Rethinking Individuality: Family in A Tale of Two Cities

When my grandmother was growing up in a foster home she did not live the life that she imagined. She did not have nice clothes, nor did she have many friends because her speech impediment set her apart. She went through so much hardship that I could never understand. As a child reflecting on this, I did not understand how my grandmother could deal with her past, but it later dawned upon me that my grandmother was able to put aside the past by seeing her grandchildren live her dream life.

There is something strange about the attachment we have to our family; we hope for the best for those we currently reside with and for our future posterity to have better things. We hope for this even if it is at our own expense. Why did my grandmother unselfishly give me the last cookie from the cookie jar when she never even had that option as a child? Why did she care so much for my happiness as a child when she had none?

Charles Dickens portrays this family dynamic in A Tale of Two Cities in the character of Miss Pross, the caretaker of orphaned Lucie. Pross is described as “one of those unselfish creatures…who will, for pure love and admiration, bind themselves willing slaves, to youth when they have lost it.” This may at first glance seem like Miss Pross is living vicariously through Lucie, but I do not think that this is what Dickens means to say.

Pross desperately wants Lucie to marry a man who is fit for her and Pross claims that none of the suitors are “in the least degree worthy.” Mr. Lorry even goes to the length of calling Pross one of the lower Angles because of the “faithful service of the heart” that she exhibits toward Lucie.

There is this delicately crafted family relationship that Pross and Lucie share that can almost be likened to the relationship between a daughter and a mother; Pross wants the best for Lucie not for her own sake, but for Lucie’s sake. Pross wants the best for Lucie because she herself never had what was best.

Dickens furthers this value of family by contrasting the two cities of the novel: London and Paris. London, the home of Pross herself, is a stable city that maintains its value of family. Paris on the other hand is striving toward revolution and a new idea of the individual. There is no room for the family unit in Paris because the revolution and the making of this new society means an individual commitment to the goals of the revolution and nothing else. London has family values, while the revolution in Paris creates the values under which all individuals must adhere.

France’s destruction of family even goes as far as preventing the act of mourning. A family member of one who is killed by the guillotine may not mourn their death, but rather rejoice in it because it is following the values of the rebellion.

The Revolution takes away the power of what should be the strongest unit in a society.

When I worked as a staff member at a family camp this past summer, we were taught that we ought to value each individual in the family but also to remember that the family had one extra member: the family as a whole was a type of individual in itself because it was a unified body bonded together by its powerful relationship.

The family unit is bonded so tightly together by relationship that it is itself one unique and cohesive unit. When we look at Dickens’ portrayal of the French Revolution and its destruction of family we see that the rebellion is made up of a bunch of individuals, but not the strong unit of a family. The strong individual lies in the essence of a family.

It is for this unit that Pross travels to France to be with Lucie and her family. It is for these relationships that Mr. Lorry cares so many years. It is for this unified body that Sydney Carton dies.

And the funny thing is that all of the above mentioned characters are a part of that family. They do not stand for themselves alone when they make their sacrifices, but rather stand to protect the others who are a part of their individuality.

It is because of this that Carton will live even though he is dead. His individuality extends beyond just himself; it lies within the family unit that he has sought to preserve.

This powerful relationship that the family has also extends to the church member. As adopted sons and daughters of God, we are in the same family unit. The Apostle Paul even goes are far to say that we are members of the same body; we make up one individual. Somehow our membership in Christ has not only made us a united and cohesive family unit, but has made us into one person.

Dickens tries to explain this mystery of family as a singular unit and he does this by showing the love that the members have for each other. It is love that builds up and unifies, it is a love that sacrifices.

My Grandmother knows that her individuality does not lie within herself, but within her family. So too do Christians find their individuality when they look to the body that they are a part of, the unit that they have a family in.

Our Turn Inward: Emotionalism

While some economic theorists take notice of class distinctions and their impact on quality of life, few choose to go deeper by asking such questions as “how does capitalism shape our feelings?”

Eva Illouz does just this by bringing abstract economic theory to the realm of the personal. Illouz acknowledges the trendy yet ensconced cultural tendency to observe life through emotional lenses. Her recent book, Saving the Modern Soul: Therapy, Emotions, and the Culture of Self-Help, provides an in-depth articulation of this shift. Transcending academic and professional categories, Illouz spearheads a new kind of study, analyzing psychological and emotional language in its attention to human behavior. Guernica Magazine’s Jesse Tangen-Mills gives Illouz the label “cultural theorist,” as this approach doesn’t fit the typical labels of “historian,” “philosopher,” or “sociologist.”

Illouz’s thesis in “Saving the Modern Soul” reveals—if not pronounces—a change in contemporary discourse. In the early 20th century, “society” understood the world according to relationships. Community was what mattered; less so, the individual. When talking about the family unit, we spoke of it in terms of the greater good. Any defiant individual who caused harm to the community, for example, we “felt” and spoke of as being in direct opposition to the social good. When considered, the individual was most frequently viewed in opposition to, or in support of, the community, rather than the community towards the individual. This view has since been flipped.

Tangen-Mills points out that in shifting towards the emotional and psychological we now “hearken back to childhood memories and recognize emotional needs” when we talk about ourselves. The defiant individual is no longer a mere enemy, but is recognized personally. We begin to view the individual as a victim of the family and/or the greater community. We turn from a discourse that sees only the greater good to recognizing the personal and individual good.

If we doubt this trend, we need only look at the popularity of Oprah Winfrey and Woody Allen—both of whom, Illouz points out, have built their careers by recognizing the deeply emotional and often broken nature of modern day individuals.

The question is not whether such a trend exists, but whether it is in fact good that we have turned from a communal discourse towards an individualistic one. In evangelical Christian circles, the term “individualistic” is often antagonizing because it’s believed that an individualistic society perpetuates “self-focus,” which is in direct opposition to the selflessness directive given in Scripture.

Constantly evaluating the personal impact of one’s environment—for example, how a person was treated by their family—turns our attention furthur towards the “singular,” and away from the family and community. Rather than viewing a poor individual and his affect on the community at large, we fastidiously turn our heads towards the emotions he experiences because of his lack. Illouz comments:

…in literature people focused on interpretation of text and really never bothered to actually pay attention to the fact that texts and movies elicit emotions and draw you in through emotions. Or sociologists who asked themselves why people do what they do could talk about competition, when you consume something, or they could talk about class stratification but never about the envy or the humiliation or the shame that can accompany class stratification.

Prior to the last several decades we analyzed and articulated subjects of study externally. Sociologists who talk about “competition” regarding human behavior, for example, remain just outside of a discourse of feelings and emotions. Competition is a perspective of relationship with others, rather than an emotion that comes out of such a relationship. The development of psychology as a discipline has brought with it a reading of human behavior that regards emotions almost to the exclusion of all else.

People spend an increasing amount of time focused upon the misery of an individual rather than of healing and triumph. Movies, for example, are more likely to show the gradual digression of users defeated by heroin or cocaine, such as Requiem for a Dream, than to show the impact of users upon the greater public or those individuals finding healing in their communities.

We are now inspecting the parts of a picture, instead of the picture. Yet, to ignore the minutia is to ignore what makes up the whole. This turn towards the psychological and emotional experience of the individual may not be such a bad thing.

In fact, by looking inward, we find some of the causes of our social diseases and have the opportunity to solve them. Modern society’s “emotional” approach is in fact liberating in its own right. Examining human experience according to its psychological and emotional impact allows us to understand our environment and community in a much deeper way. We give voice to injustice and pain, and doing so, are given the insight to carefully respond to the social or familial harms that create an experience which negatively influences individuals who become “defiant.”

Despite this psychological and emotional discourse being new to humanity, the emotional and psychological is part of our makeup. Humanity has always been and always will be emotional. Our discourse has changed; we have not.

But the way we speak about ourselves affects how we relate to one another. And so, as we continue in this new way, we should cautiously remember that individuals make up a greater whole. Environment and relationships affect the individual, and though the individual is important, he or she also impacts the whole. ‘