illustration of a guillotine

A Tale of Two Cities

by Charles Dickens

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How does this quote from A Tale of Two Cities present Carton's last act as selfish?

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This quote from Charles Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities could be said to represent Carton's last act as selfish in that the focus is on him and his actions. This impression is reinforced by the last line, which hints at Carton's seeking rest in death from a world in which he has been a failure.

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In Charles Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities, Sydney Carton's last act could be viewed as selfish. Just as he ascends to the guillotine, he says,

It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.

Sydney Carton is a man of contradictions. He is intelligent and good-looking, but he squanders his natural talents away in laziness and drinking. He barely can hold onto his job, and he applies himself to virtually nothing other than getting drunk. Yet when he meets Lucie Manette, he is entranced by her beauty, her innocence, and her goodness. He is saddened to hear her history and that of her father. He forms an attachment to her that is very one-sided because he never really brings himself to declare his feelings to her. From her side, Sydney makes Lucie uncomfortable.

Her true feelings are for Sydney’s doppelganger, Charles Darnay. By taking Darnay’s place at the end of the book, Sydney enables Darnay to live so that he and Lucie can be together. This is an act of selflessness. However, one could read it possibly as an act of selfishness in that Sydney is tired of his unsavory ways and his meaningless and empty life. He has no goals, no aspirations, and no raison d’etre. By giving up his life for another, essentially sacrificing himself for Darnay and indirectly for Lucie, he can finally do one noble thing and that makes him feel that he has finally accomplished something grand. This desire to leave the world having accomplished something other than getting drunk could be viewed as a selfish act on his part.

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Sydney Carton, a bitter alcoholic, is a complex, deeply anguished character. Critics have debated whether his last act is selfish or selfless.

Admittedly, on the surface, it is nothing but heroic and selfless to take the place of another person who is about to be executed and to do it to help the woman you love. Carton makes the ultimate sacrifice to save others. Many have thus seen him as a Christ figure, which is an idea Dickens reinforces in the novel.

At the same time, Carton spends much of his life feeling worthless. Although brilliant, he believes he has wasted his life. His inner torments cause him to be self-absorbed, creating a vicious cycle, as his dwelling on his misery only makes it worse. He wanders the streets at night (much as Dickens did) and states,

I am like one who died young.

If he already feels that he has died, some have argued, then it was perhaps not such a great sacrifice for him to take Darnay's place. It could simply be that he uses this opportunity to save Darnay as a way to selfishly escape from the responsibility of life while looking heroic. This is reinforced by the quote. While famous and stirring, the focus of it is on himself and what he is doing. The four "I" statements pile up. On the other hand, it is hard not to be deeply moved by Carton's deed.

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There can be no doubt that Sydney Carton's last act on earth is a selfless one. By taking the place of Charles Darnay—a man he closely resembles—at the guillotine, he is making an extraordinary act of self-sacrifice. That he is doing this primarily for the sake of Lucie Manette only enhances our initial estimation of his actions.

At the same time, the language that Carton uses in relation to those actions hints at more selfish motivations. To be sure, these motivations do not replace the selfless ones; they complement them, demonstrating once again the complexity of this character. When Carton says that “it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known” he is indicating that he is tired with life and no longer wishes to live it.

Carton's life has largely been one of failure, disappointment, and disillusion. To take the place of Darnay at the guillotine, as well as give that life a justification that it would never otherwise have had, allows Carton to escape from an existence that he has never truly enjoyed or appreciated. Tired of life, Carton seeks rest—the kind of rest that can only come with the sleep of death.

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This quote is found at the end of A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, and it is part of a longer speech which is "spoken" by Sidney Carton. Carton, of course, has traded places with Charles Darnay because of his selfless (but unrequited) love for Lucie Darnay. While he does not actually speak these words aloud, this entire speech is what he would have said if he had been able to speak his thoughts immediately before he is executed. The question is whether Carton's redemption and rest were the motive for or the consequence of this grand act.

It is true that this quote is "all about him," so to speak, and that can certainly be seen as being selfish. Carton also uses language which can be called superlative--"far, far better" and "ever"--and he repeats it, which can also be seen as self-aggrandizing. Carton has not done anything important or significant with his life, and one might see this last act not as a selfless demonstration of love but as an opportunity for him to find some redemption and peace at the end of his own wasted life.

That may all be true, but it does not take into account his genuine, selfless love for Lucie. What makes this act selfish or self-less is what the reader believes Carton's motive was when he died in place of Darnay. If one believes that he was motivated primarily by a pure love for Lucie, this was not a selfish act; if one believes that he was motivated primarily by the need or desire for his own redemption, this was, indeed, a totally selfish act.

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