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Opinion :: The worst of clichés and the best of gifts for Dickens' 201st birthday
· 4:57am February 7th, 2013
Today, Feb. 7, 2013, 201st anniversary of the birth of Charles Dickens.
So, what does a dead writer want for his birthday?
He would – and I am only guessing, since I have yet to interview any dead writers – want us to read his words and understand them.
The most popular of Dickens’ phrases is also the most horribly misunderstood, and most terribly misused:
“It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.”
Politicians quote this line – quite badly. Speechwriters, too. Those who are unhappy with any particular facet of life are guilty. Even one stay-at-home dad once wrote that “the worst of times” meant changing a dirty diaper.
These people all think that with that famous phrase, Dickens was saying: Things as good as possible, and as bad as possible, at the same time.
That is not what Dickens was saying.
Not at all.
In order to understand what Dickens was saying in the opening page of “A Tale of Two Cities,” we must do something that too few Americans bother to do any more: We must read what comes next.
Here is the complete first complete paragraph of that Dickens novel. Read it to see what comes after his most-horribly abused quote, and to understand what Dickens was trying to say:
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 -- in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
You see it now: Dickens was not saying the epoch to which he referred – England and France in 1775 – was the best and/or worst of times.
He was saying that the people of that area -- especially its "noisiest authorities" -- were incredibly fond of exaggerating.
Read the rest of the first page of “Tale of Two Cities” and you will see another phrase that aptly defines modern American media: “Supernaturally deficient in originality.”
Look at almost any TV show, listen to almost any politician, read almost any newspaper and soon you will see that supernatural deficiency of originality.
Dickens – who also was the father of the word “boredom” – would, I expect, want us to be bored with the unoriginal.
He would also – in 2013 – want us to clearly, clearly understand the message of the book that is so flagrantly misquoted.
“Tale of Two Cities” is, indeed, a tale of two cities – London and Paris – during the awful, early days of the French Revolution. Following the American example, the French overthrew their government in 1789. But instead of leading to freedom, the events in France led to the Reign of Terror. Thousands of people – most of them innocent – were executed (mostly via guillotine) because they were perceived to be friends and/or relatives of the deposed government rulers.
The book is a tale of two cities because Dickens saw how quickly and thoroughly the terror of tyranny spread from country to country (one of the results of the French Revolution was the reign and terror of Napoleon). The other city in the book is London; Dickens was clearly able to see the impact of the Reign of Terror on citizens of his country, even decades later.
As we look around the world, we see what we used to call the “Arab Spring” becoming too much like France in the 1790s. Instead of savoring freedom as something to share and offer to everyone, too many people in some of those countries are looking at the opportunity to live free from oppression as an opportunity to oppress others.
A variety of groups have been studying the abuses that have happened in the countries of the Arab Spring. Freedom House uses phrase like “dashed hopes,” “violations of human rights” and “censorship” to describe what has happened in many places where people – like the French in 1789 – have overthrown a government.
“The region’s transformation will not happen overnight, and that its success must not be left to chance,” concludes Freedom House.
Dickens’ book, with its mis-quoted opening line, is a warning for all of the world about our need to be aware and involved in places where revolution has taken place.
But most people do not understand Dickens’ warning because they haven’t been able to even understand the first 10 words of “Tale of Two Cities.”
So, today, on the 201st birthday of Charles Dickens, I am calling on all lovers of classic literature to defend and explain Dickens’ most mis-understood phrase. Whenever you hear someone say, “best of times, worst of times,” give them the Dickens. Hit him over the head with a large hard-cover version of any of Dickens’ largest books.
If you would like to read, and understand “Tale of Two Cities” for yourself, the Cliff Notes web site has the book – complete with historical notes and a glossary of phrases that may not be familiar to modern Americans.
To the Editor: Thanks for how you loved my brother, John Scriven
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