The Agony of Empathy

I’m reading The Count de Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas and, although the heft of it makes my wrists tremble, I read anxiously and stay up late and resent any and all intrusions.

Palace of the Popes in Avignon, which has nothing to do with The Count de Monte Cristo but looks neat.

Why is this torture device disguised as a book such a time-honored classic?  I quake with sympathy for the original readers who had to read this in serial form, waiting in suspense for each new installment, unaware of the conclusion. Personally, I would have headed the torch-bearing mob that stormed Dumas’ loft and demanded the immediate release of Edmond Dantes.

Do you know that innocent young Edmond Dantes gets thrown into a dudgeon and spends years and years and years locked up in darkness?  Well, of course you do. Everyone does. But reading the story is so much different then watching the anime version!

I didn’t think I’d be upset by the novel since I know what happens, since the entire world knows what happens.  I’m reading it because it’s one of the great enduring adventure stories of all time and I happen to be writing what I hope is an adventure and looking (always) for inspiration.  The Count DMC is 1200 pages.  I haven’t even read 200 yet and I am feverishly concerned with Edmond Dantes’ misfortune, waking in the night and worrying about his young life wasting away.  I could never do something so horrible to one of my characters; not one I like anyway.  So why, when I know perfectly well he’s unjustly imprisoned for many years, do I feel so anguished when I read it? Is Alexander Dumas that good?

I have to conclude that yes, he is.  I feel Edmond’s pain. I feel the stupendous agony of youth, love and life’s promise lost.  But because I know he gets out someday I can bear it.  I don’t think I could read this book if I didn’t know in advance he escapes and wreaks vengeance on those who wronged him.  Yikes! I’m sure there are people who could write and read a book in which Edmond never gets out, but not I.  I’m too soft-hearted toward the fictional characters we bring to life with our rapt attentions.  As a writer, I constantly question the why’s and wherefores of such misguided empathy.  I lie awake at night, telling myself, it’s only a story! This is not real!  So how is it that I, a writer, and occasionally a dastardly one who puts her characters through all sorts of torments, how is it that another writer can trick me into forgetting this?

As a reader I certainly meet a good writer half-way.  Give me a character I can care for and some extreme peril, and I’m hooked.  Tease me with hope and despair intricately woven, and I’ll follow you anywhere, even through how many years of horrible imprisonment? (God, don’t tell me now or I’ll have to quit reading.)

All the while I long for the payoff that makes it all worthwhile. All the while I curse the author and threaten them with psychic harm if they let me down.  I think I’m safe with Dumas, which is why I dare to tread in such dangerous waters.  The author who torments me in this way and then releases me to the blissful light of day, through love requited, dreams redeemed, dog saved from drowning, dork turned prom king, quest fulfilled, young lives saved, old lives blessed or vengeance wreaked, earns my eternal gratitude.  Even as I curse Dumas I wonder, how can I do this?

 

 

 

One thought on “The Agony of Empathy

  1. It’s amazing how clearly we’re able to insert ourselves in invisible form into the characters. The feelings can be so haunting & stay with you changing your thoughts & choices…

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