An MA in English Literature might make you unemployable, but the one thing it does, if you’re lucky, is give you the ability to skirt the black and white of ideological opinion, and grapple for the complicated ‘truth’—rarely an idea as unequivocal as we tend to believe. One of the chief pleasures a deep study of literature may yield is that first thrill of realization that the narrator, who’s spun an imaginary world for us, may be unreliable, hacking away at the trust most people naively tend to attribute to the written word. The purpose of education, as opposed to merely literacy, is to facilitate complex cognition, which in studying literature can take the form of viewing the world – and fiction – as peopled by characters neither perfectly heroic nor absolutely villainous.
In A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens, famously criticized by E.M Forster for his failure to create round characters, nevertheless managed to create a universe where evil and virtue aren’t divided across class lines. Even as Dickens laid the blame of the French revolt squarely on the shoulders of the aristocracy, he refused to romanticize the peasantry’s character, or gloss over the gruesome, and often underhanded means they employed to achieve their rightful end. And neither are the characters from the nobility all manipulative scoundrels out to suck the blood of every wretched poor that crosses their path. While the revolution is portrayed as inevitable, even necessary and right, the lustful cruelty of the lower classes once they are in the place of their former masters is as revolting as the cavalier murder of a young child at the hands of the Marquis.
Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar is murdered in the parliament by his closest friends and aids, a situation custom-built to arouse the sympathy of the watching audiences. Yet throughout the play it is impossible to side completely with any of the major characters. Caesar, a man who brought Rome so much glory, whose patriotism and love for his people cannot be doubted, is betrayed and killed by his closest friend and political partner. Yet it is hard to feel an unalloyed sense of outrage for the wrong that has been done him. We cannot fail to notice that Caesar is indeed vain and dictatorial, and thus a threat to Rome’s proud democratic traditions, likening himself to the Northern Star, “Of whose true fixed and resting quality. There is no fellow in the firmament.” So drunk is he on his own high-minded honesty that he refuses to pay heed to the frantic entreaties of a common well wisher attempting to warn him of the plot against him. “What touches us ourself shall be last served,” he says with a grandiose flourish, and walks away to his doom.
Brutus, Caesar’s nemesis, similarly views himself as completely and wholly honest, having convinced himself that the betrayal of his friend was only for the good of the country. Unable to put up with any kind of financial wrongdoing he rages against his ally Cassius for using ill-begotten money to support their band of rebels who fled Rome after Caesar’s murder. However, in the same conversation, he asks Cassius for more cash to fulfill his daily needs as the leader of a rebel army preparing to attack Rome. He needs money just as much as anyone else to keep the wheels of his movement rolling but prefers to have others dirty their hands with the practical business of acquiring that money. He can safely stay ensconced in his quixotic bubble of self-congratulatory righteousness.
A black and white view of the world is not just naive, it is dangerous. Those who view the world from the lens of absolute rights and wrongs are poised to inflict great injustice, for they are blind to any wrong within their ranks, thus ending up in the very same place as the ‘villainous’ leaders they set out to dislodge. Idealism and hope are great things, but unless tempered with rationalism and skepticism, there is always the fear of them spilling over into fascist territory.
It is essential to read the classics, to read the canons, to read the contemporary. Embrace the complexity of the fictitious and non-fictitious persona. There is much to learn about human nature, revolution and restraint from literature.
Sabahat Zakariya is a writer and editor, interested in exploring the intersection between Pakistani pop culture and feminism.