Charles Darnay and the Hero of A Tale of Two Cities

The Likeness Phiz“Do you particularly like the man [Darnay]?” [Carton] 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! Change places with him, and would you have been looked at by those blue eyes as he was, and commiserated by that agitated face as he was? Come on, and have it out in plain words! You hate the fellow.” (A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens, Book II, Chapter 4.)

During a recent rereading of A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, I admired how Dickens presents the character Charles Darnay. Sydney Carton is the hero of A Tale of Two Cities, and it could have been tempting to make Carton look better at the expense of Charles Darnay. Charles Dickens resists this temptation, and A Tale of Two Cities is the better for it. It could have been tempting to set Carton off by making Darnay a snob or weak. Instead, Darnay is a thoroughly good, consistently upright man. He is strong, brave (note the way he faces danger and his death sentence), and caring. He makes a good husband for the heroine, Lucie Manette. We never feel that Carton should have gotten Lucie and this is as it should be. In order for Carton’s degeneracy to be believed, he must not be a suitable husband for the heroine. Carton loves Lucie almost as a symbol of the goodness he missed when he drifted into his profligate lifestyle. He does not love goodness enough to sacrifice his dissolute habits for it, but he sees its attraction, its beauty. As Lucie is a symbol of the Love that Carton has lost, Darnay represents what Carton has fallen away from and what he might have been. Carton’s profligacy and then his confidence to Lucie and his subsequent slight alteration all go to make his final redemption more affecting. This is more dramatic in that it is not at the expense of the heroine’s husband1. It is impossible to think less of Darnay because of Carton’s act of heroic self-sacrifice — and this, as I said, is as it should be.

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Notes:

1 There is, however, one exception to this that I noticed. At one point “Charles Darnay … spoke of Sydney Carton as a problem of carelessness and recklessness. He spoke of him, in short, not bitterly or meaning to bear hard upon him, but as anybody might who saw him as he showed himself.” Lucie tells her husband later, “I think, Charles, poor Mr. Carton deserves more consideration and respect than you expressed for him to-night. … I fear he is not to be reclaimed; there is scarcely a hope that anything in his character or fortunes is reparable now. But, I am sure that he is capable of good things, gentle things, even magnanimous things.” (Book II, Chapter 20.) While this conversation shows Lucie’s compassion toward Carton, and foreshadows what he is ultimately capable of, I don’t think that it should have been at Darnay’s expense. He had not spoken harshly or inconsiderately of Carton, merely mildly noting his wasted life — a waste that makes Carton’s sacrifice later so effective — and did not need his wife’s rebuke.

Illustration is a detail of “The Likeness” by Phiz.

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