It Was the Best of Times; It Was the Worst of Times

Origin

This phrase has been taken from the famous opening paragraph of Charles Dickens’ novel, A Tale of Two Cities. The novel opens with, “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, …” (Para. 1, Line, 1). This passage suggests an age of radical opposites taking place across the English Channel, in France and the United Kingdom respectively. It tells a story of contrasts and comparisons between London and Paris during the French revolution.

Meaning

This phrase points out a major conflict between family and love, hatred and oppression, good and evil, light and darkness, and wisdom and folly. Dickens begins this tale with a vision that human prosperity cannot be matched with human despair. He, in fact, tells about a class war between the rich and the poor. He also tells of a time of despair and suffering on one hand, and joy and hope on the other.

Usage

This is an apt phrase to be used in the context of today’s world when, on the one hand, the rich are enjoying luxurious lives; while on the other hand, the poor are struggling under the yoke of economic decline. However, its best context is only in literary writings where one country or situation is compared with another, in order to predict some revolution or sudden transformation. That is why in the context of the transformation in times, wealth, inequality, and accumulation of wealth have become modern themes which the author dilates upon in the opening of his novel.  A political leader might use it in a speech, or a retiring school teacher might use it to remind his students the golden old times.

Literary Source

This phrase appears in the opening paragraph of Charles Dickens’ novel A Tale of Two Cities, which opens with:

“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 nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way …”

(A Tale of Two Cities, Para.1, Line, 1)

It tells about a time of chaos, conflicts, and despair, as well as happiness. It in fact tells us about the time of extreme opposites without any in-betweens.

Literary Analysis

This line describes a time of controversies and contradictions. Dickens refers to two cities, Paris and London, during the tumultuous environment of the French Revolution. This proclamation of revolution for oppressed civilians really turned out to be a “spring of hope.” However, for an ancient regime and outgoing political systems, this revolution was like a “winter of despair,” which led to death and destruction. This phrase has a great literary value in comparison and contrast of two situations and environments.

Literary devices

  • Anaphora: Repetition of the phrase appearing at the start of consecutive clauses creates steady rhythm.
  • Paradox: Author replicated paradox, conflicting ideas in this phrase

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