Sydney Carton is one of the main characters in Charles Dickens novel A Tale of Two Cities. He is a complex character throughout the book and can be viewed in a positive or negative light and can also be compared similarly to Dickens himself. At the end of the novel, Sydney Carton dies on the guillotine to spare Charles Darnay. How would you interpret Carton's sacrifice? Your answer, positively or negatively, will affect your judgment of his character, and of Dickens' entire work.
Some readers take the positive view that Carton's act is a triumph of individual love over the mob hatred of the Revolution. Carton and the seamstress he comforts meet their deaths with great dignity. In fulfilling his old promise to Lucie, Carton attains peace; those watching see "the peacefullest man's face ever beheld" at the guillotine. In a grand vision, he glimpses to a better world rising out of the ashes of revolution, and long life for Lucie and her family made possible by his sacrifice. This argument also links Carton's death with Christian sacrifice and love. When Carton makes his decision to die, the New Testament verse beginning "I am the Resurrection and the Life" nearly becomes his theme. The words are repeated a last time at the moment Carton dies. In what sense may we see Carton's dying in Darnay's place as Christ-like? It wipes away his sin, just as Christ's death washed clean all of man's sins.
For readers who choose the negative view, the death of Carton seems an act of giving up. These readers point out that Stryver's jackal has little to lose. Never useful or happy, Carton has already succumbed to the depression eating away at him. In the midst of a promising youth, Carton had "followed his father to the grave"- that is, he is already dead in spirit. For such a man, physical death would seem no sacrifice, but a welcome relief. Some readers even go so far as to claim that Carton's happy vision of the future at the novel's close is out of place with his overall gloominess. According to this interpretation, the bright prophecies of better times ahead are basically Dickens' way of copping out, of pleasing his audience with a hopeful ending.
If Sydney Carton's motives seem complicated, try stepping back and viewing him as a man, rather than a part of the story. He is a complex, realistic character. We see him so clearly, working early morning hours on Stryver's business, padding between table and punch bowl in his headdress of sopping towels, that we're able to feel sorry for him. Have you ever known someone who has thrown away his talent or potential, yet retains a spark of achievement, as well as people's sympathy? That is one way of looking at Sydney Carton.
Dickens adds an extra dimension to Carton's portrait by giving him a "double," Charles Darnay. For some readers, Carton is the more memorable half of the Carton/Darnay pair. It seemed that Dickens found it easier to create a sympathetic bad character than an interesting good one. Carton's own feelings toward his look-alike waver between admiration and hostility. But see this point by noticing Carton's rudeness to Darnay after the Old Bailey trial. When Darnay has gone, Carton studies his image in a mirror, realizing that the young Frenchman is everything he might have been and therefore a worthy object of hatred.
It is interesting that both Carton and Darnay can function in two cultures, English and French. Darnay, miserable in France, becomes a happy French teacher in England. In a kind of reversal, Carton, a lowly jackal in London, immortalizes himself in Paris. Carton and Darnay have one further similarity, the doubles may represent separate aspects of Dickens. If we see Darnay as Dickens' light side, then Carton corresponds to an inner darkness. The unhappy lawyer is a man of tremendous intelligence gone to waste, a man who fears he will never find happiness. These concerns mirror Dickens' own worries about the direction his career was taking in the late 1850s, and about his disintegrating marriage. Even though Dickens was a spectacularly successful writer, he might have been like Carton, a social outsider.