Empathy and the Novel

This is a huge topic and I feel quite over-awed just approaching it. There’s so much to say and quite a few people have given excellent suggestions to me already (see previous posts). Perhaps a good place to start is with a quote from Joyce Carol Oates (courtesy of pages turned’s blog): “Reading is the sole means by which we slip, involuntarily, often helplessly, into another’s skin, another’s voice, another’s soul.”

Since reading involves an active imagining of someone else’s world, the links and parallels with empathy are many. Interestingly, in “Empathy and the Novel” (2007), Suzanne Keen argues that while novelists use empathy both as a narrative strategy and a subject of their novels, and clearly engage strong affective responses in their readers, this does not necessarily translate into altruistic behaviour.

Empathy robustly enters into affective responses to fiction, but its proper role in shaping the behaviour of emotional readers has been debated for three centuries. Keen surveys these debates and offers a series of hypotheses about literary empathy, including narrative techniques inviting empathetic response. She argues that above all readers’ perception of a text’s fictiveness increases the likelihood of readers’ empathy, by releasing readers from their guarded responses to the demands of real others. She confirms the centrality of narrative empathy as a strategy, as well as a subject, of contemporary novelists. (book blurb, my emphasis)

This echoes other research findings on empathy and the movies, that (low empathy) men are far more likely to enjoy a movie (and empathise with the characters) if they perceive the characters as fictional rather than based on real life. I think real life brings a lot more anxiety into play, such as fears that people will make real-life demands on you for time and attention / affection / money. Fiction allows us to relax and engage “softer” (less guarded) emotions.

I also wanted to quote from Litlove’s post on Josipovici the other day:

…. once again the notion of being in the same place as a fundamental prerequisite for sympathy is raised. We might need to be in the same geographical space to coincide with an event in a different historical time, or we might need to make the imaginative leap to the same mindset as another person, to understand an enigmatic point of view, but true sympathy demands that we change places, that we move ourselves either physically or mentally into another realm altogether, so that the same perspective might be shared. And the point of doing this, Josipovici seems to suggest (to me at least) is that this whole awkward business of moving and mental shape-shifting is one of the basic and most admirable building blocks of love.

I like the way that empathy (or sympathy here) is a building-block of love. From a purely psychological perspective, that links up to the point that empathy is a necessary but not sufficient condition for therapeutic change. Being able to enter into the thoughts and feelings of another doesn’t mean that you will be acting compassionately towards them. Hunters will tell you that they try to think like their prey, much like a good detective will try and imagine herself into the mind of the criminal. (What did they think or feel when they were standing there under that tree, looking up at the house?) Stalkers are particularly creepy because they get into your mind and you have no idea what their intentions might be. This has relevance to therapy because sometimes, if the therapist is not sensitive to how they are being perceived, the client might see the therapist as hunting them and trying to exploit their vulnerability.

So perhaps (in agreement with openpalm) I’m saying that empathy is not enough. There needs to be compassion (or love) as well. Valerie Stone (an Australian psychologist) writes about how humans use their well-developed intellectual abilities for compassion or cruelty, and how language is used to construct (or symbolise) the world in such a way that provides an outlet for kind or cruel feelings.

Cruelty is what happens when we use our symbolic capacity to define another person as ‘the enemy’, and use theory of mind and executive function to plan an outlet for our ancient instincts for aggression. Compassion is what happens when we use our symbolic capacity to define another person as part of our in-group, and use our theory of mind and executive function to plan ways to benefit them, using ancient instincts for empathy.

I’ll have to develop these ideas a bit more during the course of the week, if patient admin allows. I’d be interested to read (online at Google books) more of what Keen has to say. She quotes Little Women for a start (which I’ve never read) and then readers’ responses to Middlemarch (which I have). I liked the reference to Cassaubon coming up with a theory that tries to link everything together. Sometimes I feel that way about empathy.


5 Responses to Empathy and the Novel

  1. Litlove says:

    How very interesting! I had never thought of the empathetic quality of stalkers before, although I completely see your point. Perhaps it’s all a question of what you want empathy to do for you – whether you want it to determine your own behaviour (ethics) or manipulate the other (politics?/crime? – funny how they go hand in hand in that process). What fascinating research you have ahead of you, in any case Pete!

  2. Emma Darwin says:

    That Keen book sounds completely fascinating.

    Writers often empathise with characters very strongly (do we need to, to some degree, with all major characters, if we’re to write them properly and convincingly? have to think about that) and it can be a bit of a shock to find in due course that a reader has a completely different experience of the character from our own.

  3. Pete says:

    Litlove – yes, definitely some interesting research to be had here. It’s a huge topic so I’m going to take about six months just to read (and write) around it and see what happens.

    Emma – thanks for the visit. How exciting to read the thoughts of a “real” writer! Have just bookmarked your site so that I can follow your thoughts on writing. I was also interested to see that readers identify with the “wrong” characters – e.g. Cassaubon in Middlemarch in Keen’s example.

  4. Smithereens says:

    Fascinating subject! You can find countless experiences of empathy, blurring with sympathy, in traditional novels where the main character is likeable… but what happens when s/he’s not? Not only weak or slightly flawed characters, but utterly bad? Do we need to have compassion, even love, for novel characters? That’s a question I had for quite a long time, I hope your research will help me clarify my thoughts on this difficult topic!

  5. Emma Darwin says:

    Thinking of Casaubon, a classic girls-night-out game is which of the four girls in Little Women you identify with: very revealing!

    Meanwhile, my blog post here: http://emmadarwin.typepad.com/thisitchofwriting/2008/09/where-the-wild-things-are.html jumps of from this discussion, so thanks for the inspiration, Pete. It was going to go on to discuss Smithereens’ thought, but it never got there, so that’ll be another post.

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