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CHAPTER SUMMARIES WITH NOTES
BOOK ONE : RECALLED TO LIFE
Chapter One: The Period
In the opening chapter, the period in which the novel is set is described. The story begins about fifteen years before the French Revolution. It is a time when many people think they live in the best of times, while others condemn it as the worst of times. The kings of England and France are both mediocre rulers, and they believe in their divine rights. People are put to death for the slightest of crimes.
The condition in France is very bad, for there is a total disregard for the common people by the aristocracy; injustice, cruelty, and oppression are rampant. The aristocracy is unaware that the masses are preparing for the revolution by turning timber into guillotines and farm carts into tumbrels to convey people to the guillotine. In England, too, lawlessness and poverty prevail. Even the colonies in America are up in arms against their English rulers, and the attempts of the American colonies to obtain freedom are not taken seriously.
The opening sentence of the novel ("It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.") is striking, for it is made up of a series of superlatives that are opposite in meaning; therefore, from the opening line, Dickens conveys that this novel is set in the best of times for some and the worst of times for others. He continues by exposing the mediocrity of both the French and English kings and criticizes the doctrine of their divine right. The revolution was fought to negate this right; ironically, similar rights are later seized by the revolutionaries. This is indicated by the mention of both the guillotine and the tumbrel, which become the symbols of the revolution.
Dickens successfully compares authoritarian France with lawless England, showing one as semi-totalitarian and the other as semi- anarchic. In both locations, the conditions cause unhappiness, especially among the common people. Chapter one, therefore, sets the stage for the action of the novel where the common people will rise up against the cruelties that prevail against them. It also sets the troubled tone that is strengthened throughout the novel. Finally, it reveals that the author is more concerned with the plight of the common people living during these troubled times than with the politics of the period.