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In what is one of the most famous opening lines in modern literature ("It was the best of times, it was the worst of times..."), Dickens captures the extremes of idealism and terror of the revolutionary period of the late 18th century. With the exception of figures of historical significance, in particular the monarchs, no characters directly related to the plot are introduced in this opening, reflecting Dickens's choice to focus on the setting rather than the characterization of individuals in this historical novel.
Dickens refers obliquely, rather than directly, to the historical figures and events of the period, giving his introduction a fable-like quality. Rather than naming the monarchs and openly discussing the American Revolution, he refers to the "king with a large jaw and queen with a plain face" in England, the "king with a large jaw and queen with a fair face" in France, and a "congress of British subjects in America." Death is personified as a Farmer and Fate as a Woodman, powers who silently work their way through the French countryside. The distance provided by the tone of a fable was desirable for Dickens since his novel followed the historical events so closely in time. A Tale of Two Cities was published just 67 years after the events it describes. While the horrors of the French Revolution have been eclipsed for modern readers by the world wars and genocides of the twentieth century, the terrors of the French Revolution were the horror story of Dickens's time. His indirect tone helps his readers gain distance from an event that they would have contemplated and debated many times before.
Dickens postulates the historical inevitability of the French Revolution, illustrating that despite the monarchs' complacency in their divine right, discontentment was growing in the countryside. He does not describe the same inevitability of rebellion in England, however, just the widespread feeling of lawlessness exemplified in the second chapter. Knowing that there was no comparable rebellion or even labor unrest in England at the end of the eighteenth century, Dickens portrays English society as dangerous but not lethal. Even so, there is a lack of proportion in England as demonstrated by executions for offenders ranging from murderers to "wretched pilferers." The injustice of equal treatment for unequal crimes reflects Dickens' ever-present concern with social justice, but it hardly compares with the unrest and injustices in France.
With this contrast in the direness of social and criminal situations in the two countries, Dickens sets up a dichotomy that is to dominate the rest of the novel. With likeable but somewhat undeveloped individuals, the focus of the text is ever on the setting and the communities, the historical period as much as the plot itself. The title of A Tale of Two Cities is crucial for interpretation of the novel, suggesting that the opposing cities of Paris and London constitute the true protagonists of the novel, transcending the importance of the main characters.