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A Tale of Two Cities

A Tale of Two Cities

by Charles Dickens

Analysis: What’s Up With the Epigraph?

Epigraphs are like little appetizers to the great entrée of a story. They illuminate important aspects of the story, and they get us headed in the right direction.

Hmm…let’s talk about the author’s note instead, shall we?

Good ol’ Charles Dickens. He always tries to make his readers feel like his pals. Maybe that’s why he remained such a popular figure for most of his life. This time, he starts his novel with a short little note to his readers (that’s us, folks) explaining just how he got started writing the fabulous story that we’re about to read…or, er…talk about.

His note is dated November, 1859. Writing from Tavistock House (his home in London), Dickens explains to us that he got the idea to write this nifty little number while he was putting on a play with his family. Aww, isn’t that sweet? It’s our very own personal look into the secret life of the author. Well, OK, we’re sharing it with…oh…several billion readers. But that doesn’t really matter, does it? We feel like Dickens is our own best friend. The sort of guy we’d like to have a beer with sometime. Maybe we should even elect him president.

But we’re getting off track. The play, in case you were wondering, was Wilkie Collins’ The Frozen Deep. Why is this important? Well, it’s not, really. If you’re a history buff, you’ll be excited to know that Collins and Dickens were BFF. Dickens was a writer. Collins was a writer. They had a lot in common. In fact, Wilkie Collins often contributed to Dickens’s magazine, Household Words. And they obviously got together in each other’s dining rooms to put on amateur theatrical productions.

So what does this have to do with our novel? Well, here’s our hunch: Collins was a master of imitating journalistic styles. Check out our modules on The Woman in White or The Moonstone for an example of this. OK – he wasn’t exactly writing history. But because he knew that he was writing creepy mystery stories with a good dose of the supernatural, he tried to make it sound as real as possible. He was sort of producing the Ghost Hunters of his time.

Dickens, when he wrote this novel, knew that he was setting out to do something a wee bit different than his typical works. See, everyone knew about the French Revolution. How in the world was he going to write a novel that could re-create its effect on the French (and British) people? Taking a hint from his good friend Wilkie, Dickens experimented in the sorts of journalistic styles which made Collins so famous. We’ll talk more about this in our "Writing Style" section.

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