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The Power Of Sympathy Essays

What a marvelous power has sympathy, and yet, like other good gifts, how often it is grudgingly given.

So strong is it that it will melt the stoniest heart, it will comfort the deepest mourner, it will raise the most degraded to strive for higher things, it will infuse hope into the despairing soul, and it will bring back the wanderer from the paths of sin and selfishness into the paths of truth and duty.

How sweet it is to feel that in our trials and difficulties—trials and difficulties which may, most probably, have been brought about by our own weakness and sin—how sweet it is to feel that some soul is in sympathy with our own, some soul endeavors to put itself in our place, to understand our sufferings, to feel our deepest woes, to comfort our sorrows, to give us wise counsel; it eases our pain and salves the deepest wounds to know that some heart beats in unison with our own. We no longer feel desolate, forsaken, despairing, if there is one soul, though only one, who feels for us and in a measure understands our troubles, who gives us sympathy and so consoles us.

There are times in the lives of most of us when we endure some especially deep suffering. We pass through deep waters, in which we are almost lost. It may be that we have sinned grievously, we feel that our sin is past forgiveness, and our companions make us realize only too fully the depth of our sin; so low have we fallen that they leave us alone as unworthy of their notice. We feel deserted, the waters almost close over us, and we are on the point of giving up the struggle; there is no hope for us, we will let ourselves sink; there is no one near to save us, no one who cares. But, over the dark deep waters there comes a strong, firm hand, the hand of one who possesses the Christ spirit, one who feels that even if we are very low, still we have not sunk beneath the power of sympathy. We grasp the hand, and we rise, slowly and surely, above the roaring billows; they strike less terror to our hearts; we may conquer them yet, for the hand which has helped us j supports us still, and soon we find we are clasping a Rock which stands far above the ii raging waves which had well-nigh sucked us down; the friendly hand has drawn us up to the Rock which is higher than we, and there we cling, saved by the power of sympathy. Sympathy is strong, sympathy is one of the most precious of Christian virtues; it not only shows us our sin in its true light; rashness, coldness, calm superiority, bitterest censure might show us our sin, but sympathy does far more—it shows us the means of freeing ourselves from the sin; it shows us the sin, but it also shows us the Savior. It leads our thoughts away from our weak miserable selves, away from the weakness which led us to believe that sin was but human misfortune, human destiny, against which it was useless to combat. Sympathy shows us that we have power to fight, to wound and to conquer the enemy, and to rise above the low aims and desires, which before actuated us, to higher aims, to ideals which we before believed it impossible to attain. Sympathy has shed her light across our path, and caused us to reason with ourselves as we have never done before. We feel that if someone cares for us sufficiently to sympathize; if someone thinks us not too low to be worthy of a thought of love; if someone takes the trouble to understand us, then there is some spark of goodness in us; our nature is not altogether low and despicable, and if one creature cares for us, may not others and we become more hopeful. We acknowledge our own weakness and sinfulness, but sympathy has awakened within us new aspirations; the power which we have hitherto buried beneath a cloak of indolence and self-satisfaction and later, perhaps, despair, forces its way upward, and we determine that we will rise; we see that we have only ourselves to blame if we sink again. Sympathy has converted us from base, mean creatures, with no aim in life beyond self, mere groveling in the dust, to higher, nobler beings, bent on conquering our weak natures, and by combat with evil, growing strong and true as God intended us to be.

The Power of Sympathy turns 226.

The first-edition title page of The Power of Sympathy.

William Hill Brown’s The Power of Sympathy: or, The Triumph of Nature was published 226 years ago today, in 1789. It’s generally considered the first American novel, though you won’t find it on many (any?) short lists for the Great American Novel. To speak with the kind of prudence it so sternly advocates: the passing centuries have hidden its charms.

An epistolary novel in the style of Samuel Richardson’s PamelaThe Power of Sympathy tells the story of Thomas Harrington, a New Englander who has fallen, against his father’s wishes, for a woman named Harriot. He dearly yearns for Harriot as his mistress: “Shall we not,” he asks her, “obey the dictates of nature, rather than confine ourselves to the forced, unnatural rules of—and—and shall the halcyon days of youth slip through our fingers unenjoyed?” (Actually, Harrington says all of this with “the language of the eyes.” Early Americans excelled, you see, at conducting complicated conversations using only their peepers.)

Thomas’s friend Worthy urges him to marry the girl, rather than simply miring himself in licentiousness, and so the pair fall deeply in love; they’re soon engaged. But Thomas’s father does not receive the news well, and for good reason: Harriot is his illegitimate daughter, and now the secret must come out to protect his son’s honor. “He is now even upon the point of marrying—shall I proceed!—of marrying his Sister!” the father writes. “I fly to prevent incest!”

Maybe had he flown earlier, instead of pausing to write a letter to his minister about it, things would’ve turned out differently—we’ll never know. In any case, the lovers are understandably distraught, on the eve of their wedding day, to learn of their unwitting incest. They terminate the betrothal posthaste. Harriot, laid low by grief, succumbs to consumption, but not before unburdening herself thus:

How fleeting have been the days … when anticipation threw open the gates of happiness, and we vainly contemplated the approach of bliss … when we beheld in the magick mirrour of futurity, the lively group of loves that sport in the train of joy. We observed in transports of delight the dear delusion, and saw them, as it were, in bodily form pass in review before us … We were happy in idea, nor was the reality far behind. And why is the vision vanished ? O ! I sink, I die, when I reflect—when I find in my Harrington a brother—I am penetrated with inexpressible grief—I experience uncommon sensations—I start with horrour at the idea of incest—of ruin—of perdition.

She dies.

Disconsolate, Thomas decides “to quit this life” and—after about a dozen letters to Worthy saying he’s really going to do it any day now, the pain is unendurable, life is just a maze of suffering, et cetera, et cetera—he shoots himself. He’s found “wheltering in his blood” with a copy of The Sorrows of Young Werther at his side.

The Power of Sympathy is a sentimental novel in the strictest sense of the term: a kind of humanistic endeavor to evoke emotions in readers, giving them models on which to base their own emotional lives. It was crucial, in the second half of the eighteenth century, to allow yourself to be whipped into an emotional lather­—showing your feelings was a mark of character.

So The Power of Sympathy is full of character, by that standard and perhaps that standard alone. Critics have read it as an allegory of the nascent United States, helping to reinforce the caution and virtue that would best serve the young nation. Certainly it wears its heart on its sleeve—its preface reads, “Intended to represent the specious causes, and to Expose the fatal CONSEQUENCES, of SEDUCTION; To inspire the Female Mind With a Principle of Self Complacency, and to Promote the Economy of Human Life.” It’s important to sympathize, the novel tells us—but be rational about it.

In part, though, Brown must have aimed to titillate. He published the novel anonymously—a curious choice, since his only supposed ambition was moral didacticism. Surely it was a great thrill for his readers to find themselves in such proximity to incest, that taboo of taboos. To add to the sex appeal, Sympathy was “based on true events,” as a film adaptation might say: around the same time, two of Brown’s neighbors had been embroiled in a nearly identical scandal.

Still, Sympathy fascinates because it’s so purely the product of a historical moment: in 1789, literacy was on the rise and the business of publishing, especially newspaper publishing, was coming into its own. Letter writing was increasingly popular—the medium of the written word felt more democratic than ever before. The country was new and hungry for stories about itself; what we think of as the American character had yet to be minted. Beneath Sympathy’s many layers of mawkishness, there are some uniquely American details—lavish descriptions of the Rhode Island (“Rhodeisland”) greenery, for instance, and a surprisingly frank discussion of the South’s culture of slavery.

Mainly, though, it’s full of lines like these:

How opposite are the pursuits and rewards of her who participates in every rational enjoyment of life, without mixing in those scenes of indiscretion which give pain on recollection!—Whose chymical genius leads her to extract the poison from the most luxuriant flowers, and to draw honey even from the weeds of society. She mixes with the world seemingly indiscriminately—and because she would secure to herself that satisfaction which arises from a consciousness of acting right, she views her conduct with an eye of scrutiny. Though her temper is free and unrestrained, her heart is previously secured by the precepts of prudence—for prudence is but another name for virtue. Her manners are unruffled, and her disposition calm, temperate and dispassionate, however she may be surrounded by the temptations of the world. Adieu!

Adieu, indeed.

Dan Piepenbring is the web editor of The Paris Review.

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