A Tale of Two Cities

by: Charles Dickens

Sydney Carton

Something especially reckless in his demeanour, not only gave him a disreputable look, but so diminished the strong resemblance he undoubtedly bore to the prisoner (which his momentary earnestness, when they were compared together, had strengthened), that many of the lookers-on, taking note of him now, said to one another they would hardly have thought the two were so alike.

During Charles Darnay’s trial, Carton argues that because he and Darnay could be mistaken for one another, the prosecutor cannot prove that Darnay was a French spy. However, we immediately learn how different the two are in demeanor if not in appearance. While Darnay appears composed and careful, Carton seems reckless and disreputable. This description sets up Darnay and Carton as another set of contradictions in the novel.

As to me, the greatest desire I have, is to forget that I belong to it. It has no good in it for me—except wine like this—nor I for it. So we are not much alike in that particular. Indeed, I begin to think we are not much alike in any particular, you and I.

Carton confides these thoughts to Darnay as they have dinner at a tavern after Darnay’s trial. Carton claims that he tries to forget he is a part of the world and only cares about creature comforts such as food and wine. Carton implies here, and states explicitly several other times throughout the novel, that he does not care about his own life.

“Do you particularly like the man?” he muttered, at his own image; “why should you particularly like a man who resembles you? There is nothing in you to like; you know that. Ah, confound you! What a change you have made in yourself! A good reason for taking to a man, that he shows you what you have fallen away from, and what you might have been!”

After Darnay leaves the tavern, Carton looks into a mirror and ruminates on the resemblance he sees in Darnay to himself. He reasons that there is nothing worth liking about himself, so he should not like someone who looks like him. However, Carton acknowledges that Darnay is everything he is not, and he seems to both admire and resent Darnay for this. Carton’s dissatisfaction with himself is made clearer by comparing himself to Darnay, which sets him up to become a better man throughout the novel.

When he awoke and was afoot again, he lingered there yet a little longer, watching an eddy that turned and turned purposeless, until the stream absorbed it, and carried it on to the sea. –“Like me!”

The night before Carton switches places with Darnay, he falls asleep by a stream. When he wakes up, he notices the tide and compares the flowing water to himself. This comparison, hours before he sacrifices himself for Darnay and Lucie, shows that while he feels his life has been useless, he can still make his life worth something by giving happiness to the people he cares about.

They said of him, about the city that night, that it was the peacefullest man’s face ever beheld there. Many added that he looked sublime and prophetic.

At Carton’s execution by the guillotine, the narrator describes the crowd’s reaction. Though he felt purposeless during his life, Carton was able to find his purpose at its end by letting Darnay keep his life, and so give Lucie and her family happiness. The description of Carton’s face as “prophetic” shows just how extreme his transformation throughout the novel was, as he ends up almost godlike.