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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, 2012 at 13:38

6 Answers 6

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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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  • You said people of the day, but Dickens says only the noisiest authorities. I don't think he intended to mean everyone.
    – Sidney
    Apr 1, 2021 at 22:51
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The OP does not ask or say specifically, but I wonder whether the odd use of "received" has contributed to her difficulty. Dickens seems to be using it to mean "assessed". So: "insisted on its being assessed only in the strongest possible terms of either approval or disapproval"?

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What Dickens means here is that the people of that era, were not unresolved about their point of view of the times. They either profited from it, or lost from it. They either loved or condemned it. There really wasn't a happy medium. Additionally, Dickens also wanted the superlative, not the comparative degree. So, in that way, he gives the highest degree of importance to the situation of that era.

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  • Spencer, your usage of unresolved--in the sense of ambivalent--is archaic. Is that intentional?
    – ScotM
    Apr 21, 2015 at 16:36
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I'm sorry, but I'll diverge a bit from the other answers. From my point of view I understand the following:

for good or for evil

Dickens is saying how the noisiest authorities acted at that time, but Dickes is not judging whether it is good or evil.

in the superlative degree of comparison only

This is more obvious, and I think the other answers answered some part of it. However, I think the main point here is comparing the present period with that period, not describe the present period in these terms.

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I think what he was trying to mean is: good and evil, are relative. and it is only a comparison. (one of many perspectives).

and i am guessing what he was trying to print into our head is:'noisiest authorities', 'insisted' and 'being received'.

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  • Can you expand on your answer, for example by showing us how you came to your conclusion? And what do you mean with the second paragraph, and how does that relate to this question?
    – Joachim
    Jan 6 at 17:10
  • My writing is an understanding not a conclusion. The 2nd paragraph is my understanding of the writer. of how that understanding of the words turn into an understanding of mine. and in my understanding someone post this post for an understanding, not a conclusion.
    – Aidan Wang
    Jan 12 at 13:04
  • In that case I'm afraid you're on the wrong website: this is not the place to write about opinions, unless, in some cases, you can clarify why something is your understanding. Please take the Tour to get an overview of how the site works.
    – Joachim
    Jan 12 at 13:25
  • i hope this reply to you serve more like an answer than an argument. But, every reply is an opinion. Including yours. Also sorry if i was being impolite, i guess i was trying to give you the answer of how it came to my 'conclusion' , then you read it like i am arguing.... So if it is not helpful to whoever post this for an understanding, then ignore my answer and go to the next one. After all, i might be 'wrong', English is not even my native langue. :)
    – Aidan Wang
    Jan 12 at 16:56
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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, 2012 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”. Dec 23, 2012 at 20:01

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