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The character Sydney Carton in Charles’ Dickens’ novel, A Tale of Two Cities—much like Dickens’ novel itself—is a study in opposites. Dissolute, drunken wretch who cares for no man on one hand; Steadfast, loyal friend who makes great sacrifices to uphold moral beliefs and to support those he loves best on the other. The novel and the character are studies in ethics and justice and raise some important questions: Can a man who is morally bankrupt be redeemed by a single act? And who is the real Sydney Carton?
Set in 18th century France during the revolution, a six-minute summary of this complex book can be seen below.
The pertinent facts related to Sydney Carter are as follows. He is an law associate and early on in the novel we meet him when he is asked to stand up in a court to demonstrate that he bears a striking resemblance to the accused. As a result, the accused—a French aristocrat named Charles Darnay—is found innocent. The story then follows Darnay’s involvement with a young lady names Lucy who he marries, and Carton’s journey of drinking and despair as he loves Lucy from afar. It is impossible to like the character of Carton. He plays the worst version of himself at all times, cynical and depressed even when he is trying to be sociable. That he loves Lucy however we can have no doubt. At the end of the novel, the revolution in France is in full swing, and Charles Darnay has been imprisoned and sentenced to the guillotine. Carton finds a way to smuggle Lucy and her family out of France, and is able to get into the Bastille to take Darnay’s place in prison, and ultimately on the guillotine.
What are the ethical considerations here?
Carton is intriguing because of the contrasting ethical approaches he takes to his life. At first glance, he appears to have a teleological outlook: he doesn’t seem to care what he does or how he acts, and instead the consequences of his actions are important – he supports the outcome desired for the defense by demonstrating that the witness who identified Darnay as a traitor might be mistaken; he gives his life so that the outcome for Lucy and Darnay and their family can be positive. At the same time however, this doesn’t right entirely true. After all, one could argue that Carton was only doing his duty by standing up in court to show a witness was unreliable, he was only doing his perceived duty to the family he loved by finding a way for them to go free and live happily ever after. Looked at this way, Darnay had more of a deontological approach.
There’s more. From Kant’s perspective, it could be argued that Carton was considering his own best interests by taking Darnay’s place on the guillotine. After all, it was unlikely that Lucy would ever repay his affection or that he would ever be more to her if he lived and Darnay died. By sacrificing himself, he would live on in Lucy’s memory and have her eternal gratitude. According to Kant, the fact that he would benefit from this action-as far fetched as that might seem to a rational being-is enough for his action to be considered suspect and less than ethical.
Aristotle’s virtue ethics also come into play. Carton has clearly identified his own values, and has prioritized them. His moral values, whilst few, are put ahead of his non-moral values at the end of this story.
Sydney Carton is a complex character. One question that has recurred for me is can a man who is morally bankrupt be redeemed by a single act? I think that for Sydney Carton, the answer is yes. I address that and a couple of other thoughts in the video below (Draft Version…needs Tweaking).
So who is the real Sydney Carton? He’s maybe the perfect ethical figure: A tormented soul who finds redemption doing what he considers to be his duty, and that also results in the greatest good for the greatest number of people.
Duty and consequences. A tale of two ethical systems