Essay: A Tale of Two Cities – Novel Analysis

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  • A Tale of Two Cities - Novel Analysis
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“Maybe this was what love meant after all: sacrifice and selflessness. It did not mean hearts and flowers and a happy ending, but the knowledge that another’s well-being is more important than one’s own” (Cruz). There often comes a time in one’s life where they must forfeit something in their possession to pursue, what they value as, the greater good. In A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, many sacrifices are made throughout the story of splendor, love, family, and revenge within two monumental cities, Paris and London, in a time of great change. The most notable sacrifice in the tale was that of Sydney Carton’s, a man who deliberately forfeited his very existence for the sake of his values: love, fidelity, and hope for the future. Carton’s sacrifice not only illuminated his values, but also ties in with Dicken’s ulterior message of the novel that love can bring out the best in people.

In the novel, the sacrifice in discussion revolves around three major characters: Sydney Carton, Lucie Manette, and her eventual husband, Charles Darnay. Initially, Carton was a careless, impertinent alcoholic who placed no importance on his life. Even he characterized himself with contempt, telling Darnay, “I am a disappointed drudge, sir. I care for no man on earth, and no man on earth cares for me” (89). However, it is revealed that Sydney Carton could have been so much more than what he became, as he was a “man of good abilities and good emotions” but was unable to utilize his strengths for his own benefits. The introspective, aimless man was “incapable of his own help and his own happiness, sensible of the blight on him, and resigning himself to let it eat him away” (96).

Nevertheless, this persona of his took a dynamic turn when the gentle, “golden-haired doll” (95), Lucie Manette, entered his life. As all classic love stories go, Carton fell in love with the fair young lady who eventually gave him a reason to live— or rather die. She allowed him to see a much more optimistic side of life as she is surrounded by care and familial love, two things Carton rarely had the chance to experience. As he watched her from afar, he understood the true meaning of love and began cherishing the newly found value of his. Becoming devoted to his love for Lucie, Carton promised his life to her, saying, “I would embrace any sacrifice for you and for those dear to you…to keep a life you love beside you!” (158-9). But of course, due to Carton being a “self-flung away, wasted, drunken, poor creature of misuse” (156), he was not the man she fell in love with.

Charles Darnay had been the reason the two previous characters met in the first place. Darnay was often characterized as the counterpart of Carton, since they looked awfully similar but unlike Carton, Darnay wished to pursue his ambitions and live. He had left behind his aristocratic background in France to start anew in England. However, trouble seemed to never leave his side as he was tried for three court cases, the first being where the three characters came together in England and the third where he was sentenced to execution in France. Now, as one could have guessed, the reason for the forfeit of Carton’s life was his promise to Lucie and Darnay’s last verdict. Covertly, he took Darnay’s place at the execution, dying for him “and his wife and child” (365). Although Darnay technically took Lucie away from Carton, his respect for the value of love, in this case, the mutual love between Darnay and Lucie, led him to conclude his sacrifice would be significant. Keeping the promise he made to Lucie also showed Carton’s value for fidelity. Even though many years had passed while he slowly began to gain respect for life, he never forgot the promise and was faithful to his words. When the time came, no matter his situation, he would give everything up to protect Lucie’s happiness, especially his own.

In the last chapter of this memorable novel, Dickens gives insight into Carton’s very last thoughts before his execution. As he had softened throughout the story and began to understand the many selfless emotions of mankind, Carton also envisioned a future for those around him, a euphoric and tranquil one, at that. Carton says, “I see the lives for which I lay down my life, peaceful, useful, prosperous and happy, in that England which I shall see no more” (386). He continues, “I see her and her husband, their course done, living 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” (386). In the future where he is not present, he sees that everyone he has died for, beginning with Lucie and Darnay, can now live a happy life, a life undisturbed by misfortune and grief. In that future, Lucie has another son who she names after Carton in respect for his sacrifice and that boy grows up to be the man that Carton should have been but was unable to be. He sees Lucie and Darnay always together, even in their graves, showing that the love he died for remained strong and the reason for his sacrifice was well lived up to. He compares the importance of their love in the future to the importance of his own sacrifice, both which he thought highly of. With his last breath, he said, “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” (386). He believed that his death would be more significant to the future than his life could have ever been. Ultimately, this showed he valued his hopes for the future which would only come true if he forfeited his life. The equivalent exchange of one’s life for the well-being of the future.

Carton’s sacrifice also expands upon the overall message of the novel being that love can bring out the best in people. In the beginning, he was a man who cared for no one, not even himself. However, after he had fallen in love with Lucie through her generosity and situation, he was able to redeem the feelings of care and compassion, which had become so unfamiliar to him since he had “died young” (155). This can be seen when he comforts a poor seamstress during the day of his execution, a stranger who had confused him for Darnay. After the confusion, the girl recognizes him as a “brave and generous friend” (384) with a “kind strong face” (385), descriptions that would have been impossible for the old Sydney Carton. Also, from living a reckless life as a drunkard, his love for Lucie allowed him to remain sober for long periods of time, as Dickens said, “He never came there heated with wine” (217). Without his knowledge, Carton had not only given significant support to those around him, but bettered himself, even though he declared, “I shall never be better than I am. I shall sink lower, and be worse” (155). His love for Lucie truly did bring out the best in a man who had been hollow and unhappy for so long.

Ergo, Sydney Carton’s forfeit of his life for the preservation of his values in A Tale of Two Cities exemplified the validity of the statement, “It has often been said that what we value can be determined only by what we sacrifice”. As a man who began with no care for anyone, his unconditional love for Lucie allowed him to willingly sacrifice his life for love, fidelity, and the hopeful future of everyone around him. The change in Carton’s character and his reasons for sacrifice encompassed the ultimate theme of the novel— love can bring out the best in people.

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