A Tale of Two Cities
What’s Up With the Ending?
Well, Sydney Carton dies. In fact, Sydney Carton and fifty-one other people die. In our first up-close encounter with la guillotine, we get front-row seats as hoards of "patriots" flock to the executions. It’s as lively as a county fair.
Of course, Dickens makes it pretty clear that none of these executions are justified. Intoxicated by the power that violence can bestow on its perpetrators, the citizens of the new French Republic have taken that power to extremes: Charles Evrémonde, son of a bad aristocrat, is slated to die. Along with him, however, is a poor seamstress, a woman of no social importance and no real consequence. Her death, perhaps even more than the death of Sydney Carton, exemplifies the tragic excess of the revolutionary fervor. Her brave attempts to justify the senseless news of her execution as a possible good for the future of the new Republic are guaranteed to tug on your heart-strings. (Go ahead! Read her speech. It’s in Chapter Fifteen of Volume III.)
The real show-stopper, however, is Sydney Carton. He goes to his death murmuring the words of Christ, "I am the Resurrection and the Life" (3.15.43). The ending of A Tale of Two Cities seems charted on the road to tragedy. There’s really no way to pull a few smiles out of this one – or is there?
Dickens makes a rather strange and fascinating move in the last paragraphs of his novel. He spends some time dwelling on what Sydney Carton would have said if he could have expressed his last thoughts on paper. (Of course, true to the journalistic style of this novel in general, Dickens is careful to point out that this could have happened: there are documented accounts of other people’s thoughts being transcribed before their beheadings!) It’s a funny move for several reasons:
- Carton isn’t really given to spouting his feelings publicly.
- Carton’s musings reflect a complete change of heart (and even a complete change of character) when compared to his earlier views.
Bravely declaring that his death is a "far, far better thing" than he’s ever done, Carton imagines a happy future rising out of the ashes of his present strife (3.15.50). In other words, Dickens can’t think of a way to bring about a realistic happy ending in the present. The French Revolution has become too chaotic, its goals too compromised to imagine any good can immediately come from them. Instead, Darnay envisions future generations – much like the generations who read and are reading A Tale of Two Cities today. His legacy becomes our heritage, Dickens suggests. It’s a neat trick – and an effective one.