A Tale of Two Cities: a tale of two selves

I participate in a discussion group on depth psychology. Lately we’ve been talking about “the shadow,” those parts of ourselves—both negative and positive—that we’ve disowned because we don’t think we should or can have those traits. We’re working through a terrific little book called Owning Your Own Shadow by Robert A. Johnson, whose clear and simple prose is always a delight to read.

One point Johnson makes is that most of us actually find it easier to see and to “own” our negative qualities than our positive qualities, the “gold” in the shadow. We find it very hard to step up, to claim our best selves, to shine. Being our best takes work, means taking responsibility for ourselves instead of giving away our power. And once we step up, people expect more of us, which can be a burden. It also opens us up to envy and criticism. Small wonder many people decide it’s too much work to go digging for the gold and just leave it alone.

This week I also went to church and heard a sermon by the Rev. Bruce Bode on “An Overlooked Side of Forgiveness.” Most of the time when people talk about forgiveness,  Bode said, we talk about the difficulties and the necessity of forgiving others, for to hold a grudge “is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die.” Forgiveness frees us from the past, lets us go forward into our own lives once again.

But what about those who need forgiving? Bode quoted from “Long Term,” a poem by Stephen Dunn:

It was easy to forgive, so much harder

to be forgiven. The forgiven had to agree

to eat dust in the house of the noble

and both knew this couldn’t go on for long.

The forgiven would need to rise;

the forgiver need to remember the cruelty

in being correct.

And as Bode pointed out, very often we play both roles: we feel regret for something we have done/failed to do, and we cannot forgive ourselves.

All of this led me to thinking about A Tale of Two Cities. The lead character, Sydney Carton, is a brilliant man who could have had a great career in the law, but has become a dissolute alcoholic instead. He spends most of his days in taverns, sobering up on occasion to advise another barrister who passes Sidney’s ideas off as his own.

Then one day the barrister defends a man who looks exactly like Sydney. Charles Darnay is Sidney’s doppleganger, his mirror self, his exact opposite, the man he could have been. In other words, his shadow self. Where Sydney is a commoner content to waste his life away, Charles is noble both literally and figuratively—he is a French aristocrat who has renounced his title in protest against the way his uncle, the Comte, treats the peasants on his estate. The Comte tries to frame Charles for treason against England, but Sydney uses their likeness to each other to cast doubt on the veracity of the witness  against Charles, and Charles is freed.

In the movie version of the story starring Ronald Colman, Sydney then takes Charles out to a tavern where he gets drunk and basically showers all his own loathing of his shadow self onto Charles. But it’s not just coming face to face with his doppelganger that has triggered all this in Sidney. It is the fact that Charles is loved by Lucie, a woman whom Sydney himself loved on first sight. And he has to admit that it is Charles and not himself who deserves such love; Charles is a living rebuke to him, a reminder of the man he could have been—could still be, Lucie tells him, but Sydney denies it, saying it is too late. He has no desire to eat dust in Charles’s house; while he visits Charles and Lucie often, he stubbornly hangs on to his ne’er-do-well persona.

Only when Charles is tricked back into France and then arrested for, ironically, being noble, being one of the aristocrats he detests, does Sydney find a way to step up. He gains entry to Charles’s prison, drugs Charles, and switches clothes with him. Charles has to be unconscious for Sydney to lay claim to the gold in his own nature; awake, he would never allow Sydney to take the next step—he could never allow Sydney to be better than him. But the choice is not given him. Charles is smuggled out of the prison and back to England and life with Lucie, while Sydney takes his place in the line for the guillotine, knowing that Lucie will forever think of him as someone who, in the end, “rose above” his former nature. Does he also hug to himself the idea that the man who saved Charles may seem almost angelic to Lucie, better than noble?

But Lucie has always seen the good in him. It is Sydney who despises Sydney. In one astonishing act of courage, he atones and redeems himself. It is to himself that he finally proves his own worth, and so is able to say “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest I go to than I have ever known.”

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