by Mme. AF
An essay I wrote on Charles Dicken's novel A Tale of Two Cities on Sydney Carton.
| Charles Dickens includes many diverse characters in his novel A Tale of Two Cities. They are in many difficult situations throughout the book, and all face death of some form at least once. In the setting of the French Revolution and the long years before, there is treason, murder, and exile. Harder to see is sacrifice, mainly the sacrifice of Sydney Carton, an alcoholic lawyer featured in Dicken's book. Carton brings credibility and humility to Dickens's novel, is the only fully developed character in the novel.
Carton is introduced in Charles Darnay's first trial. He seems to be paying absolutely no attention to his surroundings, but after Lucie Manette's testimonial when Darnay's trial seems lost it is revealed that Carton is far more perceptive than the reader first imagines. He is the first to notice the close resemblance shared between him and the accused. This likeness is what saves Darnay from his gruesome sentence of being drawn and quartered, and it will not be the final time that Carton saves Darnay. At the trial in the Old Bailey, Carton's appearance is described.
...this one man sat leaning back, with his torn gown half off him, his untidy wig put on just as it happened to light on his head after its removal, his hands in his pockets, and his eyes on the ceiling as they had been all day. ( 92)
This implies Mr. Carton cares little for his own outer appearance, which is an indication for a lack of self confidence. Also, in Chapter Five of the second book he is revealed as being an alcoholic. Instead of facing his problems, he hides behind a mask of drunkenness. Even in his childhood Carton does little for his self improvement; what work he does is often for other people, for example: "Even then I did exercises or other boys, and seldom did my own." (108) Carton talks about his youthful days at Shrewsbury School, a boarding school for boys aged thirteen to eighteen. Instead of using his brilliance to advance himself, he is subservient to the other boys. On the following page Carton says to his law partner C.J. Stryver, "You were always in the front rank, and I was always behind." Carton believes, even in his adolescence, that he will never be as successful as Stryver and the other boys, and sees his life as a failure. He is always the hardworking jackal behind Stryver's lion, but Carton never seems to care to emerge from his position of underling.
His resentment for Darnay at the beginning of the novel is simply caused by the fact that Carton sees Darnay as the man he could have been, but fails to be. "A good reason for taking to a man, that he shows you what you have fallen away from, and what you might have been." (103) This soliloquy states that Carton's early repugnance for Darnay is based on jealousy, and Carton does indeed wish that he could exchange his own miserable existence for the much more promising life of Darnay. Later in the same speech, Carton mentions noticing Lucie Manette's commiseration for the prisoner Darnay during her testimony against him. "Change places with him, and would you have been looked at by those blue eyes as he was...?"(103) He questions that if he is in the same position, would he be given the same amount of pity that Darnay is given? This signals to the reader that Carton may develop affections for Lucie the "golden haired doll" (110).
As the plot progresses, Carton begins to spend a substantial amount of his time at the Manette's home in Soho. Even being in Lucie's presence does not change his grim attitude.
When he cared to talk, he talked well; but, the cloud of caring for nothing, which overshadowed him with such a fatal darkness, was very rarely pierced by the light within him. (183)
This quote implies that there is far more to Carton than his bacchanalian ways and dispassionate mannerisms disclose. Carton adds to the story self doubt and pity. He is obviously imperfect unlike some of the other characters. He is capable of love, but also capable of failure. In fact, later in the chapter he confesses his love for Lucie, although he also admits the following:
If it had been possible, that you could have returned the love of the man you see before you... he would have been conscious this day and hour, in spite of his happiness, that he would bring you to misery... I am even thankful that it cannot be. (185)
Carton feels that even if Lucie could return his feelings, Carton would consciously know that he would only give to Lucie constant anguish and suffering. Thus he is almost grateful that he can never bring such pain to Lucie, who is the person Carton holds closest to his heart. Thought Carton wears a disguise of apathy, he removes it, even if it means only Lucie will know of this affable side of him.
Before the end of the chapter "The Fellow of No Delicacy," Carton makes a very binding promise to Lucie that greatly affects the outcome of the book. Carton tells Lucie, "If my career were of that better kind that there was any opportunity or capacity of sacrifice in it, I would embrace ay sacrifice for you and for those dear to you." (188) This promise connects Carton not only to Lucie, but to Darnay, Dr. Alexandre Manette, Miss Pross, and Lucie's unborn daughter who bears her mother's name. Carton feels his life is utterly useless for any other reason than using it to help Lucie in any way possible. He makes the oath with courage, devotion, and possible redemption in mind. The seeds of doubt have long been in his head. To Carton, his life has lost its meaning. An opportunity to fulfill his vow to Lucie presents itself when her husband Darnay is in jail for treason against the Republic and thrown into the Bastille (rechristened La Force). Carton encounters Solomon Pross (John Barsad). Barsad is a spy and a turnkey at La Force. Blackmail is the convincing force in Barsad's decision to do a favor for Carton, and if the outlook became grim for Darnay, Barsad would be able to get Carton an audience with Darnay before his execution. Darnay is convicted and sentenced to spill his blood over the callous wooden steps of La Guillotine, the feminine protector of justice. The final meeting between Darnay and Carton occurs and Carton exchanges clothing with Darnay, and then knocks Darnay unconscious. Barsad carries Darnay, whom everyone thinks to be Carton, out to the waiting carriage that will escort himself, Lucie, little Lucie, Jarvis Lorry, and Dr. Manette back to London. While the Manettes traverse the countryside to return to their English address, Carton waits for his upcoming doom. On the way to the guillotine, Carton unafraid of his life reaching its final chapter, thinks about his old life and the most sacred gift he is giving to the Darnays and Dr. Manette. When he reaches his penultimate minutes, he comforts another condemned individual with reassurance that she will not endure further pain after her death. Carton is the happiest he has ever been during those last few moments before the blade comes swiftly downward. Carton knows that his sacrifice will not be forgotten by Lucie and her descendants. His final thoughts are these: "It's a far, far better thing I do than I have ever done. It's a far, far better rest I go to than I have ever known." (462) Carton is finally freed from the tragedy of his life and will go on to seek his shelter in the perpetual tranquility of heaven. If he hadn't been a part of the story, who would have died for Darnay? Without Carton, Darnay would simply have been sent to the guillotine. Where is the moral in that?
In Carton's body lies the essence of humanity. He is humble, yet by no means perfect. Traces of intellect can be found as well, but perseverance is almost absent. Carton is a perfect literary representation of the balance that resides in humans. In the end, his own self loathing is equalized with his devotion towards Lucie. Lucie Manette is far too angelic to be convincing. No wrong seems to be committed by her hands. Also unrealistic is the inexorably benevolent Doctor Manette. Miss Pross is loving and loyal, but even this is fanciful. Mme. Defarge, the lady of the revolution, is cruel and coldhearted to an extent that stretches the imagination. None of the major characters enhance the novel with such equilibrium and humanistic qualities as Carton does. If Carton had been absent from the story, there would have been no one to save Darnay.
There would be no deeper elements to this story if Carton had been absent from the pages. Darnay would be dead. Lucie would be a widow and little Lucie would be an orphan. Darnay's early demise would be meaningless. Lucie's husband would simply be another life lost during the Reign of Terror. Carton could have been such a man that Lucie would have been proud of. He would not have needed to love her from afar. Instead, he died a martyr. Through his death, Sydney Carton is recalled to life.