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Robert Desnos

This first chapter of the book establishes the background for the entire novel.  As a historical novel, it is crucial for the reader to know when the novel is set in order to understand the background to the story.  The novel open in 1775 and is clearly set in two different cities, as evidenced by the famous introductory sentence.  The two cities are London and Paris.  In England, the nation is experiencing a period of relative comfort, while life in France is growing increasingly uncomfortable for members of the lower class.  In both countries, the aristocracy is seeing an increase in quality of life that is being supported by an increasing decline in quality of life for members of the lower class.  The contrast between the living situations of the poor and the rich is one of the reasons why it is both the best and worst of times.  However, while the aristocracy is benefiting in both locations, there are tremendous differences in living situations between countries.  In France, the increasingly repressive social system is leading the lower classes toward rebellion, while the aristocracy appears to be oblivious to increasing unrest.  In England, the lower classes are more comfortable and are not really considering any type of rebellion, despite the fact that the American colonists have declared their own Revolution.  This first chapter provides a broad background and does not introduce the reader to any significant movement or characters in the novel.  However, without understanding the backdrop of the Revolution, the novel would not otherwise make much sense. 

Of course, the first paragraph of the novel, which contains one of the most recognizable first sentences in all of literature, sets up one of the major themes of the novel: duality.  Throughout the novel, Dickens introduces things that are similar yet very different, and he extends the comparisons and contrasts until the novel’s end.  The first chapter of the first book also introduces other aspects of duality that recur throughout the novel.  One of these elements is the contrast between best and worst.  The novel not only compares and contrasts the best and worst of times in the two cities, but also focuses on the best and worst in people, as the reader learns when seemingly similar characters are introduced.  Another element of duality is the idea of light and darkness.  The fact that England at that time was focused on spirituality and other hopeful elements makes it a perfect contrast to France, where people seem to lack faith in anything.  There is also a contrast between law and lawlessness, which is established later in the novel.  On a broader level, there is a contrast between light and hope (or between darkness and lack of hope) which develops throughout the novel.  However, some of the most surprising characters demonstrate hope even when others show despair.

It is critical to have some understanding of history in order to understand the setting of the novel.  France and England were both on the cusp of revolution in 1775.  However, France’s Revolution would be domestic, while England’s would occur in America.  While it would be inaccurate to suggest that England was not impacted by the American Revolution, England clearly did not experience the same level of disruption as France.  The French Revolution was incredibly bloody, and the transition to power afterward was not smooth as it was in the American colonies, but was marked by a tremendous amount of political bickering and infighting that led to large-scale slaughter, even among the Revolutionaries.  Knowing that the political climates in the two countries would start out similarly but then rapidly diverge into two different milieus is an important fact that the reader knows at the start of the book, but that the characters only learn as the plot unfolds.

Another significant element of the novel is the role that law and order play in the two different countries.  At the beginning of the novel, although France’s criminal justice system is certainly portrayed as biased toward the wealthy, France is not plagued by the same level of crime that England experiences.  In England, criminal justice is ineffective, and England at that time is considered a dangerous and lawless place.  However, while France is seen as having a more effective criminal justice system, one sees that it brings about a lack of justice.  Manette is wrongfully imprisoned in France, for example.  Likewise, Darnay’s wrongful conviction occurs in France.  In contrast, when Darnay is falsely accused of treason in England, he is not convicted of that crime. 

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