On an unspecified date in December 1793 is set one of literature’s immortal execution scenes, when ne’er-do-well Sydney Carton heroically goes to the guillotine in the place of his aristocratic doppleganger Charles Darnay at the climax of A Tale of Two Cities.
The dissolute, tormented Carton is the respectable Darnay’s literary dark twin, whose appearance he also happens to strikingly resemble. Driven by an unrequited love for Darnay’s wife, who stands in danger not only of losing her husband but of following him to the scaffold, Carton contrives to switch places with the doomed noble.
While those saved by his sacrifice flee for England, Carton goes to the guillotine in a batch of 52 condemned prisoners,* one of them a sweet and frightened girl he comforts tenderly.
His prophetic thoughts as he awaits the blade form the conclusion of the novel, and the last sentence ranks among literature’s most recognizable lines.
“I see that I hold a sanctuary in their hearts, and in the hearts of their descendants, generations hence. I see her, an old woman, weeping for me on the anniversary of this day. I see her and her husband, their course done, lying side by side in their last earthly bed, and I know that each was not more honoured and held sacred in the other’s soul, than I was in the souls of both.
“I see that child who lay upon her bosom and who bore my name, a man winning his way up in that path of life which once was mine. I see him winning it so well, that my name is made illustrious there by the light of his. I see the blots I threw upon it, faded away. I see him, fore-most of just judges and honoured men, bringing a boy of my name, with a forehead that I know and golden hair, to this place — then fair to look upon, with not a trace of this day’s disfigurement — and I hear him tell the child my story, with a tender and a faltering voice.
“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.”
* Never one for understatement, Dickens crowds his mass execution tableau with far too many extras. “The Terror” is usually dated from September 1793 through July 1794, but only during its bloodiest last two months would so many as 52 have been guillotined together; at the time of Carton’s execution, half as many would have constituted a large group.