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Bad Sentences in Classic Literature: A Tale of Two Cities

April 14, 2014
Maybe not the most attractive cover in the world, but this is the copy I've owned for over 30 years.

Many readers get this look while reading 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.

  1. twitchthethread permalink

    I know what you mean about the opening of A Tale of Two Cities – I struggled to get through it. I also did not understand the references, but after asking my mum realised it was describing the state of Paris running up to the French Revolution. Also, despite the tough beginning, the rest of the novel is very easy to read. The opening style is misleading, thankfully the chapters that follows are nothing like that! I highly recommend giving it another go, because this ended up being one of my favourite novels of all time, once I got past the opening chapter. 🙂

    • Are you sure that it gets better in the next chapter? That’s page 3 in my book. I’ve already made a commitment on my blog to never finish it, and I’d lose credibility if I read A Tale of Two Cities when I proclaimed that I would never finish it. I don’t like to go back on my word. Maybe I can try to read it and if it’s like you say, I can stop just before I read the final page so that technically I haven’t finished it.

      I don’t have to read the last page. I read the classic comic, so I already know how the book ends.

  2. It takes time to get used to a different pace and grammar. I was coerced into reading Tale of Two Cities in high school, just as I was coerced into reading piles of other books I found boring. But Tale of Two Cities had quite a story and was all right in the end. Thomas Hardy’s books, however, captivated me immediately. Grammar and style change, but the psychology and the beauty of fine writing remain fairly steady over time.

    • Maybe I could get used to it over time (I probably could), but I’m getting too cranky to give it the time. I still like the classic comic book, though. It’s well drawn, and the sentences are short. You’re right, the story itself is good (waaay better than most regular comic books, even without the super heroes).

      • Try Homer. It’s the best.

        • It depends on the translation. Prose Homer, I can deal with. Homer in verse? I have major problems.

          • Oh. I’ve never read much of it in prose. I know for sure that the verse Iliad and Odysseus are magnificent. The Lattimore translation, the Fitzgerald one. There are many translations.

  3. A Tale of Two Cities: Is London ever mentioned? Nineteenth and some twentieth century writers have a sport to run one sentence a full paragraph. I guess that’s why Mark Twain began Huckleberry Finn as he did.
    Have you known many people who have spent time and money doing something, and concluded, “That’s was a waste of time?” I knew someone who travelled to the big city to attend opera. Each performance was perfect. BS. “I read A Tale of Two Cities. It was wonderful.” BS.
    Your mind and intelligence are not lying to you. The evidence is in your hand. If you believe yourself mistaken, read the first three pages again. If they suck, they suck!

    • “’I read A Tale of Two Cities. It was wonderful.’ BS.”- Ha ha! Somebody once told me he felt sorry for me because I refused to finish reading A Tale of Two Cities. I refused to accept his pity.

  4. I tried reading Dickens twice in my life : Oliver Twist in second grade (I wanted to try out the classics without knowing what I was getting into) and the book you speak of several years ago. The language was so dense it was frustrating to read and I never got past the first few pages. But I felt the same confusion with Shakespeare and now I absolutely love his works! It may be a matter of immersing and getting into the style before you can really enjoy it. (Oliver Twist has managed to find itself in my to-read pile again.)

    • You’re right, that it’s easier to appreciate Shakespeare. If the actors/actresses are good, I can understand what they’re talking about on stage even if I don’t understand exactly what they’re saying, and that makes it easier to go back and read.

  5. How on earth does one diagram a sentence??!!

    • First, you need an English teacher (probably a junior high English teacher) who runs his/her classroom with an iron fist. Then you need lots of paper/pencils to make straight lines and diagonal lines. It takes work (like Charles Dickens takes work), but you end up with a better understanding of grammar and sentence structure.

  6. annabelmcquade permalink

    Haha! I enjoyed this post. A lot of commenters seem very upset that you didn’t like Dickens. I don’t like Dickens either though. I thought his characters were thin, and his writing was dull and overly diadactic. I had to read Great Expectations, a Christmas Carol, and a short story or two of his for English and I didn’t like any of them (although the alternate ending for GE pleased me a lot more than the one he went with to please unhappy Victorians who favour a happy ending).
    Also, I think we need to get over this thing where we can’t insult authors just because a great deal of critics think they’re wonderful. If you find a bad sentence in a classic, you should be able to say it’s a bad sentence. If you think an author’s weak in some way, you should be able to say so even if they’re supposed to be a classic. For instance, I think Tolkien was incredibly weak on characterization, and his description runs too long. And… that’s going to upset a lot of people. But I don’t care. 😀

    • HOW DARE YOU SAY TOLKIEN WAS WEAK ON CHARACTERIZATION!!! I’LL HAVE YOU KNOW THAT….. Okay, I’m kidding. I can’t maintain fake outrage for very long. The second time I read Lord of the Rings (I was one of those people), I skipped the Tom Bombadil part, so other people who read Lord of the Rings more than once say that I haven’t really read it more than once. I guess that skipping Tom Bombadil is as controversial as criticizing Dickens’s sentences.

      • annabelmcquade permalink

        Oh dang. You’ve done it now. Skipping Tom Bombadil? DO YOU NOT UNDERSTAND THAT HE’S LIKE VITAL TO UNDERSTANDING TOLKIEN OMGZORZ YOU SUCK and no, I can’t maintain fake outrage for very long either.

        • Well, you won the fake outrage contest (It was the “OMGZORZ YOU SUCK ” that did it), but I’m probably not the best competition.

          • annabelmcquade permalink

            (nods) I am proud to accept whatever awards and accolades come with this win, and promise not to let the fame go to my head. However, I would really like a fifty-foot high gold statue of myself, if that can be arranged.

  7. I am not ashamed to say that I have and might never read the famous classics we all know today. Too much purple prose for my tastes. I get that some readers like the badge of honor from having copies of those books on their shelves, and be all smug when they list those titles in their Liked Books section on Facebook. But I’m good. I can either read the Cliffnotes version or be pretentious in other ways. 😛

    • Ha ha! You have Cliffnotes; I had Classics Illustrated comic books (but the comics weren’t very helpful with stuff like symbolism). Now all of us have Wikipedia, and the world is a better place for it.

  8. Oh my, those are some of the least readable sentences I’ve ever seen. I’m glad you stopped where you did because one more and I might have thrown my computer across the room. I’m interested to see how the writing changes in the next chapter, though. I’ve never read Dickens. Always seemed like someone I should have gotten around to, and I find the Victorian era interesting. But when I come up against sentences like that, it’s over.

    • Page 2 had a couple more doozies, but my eyes were glazing over, and I felt sorry for anybody who was going to read it. I flipped through A Tale of Two Cities, and there are pages that seem almost normal, but they’re not at the beginning of the book.

  9. Now I know that I am not weird for dropping it! I couldn’t get over the few pages at the beginning. I am self taught english speaker, so I found it extra difficult to read… Maybe I’ll give it another try, sometimes around my retirement, when I’ll have plenty time to kill 🙂

  10. I think you’re to blame or credit – no, blame – for the poem I posted yesterday about writers. It starts off with Dickens! I don’t know how the Dickens Dickens slipped into my mind….Oh yes I do. It’s the fault of someone called Dysfunctional…….

  11. I never did understand the allusion of Madame Defarge knitting words into her knitting.

  12. I like the idea of this; the fact that we are told so vehemently as children never to write like some of the classic authors and then are forced to study them ourselves and are taught that this is one of the best pieces of literature ever written… ironic much?

  13. It’s kind of weird, but I think I understand Charles Dickens, at least a little. I read once he had a grade 5 education (I don’t really know how that relates to the era he lived in). Myself, having to leave home real early (or probably die) I later in my life managed to get into university with only a grade 9 education behind me. I took English Lit. and Psychology. My English Prof.’s Teaching Assistant was the main person who dealt with me once the English Prof. gave up trying. I can remember receiving an essay back from the T.A. one day upon which she had scrawled in the margin in great red letters, “What the h–l kind of run-on sentence is this?” with an arrow pointing to the first paragraph that was composed of one 240-word sentence, decorated with the appropriate commas. I asked her if the sentence was grammatically correct, and she said it was. So I asked her what the problem was, and after looking at me sideways for a while, she said, “You forgot the outline, I’m docking 5%, and she scored me 95%. I just can’t help it, I’ve always written the way it sounds right in my head, maybe Mr. Dickens did also.

    • You wrote a 240-word grammatically correct sentence that wasn’t a run-on???

      I bow down to you!

      5% for an outline seems fair, as long as it had been clearly stated head of time as part of the assignment, but the only time I’ve written outlines was in college. I don’t like outlines either, but I wanted that 5%.

      • I do believe that was my record, but it has been an unbreakable life-time habit, as has the inability to write outlines. I was satisfied with the 92% she gave me, since I was having a real bad year with that class having a Prof. who had lost a public debate with me after giving me a failing mark for daring to dispute his theory that ‘W. Faulkner’s “Dry September” was about racism. My own stance was that it was simply a story about the extremes people will go to when stressed to the max by events such as the terrible weather conditions described repeatedly in the short story, and also the reason for the title. He gave me a 35% mark for my opinion, thus affecting my grade for the entire year on the one assignment, I disputed it, presented my case, it ended up going over his head, and I won. After that, he made the T.A. deal with me for the rest of the year.

  14. Anonymous permalink

    I was forced to read Great Expectations in high school. If you know nothing of the social conditions in 19th century England, and I didn’t, you suffer through the writing for nothing. In college I was forced to read The Mystery of Edwin Drood. To suffer through 500 pages of a murder mystery only to find that Dickens died halfway through writing was infuriating.

    William Shakespeare didn’t know how to diagram sentences. It hadn’t been invented yet.

  15. Greg Bouchard permalink

    You are a complete dolt. It is art of the highest order and critical in teaching generations about the human inflicted horrors of our n, not very long ago, past! You are only focusing on how the Steinway concert piano was made and not the life enriching Beethoven Concerto played upon it. Your teachers were also dolts, worthless robotic slaves to grammar. Read the book, don’t edit it for the love of humanity.

    • Haha! I appreciate your defense of A Tale of Two Cities, but what I wrote might make more sense if you pay attention to the name of my blog.

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