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A Tale of Two Cities

A Tale of Two Cities

by Charles Dickens

Analysis: Writing Style

Master Puppeteer (and Major Chameleon)

Charles Dickens is the King of Style. We’ll say that again: when it comes to style, Charles Dickens is the King. He’s the grand-daddy of all great fiction writers. The best stylist you’ll probably ever read. Here’s why:

Dickens is the master of manipulating language to make scenes come alive. Not only does he describe scenes in vivid detail, but the very sentences he writes mimic the way the scenes themselves come to life. For example, when he wants to emphasize how long-winded and boring the court system can be, he spends five pages recounting a lawyer’s argument. Every single sentence of the lawyer’s speech begins with the word "that." "That, his position and attitude were, on the whole, sublime. That, he had been […]" (2.1.1). Get the picture? By the time we’re halfway through reading the speech, we wish the whole thing were over and done with. We’re almost bored out of our minds. That, friends, is exactly where Dickens wants us to be.

When things heat up, however, his style becomes as choppy and chaotic as the violence which rolls through the streets of Paris. The Storming of the Bastille is described like this:

Deep ditches, double drawbridge, massive stone walls, eight great towers, cannon, muskets, fire and smoke. Through the fire and through the smoke--in the fire and in the smoke, for the sea cast him up against a cannon, and on the instant he became a cannonier— (2.21.40)

Short phrases emphasize the movement that’s going on all around Defarge. Repeated phrases emphasize the way that fire and smoke seem to take over the entire world. There’s nothing, for Defarge, outside of the present moment of battle. As we get drawn into the sped-up rhythm of Dickens’s sentences, there’s nothing outside of Defarge’s battle for us, either.

Oh, and since we’re talking about repetition, we should mention that Dickens is a big fan of it. "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times […]"; "It is a far, far better thing I do […]; it is a far, far better rest I go to […]" The novel begins and ends with phrases that would have made Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. proud. We even have a strong hunch that the "I Have a Dream" speech might have taken a few pointers from the master himself. Repetition forces us to realize just how important the phrases we’re reading are. After all, we read them again and again.

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