The Hanged Man XII Sydney Carton
A Tale of Two Cities
As seen in the previous Justice card, Dickens' solution for society's injustices was - increasingly - a personal one. This shift from outward crusader to something both more simple and complex, something internal and almost intangible, coincided with his involvement with Ellen Ternan. This is also when A Tale of Two Cities was written, often considered one of two historical novels written by Dickens yet, truth be told, almost all Dickens' work is set in the near past, the late Regency of his youth.
In Sydney Carton we see a man disillusioned, dissatisfied, dissipated. A man boxed in by his own free-wheeling ways. His cleverness, his wit - even his charm - exceed that of any other character in the novel, yet he squanders his life in dissolute self-indulgence. He is a romantic figure without love. As a lawyer and as a type he shares DNA with Eugene Wrayburn – two characters unimaginable in the early works of Boz, especially as hero. But by the late 1850s, Dickens was no longer the literary boy wonder assailing society and its ills – rather, he was a respected middle-class middle-aged man, disaffected with his private life and disappointed within himself.
In Lucie Manette we may clearly see Ellen Ternan, if only in outline. Charles Darnay is Charles Dickens, if Charles Dickens were a Frenchman. As an Englishman he is Sydney Carton – Sydney means “side island”, indicating both the British Isles and Dickens' isolation – unable to be with the woman he loves. Dickens was a Francophile, and the older he grew, the more he came to love the people of France and their culture. Once, when speaking to an English woman about the capacity of the French to talk frankly about adult matters such as sex, he was told by the woman – evidently of the Miss Pross type – that surely he had misspoken and would he please recant and desist. When Dickens proceeded to assert how the English refused to countenance the simplest facts of life, the woman abruptly fainted. In France, a public figure could indulge in a mistress without jeopardizing his standing - not so in England, where the least suggestion Dickens' involvement with Nelly even existed let alone was anything but honourable meant social and commercial suicide.
The Hanged Man card, then, is a tale of two Dickens. Faced with these choices - live as Charles Darnay did, with the love of his life in exile, or sacrifice himself as surely as Sydney Carton before public tribunal and guillotine – Charles Dickens, for 13 years, managed a third way. He set up Nelly Ternan in France and, from his home at Gad's Hill in Kent, divided his time between England and the continent. Dickens' solution was to straddle two horses, living in the interstices or in a sense outside the law; here, Nelly's middle name - Lawless - takes on added connotation.
In true Dickens fashion, the author breaks the first rules of literary style and sentence structure in A Tale of Two Cities's opening lines:
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”
The Past is a disparate concoction of dichotomies which creates, in turn, a disparate and everlasting dichotomy with the Present. In the end, then, Carton's sacrifice is either the exception which proves the rule or the far, far better thing he does is a delusion of grandeur and the far, far better rest he goes to simply more of the same. It may be worth noting, after all, that Sydney Carton was a binge drinker and chronic alcoholic.
Along with the themes of noble self-sacrifice declared by Sidney Carton and the uniquely Dickensian compromise revealed in his real-life dialectical solution, there is a third concern which The Hanged Man card connotes, namely: public execution. As a young man, Charles Dickens was appalled by the sensational spectacle of capital punishment he witnessed at the execution of the “popular murderer” Courvoisier. The experience influenced Dickens' portrayal of Barnaby Rudge's blood-thirsty executioner Ned Dennis, the Newgate hangman who himself is hanged. Some years later Dickens attended an even more sensational public execution, that of Frederick and Maria Manning, the crowd for which numbered 50, 000. Maria Manning wore black satin, causing it to go out of fashion for a decade, and in mortal fear of the crowd, tore at her throat with her fingernails in an attempt to puncture the jugular; she is resurrected in Bleak House as Mademoiselle Hortense. In fact, looked at a certain way, Dickens himself staged many public hangings through the celebrity of his fiction: Bill Sikes, Fagin, Ralph Nickleby, Hugh the 'Ostler, and Barnaby Rudge Senior amongst others. This culminates with the death sentence for Charles Darnay, whose real name is Evrémonde, or: Everyman. On the day of Carton's death, 52 men and women are beheaded, suggesting one calendar year.
The circus-like atmosphere of the Manning executions prompted Dickens to write four long letters to the Daily News, arguing for “the total abolition of the Punishment of Death.” Circa. the 1820s of Dickens' youth, England saw an average of 70 public executions a year; the majority were property offenders, with only 1/4 murderers themselves. These included men and women of all ages, for instance a boy of 9 who was sentenced to death for stealing 6 handkerchiefs. Aghast as Dickens may have been by these gruesome public displays, he continued to attend them – a beheading in Switzerland, a hanging in America, a guillotining in Rome. And as the author moved into middle age, more conservative and middle of the road became his views on corporal punishment, such that by 1859 – the year A Tale of Two Cities was written – Dickens' views had swung 'round the other way. Upon hearing of a possible reprieve for the murderer Thomas Smeghurst, Dickens declared: “I would hang any home secretary, Whig, Tory, Radical, or otherwise, who would step in between so black a scoundrel and the gallows.”
In 1864, the Royal Commission on Capital Punishment spent two years deliberating on the issue and finally came to the same conclusion as Charles Dickens, which was in short that there was no case for ending the death penalty altogether. Instead they ruled - thanks in no small part to Dickens' appeal to the court of public opinion - that death penalties would henceforth be executed in private – an ambiguous concession, both ethically and when applied to the concession Dickens made between his own public and private lives.
Notes for General Circulation :
The Hanged Man is a commentary on the conflict between humanity's inner state and the world they have constructed for themselves. Sydney Carton is a prisoner, confined in a cell, surrounded by death. When a free man, his inner life had not been much different. Here, he is in a lonely, uncomfortable position, yet his posture reflects a blasé and untroubled attitude and his face shows little real concern.
The Hanged Man is a card representing a standstill reached between the immovable object and the irresistible force: the Ascendant first house of Selfhood and the Descendant seventh house sometimes called the house of marriage. The severed heads and skulls signify matter divested of vivifying spirit, while Carton's defiant act of self-sacrifice is both an exoneration of and a testament to the invisible life force.
Traditional divinatory meanings of The Hanged Man vary greatly and include The Law of Man vs. The Rules of the Universe, epiphany, redemption, transcendence, a miraculous solution, the unconscious made manifest, ego death, psychosis, and a crucible culminating in the collision between the reality of the unconscious and the unconsciousness of reality.
The card is the meeting place of ironies, the birthplace of paradox - the best of times, the worst of times. Insofar as it is an incident which occurred in the past, it shows that human life as it is now being lived is upside-down, inside-out, unnatural - time out of joint. Here, by choosing death, The Hanged Man chooses life. By setting A Tale of Two Cities in the past, Dickens suggests a crisis which is perpetual.
By setting A Tale of Two Cities in a country other than England, Dickens begins a symbolic journey of expansion which sees fruition on The World card. In this cell exists the entire world, and like a cell - the fundamental building block of life - it divides, multiplies, and expands.
As Sydney Carton and Charles Darnay are in a sense twins, they represent Jesus Christ and Judas Iscariot. Many Gnostics believed Judas was an instrument of Divine Wisdom, a daimon which means both demon and angel, making his betrayal of Jesus a victory over the material world. The card's skulls suggest Golgotha. The French word scratched into the wall, creuser, is the imperative verb dig. Like the word INRI inscribed atop Christ's crucifix, it signifies God's word - the word made flesh. To dig is to unearth and to understand. The card's name suggests Judas' suicide by hanging, while Iscariot can mean "the false one", "the assassin" [itself a binate word, cf. The Golden Ass], and the verb tense "to deliver" with its double-entendre: to bring about and to remove life. Despite or because of questions concerning free will, both Judas and Jesus are bound up in the fulfilment of God's purpose.
In the end, the outer crisis demands an inner solution. Sydney Carton is a symbol of the crossroads of physical reality and cosmic truth, namely: man must die in order to be reborn.
By performing the ultimate sacrifice for the greater good, Dickens achieves through Sidney Carton both a more personal and a more universal balance with the forces of evil than conceivable in the Justice card. In Dickens own real-life predicament, he achieved an equilibrium between the outward demands of his time and place and the inner necessities of his emotional and spiritual life.
The French Revolution's Law of Suspects and subsequent Reign of Terror are intimated as the follow on from the previous card, Justice, a link underscored by the lawyer Carton's shackled pose in its direction. Judas was replaced as the 12th Apostle, making him the 13th - an allusion to the 12th house of the zodiacal figure, the house of karma, and the card which is to follow: the 13th, Death.