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A Tale of Two Cities

A Tale of Two Cities


by Charles Dickens

A Tale of Two Cities Book the First: Recalled to Life
Chapter One – The Period Summary

  • Okay, we know that this is a summary and all, but we’ve just got to quote this opening for you. After all, it’s probably one of the most well-known opening lines in English literature. Here goes:
  • "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness […]."
  • The sentence goes on for awhile, but you get the general picture. There are lots of opposites at work in the good ol’ 18th century.
  • As our narrator points out, these opposites are also rather… similar.
  • Confused? Don’t be. Your friendly Shmoop team is here to help.
  • It’s 1775.
  • This chapter, the greatest of all openings, is a sort of guidebook to the time.
  • If you’re a backpacker, you could think of it as the Lonely Planet for the 18th century.
  • We don’t really meet any characters (but don’t you worry, they’ll be here soon enough).
  • What we do get, however, is a breakdown of the important places in the novel: France and England.
  • According to our helpful narrator, things in both countries are going along just as they’ve always gone.
  • In fact, everything is so dang normal that folks are pretty convinced that things will stay the same forever.
  • That’s our first hint that things are going wrong. Anytime anyone says that things are going to stay the same, there’s a good chance that things are going to change. A lot. Anyone who’s seen movies about high school friends going to college and growing apart knows that.
  • To get back to our story, though: our narrator gives us a bird’s-eye view of events in England.
  • America has just flown the coop. People are pretty upset about that.
  • (For those of you who’d like a refresher course on the American Revolution, check out our Shmoop history notes on the subject. We’re sticking to the other side of the pond in this novel.)
  • In France, things aren’t going so well. The economy is in a bit of a freefall.
  • Protestants are being persecuted (the French royalty, you see, is Catholic).
  • In case you’re thinking that England is a much, much nicer place to be, though, we should warn you: Catholics didn’t fare so well in England, either.
  • Our narrator predicts that trees are growing in the fields of France that will soon be cut and shaped into scaffolds and guillotines. Lovely.
  • Back in England, lots of crimes occur on a regular basis. Just about everyone gets brutally punished, regardless of whether their crime was severe or trifling.
  • In other words, things may be going along just as always—but that sure doesn’t mean that they’re going along smoothly.
  • That about sums up the state of affairs.
  • Our narrator offers up a foreboding reference to the Woodsman (Fate) and the Farmer (Death) who will be reaping and sowing their harvest very, very soon.
  • Yup. Things are about to get ugly.

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