I am teaching a third-year module on Victorian literature and psychology this year, and while I am preparing lectures and reflecting on the course material, I am reflecting on some issues which relate to how we can ‘diagnose’ historical figures and literary characters. Edgar Allan Poe has been retrospectively ‘diagnosed’ as a manic-depressive dipsomaniac; Elizabeth Siddal is assumed to have been suffering from anorexia, and Milton’s blindness, scholars now suggest, was due to glaucoma. Very likely, though how much this adds to our understanding of these figures is debatable. However, in examining literature and psychology, much of the material examines the authors’ interests in the new science of psychology (as well as pseudo-sciences such as phrenology and mesmerism). These interests are carried over into their literary works, and it’s surprising how different the texts seem when one reads them with an eye to psychological narratives.
This leads me to A Tale of Two Cities, and the ‘problem’ of Sydney Carton. Carton’s redemption of himself, and saving of Charles Darnay, has led critics to suggest that this is Dickens’s most spiritual novel, and the theme of resurrection is prominent. This implies, though, that Carton is a cardboard figure whose purpose is the reunion of the Darnay-Manette family, whereas I read Carton as a much more complex character (and Darnay as Forster’s ‘flat’ figure). He seems to diagnose himself: he admits to being a wastrel, who fritters away time and money, takes his own life as of no account, and has no hope for his future. While he might have succeeded in his profession, a lack of confidence and interest in it has caused him to become no more than another man’s drudge. His is a genuinely pitiful tale, and one for which we see no cause, until near the end of the novel where he recalls the early death of his parents, and for a moment we glimpse a sad and abandoned little boy.
We see Carton’s heart when he opens up to Lucie, admitting his hopeless love for her (which you can see in a hammy film version here); this episode and his kindness towards the poor seamstress in the tumbril seem to indicate a ‘good’ side to the ‘bad’ man. While he may be Darnay’s near-double, the situation is more complex than that he and Darnay represent the good and bad sides of a man (unlike, for example, in Poe’s ‘William Wilson’). Carton is a man who cannot save himself, and so, instead, saves another, thus ironically proving that in fact he was a man worth saving himself.
I am writing a kind of ‘case notes’ of Sydney Carton, looking at the work of contemporary writers on psychology such as Henry Maudsley, whose words ‘The sorrow which has no vent in tears may make other organs weep’ seem to have some relevance in the case of Carton, and G.H. Lewes. My questions, though, are these: can we ‘diagnose’ a literary figure as if s/he were a real person? How do we also take account of plot, of author, of literary conventions? I am hoping to answer these questions in a conference paper for the History and Philosophy of Psychology conference in 2013.
NB If you are interested in madness and literature, the Madness and Literature Network website is invaluable.
[…] would argue that in fact reading fiction can be a way of doing science – deconstructing the psychological state of famous characters from fiction is something most undergraduates do to some extent, diagnosing neurological conditions is surely […]