What A Tale of Two Cities’ Sydney Carton Can Teach Us about the Power of Literature (Discussion)

Spoilers for Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities follow.

Imagine that your best friend told you that a man had just declared his love for her.  This man is a known alcoholic who has no ambitions in life and seems destined to remain in a cycle of self-loathing ambivalence as he repeatedly spends his days using his talents so others can get ahead while he remains behind–all from pure laziness.  He has good intentions and someday means to pick himself up, push aside the wine bottle, and start working in earnest.  But that day never comes.  Would advise your friend to marry this man?  Probably not.  Anyone who did not outright despise such a man would at least recognize that a relationship with him would only lead to unhappiness.

In Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, this man is Sydney Carton, and generations of readers have come to love and admire him despite his faults.  And not only become of his final redeeming sacrifice.  Rather, Charles Dickens manages to depict Carton so empathetically because he can show readers the man’s heart.  The “idlest and most unpromising of men” “rumored to be seen at broad day, going home stealthily and unsteadily to his lodgings, like a dissipated cat” is depicted not simply as a drunkard or a slacker, but as a man who sometimes feels the pull of a better nature, but can never find the energy to pursue it. His desire to do better is not simply a line he gives to others to excuse himself, but a real struggle he experiences everyday.  He pities himself so much that readers feel pity for him, too.  And his conflicting feelings of jealousy, self-hatred, desire, hope, and despair all make him too human to dismiss.

Part of readers’ ability to pity Carton comes from Dickens’ remarkable ability to place readers in his shoes.  Take this scene from the start of the book.  Carton has just arrived home after a long night of drinking and doing work for Mr. Stryver, instead of using his powerful intellect to advance himself.  Dickens writes: “He threw himself down in his clothes on a neglected bed, and its pillow was wet with wasted tears.”  And he continues: “Sadly, sadly the sun rose; it rose upon no sadder sight than the man of good abilities and good emotions, incapable of their directed exercise, incapable of his own help and own happiness, sensible of the blight on him, and resigning himself to let it eat him away.”  In this scene, readers do not need to have experienced the same life as Sydney Carton, only the same emotions.  Readers who have spent long lonely nights crying into their pillows, readers who know what it means to arrive to a “neglected” home, readers who have felt hopeless, readers who have felt frustrated and useless, and readers who have felt despair can all identify with Carton.  Preconceptions of who he is and why he does what he does melt away as readers are able to enter into this intimate moment with him.

This is the great power of literature.  Stories can help readers empathize with people they might never empathize with in real life.  The drunkard, the “scary” homeless or muttering woman, the “weird” kid at school, the lazy good-for-nothing–all become people in the pages of a story.  They have thoughts, relationships, histories, dreams, and desires.  They are not mere labels or the “other.”  They are all of us, struggling to work through what they have been given.  When we ask ourselves why we read, one of the major reasons that we continue to give is that stories help us understand others.  They make us kinder, more open, more patient, and more understanding.  At least they have the potential to do so.  What we do with that potential is up to us.

6 thoughts on “What A Tale of Two Cities’ Sydney Carton Can Teach Us about the Power of Literature (Discussion)

  1. Jonathan Scott Griffin says:

    Masterful insights on your part towards a masterful author. I love that you mentioned that Dicken’s “can show readers the man’s heart.” That’s a strength of literature. There are many wonderful movies out there with good character development, and nowadays there are a plethora of gripping TV shows on Netflix and Cable that give characters the chance to grow. And yet, there is something different about a book. It’s as if a book can take the reader into the character’s psyche in a way visual media can’t. Even story-driven video games, which I love, that allow you to play as the lead character still can’t place you in a character’s shoes like a book can.

    Maybe it’s because reading is so cerebral that it has the power to draw readers into the character the way other media can’t. Since reading is a fully thinking process, it makes sense that it would help the reader to align his or her thoughts with that of the character. In terms of reading a book, there is no detachment from the character. This is the opposite of TV shows, movies, and to an extent, video games, where there is some detachment.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Krysta says:

      Yes, there is something about books that really allows the audience to see inside the characters, so to speak. I think that’s why The Red Badge of Courage does not make a really good movie, even if you add voice-over to try to get inside the head of the protagonist. It’s a book about a mental state and that’s a difficult thing to translate into a visual medium.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. ofmariaantonia says:

    Yes, I realized that I liked Sydney Carton quite early on in the book (shortly after the trial at the beginning of Part 2), even though in real life I would probably want nothing to do with him. And I think this is what makes Dickens so masterful in his characterization. He makes us, not just pity Sydney, but actually like him. This also happens, I think, partly because the Darnay family and Mr. Lorry see the good lurking in him. (The children especially.)

    And I think that sometimes characters like Sydney can help us understand people we meet in real life. That because of a fictional character, we might have empathy for somebody who is “just like Sydney Carton.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • Krysta says:

      You put it so beautifully! It would be so easy to treat Carton with contempt in real life or even to be afraid of him/associating with him. But Dickens helps us see the good in him, partly because we can see through the eyes of Lucie and her daughter.


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