I have read A Tale of Two Cities at least eight times now. Each time, I cry. Yes, each time. Why, I wonder, does Charles Dickens’ writing have this effect on me?
I surprised myself today. As I was discussing the end of A Tale of Two Cities with my high-school juniors, we reviewed how Sydney Carton managed to switch places with Darnay. We had been discussing what he could represent, noting that Dickens himself calls Carton “Advocate” rather than lawyer or defender in the final chapters. I reread two scenes related to Sydney Carton.
Here I was reading aloud, reading a most poignant moment where the young unnamed seamstress asks to hold Carton’s hand before they journey to the tumbrils and then La Guillotine. She was sure she was addressing Darnay, the prisoner she knew the year before in the cruelest of prisons, La Force—until the critical moment when she gazes up into his face. It was then she saw it was Carton, a complete stranger. But she knew. She knew he was there to save the lives of Darnay, Lucie, and little Lucie, who were escaping brutal Paris at that very moment.
After we hear of the swift demise of our villainess Madame Defarge, Charles Dickens returns to the hapless pair. Carton and the little seamstress are now traveling in the last tumbril, he the supposed celebrity execution of the day. But they are oblivious. He holds her hand, looking at her and she at him. In their final moments ascending the scaffold, she thanks him, saying,
“‘But for you dear stranger, I should not be so composed, for I am naturally a poor little thing, faint of heart, nor should I have been able to raise my thoughts to Him who was put to death, that we might have hope and comfort here today. I think you were sent to me by Heaven.’
‘Or you to me,’ says Sydney Carton. ‘Keep your eyes upon me, dear child, and mind no other object.’
‘I mind nothing while I hold your hand. I shall mind nothing when I let it go, if they are rapid’…
The two stand in the fast-thinning throng of victims, but they speak as if they were alone. Eye to eye, voice to voice, hand to hand, heart to heart…
‘You comfort me so much! I am so ignorant. Am I to kiss you now? Is the moment come?’
She kisses his lips, he kisses hers; they solemnly bless each other. The spare hand does not tremble as he releases it; nothing worse than a sweet, bright constancy is in the patient face. She goes next before him—is gone…”
As I read aloud today, I began to tear up and my voice wavered. My class noticed of course. I promptly apologized for my emotion, stating that this scene simply undoes me. I have read this novel at least eight times now. Each time, I cry. Yes, each time. Each time, I think to myself, “I know what’s coming. I won’t cry today.” My classes laugh it off, I dab at my eyes, and a few brave souls admit to being overcome when they read it alone at home the night before.
At the end of the school day, however, I began to ponder why Dickens’ writing has that effect on me. He’s quite guilty of sentimentality at times. Consider when Miss Pross accosts her missing brother with the greatest emotion in a solemn tavern in Paris. Or in a great display of emotion, Mr. Cruncher berates his wife for her display of prayerful emotion. Or think of when Lucie faints after her husband is taken away and Carton carries her to the carriage while young Lucie whispers “I think you will do something to help mamma, something to save papa! O, look at her, dear Carton! Can you, of all the people who love her, bear to see her so?” Oh yes, the scene oozes sappiness and hyperbole.
Perhaps I cry because of the pathos of the moment. Maybe it’s because Dickens has elevated this lowliest of sinners to a place of sacrifice from the greatest fidelity of an unselfish love. No one can deny the beauty of humane themes. Yet I’m hesitant.
Dare I say, I think it’s the beauty of the scene captured in the beauty of words. Not overdone in this instant, but perfectly balanced with the image of a formerly wicked man being the redemption, the “prophetic” coming to life before our eyes, saving the generations of every Darnay and Manette to come. It took a full novel to come to this scene of import, and I think that—yes, that is the moment the heart, my heart, recognizes the beauty in the depth of this storyteller’s words.
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Editor’s Note: The featured image is an illustration of Sydney Carton and the seamstress “in the fast-thinning throng of victims” by John McLenan (1827-1865), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.