© 2016 Shmoop University, Inc. All rights reserved.
A Tale of Two Cities
by Charles Dickens
Sydney Carton Timeline and Summary
Sydney Carton is orphaned as a young boy. He spends his schooldays writing other people’s papers. He spends his adult life doing all of Stryver’s legal work. We first meet him at Charles Darnay’s trial, where he convinces the jury that he looks exactly like Darnay. The jury acquits Darnay based upon this. In the courtroom, Carton points out that Lucie is fainting. How does he notice before anyone else? By this point, the case is pretty much over. Carton’s appearance has introduced too much doubt into the trial. Carton, who still seems pretty cynical about the justice system, wants to get out of the general area of the court. He asks Darnay to come out to dinner with him. Darnay can’t seem to break through Carton’s cynicism. And Carton’s already seen how Darnay looks at Lucie. In fact, just because Carton seems to like rubbing salt in his own wounds, he gets Darnay to propose a toast to "Miss Manette!" After sharing a drink or two together, Carton’s pretty sure he doesn’t like Darnay. Darnay sure doesn’t like Carton. Perhaps they might even get into blows over a girl… until, of course, Darnay realizes that Carton has just saved his life. Before they part, however, Darnay wants to know why Carton seems so angry and depressed. Muttering that he’s a "disappointed drudge," Carton says that he’s been worth nothing all this life. As Darnay leaves, Carton engages in a little bit of existential self-questioning. Why hasn’t he been able to change his own circumstances in life? Why isn’t he ever able to change his ways or become a better human being? Tough questions. And Carton’s got no answers. Next, we see Carton working for Stryver. Carton can’t stand the fact that Stryver’s a big jerk. Nonetheless, he spends most of his nights solving Stryver’s cases for him. Stryver, meanwhile, gets very, very drunk and mumbles to himself. As Stryver pours himself another drink, he wants Carton to drink to the "pretty witness" who came to court today. Carton gulps for a second, and then he mutters some unpleasant things about Lucie. Stryver’s taken aback. He was sure he caught Carton staring at Lucie for most of the day. Carton insists that Lucie means nothing to him. Nothing. Seriously. In the months that follow, Carton visits the Manette house often. One night, Stryver has a confession: he has decided to marry. Carton knows Stryver pretty well. He asks if the woman has money. Stryver takes Carton to task for being such a cynic. He’s actually fallen in love this time. In fact, Stryver’s a bit worried that Carton won’t like his choice of a bride. Once upon a time, Carton spoke slightingly of the woman whom Stryver has decided to make the happiest woman on earth. Could Stryver mean… Yes. Stryver means to marry Lucie. Luckily, that doesn’t work out too well. One day, Carton finds Lucie alone. She asks him what the matter is. He responds that his life is miserable and hopeless. She asks why he can’t change. Carton doesn’t answer directly. See, Carton knows that Lucie couldn’t love a man like him. In fact, that’s exactly what he tells her. Dismayed, Lucie doesn’t know what to say. Sure, she feels badly for Carton. She evens cares about him. But the saddest thing in this whole deal is that he’s right—and they both know it. True to her good-natured self, though, Lucie asks if there’s anything that she can do to help him without promising to love him. Carton says that if anyone could have reformed him, she could have. Apparently, Carton just dropped by to unburden himself… sort of like a very, very painful self-help session. Distraught, Lucie asks again if there’s no way that she could be a force for good in his life. Carton seems to have moved past this, however. He begs her to keep this conversation confidential; it’s the last time he’ll ever confide in anyone, and he’d like to remember that it ended well. Seeing that Lucie seems upset, he entreats her not to be troubled by his sorrows. More than anything, he wants her to be happy. In fact, he’s so committed to her happiness that he begs her to remember (once she gets married) that he would give his own life to keep those whom she loves safe. Bidding Lucie farewell, Carton rushes out the door. The first person to visit Lucie and Darnay after they get married is Sydney Carton. Carton makes a rather strange request: he wants to be Darnay’s friend. More specifically, he wants to be able to pop over to their house without any warning, just like an old family friend would. Darnay doesn’t seem especially inclined to agree, but Carton reminds him of how he saved Darnay’s life in court. Darnay agrees to be friends. In the years that follow, Carton becomes an uncle to the Darnays's children. When Darnay is jailed in France, Carton comes over to help. He meets with John Barsad, a spy, and convinces him to allow Carton to enter the prison. He also buys a potion from a chemist. He visits the Defarges, where he overhears Madame Defarge’s plan to kill the entire family. Telling Mr. Lorry of her plan, he persuades Mr. Lorry to get the Manettes to leave town. He’s got a pressing request for Darnay: he doesn’t have time to explain why he’s asking for the things he needs. Startled, Darnay does what Carton asks. They change boots, hair-ties, and shirts. Darnay begins to understand Carton’s plan, but he’s certain that it won’t work. Speaking rapidly, Carton asks Darnay to sit down and write a letter that he’ll dictate. Darnay complies. Carton tells him to write an unaddressed letter saying that the time has come for him to make good on the promise he once gave. He knows that the reader won’t forget the promise. He wants her to be assured that he’s glad that his time has come. Puzzled, Darnay stops writing. He thinks he smells a strange vapor. He starts to rip the bottle out of Carton’s hand, but Carton’s too quick for him. Darnay slumps to the ground, drugged. Carton calls Barsad, who drags Charles out of the jail. They place Charles on a stretcher, and Barsad carries him away. At two, a jailer comes into the room and calls for Evrémonde. Carton follows him. He gets into a line with fifty-one other prisoners, all of whom are scheduled to die. As the guillotine begins to crash, the audience counts the number of heads that roll to the ground. Scared, the little seamstress clings to Carton. She thinks that he’s an angel sent to be with her in her time of trouble. He comforts her, telling her that she’s going to a place with no suffering. She’ll be able to be with her family there. They kiss, and she steps up onto the guillotine before Carton. The audience counts to twenty-two. Carton murmurs the words of Christ, "I am the Resurrection and the Life…" as he steps onto the platform. The audience counts to twenty-three. Afterwards, the narrator tells us what Carton was thinking as he walked to the guillotine: He foresees a time when vengeance in France will end. He sees a nation rising out of the blood and ashes of this time, a nation stronger and better for the struggles it has had to endure. He sees the Manettes in the future, with a child that bears his name. He imagines the stories that they’ll tell of a man who gave his life for their happiness. He sees his own name, cleared of all the stains he’s placed on it, living again through Lucie’s son. Carton reflects that this action is perhaps the best one that he’s ever taken.