Twenty-Three

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Sydney Carton had no future as a lawyer. This was a point he had made many times, both to himself and to those who marveled at such talent gone to waste. In fact, he was a genius, but you wouldn’t have suspected it in his drink-sodden breath and ragged appearance. He could have been many things, but some habits were too engrained for him to overcome.

Carton’s future as a lawyer was bleak, but future as a lover was even less so. He loved only one woman, Lucie Manette, and she was already loved by a man far better than he, Charles Darnay, with whom she shared much more in common. Carton had no qualms in admitting this. The only thing he could not admit was that he could change—that he could ever be anything other than a dissolute drunkard. He was young, but he had no future.

Lucie, Charles, and Sydney: these three, together with Lucie’s father Alexandre and perhaps Mssr. and Madame Defarge are the protagonists of The Tale of Two Cities. What are these two cities? Are they London and Paris? Or is there a symbolic meaning, such that one city is the city of the oppressed peasants, the starved Saint Antoine quarter of Paris, and the other is the city of the nobles and aristocrats for whom the peasants are nothing: the city of the wicked Evremonde brothers and all the royalty with their life of luxury? In any case, it is clear that the two cities, especially in the latter sense, cannot long coexist. The rebellion has smoldered long in the hearts of the peasants—put a leader at its head and give a voice to its cry, and a beast controlled for so long will finally break loose violently. In the bloody revolution that follows, the innocent Darnay will be caught up in the peasants’ thirst for the blood of the nobles—and the equally innocent Carton, who shares a remarkable resemblance with Darnay, his will be able to prove and fulfill his love for Lucie.

Long story short, Sydney Carton and Charles Darnay swap places in prison so that Charles can escape with his family to England. Carton’s execution will be, like so many during that blood-drenched era, summary and without any sense of drama. He utters no long or moving final speech. He is simply Twenty Three, another head shaved too closely by the guillotine. His last thoughts, if they could be known, must have been something like this:

“I see Barsad, and Cly, Defarge, The Vengeance…I see the lives for which I lay down my life…I see Her with a child upon her bosom, who bears my name…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.”

Carton’s sacrifice was his future—and it made him a better man than he had ever been.

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Twenty-Three