Dickens uses character development in A Tale of Two Cities to convey the message that acknowledging and accepting your faults leads to redemption, a process that contributes to a better world in the end.
Dickens meticulously outlines the steps it takes to achieve freedom from the past through Sydney Carton and Jarvis Lorry, who are both characters with a dark past that requires addressing. Though both men start the story off with wasted lives, by the end of their character arcs they have accepted their failures and have used them to their advantage to redeem themselves. Dickens’ uplifting message inspires readers to make something more of themselves while improving the world in the process, just as Carton and Lorry do.Dickens uses the character Jarvis Lorry and his drastic progression over the course of the novel to show that one must first acknowledge their problems before they can begin to fix them. Only once faults have been properly addressed can one then use them to their advantage. Lorry is constantly characterized as “a mere man of business” (Dickens 155) who does not concern himself with sentimental matters. As Lorry says himself to Lucie Manette soon after they first meet, “I have no feelings; I am a mere machine… I have no time for them, no chance of them” (16-17).
Lorry is too busy working at Tellson’s Bank to consider anything in life that does not revolve around numbers. At seventy-eight, Lorry is one of the oldest characters in the book and yet has nothing to show for it. During a conversation with Sydney Carton, Lorry refers to himself and his failure to live a life worth living by admitting, “there is nobody to weep for me” (241). When Carton continues the conversation by asking Lorry, “does your childhood seem far off?” Lorry responds by saying it does not, and his heart is touched with memories of when his “faults were not confirmed in him” (241). Lorry has come to the point in his character progression where he has recognized his faults, although he has yet to do anything about them. It is only when Lucie, Charles Darnay, and their daughter Little Lucie need to flee from France that he springs into action. Lorry is the one to drive the family safely out of France (278), and it is only because he learns to use his past as a benefit rather than a crutch that he is able to do so.
Previously, Dickens criticized Lorry for being too stoic and professional, but these traits are exactly what makes Lorry the perfect candidate to drive the carriage towards the safety of England. When a man on horseback stops the carriage to ask Lorry “how many to the Guillotine to-day?” Lorry acts cold, and does not reveal the secrecy surrounding the carriage passengers (278). Instead, he is calm and collected as he responds, “Fifty-two” and continues to ride off into the night as the carriage is “pursued by nothing else” (278). Had Lorry been jumpy or suspicious in any way instead of sharp and without feeling, the carriage would have been stopped and investigated, and the family would not have made it out of France. It is only because Lorry properly acknowledged where he went wrong that his past was no longer able to hurt him, and could instead be used to his advantage. Lorry’s character arc leads him to redeem himself and simultaneously save several lives in the process, a feat that is only possible to achieve because of Lorry’s faults and his acceptance of them. Sydney Carton is another charter Dickens drastically changes over the course of the book, and who manages to redeem his past by accepting his mistakes, using them to his advantage, and making the ultimate sacrifice. Carton begins the story as a man “incapable of his own help and his own happiness” (69), as well as someone the lawyer Mr.
Stryver calls a “de-vilish ill-conditioned fellow… a disagreeable fellow” (106). Carton is quickly characterized by Dickens as someone who has wasted his life and is incapable of turning himself around, instead opting to drink his problems away on numerous occasions (62)(64). Carton’s unfortunate position in life is so prominent that even Lucie Manette’s young son is able to pick up on it, telling his mother, “Poor Carton! Kiss him for me!” (163). Carton manages to become aware of his wasted potential, having a short moment of clarity after returning home from drinking with Mr. Stryver.
Carton looks outside from his terrace “and saw, for a moment… a mirage of honourable ambition, self-denial, and perseverance. In the fair city of this vision, there were… gardens in which the fruits of life hung ripening, waters of Hope that sparkled in his sight” (68). Carton’s moment of reflection marks an important progression in Carton’s character arc, and is mirrored by Lorry’s own acknowledgement of his imperfections later in the novel.
These similar moments of realization both foreshadow a foreseeable hope for the men. After coming to terms with his alcoholism and depression, Carton is able to take the same route to redemption as Lorry and use these negative traits to his advantage, no longer giving them power over his life now that he has accepted them. While interrogating John Barsad, Carton uses his previously self-destructive alcohol tolerance to intimidate the spy. “Carton drew the bottle nearer, poured out another glassful of brandy, and drank it off. He saw that the spy was fearful of his drinking… Seeing it, he poured out and drank another glassful” (233).
Rather than continuing to use his drunkenness to block out the rest of the world, Carton instead takes the same trait that hindered him in the past and uses it to his advantage, using Barsad’s fear to get the necessary information out of him. Dickens writes that “Carton’s negligent recklessness of manner came powerfully in aid of his quickness and skill” (231), showing that the same traits that made Carton seem reckless and unredeemable in the beginning of the novel now come to help Carton. Carton’s transformation is similar to Lorry’s progression throughout the book, as both men have now acknowledged their past and attempted absolution, using their faults to aid them in the process. However, Carton takes his redemption a step further than Lorry does, believing the only way to truly redeem himself is through sacrificing his life for Charles Darnay. Carton takes Darnay’s place by swapping clothes (272), and effectively saves Darnay’s life by switching roles and dying himself at the guillotine (292). Carton’s decision to trade clothes with Darnay could be viewed as rash and reckless, but it is only because of Carton’s bold decision that Darnay is alive.
At the beginning of the novel, Carton’s recklessness and hopelessness caused him to spiral into a pit of despair, but by the end Carton changes drastically just as Lorry has. While redemption for Lorry required a smaller sacrifice compared to Carton’s, both men followed the same rough guideline outlined by Dickens. They realized their mistakes, accepted them, and finally used them to their advantage in order to redeem themselves.
The actions of both Carton and Lorry show that the road to redemption is different for everyone, but it always starts with a conscious effort to change for the better. Using both Sydney Carton and Mr. Lorry as characters who change immensely throughout A Tale of Two Cities by redeeming their past errors, Dickens is sending a message to his audience that is universal and timeless: bettering yourself by making amends with past mistakes in turn improves the world as a whole. Dickens clearly outlines the steps it takes to redeem oneself in an attempt to inspire his audience to follow in Carton and Lorry’s footsteps.
All that it takes is first to acknowledge where one went wrong, then continuing by embracing those faults to become a person worthy of forgiveness. This step-by-step guideline to redemption is Dickens’ way of contributing to the betterment of the world as a whole, slowly but surely starting with one person at a time— after all, the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.