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In most novels, it’s easy to pick the hero. Yet, in A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens presents readers with two very different men, Charles Darnay and Sydney Carton, who each could be pointed to as the hero of the novel.
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Defining a Hero
One thing to do before you start thinking about the two characters is to define what it means to be hero. Is a hero someone who shows exceptional bravery during a time of crisis? Is a hero someone who finds a way to do the right thing in difficult circumstances? Is a hero made through a single defining event or through years of good works? It’s good to have an idea of what you think it takes to be a hero before analyzing Dickens’ characters.
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Charles Darnay seems to be the epitome of a hero. He is a noble man by birth who strives to live that virtue. Throughout the novel, he is steadfast in adhering to the qualities of honor and integrity. He hates the social system that causes some people to be valued because they are nobility, while the “lower" levels of society are considered expendable. Darnay has gone so far as to distance himself from his birthright in France and begin a new life in England. He is the obvious companion for Lucie Manette, who is the female embodiment of these same attributes. During the novel, Darnay must return to France in an attempt to right the wrongs his family has done. This act causes his imprisonment and puts his life in mortal danger.
Throughout the novel, Darnay plots a virtuous course, from which he does not swerve. He is a good husband, father, and son-in-law. These unfaltering qualities lead many people to see his character as the hero of the book, arguing that his heroism is not momentary or defined by a single act. It is something he works at every day.
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On the other hand, many readers tend to view Sydney Carton as the hero of the novel because his transformation is so marked and dramatic. For the first part of the book, Carton is best described as self-destructive. He is a heavy drinker who seems to care about no one, not even himself. His transformation begins when he develops unexpected feelings for Lucie Manette. It is his pure and unselfish love for her, a love he does not expect her to be able to reciprocate, that allows him to sacrifice his life so that she may be happy. Though he continues to view himself as being unworthy of her, he is able to accomplish what he views as a valuable act through his willingness to offer himself in place of Darnay on the day of his execution. In this way, the life that Carton had defined as being contemptible and useless becomes meaningful. He is reborn from being selfish to selfless, showing that every man has the ability to rise above the darkness within him and embrace his essential worth. This idea is best stated in the quote given as Carton waits for his execution: “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest I go to than I have ever known."