A Tale of two cities

The term self-sacrifice is not commonly used in conversation; the concept however is used when a culture defines it’s heroes in society. The call for freedom of the oppressed French people during the Revolution can be seen today in the recent uprisings in the Middle East and northern Africa. As with the people of the French Revolution, the people of the Middle East and North Africa were oppressed and rose up to tear down their tyrannical leaders, putting their lives in danger for the promise of a better future for themselves and their families. In A Tale of Two Cities self-sacrifice is one of the main themes throughout the novel. Set in London and Paris, before and during the French Revolution, A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens follows the lives of the French aristocracy who are targeted by the hatred of the French peasantry. Sometimes, heroes must take the only course that makes sense in a given situation. Many of the characters throughout the novel exhibit self-sacrificial behavior, however these actions are never without  a thread of self-interest, and this demonstrates that the back-story of most heroes requires scrutiny before society lauds their acts as extraordinarily courageous.

Self-sacrifice inspired by self-interest in A Tale of Two Cities takes the form of Doctor Manette when he allowed his daughter, Lucie, to marry Charles Evremonde, who used the name Darnay when he moved to England and who was the son of the man who was responsible for the Doctor’s eighteen-year incarceration. Following the realization that Charles’ real name was Evremonde, Doctor Manette relapsed into a dreadful state of mental confusion for nine days. The episode was made even more interesting because the author does not reveal the true reason for Doctor Manette’s break-down until very near the end to the book when the doctor’s journal is read and the story of his imprisonment is exposed. The reader may, at first glance, consider the Doctor’s struggles to be the epitome of self-sacrifice. However, one could offer that the definition of a “successful” marriage in those times was one that elevated social standing, and ensured prosperity continued in the family name. Doctor Manette sacrificed his ego and sanity in letting Lucie marry Darnay, “Mr. Lorry observed that a great change had come over the Doctor, as if the golden arm uplifted there had struck him a poisoned blow.” (186) This quote shows how great an effect Lucie’s marriage had on the Doctor’s mental countenance and stability. The “golden arm” refers to Lucie’s purity as she waves goodbye to her father and friends. The phrase “struck him a poisoned blow” makes it clear to the reader that the marriage between Lucie and Darnay was a painful reality to the Doctor. However, it is clear that self-interest was at the heart of this decision. Lucie had devoted much of her young adult life to her father and had assisted him to return to sanity when he would have occasional relapses.  The Doctor could not bear living his life without Lucie at his side, but he sacrificed his dependent feelings well as his sanity so that Lucie could live happily with Charles.

Self-sacrifice with a modicum of self-interest at its core can be seen when Miss Pross struggles with Madame Defarge. Due to Madame Defarge’s hatred towards the Evremondes she has sworn to kill Charles Darnay and his family. Even though Miss Pross cannot understand French, she understands what Madame Defarge intendeds to do all too well, and risks her life by physically struggling with Defarge on the doorstep to ensure that Lucie and her family have enough time to flee France. “If those eyes of yours were bed-winches,” returned Miss Pross, “and I was an English four-poster, they shouldn’t loose a splinter of me.” (355) The quote shows how committed Miss Pross to an outcome that may cost her, her life.  This quote is a simile between Madame Defarge and Miss Pross. It is comparing Defarge to a “bed-winch”, which was an instrument used for tightening or loosening the screws of bedsteads in the 1800’s, and Miss Pross to a large four poster bed, which would be large and unmovable.  The phrase “shouldn’t loose a splinter of me” shows the reader how strong Miss Pross is in the face of danger and that she will be untouched by the process. Miss Pross knew that she had to be unmovable, for if she allowed Madame Defarge to enter the house the flight of the Manette family would have been discovered and Lucie would have been captured and killed. This may seem like a selfless act, but Miss Pross too has some self -interest behind her sacrifice. She had been Lucie’s caretaker and nurse since Lucie was a baby and was extremely devoted to her, as seen on many occasions in the novel. She risked her life to protect Lucie, because it was the only action she could take to insure that Lucie and her family would escape. She could not let Defarge past, because if Miss Pross did she would have had to live with the crushing guilt of knowing she had been the cause of Lucie’s death for the rest of her life.

The most obvious example of the potential superficiality of some instances of self-sacrifice in the novel would be the death of Sydney Carton. Carton switches places with Charles in jail, and Carton is sent to the guillotine while Charles flees France with Lucy and their family. Carton made the ultimate sacrifice to ensure the safety and freedom of Lucy, the woman he loved, and even after she was married to Darnay he was devoted to her. But it must be acknowledged that Carton had a great deal of incentive and self-interest in what seemed like an utterly selfless act. Had he done anything else, he would have had no peace and the guilt would have plagued him the rest of his days. 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." (364) This quote shows that a great change of character has come over Carton. Earlier in the novel, he was portrayed as a depressed drunkard, but he finishes as the hero of the story. The phrase "It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done;” shows this one act is greater and more powerful than anything he has ever done in his whole life. The phrase “it is a far, far better rest that I go to, than I have ever known." demonstrates that Carton knows that he has, up to that point, lived a tortuous existence, and that he faces a choice: If he allows the family to be killed, he could never live with himself, so in sacrificing his life for Charles, Carton knew that it would mean Lucie would be safe and live on in happiness, but in doing so he is saving himself pain.

Self-sacrifice branching off of self-interest in our world today can be seen in the case of suicide-bombers. When the men and boys are training and being taught the Quran, they are told that they must commit suicide in the name of Allah and the defense of Islam. They are told that if they do this they and their families will be sent straight to heaven to heaven and the young men will have 70 virgins for his pleasure in heaven. This is a great contradiction to what the Quran actually says.  In the Quran the act of suicide is a sin and that person who commits it will be sent to hell, also sins of the flesh are considered some of the worst a person can commit in Islam, as modesty of womanhood is the practice. Despite the facts contradicting the extremist's view the bombers have a great deal of self-interest to commit suicide in order to reach heaven and all it’s pleasures.

The characters In A Tale of Two Cities illustrate beautifully how in self-sacrifice there is always a thread of self-interest.  Doctor Manette sacrificed his own mental sanity for the happiness of his only daughter.  Miss Pross risked her life and lost her hearing so that Lucie and her family would have time to escape, and Sydney Carton gave up his life so that Lucie could live happily, free from the threat of the French people. All of these characters committed varying degrees of sacrifice, but all had the self interest of knowing the it would mean that the one they cared about the most was safe and happy. The author cleverly constructed the circumstances so that the hero had no other choice but self-sacrifice.  For thousands of years of recorded history, the human capacity for self-sacrifice has driven civil society forward. It is truly an instinct for good, as we have seen with the characters of A Tale of Two Cities as well as the brave people of North Africa and the Middle East who rose up recently against their cruel leaders. These rebels performed great acts of self-sacrifice through the self-interest that a brighter future would emerge for their families and along the way future generations will benefit as well. One could assert, however, that readers of this novel will have even more to contemplate going forward if they take care to truly understand the details of the narratives behind examples of self-sacrifice in today’s complex conflicts. The facts on the surface may be eclipsing other important underlying issues at play.