Empathy and narrative

Suzanne Keen. Empathy and the novel. 2007

"Empathy may precede and lead to sympathy, but as has been amply demonstrated, mature sympathy, pity, and compassion do not necessarily result from empathy, nor does empathy inevitably lead to helping. Each of these states, including a disposition to help, can be brought about by cognitive processes other than empathy" (Keen 2007:27).

"Evidence for a relationship between narrative empathy and the prosocial motivation of actual readers does not support the grand claims often made on behalf of empathy" (Keen 2007:145).

"When a novel becomes a popular bestseller [...] the psychological effect of diffusion of responsibility may deter readers from acting upon their empathetic reading. The link between feeling with fictional characters and acting on behalf of real people, I have argued, is extremely tenuous and has yet to be substantiated either through empirical research into the effects of reading or through analysis of demonstrable causal relationships between novel reading as a cultural phenomenon and historical changes in societies in which novel reading flourishes" (Keen 2007:146).

"Though novel reading certainly involves role-taking imagination, for novels to change attitudes about others and inspire prosocial action requires more than just reading. Larry P. Nucci's research, summarized in Education in the Moral Domain (2001), reveals that the development of social and moral understanding requires discussion (173). This conclusion echoes the narrative ethics of Wayne Booth, who regards the active coduction that follows reading as a valuable step in connecting novel reading with the formation of readers' character. The affirmation and challenge to convictions that can occur when readers discuss fiction, especially with the guidance of a teacher who connects the dots between reactions to fiction and options for action in the real world, can be considerable" (Keen 2007:146).

"The strongest testimony about the influence of books arises from circumstances during which teaching or active discussion accompanies reading" (Keen 2007:147).

"For [some] critics, empathy is amoral (Posner, "Against" 19), a weak form of appeal to humanity in the face of organized hatred,3 an obstacle to agitation for racial justice (Delgado, Race War? 4–36), a waste of sentiment and encouragement of withdrawal (Raymond Williams, Culture and Society 109), and even a pornographic indulgence of sensation acquired at the expense of suffering others (Wood, Slavery 36). To some feminist and postcolonial critics, empathy loses credence the moment it appears to depend on a notion of universal human emotions, a cost too great to bear even if basic human rights depend upon it" (Keen 2007:147).

"Like students of human behavior during genocides, [African American science-fiction novelist Octavia] Butler sees empathy as a relatively weak form of appeal to common humanity. She regards the desire for dominance, division, and hierarchal relationships as human beings' fatal weaknesses; further, 'here on Earth, the worst behavior is rewarded' (Persistence' 4). Butler worries about 'the trivialization of empathy' (76) and reflects on the basis of her own experience that hurting other people exacts a price from empathic individuals and makes them hesitant to protect themselves. This means that an empathic person is likely to be perceived as weak, as 'some bleeding heart idiot' ('Persistence' 76)" (Keen 2007:152).

"As Geoffrey Hartman observes, 'National Socialism used aesthetic pleasure' 73 to render its ambitions more glamorous, and as far as resisters' aesthetic experiences go, 'there is no hard evidence that the altruistic personality is enhanced by exposure to higher education or "culture"' ("Night Thoughts" 139)(Keen 2007:26).

73. See Geoffrey H. Hartman, "Is an Aesthetic Ethos Possible? Night Thoughts after Auschwitz" (1994), 135-155, 137-138.

"Although fantasy empathy has been identified as a facet of the empathetic disposition, little is known about the process that would transpose experiences of feeling with fictional beings to actions taken on behalf of real others"(Keen 2007:35).

"To discover which representational devices most commonly invoke strong sensations of 'feeling with' another, the student of empathy might well turn to the market's most successful vehicle for rendering feelings in a stimulating way: porn. Pornography depends upon reliably conjuring physical sensations in the bodies of its consumers and appears to activate mirror neurons in the brains of its consumers (Blakeslee, "Cells That Read Minds" F4). It need not be realistic. Porn can be a cartoon; it can feature protagonists with fantastical proportions and superhuman abilities. It revels in stereotypical characterization and unabashedly ludicrous plotting. All that is required for porn's success is an effective transfer of the arousal and gratification of the protagonist to the bodies of its viewers. Vicious representations play on our human proneness to emotional contagion and motor mimicry just as readily as innocent or even socially beneficial world-making.

If fictions can move our feelings, then they can push us in degrading and dangerous directions"(Keen 2007:40).

"Adam Smith's 1759 Theory of Moral Sentiments offers a complementary account of imaginative transport under the term sympathy.10 Since the eighteenth century, the responsive and imitative phenomena that Smith described have been differentiated and given separate labels, whereas in Smith's treatise, we find a good description of empathy under the label 'fellow feeling.' Smith writes, 'whatever is the passion which arises from any object in the person principally concerned, an analogous emotion springs up, at the thought of his situation, in the breast of every attentive spectator' (Moral Sentiments 10). Smith also notices the human propensity to motor mimicry that leads to an empathetic response: 'When we see a stroke aimed, and just ready to fall upon the leg or arm of another person, we naturally shrink and draw back our own leg or our own arm; and when it does fall, we feel it in some measure, and are hurt by it as well as the sufferer' (10). Emotional contagion in crowds does not escape Smith's notice: 'The mob, when they are gazing at a dancer on the slack rope, naturally writhe and twist and balance their own bodies as they see him do, and as they feel that they themselves must do in his situation' (10). Smith posits that perspective taking enables humans to feel copies of others' sense impressions: 'by the imagination we place ourselves in his situation, we conceive ourselves enduring all the same torments, we enter as it were into his body' (9)"(Keen 2007:43).

"By the late eighteenth century, cultural watchdogs had begun to worry about the kinds of fictional representations that excited readers' sensations. Romances had been condemned in similar terms in an earlier period, but far fewer people read them. By the late eighteenth century, circulating libraries had become widespread in London and provincial towns, and most of what they offered for rent was novels. This change made fiction affordable for working people, a phenomenon that did not meet with universal approbation. John Tinnon Taylor quotes an anonymous commentator of 1795, who complains in the pages of The Sylph that "I have actually seen mothers, in miserable garrets, crying for the imaginary distress of an heroine, while their children were crying for bread" (quoted in Taylor, Early Opposition 53). Clearly the baseline social class for sympathy and sensibility ordinarily cut off far above these impoverished mothers; the affront Taylor records in this comment derives from a neglectful poor person revealing herself as both a sympathizer and a novel reader. For this representative late eighteenth-century voice, to be an appropriate person of sensibility, one must be at least a respectable consumer, not a likely recipient of charity"(Keen 2007:45).

"While sympathy in Hume and Smith emphasizes mutuality of feeling, for later readers, the fiction of sensibility presents excessive scenes of compassion and pity that can seem condescending to the suffering recipient. Sympathy becomes tainted with a sense of social as well as moral superiority, and the suspicion that it exists only to shore up middle-class identity taints its exercise.18 Empathic scenes of shared feeling can seem vampiric, as if the person of sensibility feeds on the pain of others. It gets worse. A recent historical rereading of the late eighteenth-century literature of abolition sees the representations of suffering slaves as pornographic, appealing to the sadomasochistic appetites of persons of sensibility"(Keen 2007:47).

"The circulation of sympathy through author, reader, real world, and text still underwrites most of the boldest claims for the consequences of reading and writing. This legacy of romanticism passes directly to theories of Victorian fiction. By the Romantics' logic, writers invite readers to fuse with themselves and with the objects of their representation. Readers feel with writers and with characters or representations, and readers in the real world regard the objects of their gaze as if they were representations. Writers in the real world do the same thing with their subjects, recognizing and representing them as material for sympathetic identification�the loop goes on. In testifying to the effects of fiction, readers' responses to characters in novels often elide the difference between fictive constructions and actual experience: the training in sensibility offered by fiction often becomes evidence of its own efficacy. Whether one judges the net effect of this aesthetic practice as the stimulus for the changes of heart that accompanied or brought about the social changes of the nineteenth century, or as a phenomenon ultimately isolating, selfish, and dehumanizing to others, depends on temperament and opinion, not established fact"(Keen 2007:51).

"The assumption that feelings so cultivated by exposure to great fiction will lead to active good citizenship underlies Martha Nussbaum's strenuous recommendation of a diet of canonical novels (Dickens, James, Stowe, and Eliot herself). The great English Marxist critic Raymond Williams takes the opposite view of the long-term effects of sympathetic fiction. Williams suggests in his influential account of the Victorian industrial novels that readers feeling sympathy for a character in a book (for instance, an impoverished worker) experience a general structure of feeling that leads not to good citizenship, but to apathy and inaction in the real world: "Recognition of evil was balanced by fear of becoming involved. Sympathy was transformed, not into action, but into withdrawal" (Culture and Society 109)"(Keen 2007:54).

"In the beginning of the twentieth century, the English novelist Vernon Lee brought Einf�hlung and empathy to a broader literary audience. In a public lecture followed by a magazine piece in a popular journal, she advanced a theory of aesthetic perception of form involving empathy, though not (at first) so named. Originally Lee's aesthetics focused on bodily sensations and muscular adjustments made by beholders of works of art and architecture and downplayed emotional responsiveness. By the time she revised and expanded her ideas for presentation in book form as The Beautiful (1913), Lee had adapted Lipps's understanding of empathy, a parallel development from common sources in German aesthetics. Defining the purpose of art as, in part, "the awakening, intensifying, or maintaining of definite emotional states" (Beautiful 99�100), Lee makes empathy a central feature of our collaborative responsiveness (128). In an account that combines motor mimicry, memory, and psychological responsiveness to inanimate objects, Lee argues that empathy enters into 'imagination, sympathy, and also into that inference from our own inner experience which has shaped all our conceptions of an outer world'"(Keen 2007:55).

"No sooner had the term been announced and situated so centrally in aesthetic theory for an English-language audience, however, than it received brisk challenge from high modernist quarters"(Keen 2007:56).

"Appeals to sentiment and feeling fell out of favor as merely conventional. Poets eschewed empty phrasing. Experimental techniques disrupted the surface of discourse so that it could not be read by getting 'lost in a book,' with the reader submerged in an unchallenging, absorbing, reading trance. Inducing readers to work as strenuously thinking collaborators meant depriving them of the emotional effects they had come to rely upon getting from literature"(Keen 2007:56).

"Perhaps the best known assault on empathy as an aspect of artistic reception in the modern period comes from Bertolt Brecht's so-called alienation effect, a translation of the Verfremsdungseffekt (V-effekt), which can be better rendered as an estrangement effect"(Keen 2007:56).

"Brecht wanted playgoers to experience detachment, rather than absorbed suspension of disbelief. His techniques included the rejection of both the illusion of the fourth wall and Stanislavskian acting. By reversing the conventions in both these areas of dramaturgy, Brecht attempted to interfere with "the automatic transfer of the emotions to the spectator," a phenomenon Brecht deplored as "emotional infection" (Chinese Acting, 94). He wished instead for the presentation of dramatic figures 'quite coldly, classically and objectively'("Conversation" 15)"(Keen 2007:56).

"Empathy for a fictional character need not correspond with what the author appears to set up or invite"(Keen 2007:75).[Evil characters]

"This imaginative procedure is honored as a creative practice, but for a regular reader, identifying or feeling with the 'wrong' character may produce discomfort, shame, or self-censorship"(Keen 2007:76).

"Discussion of fiction that takes place in public settings, while extremely valuable in itself, may not be the most reliable source of evidence for emotional responses to fiction. The effects of conscious or unconscious desires to please can even occur when anonymity and privacy are guaranteed. [...] In a worst-case scenario modeled by Blade Runner, identifying and empathizing with a featured character could become a test, in which readers who gravitate toward other textual features (or simply dislike the novel!) reveal their moral failings or inhumanity" (Keen 2007:78).

"If the reactions of any feeling reader count as evidence of a novel's effectiveness, then suddenly all sorts of popular fiction, including formulaic romance novels, demand attention. If the exercise of professional judgment means weeding out the worthwhile fiction from ephemera (as it does for book critics and teachers of contemporary fiction, who work without the armature of a teaching canon), then readers' empathy may be a positive feature assisting critical judgment, or it may be an annoying reminder of the power of popularity. For instance, millions of readers resonated empathetically with the protagonist of Robert James Waller's The Bridges of Madison County (1992), but the MLA Bibliography reports only a single peer-reviewed journal article on the novel.41 The book stayed on The New York Times' Bestseller list for nearly three years, and its publisher TimeWarner characterizes Bridges as the best-selling novel of all time" (Keen 2007:82).

"Though the critical consensus appears to be that the film improved on the novel, ordinary readers' enthusiasm for Francesca's love story propelled the success of this novel" (Keen 2007:83).

"At a basic level, novels that enjoy such phenomenal popularity are self-discrediting to most professionals in literary studies (agents, would-be-authors of bestsellers, and editors obviously feel differently). The success of novels such as The Bridges of Madison County demands attention if readers' empathy is to be understood, and certainly should compel respect if the empathy of readers could actually be turned to socially desirable ends. An empathy-inducing blockbuster would be a powerful tool, if feeling readers acted upon their sensations as Martha Nussbaum believes readers of Henry James, Charles Dickens, and George Eliot do. However, literary studies and philosophy (including novel criticism and narrative ethics) have a largely unexamined vexed�often openly contemptuous�relationship with popular fiction" (Keen 2007:83).

"Many educated readers believe that the quality of a novel somehow inheres in the empathy it evokes. This widespread conviction represents a continuation of the Victorian critical standard, expressed in countless book reviews, that successful fictional characters command readers' sympathies. Though the twenty-first� century style replaces Victorian sympathetic feeling for with contemporary empathetic feeling with, teaching at the primary and secondary level inculcates the view that readers vicariously experience novels by identifying with characters. In the prevailing circular logic, good novels invite empathy and empathetic responses verify the quality of the novel" (Keen 2007:83).

"Unfotunately, in order to diminish the power of the evidence suggesting that lowbrow fiction evokes empathy more reliably than treasured classics, some critics end up denigrating the readers who respond to popular, massmarket texts. This seems to me a counterproductive strategy" (Keen 2007:84).

"The question of quality, or of the relationship of empathy to literariness, may well prove a stumbling block to the understanding of empathy and the novel as a phenomenon. The traditional critical task of distinguishing great works from worthless trash is a useful practice � no one has time to read everything and critics help readers choose. However, carrying over the critical habit of elimination of unworthy texts may obscure more than it reveals about human empathy and our appetite for narrative. Thus I conclude [...] with a caution, that readers' empathy may have little to do with the quality of fiction as acclaimed by professionals. Understanding readers' empathy almost certainly requires attending to the novels that real readers choose for themselves and may demand a discomforting de-emphasis of prized qualities of literariness" (Keen 2007:84).

"Many aspects of characterization have not yet been tested in controlled experiments, despite their nomination by theorists. The naming of characters (including the withholding of a name, the use of an abbreviation or a role title in place of a full name, or allegorical or symbolic naming, etc.) may play a role in the potential for character identification. The descriptive language through which readers encounter characters is assumed to make a difference (content matters!), but what about grammar and syntax? Does / the use of present tense (over the usual past tense) really create effects of immediacy and direct connection, as many contemporary authors believe? The old 'show, don't tell' shibboleth of creative writing class remains to be verified: direct description of a character's emotional state or circumstances by a third-person narrator may produce empathy in readers just as effectively as indirect implication of emotional states through actions and context. David S. Miall has suggested that characters' motives, rather than their traits, account for the affective engagement and self-projection of readers into characters, though it remains unclear when, and at which cues, readers' emotional self-involvement jump-starts the process of interpretation. Bortolussi and Dixon believe that 'transparency,' or the judgment of characters' behavior as sensible and practical, contributes to identification (Psychonarratology 240). This may be too simple: even traditional novels are complex, polyvocal, and various, and Wayne Booth offers this sensible caution: "What we call 'involvement' or 'sympathy' or 'identification,' is usually made up of many reactions to author, narrators, observers, and other characters" (Rhetoric 158, my emphasis). Some way of accounting for the multiplicity of reactions making up a normal novel-reading experience needs to be devised in order to study the transition from distributed characterization in narrative fiction and readers' everyday synthesis of their reactions into an experience of character identification" (Keen 2007:94-5).

"First-person fiction, in which the narrator self-narrates his or her own experiences and perceptions, is thought to invite an especially close relationship between reader and narrative voice. For instance, Franz Stanzel (a major theorist of narrative situation) believes that the choice of internal representation of the thoughts and feelings of a character in third-person fiction and the use of first-person selfnarration have a particularly strong effect on readers.104 Novelist and literary theorist David Lodge speculates that historical and philosophical contexts may explain the preference for first-person or figural third-person narrative voice: "In a world where nothing is certain, in which transcendental belief has been undermined by scientific materialism, and even the objectivity of science is qualified by relativity and uncertainty, the single human voice, telling its own story, can seem the only authentic way of rendering consciousness" (Consciousness 87)

However, the existing experimental results for such an association of technique and reaction are not robust. In several studies of Dutch teenagers, W. van Peer and H. Pander Maat tested the notion that first-person narration creates a "greater illusion of closeness � allowing the reader a greater and better fusion with the world of the character."105 It did not. They conclude "it remains unclear why point of view has no more powerful and no more overall effect on readers, given the effort devoted by authors in order to create these devices that produce a point of view" ("Perspectivation" 15)" (Keen 2007:97).

"David Lodge concedes that the first-person voice "is just as artful, or artificial, a method as writing about a character in the third person," but he insists that it "creates an illusion of reality, it commands the willing suspension of the reader's disbelief, by modeling itself on the discourses of personal witness: the confession, the diary, autobiography, the memoir, the deposition" (Consciousness 87�88). I have been pursuing the opposite argument, that paratexts cuing readers to understand a work as fictional unleash their emotional responsiveness, in spite of fiction's historical mimicry of nonfictional, testimonial forms. For Lodge, the fact that first-person narration provides writers with the greatest opportunity for the creation of unreliable or discordant narrators plays on the practically automatic trust readers are assumed to bring to their part of the fiction-reading project, but the effect of narrative unreliability can be added to the long list of techniques not yet tested for effects on readers' emotional response" (Keen 2007:98).

"Scholars studying the effects of reading using controlled experiments seek to verify their beliefs that fiction reading evokes empathy, which in turn results in improved attitudes toward others and prosocial action in the real world. Though the evidence for these effects is still scanty, the faith in the relationship between reading narrative and moral or social benefits is so strong and pervasive that it remains a bedrock assumption of many scholars, philosophers, critics, and cultural commentators. Real readers are more hesitant about the results that reading has worked in them, however. Most readers value empathy as one of the desired experiences brought about by reading, and to that end they seek out novels that will allow imaginative identification with characters and immersion in vividly rendered fictional worlds so that they can feel with fiction. The mass appeal of empathetic fiction may not translate directly into altruism, but its very success in the marketplace demands attention" (Keen 2007:99).

"No empirical research yet demonstrates that the effects of reading 'highbrow' serious literary fiction differ from the results of immersion in 'middlebrow' or even 'lowbrow' mass-market fiction. In fact, it would be difficult to say for certain which fictional works exemplify these categories of taste, though that hasn't stopped the disparagement of certain genres and their readers" (Keen 2007:102).

"Perception of fictionality releases novel-readers from the normal state of alert suspicion of others' motives that often acts as a barrier to empathy. This means that the contract of fictionality offers a nostrings-attached opportunity for emotional transactions of great intensity. A novel-reader may enjoy empathy freely without paying society back in altruism. Indeed, the appetite for such experiences of imaginative transport significantly diminishes when they become vehicles for arriving at improving ends" (Keen 2007:168).


Suzanne Keen. 2007. Empathy and the novel. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN: 019517576X.


In the format cited.

Hartman, Geoffrey H. "Is an Aesthetic Ethos Possible? Night Thoughts after Auschwitz." Cardozo Studies in Law and Literature 6 (1994).