Obvious courtesy: spoilers.
First thing is just that Dickens is a beautiful writer. Older English writers really did know what they were doing. It would be hard to read for a learner of English. I met a Spanish girl last weekend who said she had tried to read Virginia Woolf and been discouraged. I did frequently have to reread sentences and deconstruct the grammar in my head, but that didn’t distract from the beauty. The first line, about the best and worst of times, is great, but I think better is the next page:
“It is likely enough that, rooted in the woods of France and Norway, there were growing trees, when that sufferer was put to death, already marked by the Woodman, Fate, to come down and be sawn into boards, to make a certain movable framework with a sack and a knife in it, terrible in history. It is likely enough that in the rough outhouses of some tillers of the heavy lands adjacent to Paris, there were sheltered from the weather that very day, rude carts, bespattered with rustic mire, snuffed about by pigs, and roosted in by poultry, which the Farmer, Death, had already set apart to be his tumbrils of the Revolution. But that Woodman and that Farmer, though they work unceasingly, work silently, and no one heard them as they went about with muffled treat: the rather, forasmuch as to entertain any suspicion that they were awake, was to be atheistical and traitorous.”
and, at the end of the first chapter:
“All these things, and a thousand like them, came to pass in and close upon the dear old year one thousand seven hundred and seventy-five. Environed by them, while the Woodman and the Farmer worked unheeded, those two of the large jaws, and those other two of the plain and the fair faces, trod with stir enough, and carried their divine rights with a high hand. Thus did the year one thousand seven hundred and seventy-five conduct their Greatnesses, and myriads of small creatures–the creatures of this chronicle among the rest–along the roads that lay before them.”
I suppose this issue of fate was what caught me most by the book. There’s lots going on, but this is at the center and definitely got to me. I’m no Dickens expert, but as I understand it, Dickens’ plots and characters frequently begin the story disparately and then all by miraculous coincidence come together in ways that can seem almost unbelievable: Doctor Minette’s note at the end of the book, the identity of Charles Darnay, the identity of Madame Defarge, the appearance of Miss Pross’ brother Solomon, the fake death of Roger Cly and Mr. Cruncher’s testimony to the fact that it’s fake.
But despite that there is so much astounding coincidence, the book is deeply predictable, which is its paradox. Alone together, Lucie begs Charles that he never say a cruel word about Sydney Carton: “I fear he [Carton] is not to be reclaimed; there is scarcely a hope that anything in his character or fortunes is reparable now. But, I am sure that he is capable of good things, gentle things, even magnanimous things.” At that moment I think it was clear that the book would end by Carton exchanging himself with Darnay and going in his stead to the Guillotine. We know the love for Lucie in Carton’s heart and his desire to do something redemptive, we know he looks exactly like Darnay, we know that it would be terribly dangerous if Darnay went to France, which means it’s obviously going to happen.
This paradox obviously isn’t new. It’s the same issue Oedipus deals with. This is how events seem. How often do we look at an event, which we in some sense know to be an impossible tangle of chance, free will (a kind of chance), and cause, and go, “god that’s so fucking predictable”?
All the same, it makes no difference at the end. That must be the point. In his final moments, Carton doesn’t dwell on the series of events that have brought him to the Guillotine, or even on the choices he has made that have affected that series. He is simply happy to have given of himself to another. We might not believe in the heavenly “rest” he believes he is destined for, and we might not even see, as he does, “the evil of this time and of the previous time of which this is the natural birth, gradually making expiation for itself and wearing out.” Happily, Carton’s death is somehow worth it. Or, his death may not be worth it, but his courage and his goodness certainly is.