illustration of a guillotine

A Tale of Two Cities

by Charles Dickens

Start Free Trial

Why is Sydney Carton, despite his brilliance, content to remain Stryver's employee?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In Chapter 5 of Book the Second of A Tale of Two Cities, it is a dissipated Sydney Carton, the "jackal" who allows himself to be exploited by the lion, C.J.Stryver. In Victorian times, alchoholism was considered a character flaw rather than a disease, so it would seem that Carton's weakness is his drinking.  But, it seems that this drinking comes from his disappointment in himself that he is too submissive.  Even when he was in law school, Carton did the work of others and neglected his own. While Carton complains of his luck, Stryver, much like Brutus's friend Cassius in Julius Caesar,  chastises Carton for failing to create his own fate. Further, Stryver recognizes the personality weaknesses in Sydney Carton:

“the old seesaw Sydney. Up one minute‚ and down the next; now in spirits‚ and now in despondency!”

Apparently, Carton lacks the self-confidence of Stryver, who "shoulders" his way through life, by exploiting others and by literally pushing his competitors out of the way.  Carton is not content with himself; he knows that he could be more, but for whatever reasons, he lacks either the drive or the real desire to be in a position such as Stryver.  Perhaps he is too meek, perhaps he is not secure enough with his talents.  But, for whatever reason Sydney Carton has not been successful and dynamic.  Dickens writes that he has "waste forces within him, and a desert all around him."  But, briefly, there is "a mirage of honourable ambition, self-denial, and perseverance."  As he lies down in his "neglected bed," Sydney Carton sheds "wasted tears" for what he knows he could have been if he had been stronger and more driven.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Despite Sydney's brilliance in A Tale of Two Cities, he seems content to remain the employee of Stryver. How do you explain this?

Sydney Carton's choice of employment stems from his personality and the life that he has led.  Dickens doesn't give us much background at all as to his past life, but whatever is was, it has led him to his current position where he drinks heavily and is "a disappointing drudge... [who cares] for no man on earth, and no man cares for [him]."  He has no ambition to do anything, so he gets by as best as possible.  He also describes himself as a man who has always done things for others and never for himself (Chapter-The Jackal).

When he speaks with Lucy in the chapter titled "The Fellow of No Delicacy", he tells her that all his hope in life has died.  He had a glimmer of hope upon meeting her, but he realizes he is not good enough for her, so instead he confesses his love for her and then asks her to keep it secret forever and to just think about him tenderly every once in a while.

Carton has a phlegmatic personality that won't allow him to pass beyond his sullen and drunken state.  Ironically, he is the one who in a spurt of ambition and heroism, saves Lucy, Darnay, and their family in the end. Throughout the novel he serves as the alter-ego for Darnay.  For more on his charcter, check out the link below

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Despite Sydney's brilliance in A Tale of Two Cities, he seems content to remain the employee of Stryver. How do you explain this?

Sydney Carton is in his forties by the time we meet him in the book, and we know nothing about him up to this point. His brilliant legal mind is overshadowed by his alcoholism. He has no purpose or goals in life and has become a cynic who describes himself as "a dissolute dog who has never done any good and never will." He helps Stryver win cases and climb the ladder to success, refusing to go on his own. Sydney says he's "incapable of all the higher and better flights of men", indicating the loss of his self-esteem.

The only way Sydney feels he can redeem himself is by giving Lucie the gift of her family. His secret love for her convinces him to finally find meaning in his life by taking Darnay's place on the guillotine.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In spite of Sydney's brilliance why is he content to remain the employee of Mr. Stryver?

Sydney Carton is a disappointed idealist.  After the trial of Charles Darnay in which he has saved Darnay from the charge of treason by reason of questionable doubt as to his having been the man whom Roger Cly and John Basard identified, Mr. Lorry speaks about having to "think of the House more than ourselves."  But, when Carton agrees, Mr. Lorry, somewhat offended, replies,

...If you'll excuse me, as very much your elder, for saying so, I really don't know that it is your business."

"Business!  Bless you, I have no business," said Mr. Carton.

"It's a pity you have not, sir."

"I think so too."

Then, when Mr. Lorry suggests he should attend to it if he were to have business, Mr. Carton exclaims, "Lord love you, no!--I shouldn't."  At this show of indifference, Mr. Lorry is upset, and departs.  But, since Charles Darnay feels weak, Carton takes him to a tavern where he can dine while Sydney drinks.and speaks in a "half-insolent manner."  As Darnay takes leave of him, Carton tells his double, "I am a disappointing drudge."  And, after Darnay is gone, Mr. Carton berates himself while looking into a mirror,

"Do you particularly like the man?....Ah, confound you!  What change you have made in yourself!  A good reason for taking to a man that he shows you what you have fallen away from, and what you might have been!

Then, Carton, who is an alcoholic--merely a character flaw in Victorian times--drinks himself into a stupor and passes out.

Sydney Carton, "idlest and most unpromising of men, was Stryver's great ally."  Sydney is used by Stryver to sift through the briefs and provide Stryver the important information.  Carton allows this condition of exploitation because he belives that he is not quite worthy of success, instead considering himself an unlucky fellow and one that is destined to be used.  Much like a youth, Carton remains too idealistic, and cannot, therefore, imagine himself ever able to achieve such a high standard as the one for which he has set himself.  


Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Despite Sydney's brilliance in "A Tale of Two Cities", he seems content to remain the employee of Stryver. How do you explain this?

Sydney's lack of ambition as well as his coarse manners and alcoholism which make any ambitions he may have ever had dubious, are the reason he is content to remain an employee of Stryver.  There Sydney can work on what interests him, and drink away the rest of his time.  He does not have the organization, drive, and work ethic to run his own business.  The partnership between Stryver and Carton is good for both of them.  Styver does not have the depth or intelligence of Carton, and Carton does not have the busness sense and stability of Stryver.  Their law firm needs both of them to survive. Sydney's lack of ambition and his alcoholism are also the elements of his character from which he needs to be redeemed.  He finds the redemption in his love for Lucy and his willingness to die to give her happiness (the safe return of Darney from prison.)

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Last Updated on