Dickens and Repetition

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI’m a serious, experienced reader. I’ve read all sorts of things: novels, poetry, plays, memoirs, essays…well, you probably get the picture.

One of the things I do is read in two directions at once. If I’m reading a novel, for example, part of me reads the story and part of me takes a step back to determine what the writer is trying to achieve, and how well it’s being done. I might even do some research to find out about technical stuff.

That’s what I did last weekend. I’m reading A Tale of Two Cities for–I think–the third time. In this book, the first paragraph made me start thinking about repetition.

There are people who have never read the book, but know the beginning of the first sentence: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” but might not recognize “…it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…”. Both are part of the same paragraph-long sentence, by the way. Dickens uses several pairs of phrases that are descriptive in opposite ways, which gives us a lot of information.

There are also sentences where the same word is used multiple times. For example, here is the last sentence of the chapter “Monseigneur in Town”:

“The water of the fountain ran, the swift river ran, the day ran into evening, so much life in the city ran into death according to rule, time and tide waited for no man, the rats were sleeping close together in their dark holes again, the Fancy Ball was lighted up at supper, all things ran their courses.”

The first paragraph of the chapter “The Gorgon’s Head” uses the word stone as an adjective something like 8 times.

This really fascinates me. The sentences sound wonderful when I read them, but I’ve been under the impression for quite awhile that using the same word this often was a literary no-no. Based on what I’ve read in Sin and Syntax, by Constance Hale (a section called “The Repetition Police”), many people do believe repetition shouldn’t happen. But in A Tale of Two Cities, it makes a point for the author, and makes sentences and paragraphs sound poetic as well.

I think it’s time for me to change my assumptions about repetition. I think knowing how and when to break the rules is something that distinguishes a good writer!

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