JAN / FEB 2012: BY GINA DALFONZO
“Are you dying for him?” she whispered.
“And for his wife and child. Hush! Yes.”
Generations of readers have been fascinated by the mysterious figure at the heart of A Tale of Two Cities. Sydney Carton has less of a history than almost any of Dickens’s other heroes or anti-heroes, and the little we do learn about him only adds to the enigma. He is lazy when it comes to his own interests, yet can work hard for others. He’s an alcoholic, yet remarkably clearheaded. He considers himself “incapable of all the higher and better flights of men,” but Lucie believes “he is capable of good things, gentle things, even magnanimous things.” She is right: Carton will prove himself capable of the greatest act of heroism a person can perform.
In short, we see this man make a remarkable spiritual and emotional journey over the course of the story. Yet from the moment we first see him staring at the ceiling of the court to his final act, we learn very little about Carton. His true nobility has been revealed but we’re left with unanswered questions: why did such a brilliant man never achieve anything of note during his life? What drove him to drink? Why is he mired in self-loathing? What drew him to Lucie? Just who
is Sydney Carton?
Despite the scarcity of information, I believe it’s possible by studying certain key clues in the text to piece together his story in a way that helps us understand this unlikeliest of heroes. To begin, we know of certain qualities he possessed in his youth and never outgrew. They are highlighted in his conversation with Stryver, his old schoolmate and current employer:
“The old Sydney Carton of old Shrewsbury School,” said Stryver, nodding his head over him as he reviewed him in the present and the past, “the old seesaw Sydney. Up one minute and down the next; now in spirits and now in despondency!”
“Ah!” returned the other, sighing: “yes! The same Sydney, with the same luck. Even then, I did exercises for other boys, and seldom did my own.”
“And why not?”
“God knows. It was my way, I suppose.”
It’s difficult and dangerous to psychoanalyze a person one doesn’t know, and it is equally so to try it on a fictional character. Yet the qualities described here certainly suggest a tendency to mood swings, perhaps even to what we know today as manic depression. This theory is strengthened by how manic depressives tend to act when, in modern parlance, they “self-medicate” with alcohol.
Some speculate about a great sin in Carton’s past and that may indeed be what Dickens had in mind. But not necessarily. The combination of depression and alcoholism could be more than sufficient to produce a sense of despair and helplessness. Indeed, when one notes that Carton’s mood swings and certain of his habits such as walking all night mirror those of his creator, one is tempted to wonder whether Dickens gave Carton a disorder he knew firsthand even if he had no name for it. But this idea tempts us into the tricky realm of armchair diagnosis and we had better go no farther.
What we do know is that Carton is a man without the support of family or friends. Whatever his struggle, he is facing it alone. We see few references to his family in the book. His parents died when he was young, first his mother and then his father. As to how he felt about them, we have a few passages that throw a little light on it. In his conversation with Mr. Lorry, Carton says in an altered voice, “Forgive me if I notice that you are affected. I could not see my father weep, and sit by, careless. And I could not respect your sorrow more, if you were my father. You are free from that
In the same conversation, Carton asks Mr. Lorry if now that the latter is nearing the end of his life he has stronger memories of sitting at his mother’s knee and whether he is “the better for it.” Carton is clearly thinking of his own mother.
Later when he is alone, we read, “Long ago, when he had been famous among his earliest competitors as a youth of great promise, he had followed his father to the grave. His mother had died, years before. These solemn words, which had been read at his father’s grave, arose in his mind… ‘I am the resurrection and the life, saith the Lord: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: and whosoever liveth and believeth in me, shall never die.’”
An image begins to emerge from these references: of a young man who loved his parents and was deeply wounded by their loss. For most of the book he avoids dwelling on his past. But on the evening he makes the decision to sacrifice himself, we see him reaching for those memories and finding strength and consolation in them. Yet there is some pain there, too, or so his reference to his father’s “misfortune” seems to indicate. Perhaps he feels he let his father down or maybe they had a falling out over the brilliant but idle young student’s failure to live up to his potential.
The evidence is hardly conclusive but if Carton were dealing with lifelong regrets over such an estrangement, it would certainly stoke the fires of self-hatred we see in him. Note too the particular wording of the sentence “He had followed his father to the grave.” Coupling these words with his words to Lucie long ago (“I am like one who died young”) suggests his father’s death may have been a point of no return for him, the point at which he felt there was nothing worth living for.
Unresolved feelings about his family might also explain why it is Lucie who becomes the unrequited love of his life. It isn’t always easy for modern readers to understand what he sees in her. Lucie’s most notable characteristic is domesticity and that is not a quality modern readers value in a heroine. If anything, it’s usually considered next door to a dirty word. If the picture we’re painting of Sydney is accurate, however, one can begin to understand why he would value it. To be with Lucie in her home with her strong family ties is to experience again just a little of what he has lost. Indeed, instead of dropping out of the picture when Lucie marries Charles as many men might do, Carton instead befriends him with the express purpose of ensuring that he will be able to keep visiting them.
Sydney, Lucie, and Charles have all suffered some sort of familial loss or breakup early in life, but Lucie has found her long-lost father again and she and Charles have started a new family. It seems clear that Sydney wants to be a part of what they have. And in the end, he cements his place there in a way that none of them foresaw.
Given all we’ve just looked at, Sydney Carton’s words to the seamstress, quoted at the beginning of this article, take on added significance. He is dying not just for the woman he loves but for a family. He will make sure through his sacrifice that they will not suffer the kind of painful and untimely loss that he suffered. And as he sees in his final prophetic vision, that will make him once again and for always a cherished part of a family. ♥