Literature and the arts, in my opinion, ought to show us the possibility of nobility in us. If, indeed, they are to rise above entertainment then they should either caution us of the evil in us or encourage us to be the best that we can be. (Not that I am averse to being entertained. In fact, most of my reading is primarily for entertainment). I find it difficult as well as useless to read something that does not entertain me and, also, tells me that I am a slimy being in a cesspool and likely to remain that for the rest of my life.
Of the very many books that I have read in my life the first book that springs to my mind when I think of a life-changing book is Charles Dickens’ ‘A Tale of Two cities’. It starts off lyrically with “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…’ capturing the essence of the contradictoriness of human nature. I am giving the gist of the story for those who may not have read it and, since it is an old story, I have not bothered about avoiding spoilers!
The story is set around the period of the French Revolution. Charles Darnay, a Frenchman and aristocrat marries Lucie Manette, the daughter of Dr. Manette. Dr.Manette was released from the Bastille after spending eighteen years imprisoned in it at the whim of Darnay’s uncle. Sidney Carton, a dissolute never-do-well look-alike of Charles Darnay is also in love with Lucie but never dares put it to the touch. Darnay is called back to France on business and goes there with wife, daughter and father-in-law.
The Defarge couple had sworn vengeance on his family for the many callous acts of his uncle. Madame Defarge, in particular, is relentless in pursuit of vengeance and wants the entire family including the child guillotined. Charles Darnay is imprisoned and sentenced to the guillotine and Madame Defarge has her eyes set on the rest of the family. Sidney Carton arranges for safe passes for the rest of the family as well as for himself. He, then, visits the prison renders Darnay unconscious and exchanges places with him. Darnay and family are spirited away from France and Sidney Carton is guillotined in his place.
This story taught me a lot. It taught me how unjust unbridled power can be and it taught me how bestial people can become in a quest for vengeance. It taught me how much people can risk for love and it taught me how misery has the potential to bring the best out of people. Success and failure are both tests of your character. When the powerless become powerful, their actions seem seldom tempered by the very mercy that they blame those who were in power for with-holding.
The noblest character in the tale is, obviously, Sidney Carton. A dissolute rascal of whom no-one expected anything good plans and carries out the sacrifice of his life in order to enable the woman he loved to live happily with the man of whom he was jealous! The seeds of nobility are in every man and one of the most powerful forces that can bring these seeds to flower is Love! The beauty of this tale is that it ends with the death of a man and you are left with a feeling that it was a happy ending, even for him!
I am not much of a one for remembering quotations but this one stuck in my mind. Just before being guillotined, Sidney Carton says to himself ‘It is a far, far better thing that I do than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known!’