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.