Bad Sentences in Classic Literature: A Tale of Two Cities
Even when I was a kid, I knew that A Tale of Two Cities began with “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.” But I didn’t read any further than that. After all, I had Classics Illustrated comic books for that. In seventh grade, however, for whatever reason I cannot remember, I decided to try reading an unabridged version of A Tale of Two Cities and was greeted by the mother of all opening sentences.
“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.”
If I had written a sentence like that in school, my English teacher would have called it a run-on and said that I should have used periods and semicolons instead of a bunch of commas. If I had then showed him A Tale of Two Cities, he would have said that when I have a bunch of books published, then I could misuse commas and write repetitive run-on sentences whenever I wanted.
I don’t think my English teachers would count ebooks as “books published.” Instead, I have a blog.
Despite the opening sentence, I kept reading A Tale of Two Cities and made it through page 1, only to get emotionally destroyed on page 2 with this Dickensian gem:
“Under the guidance of her Christian pastors, she entertained herself, besides, with such humane achievements as sentencing a youth to have his hands cut off, his tongue torn out with pincers, and his body burned alive, because he had not kneeled down in the rain to do honour to a dirty procession of monks which passed within his view, at a distance of some fifty or sixty yards.”
I’ll give myself a little credit. I worked through that sentence, understood what it was about, and I think I even picked up on the sarcasm (maybe that’s wishful thinking), but it was work. And it warned me that the novel was going to be nothing like the Classics Illustrated comic book. I took a deep breath and then ran into this buzz saw of a sentence.
“It is likely enough that, rooted in the woods of France and Norway, there were growing trees, when that sufferer was put to death, already marked by the Woodman, Fate, to come down and be sawn into boards, to make a certain moveable framework with a sack and a knife in it, terrible in history.”
Charles Dickens was making torture really difficult to read. But I kept trying.
“It is likely enough that in the rough outhouses of some tillers of the heavy lands adjacent to Paris, there were sheltered from the weather that very day, rude carts, bespattered with rustic mire, snuffed about by pigs, and roosted in by poultry, which the Farmer, Death, had already set apart to be his tumbrils of the Revolution.”
It is also likely that I stopped reading right after that sentence.
One problem with these sentences was the references to things I knew nothing about. Back then (when I was in seventh grade), there was no internet and therefore no Wikipedia. There was no place to easily look things up (except a dictionary and encyclopedia, and those didn’t count). Cliffnotes was not an option (It existed, but I didn’t know about it yet). If I didn’t understand a reference, I was stuck. Today, I don’t have an excuse, except that I’m older and crankier, and if I don’t understand a reference in a book that I’m reading, I have the option to stop reading the book that I don’t understand without feeling any guilt. At my age, I don’t feel guilt for stuff like that.
The bigger problem with reading A Tale of Two Cities, however, is sentence structure. I believe in variety when it comes to sentence structure, with long sentences and short sentences, with simple sentences, compound sentences, complex sentences, and even compound-complex sentences with lots of prepositional phrases. I believe in beginning and ending sentences with prepositions. But I also believe that a sentence should be diagrammable. Subject and simple predicates should be easy to find. Even a long compound-complex sentence with strings of prepositional phrases can be diagrammed easily. I’m not sure I can diagram some of these Dickensian clusterf***s.
If I can’t diagram a sentence, then it’s a bad sentence.
Maybe these were great sentences in 19th century England. Maybe they’re still great sentences now, and I’m too stupid to recognize them. Maybe I need to brush up on my sentence diagramming. All I know is that if I’d used sentence structure like Charles Dickens used sentence structure, I would have failed all of my writing assignments. And if my teacher had used these sentences on the diagramming tests, I would have failed those too.
I have never finished reading A Tale Two Cities, and I know I never will. For a long time, I pretended to have read it (and got away with it), but I don’t do that anymore. If anybody gives me grief about not reading A Tale of Two Cities (I don’t know why anybody would care), then I’ll say that I have a low tolerance for really poorly constructed sentences written by Charles Dickens. It’s a concrete reason. It’s way better than saying the book was too hard. That’s just lame.
What do you think? Are these sentences from A Tale of Two Cities examples of bad sentences? Should sentences written by famous authors be diagrammable? If a sentence isn’t diagrammable, is it a bad sentence? Can you diagram these sentences? I’d like to see what these sentences look like when they’re diagrammed.
The above article “Bad Sentences in Classic Literature: A Tale of Two Cities” was written by the author of the two fine ebooks below!!