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Sydney Carton (character in Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities)
Frederick Barnard, English Illistrator c.1895
Hand coloured vignette engraving 8 1/2 x 10 x in

“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.”

Sydney Carton (the character in Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities) ascending the steps to the gallows, having willfully taken the place of the man who married the only woman he every loved. He saved her father before from the same fate back in England; and now he gives his life to save her husband in Paris.  A brilliant legal mind, a lost melancholy soul, uttering the closing lines to one of the most remarkable stories ever penned.

Source: 1793: Sydney Carton posing as Charles Darnay

December 9th, 2007 Headsman

On an unspecified date in December 1793 is set one of literature’s immortal execution scenes, when ne’er-do-well Sydney Carton heroically goes to the guillotine in the place of his aristocratic doppleganger Charles Darnay at the climax of A Tale of Two Cities.

In Charles Dickens‘ classic 1859 novel of the French Revolution, Darnay, the good-hearted scion of the cruel Evremonde line, falls prey to the Revolutionary Terror.

The dissolute, tormented Carton is the respectable Darnay’s literary dark twin, whose appearance he also happens to strikingly resemble. Driven by an unrequited love for Darnay’s wife, who stands in danger not only of losing her husband but of following him to the scaffold, Carton contrives to switch places with the doomed noble.

While those saved by his sacrifice flee for England, Carton goes to the guillotine in a batch of 52 condemned prisoners,* one of them a sweet and frightened girl he comforts tenderly.

His prophetic thoughts as he awaits the blade form the conclusion of the novel, and the last sentence ranks among literature’s most recognizable lines.

“I see that I hold a sanctuary in their hearts, and in the hearts of their descendants, generations hence. I see her, an old woman, weeping for me on the anniversary of this day. I see her and her husband, their course done, lying side by side in their last earthly bed, and I know that each was not more honoured and held sacred in the other’s soul, than I was in the souls of both.

“I see that child who lay upon her bosom and who bore my name, a man winning his way up in that path of life which once was mine. I see him winning it so well, that my name is made illustrious there by the light of his. I see the blots I threw upon it, faded away. I see him, fore-most of just judges and honoured men, bringing a boy of my name, with a forehead that I know and golden hair, to this place — then fair to look upon, with not a trace of this day’s disfigurement — and I hear him tell the child my story, with a tender and a faltering voice.

“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.”

Here is the climactic sequence of the 1935 film based on the book:

A Tale of Two Cities is one of thousands of public-domain books available for free at Project Gutenberg. Stanford’s “Discovering Dickens” community reading project guide annotates the novel here.

* Never one for understatement, Dickens crowds his mass execution tableau with far too many extras. “The Terror” is usually dated from September 1793 through July 1794, but only during its bloodiest last two months would so many as 52 have been guillotined together; at the time of Carton’s execution, half as many would have constituted a large group.

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“A Tale of Two Cities,” set in two European cities torn by war, 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, 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,…in short, the period was nothing like the present, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree for comparison only.” In fact, the author negatively introduces specific characters, giving them an obscured identity. First portrayed as a shy, young man, Sydney Carton, constantly suffering debasing comments made by his ostensibly intelligent co-worker, seems unable to overcome his pre-determined life of unhappiness. Ironically, the `jackal’ finally began to feel alive upon his choice to sacrifice his life to the Guillotine. Probably the most obvious character transformation was that of Sydney Carton as, ultimately, preconceived notions prove to have been deceiving, as the character began to exhibit another facet of true personality.

Young Sydney Carton, associate of Mr. Stryver, appears quite glum upon his introduction at the `Old Bailey’. “Mr. Carton, who had so long sat looking at the ceiling of the court, changed neither in place nor his attitude, even in this excitement. This one man sat leaning back…his hands in his pockets, and his eyes on the ceiling as they had been all day. Something especially reckless in his demeanor, not only gave him a disreputable look, but so diminished the strong resemblance he undoubtedly bore to the prisoner.” Due to being unsocial and pessimistic, Carton is familiar with leading a life of solitude. However, while his expression and attitude may have not allowed him to seem an observant man, he took in more of the details of the seen than he appear to take in. In fact, he was the first man to see Lucy Manette’s head droop upon her father’s breast. Nevertheless, Sydney Carton is the `jackal’ in everything he is involved in, and it seems he always will be.

In spite of Sydney Carton’s negative outlook, while he once cared for no one, 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 of misuse as you know him to be–he would have been conscious this day and hour, in spite of his happiness, that he would bring you to misery, bring you to sorrow and repentance, blight you, disgrace you, pull you down with me.” 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.

Thereafter, Sydney Carton continues to display a new facet of his personality. Upon his declaration to Miss Lucy Manette, Carton ventures farther away from his `jackal’ mentality, as he nobly travels to Paris to act on his pledge to Lucie, where he vows, “I would embrace any sacrifice for you and to those dear to you.” Carton truly exhibits his new personality while playing “a hand at cards.” Keen on winning the hand, and thus being aided by Mr. Barsad in his mission to free the innocent Charles Darnay, husband of Lucie Manette, Carton states, “Inference clear as day in this region of suspicion, that Mr. Barsad, still in the pay of the aristocratic English government, is the spy of Pitt, the treacherous foe of the Republican crouching in its bosom, the English traitor and agent of all mischief so much spoken of and so hard to find. That’s a card not to be beaten.” In controlling this `card’, Carton gains access to the prison where Charles Darnay is held, and he intends to take advantage of this opportunity.

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