Book the First: Recalled to LifeChapter One – The Period
Okay, we know that this is a summary and all, but we just have to quote this opening for you. After all, it’s 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’ eighteenth century.
As our narrator points out, these opposites are also rather…similar.
Confused? Don’t be. Your friendly Shmoop team is here to help.
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 eighteenth 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 free-fall.
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 growing in the fields of France 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.