Tuesday, February 12, 2013

A Tale of Two Cities - Sydney Carton "The Jackal"

John Martin Harvey as Sydney Carton in 'The Only Way' (1899)
 I am the first to admit that I have mixed feelings about Charles Dickens.  He certainly had his dark sides and I find his writing to be uneven--I grew up on Oliver Twist and David Copperfield and Pickwick Papers, loathed Hard Times, enjoyed Nicholas Nickleby and Little Dorrit and Bleak House, and am now reading A Tale of Two Cities.  I like it, very much in fact, I particularly liked this section I read last night about Sydney Carton, from Book II, Chapter 5, "The Jackal"
Waste forces within him. and a desert all around, this man stood still on his way across a silent terrace, and saw for a moment, lying in the wilderness before him, a mirage of honourable ambition, self-denial, and perseverance. In the fair city of this vision, there were airy galleries from which the loves and graces looked upon him, gardens in which the fruits of life hung ripening, waters of Hope that sparkled in his sight. A moment, and it was gone. Climbing to a high chamber in a well of houses, he threw himself down in his clothes on a neglected bed, and its pillow was wet with wasted tears.
Sadly, sadly, the sun rose; it rose upon no sadder sight than the man of good abilities and good emotions, incapable of their directed exercise, incapable of his own help and his own happiness, sensible of the blight on him, and resigning himself to let it eat him away.
The image Dickens paints of the dissolute Sydney Carton, tormented by the knowledge that he has talents that he cannot muster the will to utilize.  My heart just about broke reading this passage. It's one thing to describe a reprobate, it's another to instill in that description an understanding of the despair of the man. For once, Dickens didn't pass judgement and become a scold.  He simply let the compassion have the day, and for that I will forgive much.


  1. I too have a mixed relationship with Dickens, but A Tale of Two Cities is not only my favorite of his books, but also one of my favorite novels of all times. Enjoy!

  2. Apart from A Christmas Carol, the Pickwick Papers and Oliver Twist, this is my favourite DIckens too.

  3. What a fine passage! Like you, I am most in awe of an author (Dickens included) at a moment like this of such compassionate understanding--which tends to enlarge our own. Thanks for this!

  4. I thought that Dickens's portrait of Sydney Carton was brilliant?

    Have you gotten to the end of this book? Without giving anything away Carton rises to towering moral heights.

    I wrote about it here:


    Please do not my post if you have not finished the book as I give a lot away.

    1. No, I'm still early in the book, and that's why I couldn't read your post about the book. I didn't want spoilers! But, I intend to after I finish the book--then we can discuss :)