In A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens, the character of Sydney Carton undergoes a journey. His journey is as much figurative as it is literal. That is, it is as much shown outside himself as it is shown inside him. Though his character may at first seem only a minor one in the story when compared to the long chapters devoted to Lucie Darnay and Charles Darnay, the journey Sydney travels throughout the course of the novel proves absolutely vital to the story.
Sydney Carton is first introduced to us when he discovers the startling fact that he resembles Charles Darnay. In fact, the two look so similar to each other that it is almost impossible to tell them apart. Their only difference lies in their character and life style; and in that they couldn’t be more opposite. Sydney Carton is man to whom life had thrown every opportunity and fortune- and yet he had wasted it. Sydney is a lazy man who drinks too much and hides from himself. When he sees the integrity of the upright and heroic Darnay, Sydney is forced to see himself in the true light of what he might have been. This journey starts out with the coincidence of the meeting of Darney and Carton but immediately triggers the inward journey of Carton into his own soul.
Carton struggles with himself for a bit, and right before the happy wedding of Lucie Manette and Charles Darnay he confesses his love to Lucie. This is a drastic change from the apathy of his character in the beginning, and yet still shows no real change of heart. Carton still remains in his old habits he is convinced he can never change, and then seems to fall out of the picture entirely, as we trace the happy lives of Charles Lucie and their children, and the growing unrest of the beginning of the French Revolution.
When Charles Darnay is forced to go to Paris and it becomes apparent he may be murdered there by means of the infamous guillotine, Sydney travels alone to Paris. This is a physical journey as well as a spiritual; going both to a new and dangerous place in his heart and in the world itself. When Sydney arrives in Paris he makes careful plans to switch places with Darnay. This switch is very much a metaphor for the internal switch of character between Sydney and Darnay. Sydney is finally stepping up to be the man he always saw in Darnay and finally now sees in himself. The final step in the journey comes when Sydney is beheaded. The words he speaks with his final breath sums up the very theme of the book;
“A little time ago, none in all the world. But somebody will weep for me now. And that knowledge redeems a worthless life. Worthless but for this final moment, which makes it all worthwhile. It is a far, far better thing I do, than I have ever done. It is a far, far better rest I go to, than I have ever known.”
The redemption of life in death is the central theme of A Tale of Two Cities. Although it is shown in many places throughout the book, redemption is best characterized by the life of Sydney Carton. The journey of a worthless man becoming a man willing to take up his cross and “lay down his life for his brother” (1 john 3:16) is one that shows an infinite grace and hope which is deeply rooted in the Christian principles that were central to much of what England of the 1800’s accepted as truth. Indeed, in the last chapter of the book, Sydney rises to a metaphor of an almost Christ-like figure, and secures a hope for a happy life for the Darnay’s in his death. The internal and physical journeys of Sydney Carton characterize the ultimate redemption of a lost life, and so carry the central theme of A Tale of Two Cities.