The year is 1775, and life in England and France seems paradoxically the best and the worst that it can be. The rulers and ruling classes of both countries may have the best of life, but they are out of touch with the common people and believe that the status quo will continue forever.
In France, inflation is out of control and an oppressive social system results in intolerable and extreme injustices being committed against average citizens, who believe they have the worst of life. The breaking point — riotous rebellion — is near, and the populace of France secretly but steadily moves toward revolution.
Meanwhile, in England, people give spiritualists and the supernatural more attention than the revolutionary rumblings from American colonists, and an ineffective justice system leads to widespread violence and crime. While the English and French kings and queens carelessly ignore the unrest and misery prevalent in their countries, silent forces guide the rulers and their people toward fate and death.
This first chapter presents the sweeping backdrop of forces and events that will shape the lives of the novel's characters. From the first paragraph, Dickens begins developing the central theme of duality. His pairings of contrasting concepts such as the "best"and "worst"of times, "Light"and "Darkness,"and "hope"and "despair"reflect the mirror images of good and evil that will recur in characters and situations throughout the novel.
England and France in 1775 embody the concept of duality that Dickens outlines in the first paragraph. Both countries are simultaneously experiencing very similar and very different situations. For example, both the English and French monarchs — George III and Louis XVI, respectively — seem indifferent to the plight of their people and cannot comprehend any power being great enough to eclipse their divine right to rule. However, while their attitudes will result in revolutions for both countries, the American revolution occurs an ocean away, leaving the British infrastructure unscathed and saving the British population from the massive loss of life and the horrors that will take place during the French revolution.
The differences between the two countries become more pronounced when Dickens compares the concepts of spirituality and justice in each country. In England, people are enthralled with the supernatural, especially with visionaries and ghosts that communicate mystical messages. In France, though, people pay attention to religious leaders out of fear rather than fascination. A man neglecting to kneel to a distant procession of monks may be condemned to a torturous death for his transgression. Dickens contrasts France's harsh justice system to England's lax one. Criminals overrun England: Highwaymen rob seemingly at will, prisoners revolt against their jailers, and violence is answered with more violence. When the courts serve justice in England, they serve it indiscriminately, with murderers and petty thieves alike receiving the death penalty.
a king with a large jaw and a queen with a plain face on the throne of England King George III and Queen Charlotte Sophia.
a king with a large jaw and a queen with a fair face on the throne of France King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette.
Mrs. Southcott Joanna Southcott (1750-1814), an English religious visionary.
Cock-lane ghost a poltergeist phenomenon studied by Horace Walpole, Dr. Johnson, and Oliver Goldsmith. People greatly debated its authenticity.
"a congress of British subjects in America"In January 1775, the American Continental Congress presented a petition of its grievances to the British Parliament.
a certain movable framework that is, the guillotine.
highwayman a man, especially one on horseback, who robbed travelers on a highway.
stand and deliver a highwayman's order to his victims to stand still and deliver their money and valuables.
gaols British spelling of jails.
turnkey a person in charge of the keys of a prison; warder; jailer.
blunderbusses muskets with a large bore and a broad, flaring muzzle, accurate only at close range.
Newgate a London prison notorious for its inhumane conditions.
Westminster Hall Westminster Hall, located in London, was the chief law court of England until 1870.