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Charles Dickens' "Tale of Two Cities" starts with the words:

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.

I have a problem with understanding the last part of that, ie

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.

What does he mean by "for good or for evil" and "in the superlative degree of comparison only"? I understand every single word he says but not that part.

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This would be better asked at literature.SE –  Mitch Feb 25 '12 at 13:38

2 Answers 2

up vote 6 down vote accepted

Basically, what he had just finished saying. That people of the day were not ambivalent about their opinion of the times. They loved it or they hated it. There was no middle ground.

By "superlative degree of comparison" he means using the extreme form of the adjective, typically using the -est (fastest) or pairing with the word most (most expensive).

So when he says, "for good or for evil" he means people would only have used these extreme forms to describe the period. But that some would have thought things the best they could be and others would have thought the complete opposite.

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I think that the "for good or for evil" portion could just as well have been written "for better or for worse." However, Dickens wants the superlative, not the comparative degree, so the "noisiest authorities" of the time believed that whatever was occurring could only be compared in the highest degree—thus lending the highest degree of importance to the events of the time.

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Good and evil are not the superlative degree of better and worse. Best and worst are. Also, evil is not really the base form of worse and worst; plus even if you might be able good into inflecting into better and best, it is not in the sense that opposes evil. –  tchrist Dec 23 '12 at 19:30
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Dickens does not mean “regardless of whether it would cause things to be better or worse” or “regardless of whether things would in the event fall out better or worse” which are respectively the effective and eventual meanings of "for better or for worse"; he means “regardless of whether [they received it] as a Good Period or an Evil Period”. –  StoneyB Dec 23 '12 at 20:01

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