**Warning! Massive spoilers for the two novels: A Tale of Two Cities and The Sorrows of Young Werther
Love is patient, love is kind and is not jealous; love does not brag and is not arrogant, does not act unbecomingly; it does not seek its own, is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered, does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails. (I Corinthians 13:4-8)
Theologian Kevin Vanhoozer once wrote that “Literature [is] the laboratory of the human condition.”1 Behind the well worn covers of our favorite novels lies hidden a raw exploration into the fabric of human existence. Although technically dealing with fiction, we are dealing with the reality of humanity as seen through the author’s perspective. Their creation of various characters is a testament to a lifetime of studying and experiencing the countless influences that blend with the imagination and produce a revealing account of what we are; often the fiction itself is the front which allows for a fuller and more honest presentation of our nature.
This year two of the novels I read gave me a very powerful look into the way that love can be expressed; the similarities between the two stories were great, the contrast however could not have been more pronounced. The two books are the well-known classic A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens and the lesser known, but still a classic, The Sorrows of Young Werther, by the French writer Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe.
At the heart of both tales there is a love triangle, both of which involve a man who is deeply attracted to a happily married woman. In each, the woman is sympathetic towards the pining outsider, enough to be friends, though her own intentions (mostly) remain pure. But here is where the similarities cease. It is not the actions of the women or their rightful lovers that stand distinct, but it is the expression of love that is witnessed by the one whose love will not be returned that could not be more wildly different from one another.
In A Tale of Two Cities, Sydney Carton is rejected by Lucie Manette, and yet he remarkably does not go the way of jealousy, anger, or depression, but instead he offers himself to Lucie in the only way that remains possible for him to do so, “O Miss Manette, when the little picture of a happy father’s face looks up in yours, when you see your own bright beauty springing up anew at your feet, think now and then that there is a man who would give his life, to keep a life you love beside you!”2 Sydney directs even his rejected love toward the benefit of Lucie. He will have her good, even if it costs him his life, even if that sacrifice is done for the one that Lucie has chosen instead of him. This is the love of Sydney Carton, and it is put to the test.
As Lucie’s husband is sentenced to an unjust execution, she faints. Who comes to support her? Sydney Carton. What does he seek? His own good? His own benefit? Does he harbor a silent glee at the knowledge that Lucie shall soon be widowed? That his chances of having her as his own shall be revived? No. With “a flush of pride” he takes the fallen woman knowing what he will do. Lucie’s daughter cries out to him in a burst of grief, “Oh, Carton, Carton, dear Carton! Now that you have come, I think you will do something to help mamma, something to save papa! O, look at her, dear Carton! Can you, of all the people who love her, bear to see her so?”3 He cannot, for his love for her is true. As he bends over the fallen Lucie with an innocent kiss on the cheek his resolve is set and he whispers to her his promise of old, “A life you love.”
Sydney then takes the necessary steps to trade himself (through disguise) for Lucie’s husband Charles Darnay. As he trodes toward the Lady Guillotine who shall take his head, a stranger and fellow traveler towards that sharp silencer recognizes him as an imposter. She whispers, “Are you dying for him?” He replies, “And his wife and child. Hush! Yes.”4 Most certainly for his wife. Why? Because he loves her. His love does not turn inward to seek his own desires, but his love is strong enough to genuinely see what Lucie desires, and to give her that, even as he gives himself.
What a different triangle we find in Young Werther. Although he too loves one who shall not return that love, he twists his so-called love for her into a manipulative strategy that seeks only his own gain, at the expense and harm of the one he supposedly loves. His envy is palpable, his heart seeks only his own vision, only his own dreams. Although he boasts with rhetorical flair, “Is not my love for her the most sacred, purest and most brotherly love?”5 none who observes him shall concede that purity is within his heart. Indeed, as he describes his interactions with Lotte, his wished for lover, he says, “my eye was caught by her wedding ring, and the tears flowed.”6 Not tears of joy for her union, nor its benefits, but only for his own self pity. Boldly he declares, “She would have been happier with me than with him!”7 She is married, does her own purity, her own welfare drive him? No, for, “Albert is your husband—well, what of it? Husband! In the eyes of the world—and in the eyes of the world is it sinful for me to love you, to want to tear you from his embrace into my own?”8
With such a twisted belief of what love is and how it should be expressed it is no wonder that murderous thoughts are given safe haven within his fantasies, “When I am lost in my daydreams I cannot help wondering: what if Albert were to die?”9 Lotte begins to see the danger, even the derangement, and although she harbors some type of feelings toward Werther, she pleads with him, “I implore you for the sake of my own peace of mind; this cannot, cannot go on…This cannot go on!”10 For her own peace of mind, how little he truly cares about that, how little he truly loves her. But like Sydney, his love will end with his death, indeed, Werther will even declare that his suicide will be him “sacrificing myself for you.”11
For her? No. For him. In his twisted mind if he cannot have her in the temporal he shall have her in the eternal. For in death when they are reunited how will she then refuse him? He sees nothing but his hearts own wants. He is told no, and yet he advances further. Even in his death, he cherishes the fact that Lotte has indirectly been the one to deliver the very pistols that shall be used to end his life. No care for the torment that such a reality will cause her, only delight for his own selfish ends. And there it ends, his “sacrifice,” his “love,” they are cover words for his delusion and his lustful envy.
What a different tale these two stories tell. What a different picture of the ways in which human beings can think of love. In Sydney Carton we see love truly expressed, a love that as G.K. Chesterton described, “is not blind; that is the last thing that it is. Love is bound; and the more it is bound the less it is blind.”12 Sydney sees clearly, he sees reality as it is. He understand that Lucie does not love him as he desires, and yet because he loves her he gives his life for her good, enabling her to continue to love what she loves. In Werther we have love twisted in on itself. We even have love made a god. As C.S. Lewis warns, “Love begins to be a demon the moment he begins to be a god… Human love, at its height, has a tendency to claim for itself a divine authority. Its voice tends to sound as if it were the will of God Himself. It tells us not to count the cost, it demands of us a total commitment, it attempts to override all other claims and insinuates that any action which is done ‘for loves sake’ is thereby lawful and even meritorious.” Of course this not true love, but twisted love. Wether has disconnected love from its source, the triune God, and instead made it the final authority of his life, and by doing so he has lost the very thing that he so desperately asserts that he has. And finally we must ask, do we love as Sydney or as Werther?
- Kevin Vanhoozer, “4 Reasons Pastor-Theologians Should Read Fiction,” The Gospel Coalition, November 12, 2015, https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/4-reasons-pastor-theologians-should-read-fiction/
- Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities, (New York, New York: Penguin Classics, 2011), 158
- Ibid. 349
- Ibid. 369
- Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe, The Sorrows of Young Werther translated by Michael Hulse, (London, England: Penguin Classics, 1989), 112
- Ibid. 105
- Ibid. 88
- Ibid. 128
- Ibid. 89
- Ibid. 114-15
- Ibid. 116
- G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, (New York: Cross Reach Publications, 2017), 43
- C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves, (HarperCollins, 2002), 7-8