On Reading Well
Karen Swallow Prior
A Tale of Two Cities
By Charles Dickens
Do horses run on the rocky crags? Does one plow the sea with oxen? But you have turned justice into poison and the fruit of righteousness into bitterness—
Charles Dickens’s masterpiece A Tale of Two Cities is the terrifying story of what happens to individuals, communities, and nations when injustice reigns. It has been said that A Tale of Two Cities is a story without a villain. Some say that history itself is the villain. But there is a villain in the story that is not confined to past events, a villain ever present in human affairs: the vice of excess.
A Tale of Two Cities is a story of extremes and of the havoc wreaked by such extremes, as the famous opening lines suggest: “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.” In other words, it was an age of polar extremes.
Excess, the novel shows, was both cause and symptom of the perilousness of the times. It was an age of superlatives, of disproportion, of absolutes, and of absolute power. Absolute power by its very nature is unjust, for it lacks the relational proportionality that defines justice. Set in a time so full of injustice, A Tale of Two Cities dramatizes the horrible consequences that attend justice too long delayed.
What parallels do you see to our own times?