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.
Thus begins one of my top three favorite novels of all time (I came to this conclusion after years of brutal selection). In my high school English classes, I was introduced to polysyndeton, asyndeton, anaphora, alliteration, and a host of other literary devices that I can’t recall at the moment. The first three were among my favorites.
I’ll be frank. As much as I love to read, I am not a very perceptive reader. I read fast because I want to know what happens. I skim long passages of description. I like books for the characters. I dislike books because of the characters. My “to read” stack on my dresser never seems to go down, no matter how many books I tear through in a weekend, in a summer, in a year. And so I read quickly to accomplish my very real task of reading all of the books I own. I would stay in school forever if it meant that I could read every book as I did books for class – learning historical context, identifying motifs, discussing themes with classmates. I miss it. I need that setting to even begin to see what there is to find in a book. (I use “see” in the sense of recognizing and learning and knowing and experiencing and exploring a story, a purpose.)
I say all of this really just to justify my recent perusal of SparkNotes. This quotation from Dickens has been in my head for about a week now, and I knew I wanted to read it over and over again and write about it here, but I didn’t even know where to begin. I can’t particularly say why I like it, why it resonates with me. So I turned to SparkNotes for inspiration. What did SparkNotes say this quotation means?
Why, first it gave a shout-out to anaphora – “the repetition of a phrase at the beginning of consecutive clauses”! But the next part got me really excited.
“This technique, along with the passage’s steady rhythm, suggests that good and evil, wisdom and folly, and light and darkness stand equally matched in their struggle. The opposing pairs in this passage also initiate one of the novel’s most prominent motifs and structural figures—that of doubles…”
On one hand, I love that this opening sentence balances the good and the bad. It doesn’t favor one over the other, or lend more weight to one over the other. It doesn’t try to cover up the reality of the bad. Yet, it also doesn’t give any undue weight to the bad. In my own struggles, I constantly strive to use whatever combination it takes to overcome bad in favor of good – focusing only on the good, focusing far more than is healthy on the bad. It’s difficult to balance the two. To recognize the one while clinging to the other.
Naturally, I see the present through this same of lens of counter-balancing paradoxes. Perhaps it’s just because I am growing older, and thus growing in awareness of surrounding events. But each year seems to bring more heartbreak and more tragedy. Perhaps this past week, in the middle of so many national and international horrors, this beautiful canvas of language just seemed relevant.
I suppose, though, that what encourages me most is the knowledge that good and evil, light and darkness do not in fact stand equally matched.