Paradox

A Tale of Two Cities

by

Charles Dickens

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A Tale of Two Cities: Paradox 1 key example

Definition of Paradox
A paradox is a figure of speech that seems to contradict itself, but which, upon further examination, contains some kernel of truth or reason. Oscar Wilde's famous declaration that "Life is... read full definition
A paradox is a figure of speech that seems to contradict itself, but which, upon further examination, contains some kernel of truth or reason. Oscar... read full definition
A paradox is a figure of speech that seems to contradict itself, but which, upon further examination, contains some kernel... read full definition
Book 1, Chapter 1
Explanation and Analysis—The Best Worst Time:

The famous first lines of A Tale of Two Cities present readers with a list of paradoxes:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way [...]

These paradoxes identify irreconcilable tensions that persist throughout the novel. The passage raises the question—how can it be the best and worst of times at once? Perhaps it depends on who you ask. The French Revolution was a clash between two opposites—the rich and the poor, the peasants and the elite. It is easy to imagine that the exploitative political system of pre-revolutionary France might have been “the best of times” for landowners and “the worst of times” for the working class. Similarly, the “light” and “wisdom” of the Enlightenment philosophy that inspired the revolution could easily appear foolish to those who wished to preserve the status quo. The revolution itself presents a paradox—how could a movement against a corrupt regime, founded on the ideals of liberty, equality, and brotherhood, result in so much horrific violence?

Dickens goes on to relate revolutionary France to Victorian England, suggesting that the two are similar in many ways. The Victorian era was marked by its own political turmoils and class antagonisms. By drawing a parallel between the two eras, Dickens cautions readers that the events of the French Revolution could happen again.