Essay About Empathy in Society



Empathy is a human characteristic that plays a vital role in the well being of society, and with it, communities are able to thrive and prosper. Bernard Beckett’s novel Genesis and Charles Dickens’ classic A Tale of  Two Cities both show how a lack of empathy can lead to the downfall of some societies and the suffering of individuals in others. The main character of Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities is named Charles Darnay, who is from the aristocratic Evrémonde family from France.

Disgusted by his family, he moves to England and marries Lucie Manette, whose father, the physician Alexandre Manette, is also from France. He had been driven mad in the prison called the Bastille, and it so happens that the people that arrested him were the Evrémonde brothers, who are Darnay’s father and uncle. Beckett’s Genesis is about a robot named Anaximander who lives in a futuristic society ruled by a governing body called the Academy. Anaximander, also called Anax, applies to enter the Academy, and the entire story takes place in the four hours of her examination, where she is tested on her chosen subject, the life of Adam. Eve, a foreign girl who was found in a boat just outside of the Republic, was saved by Adam, which got him imprisoned. Both Doctor Manette and Anaximander realize the futility of having empathy in a society where the governing body becomes more important than its citizens.

Doctor Manette is wrongly arrested by the aristocratic Evrémonde brothers when he acts out of empathy by speaking out against them for hurting the common people unjustifiably. When Charles Darnay returns to France to save Gabelle, a servant of his family who has been arrested, he is imprisoned for being an aristocrat. At his trial, the people that were said to openly denounce him were Ernest Defarge, Madame Defarge, his wife, and also Doctor Manette. Even though Manette protests that he never denounced his daughter’s husband, he has done this by condemning his aristocratic family in a letter written during his imprisonment.

This letter was then found by Ernest Defarge, who uses it against Darnay in court. The letter goes through all the events that led up to Manette’s imprisonment. Manette had written a letter to the minister regarding this abuse a power, but before it was sent, the doctor was lured away and “When [he] was clear of the house, a black muffler was drawn tightly over [his] mouth from behind, and [his] arms were pinioned...The Marquis took from his pocket the letter [he] had written, showed it to [him], burnt it in the light of a lantern that was held” (Dickens 325). The Evrémonde brothers, being aristocrats, are more important than the rest of the people simply because they practice tyranny. The peasants and common people are forced to obey them and are punished severely if any one of them displeases the brothers, even if there is no legit reason for their displeasure.

The brothers had hurt an entire family of common people even though they had done nothing to deserve it. When Doctor Manette knew about this he wrote a letter speaking out against the wrongdoing of the aristocrats. Even though he had done something right, the brothers arrested and silenced him so that he would not be able to influence the others to speak out and rebel against the aristocrats. This allowed them to keep control over the people. Many people became upset about this abuse of power and it is for this reason that the people started the French Revolution, but ended up creating a government that did not show much improvement from the previous one. 

Doctor Manette finds that his opinions are once again ignored when he tries to defend Charles Darnay in court in front of the President, who is part of the new Republic, where the state is glorified over the people. During Darnay’s trial, one of the people that were said to openly denounce was Manette. The Doctor protests against this fact and says that he would never condemn his daughter’s husband, whom he dearly loves. However, the President responds, “To fail in submission to the authority of the Tribunal would be to put yourself out of the law. As to what is dearer to you than life, nothing can be so dear to a good citizen as the Republic.’ Loud acclamations hailed this rebuke” (Dickens 311).

The importance of the Republic increases with the pride the people have for their state, evident in the cheering after the President’s response. With the coup of the tyrannical government, it can be inferred that they are proud of the Republic they have fought for, where the common people could finally be represented. These proud citizens are willing to protect the Republic they fought for at any cost. When Manette protests against the President’s claims, the President takes advantage of what he says by telling him that the success of the state is the only thing that matters above anything else. The importance of the success of the Republic to the people has allowed the President push aside the empathy Manette has for Darnay and use him against one of the people he loves the most, even though it is clear that the Doctor dreads this.

Even though Manette has made it clear that he trusts Darnay and is unlike the other aristocrats, they fail to have empathy for him and use the importance of the state as an excuse to act unreasonably. Although the people have overthrown a tyrannical government, they have created another government that acts just as unreasonable as the previous one. Doctor Manette finds himself in a society where his opinions are pushed aside to benefit the higher powers yet again, this time the higher power being Republic. Although the governing body in Genesis does not act as irrational, its citizens obey their laws at all costs so that it will be there to protect them from the dangers of the outside world.

Anaximander realizes that empathy is useless in a society where the leaders stress the importance of obeying the government above anything else. During Anax’s examination, the Examiners had asked her to comment on the actions of Adam when he saves Eve from the boat and goes against the law of his nation. Soon after, Anax was told to step out of the room for a break where the Examiners would use the time to plan and decide what was to be asked of the candidate later.

As she waited, she realized that “Yes, Adam’s actions were romantic, irrational, unjustifiable...she just knew Adam wasn’t wrong to have done it. She tried to swallow back this new and dangerous knowledge” (Beckett 37). Anax struggles with the fact that even though Adam’s actions were wrong because he had broken the law, she still believed that he had made the correct decision. These thoughts are described as new and dangerous, suggesting that she has never felt these feelings before and they go against the norms of her society.

Anax knew that Adam understood how Eve felt on the boat and did not deserve to die because she had done nothing wrong. Later in the examination, it is learned that “Adam and Eve were taken to the quarantine center where extensive testing showed that neither of them had been exposed to any of the known plague variants. This result was kept from the public, and the doctored data published suggested that Eve displayed an abnormal antibody profile, consistent with the exposure to the most virulent form of the disease” (Beckett 46). With this published data, the leaders have caused the public to believe that deadly viruses still existed beyond the Republic.

The importance of the government increases as publications like these continue to haunt the public. Out of fear, the people obey the laws of the governing body and support them above anything else in order to prevent anything from happening to it. This becomes the top priority as they believe that the leaders are there to protect them from the deadly viruses and perils that cannot be prevented otherwise. It is for this reason that the government imprisons Adam for saving innocent Eve because they do not want anyone to act as a witness to show the people that the world outside the Republic has gotten somewhat better. They silence Adam in order to keep the rest of its citizens in fear of the outside world and remain dependent on the government. Anax learns that Adam is imprisoned because empathy is pushed aside in her society so that the government can function properly, and later in the examination, she realizes that empathy would not even be able to save her from death.

As the examination of Anaximander comes to an end, it is shown once again that empathy has no use when the Examiners make the final decision to disconnect her from life in order to maintain their control over the people. During the last hour of her examination, a hologram is shown to Anax, where Adam and Art, an artificial intelligence robot that was locked up with Adam for research, attempt to escape the prison, and it is shown that Art is making his own decisions by replicating his system and in the end, killing Adam.

The Examiners explain that by interacting with Adam, Art was infected by a virus called the Original Sin, and when he exported his program the virus was let loose. They needed to disconnect Anax from life because she was discovered to be infected by the virus, and Pericles, Anax’s mentor, is sent in to do this job. As Pericles reaches towards her, “Anax felt a surge of warmth toward him, for the way he looked at her then, and the pain she knew this caused him… Anax felt terror overwhelm her…. Anaximander: It doesn’t have to be like this. Surely there must be another way”. (Beckett 149-150).

Anax knew that it was hard for Pericles to disconnect her from life. She knew that although they had made the decision to kill her, the reason was not that they disliked her, but because her existence put the government’s control over the people in danger, and disconnecting her was hard for them to do. In the end, she tries to talk to them because she wants them to feel empathy for her so that they might change their mind and keep her alive.

Although it is evident in Pericles’ expression that he did not want to do this, the examiners cannot let empathy stand in the way of their decision. In their society, the governing body is regarded as much more important because they need to preserve it in order to keep the robots safe from these thoughts of destruction that Anax was claimed to have. Anax once again learns that empathy has no effect in her society when the officials disconnect her completely from life. 

Doctor Manette and Anaximander learn that one cannot rely on empathy to save themselves in a community where the citizens are less important than the government. In A Tale of Two Cities, the tyrannical government forces its citizens to accept that they are inferior to their rulers and must do whatever they say, no matter how arbitrary their demands may be. When the common people finally overthrew the aristocratic government, their pride for the new Republic caused them to create a governing body no better than the previous ones, where the people must comply with the government’s demands for the sake of preserving the Republic they have fought so hard for.

In Genesis, fear of the outside world caused by the officials has lead the people to depend on the government to protect them, and they consider the governing body to be the most important aspect of their lives. The government has come to accept this level of importance that the citizens have instilled in them and have become comfortable with making unjustifiable decisions that they claim to be beneficial to society. Only if there is a certain level of understanding between people can communities live in peace and comfort.