The character of Sydney Carton in “A Tale of Two Cities”
Set in two European cities torn by war, in A Tale of Two Cities Charles Dickens paradoxically introduces his story, “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…” In fact, the author negatively introduces specific characters, giving them an obscured identity. First portrayed as a shy, young man, Sydney Carton seems unable to overcome his pre-determined life of unhappiness. A prodigal young attorney, Carton is one of Dickens’s most tragic and dynamic characters: a brilliant but dissolute and self-pitying alcoholic for whom, in the beginning, it is hard to feel a slither of empathy. “I am a disappointed drudge, sir,” he says. “I care for no man on earth, and no man on earth cares for me.”
Sydney Carton is introduced into the novel as a young, sloppy but brilliant lawyer who bears an uncanny likeness to Charles Darnay, the prisoner he is defending. He uses his great skill to save Darnay from death, passing his case to his colleague Stryver, who takes all the glory for saving Darnay. It is then revealed that Carton both likes and hates Darnay, as he sees him as everything he should be but is not. Carton is called a “jackal” because it appears that, while Mr. Stryver very deftly presents each case, it is Carton’s legal acumen that helps win them, though Stryver gets all the credit. This is how the jackals help the lions with the kill, while the lions take all the glory. It is also seen that Carton is an alcoholic who faces a great lack of self-confidence. He develops an unrequited love for Lucie Manette, which he tells her about. He says that he would do anything for her or for anybody that she loves.
In spite of Sydney Carton’s negative outlook, he acts courageously upon his meeting with Miss Manette, the “golden doll.” He is confident that he could never receive the same affection from her that he feels toward her. Yet, Carton reaches a point where he can admit his feelings to Lucie herself. “If it is possible, Miss Manette, that you could have returned the love of the man than you see before you-self-flung away, wasted, drunken, poor creature…” Carton professes his love sincere to her, though he still persists in seeing himself as essentially worthless. However, this intense love becomes the sole factor of Lucy Manette’s happiness. Clearly, Sydney Carton is capable of feeling deep, immense, and tragic love that others cannot see. This scene marks a vital transition for Carton and lays the foundation for the supreme sacrifice that he makes at the novel’s end.
Carton, Darnay’s double and alter-ego, has wasted his life on alcohol and apathy. Besides some vague references to his student days and the disclosure that his parents died when he was young, Carton’s past remains a mystery to the reader. Consequently, the reader can only guess what caused him to become so dissolute. The only noble part of his life is his love for Lucie and his affection for the rest of her family. His love for her is strong enough to induce him to give his life for that of her husband. Carton takes on a mythical aspect in sacrificing himself to save his friends. He represents the sacrificial hero who is ritually slaughtered of his own free will so that society might renew itself, a prospect he envisions before he dies. Through his death, he redeems his sins and is reborn in the afterlife and through the life of his namesake. His final words are among the most famous in English literature:
“It is a far, far better thing that I do than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”