepts his message. The note that Jerry passes him reads: “Wait at Dover for Mam’selle.” Lorry instructs Jerry to return to Tellson’s with this reply: “Recalled to Life.” Confused and troubled by the “blazing strange message,” Jerry rides on to deliver it.
A wonderful fact to reflect upon, that every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other. . . .
The narrator ponders the secrets and mysteries that each human being poses to every other: Lorry, as he rides on in the mail coach with two strangers, constitutes a case in point. Dozing, he drifts in and out of dreams, most of which revolve around the workings of Tellson’s bank. Still, there exists “another current of impression that never cease[s] to run” through Lorry’s mind—the notion that he makes his way to dig someone out of a grave. He imagines repetitive conversations with a specter, who tells Lorry that his body has lain buried nearly eighteen years. Lorry informs his imaginary companion that he now has been “recalled to life” and asks him if he cares to live. He also asks, cryptically, “Shall I show her to you? Will you come and see her?” The ghost’s reaction to this question varies, as he sometimes claims that he would die were he to see this woman too soon; at other times, he weeps and pleads to see her immediately.
The next morning, Lorry descends from the coach at the Royal George Hotel in Dover. After shedding his travel clothes, he emerges as a well-dressed businessman of sixty. That afternoon, a waiter announces that Lucie Manette has arrived from London. Lorry meets the “short, slight, pretty figure” who has received word from the bank that “some intelligence—or discovery” has been made “respecting the small property of my poor father . . . so long dead.” After reiterating his duties as a businessman, Lorry relates the real reason that Tellson’s has summoned Lucie to Paris. Her father, once a reputed doctor, has been found alive. “Your father,” Lorry reports to her, “has been taken to the house of an old servant in Paris, and we are going there: I, to identify him if I can: you, to restore him to life, love, duty, rest, comfort.” Lucie goes into shock, and her lively and protective servant, Miss Pross, rushes in to attend to her.
The opening sentence of the novel makes clear, as the title itself does, the importance of doubles in the text:
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. . . .
Doubles prove essential to the novel’s structure, plot, and dominant themes. The idea of resurrection, a theme that emerges in these early pages, would not be possible without some form of its opposite—death. In order to pave the way for the first such resurrection—the recalling to life of the long-imprisoned Doctor Manette—Dickens does much to establish a dark, ominous tone suggestive of death. From the mist-obscured route of the Dover mail coach to the darkly paneled room in which Lorry meets Lucie Manette, the opening chapters brim with gloomy corners and suggestive shadows.
These descriptions of darkness and secrets also contribute to the gothic atmosphere of the novel’s opening. Gothic literature, a genre that establishes an uneasy, mysterious mood through the use of remote, desolate settings, supernatural or macabre events, and violence, dominated much of fiction from the late eighteenth century through the end of the nineteenth century. Such classics as Frankenstein (1818), by Mary Shelley, and Wuthering Heights (1847), by Emily Brontë, helped establish a strong tradition of gothic themes in British literature of this period. Jerry Cruncher’s mysterious appearance during the treacherous nighttime journey, and Lorry’s macabre visions of disinterring a body, hearken back to the eerie and supernatural feel of A Tale of Two Cities’ gothic predecessors.
The obscurity that permeates these pages points to the “wonderful fact” that Dickens continuously ponders: every person in every room in every house that he passes possesses a secret, unknown to anyone—even closest friends, family, and lover. As the novel progresses, the reader witnesses Dickens digging—much as Lorry anticipates having to “dig” the doctor out of his ruinous prison experience—for the secrets that provide his characters with their essences and motivations.
In typical Dickensian manner, this project of discovery happens bit by bit: secrets emerge only very slowly. Although the horrible effects of Doctor Manette’s incarceration become clear in the next few chapters, the reader doesn’t learn the causes of these effects until the end of the novel. This narrative tactic owes much to the form in which Dickens wrote much of his work. A Tale of Two Cities was published as a serial piece—that is, in weekly installments from April 20 to November 26, 1859. The original serial format provides the reason for the novel’s relatively short chapters and specific chapter subheadings, which, read in sequence, offer a skeletal outline of the plot. For example, the first three chapters of the second book bear the subheadings “Five Years Later,” “A Sight,” and “A Disappointment,” respectively.
In addition to his plentiful literary talents, Dickens also possessed a shrewd businessman’s sense. He remained keenly aware of what his reading public wanted and, unlike most artists of his caliber, unapologetically admitted to aiming for the largest possible readership. As he had done previously, with A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens set his sights on writing a so-called popular novel. One means of hooking readers into the story was to create a climate of suspense. Within the first four chapters, Dickens already leaves the reader with many questions that need to be answered, creating a sense of excitement and anticipation.