On this day in 1859, the final installment of Charles Dickens’ novel A Tale of Two Cities was published. As with most of Dickens’ novels, A Tale of Two Cities was published in serial form. Weekly installments of the novel began in April 1859 and the final installment was issued on November 15, 1859.
Dickens (1812-1870), the author of such classic works at Great Expectations, David Copperfield, and A Christmas Carol, was the most popular novelist of his time, and A Tale of Two Cities is the single greatest selling book of any genre with more than 200 million copies sold (1).
The book is a historical novel, set in London and Paris before and during the French Revolution. It’s appropriate that in a novel with two settings, the author would use the scheme called “balance.” When writing about two or more similar ideas, writers balance the ideas by stating them in the same grammatical form using parallel structure, as in “United we stand, divided we fall.” You can see and hear this balance in the famous opening sentence of A Tale of Two Cities. Notice that although Dickens is introducing contrasting ideas (best and worst, wisdom and foolishness), the clauses of the sentence follow the same grammatical structure to create balance:
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 . . . .
Using parallelism, anaphora, and antithesis, Dicken’s creates a long sentence that is nevertheless easy to follow because of its balanced structure. The asymmetry of the contrasting ideas (antithesis) is brought back into balance by the symmetry of the parallel structure.
Just as Dickens opened his novel with a balanced sentence, he comes full circle in the final sentence of his novel, using a perfectly balanced sentence to express the final thoughts of one the story’s major characters, Sydney Carton:
It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known (2).
Noticed how the two sides of the sentence, separated by the semicolon, are balanced by repetition and parallel structure.
Just as with all rhetorical or stylistic devices, you don’t want to overuse balanced sentences; however, it is a powerful club to have in your rhetorical golf bag.
Today’s Challenge: Claim A Contrast
What claim would you make using two contrasting ideas, such as love/hate or success/failure, in the same sentence? Brainstorm a list of some contrasting ideas, such as, joy/sorrow, freedom/slavery, war/peace. Then, write a balanced sentence that makes a claim based on the differences in the two topics.
For example, the following balanced sentence makes a claim about the contrasting ideas logic and creativity:
Logic teaches us about the world; creativity teaches us about ourselves.
Notice how the two independent clauses of the compound sentence are balanced by parallelism.
Once you have your own balanced sentence, use it as your topic sentence for a paragraph that supports your claim using contrast, details, examples, evidence, and explanation. (Common Core Writing 1 – Argument)
1-Mitchell, David. David Mitchell on Historical Fiction. The Telegraph 8 May 2010. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/bookreviews/7685510/David-Mitchell-on-Historical-Fiction.html.
2-Dickens, Charles. A Tale of Two Cities. 1859. Public Domain.