How Fiction Helps Us Empathize

By Aniya Wells

All the arts have their own unique virtues and strengths: the tactility of sculpture, the grace of dance, the vividness of cinema, the interactivity of gaming. None of these can be entirely replicated when a concept is adapted from one medium to another, no matter how skilled the adaptation.

With all the proliferation of new high-tech art forms since the Industrial Revolution, what is it in prose fiction that has not been bested or replaced? I would argue that it is the psychological depth of understanding, the interior experience of another, dissimilar person’s life.

It’s interesting to note that if anything, this faculty of fiction only deepened with the dawn of the modern era – just as phonographs and kinetoscopes and other newfangled devices that would change our media landscape were appearing, Henry James and others were drilling ever deeper into the human psyche with more novelistic sophistication. This tendency only increased to its logical limit: stream of consciousness. A temporary rebuke followed in the form of an avant garde who rejected the notion of literary character as we had known it, most prominently Alain Robbe-Grillet and the nouveau roman, but also certain American postmodernists.

But the fact remains that we read to experience being someone else. Allow me to suggest that this is another, more optimistic view of what is sometimes pejoratively called “escapism.” To be sure, it is a dubious proposition that we are morally enlarged by putting ourselves in the rather dapper shoes of, say, James Bond. But nevertheless, even in the tritest cases, reading remains an out-of-body experience, a stepping-stone to a more selfless or expansive awareness.

In many cases, this can take an overtly salutary political dimension. How many young consciences have been informed by the inclusion of To Kill a Mockingbird on syllabuses across the country, opened just a little to a bigger idea of justice? True, many other mainstays of high school literature classes are more groaningly didactic than that lovely book, assigned in hopes of much the same effect, but this hardly need be the case for reading to be edifying.

There is a sort of spiritual stretching that takes place when we take seriously the lives of others. We see it in those whose provincial prejudices are stretched by real-life friendships with those outside their in-group. We see it too in the sensitivity of the avid reader, hungry for the experience of new perspectives.

This is not to say that the well-read are automatically more moral; to be sure, there are many impeccably educated villains in this world. Moreover, the purpose of fiction is not ultimately to edify but to be beautiful and entertaining. Plato understood this and was suspicious of poets for this reason. It’s important to keep our awareness of this line between aesthetics and morality. But I would maintain that they more often go together in the end, that to enter into the mind of another is to be given a glimpse of something larger.

 

Aniya Wells is a freelance blogger whose primary focus is writing about online degree programs. She also enjoys investigating trends in other niches, notably technology, traditional higher education, health, and small business. Aniya welcomes reader questions and comments at aniyawells@gmail.com.

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4 thoughts on “How Fiction Helps Us Empathize

  1. Anyia,
    I enjoyed reading your post on literature and empathy. As a college teacher of literature, I recognize the depth to which you are speaking in your writing. Your references to various authors and literary trops was welcomed. Are there any empirical studies that can help document this position between literature and empthy?

  2. Thanks for these observations, Aniya. If empathy is that quality of being able to relate to someone else’s emotions, and if the essence of a good story is to immerse yourself in the experience of the protagonist, then these two features of human experience seem to be identical. I like your phrase “spiritual stretching” calling attention to the transcendent nature of empathy, and suggesting that suspending disbelief helps carry the mind beyond the self. Nicely done.

    Jerry

  3. Michael: You might take a look at the Changing Lives Through Literature website. cltl.umassd.edu On that sitte you can find some studies that suggest the way literature has changed the lives of readers.

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