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Lectio praecursoria – Howard Sklar

The Electronic Journal of the Department of English
at the University of Helsinki

ISSN 1457-9960

Volume 5, 2009

Emotions Issue

© 2009 Howard Sklar


Lectio Praecursoria

 October 25, 2008

 Howard Sklar


 Mr. Custos, Mr. Opponent, ladies and gentlemen:

The late David Foster Wallace once said that he’d noticed a change in the attitudes of the students in his writing classes.  According to Wallace,

These students are far more afraid of coming off as sentimental, than they are of coming off twisted, obscene, gross—any of the things that used to be the really horrible things that you didn’t want to betray about yourself.1

While Wallace attributed this change, this fear of sentimentality, to the crass ways in which emotions are sometimes used in commercial media, there can be little doubt that, for many, the “sentiments” in literature generally have something of a bad name.  Thus, the philosopher Robert Solomon, recognizing that “the very word, ‘sentimentality,’ has been loaded with the connotations of ‘too much’—too much feeling and too little common sense and rationality” writes,

But I take sentimentality to be nothing more nor less than the “appeal to tender feelings,” and though one can manipulate and abuse such feelings (including one’s own), and though they can on occasion be misdirected or excessive, there is nothing wrong with them as such and nothing (in that respect) wrong with literature that provokes us, that “moves” us to abstract affection or weeping.2

I am here today, in part, to make an appeal for the importance of the emotions in literature, and of sympathy in particular.  I originally began the research for my dissertation propelled by a passionate need to understand why certain works of fiction—at that time, by Sherwood Anderson and Bernard Malamud—had touched me so deeply and profoundly and in ways that seemed mysteriously beautiful.  Only Anderson’s short story “Hands,” from the story cycle Winesburg, Ohio, remains a part of this study, but the basic questions that led me from there to here remain: How do works of fiction motivate our sympathy for characters who seem unsympathetic?  What does it mean when we respond sympathetically to fictional characters, and how is this similar or different from the way we respond to real people?  Do actual readers respond in the ways that I theorize?  If so, are there any moral implications for us, as readers, when we experience sympathy for fictional characters?

By attempting to cross the line, as it were, between everyday emotions and emotions generated by fiction, I am not suggesting that no line exists.  As literary scholar Meir Sternberg has pointed out, the most important difference is that fiction, unlike real life, uses devices that generate our sympathy, and even sometimes with the intention of doing so.3  I will return to this type of effect, which I have called “emotional persuasion,” shortly.  In the meantime, I’d like to spend some time looking at sympathy itself, for, as I argue at length in my dissertation, there are important similarities between sympathy in real life and the sympathy that we sometimes feel for fictional characters.

So, what is sympathy?

Before we can answer this question, we must distinguish it from empathy, since the two terms are frequently confused, or used interchangeably.  In most definitions, empathy involves the absorption of the empathizer in the feelings or experiences of another.  University of Helsinki social psychologist Liisa Myyry, for instance, suggests that “[e]mpathy…could be defined as an affective response more appropriate to another’s situation than one’s own.”4  Literary scholar Suzanne Keen, in developing her theory of empathy’s role in fictional works, suggests a similar definition: “In empathy…we feel what we believe to be the emotions of others.”5  Philosopher Martha Nussbaum broadens this definition, describing empathy as “an imaginative reconstruction of another person’s experience, without any particular evaluation of that experience.”6  In each of these definitions, empathy operates as what I call a “chameleon emotion,” in the sense that, when we experience it, we take on the emotional experience of another as our own—although, as Nussbaum points out, we typically don’t lose the sense of our own identities when we empathize.7

The relation between empathy and sympathy, moreover, is complicated by the fact that researchers are divided regarding the extent to which empathy leads to the development of sympathy, as well as the degree to which sympathy is a component of empathy itself.  However empathy is thought to be constituted, it differs from sympathy proper in that the one who empathizes takes on the experience—and, especially, the emotional experience—of another individual or individuals.

Sympathy, thus, is distinct from empathy in that it involves distance between the sympathizer and the one who receives sympathy.  My study of sympathy as a phenomenon, both in everyday life and in our responses to fictional characters, has led to the identification of what I consider four essential features.  First, sympathy includes what Lauren Wispé calls “the heightened awareness of the suffering of another as something to be alleviated.”8  This does not imply that we act on that awareness; such a response, which I would call “altruism,” sometimes is the outcome of sympathy, but is not required for sympathy to take place.

Second, sympathy is often based in part on the recognition of the unfairness of the suffering of another.9  In other words, for me to feel sympathy, I must determine or judge that it is unfair on some level for that person to be suffering, regardless of my beliefs about that person, or his contribution to the creation of his own suffering.

Third, the recognition of another’s suffering generally involves feelings towards the sufferer, or towards her situation.

Fourth, and finally, sympathy frequently includes the desire to alleviate another’s suffering.10  Again, this desire does not imply action, but merely the wish that the person not be experiencing the difficulty that gave rise to the sympathy.

This definition of sympathy incorporates several interconnected qualities.  Sympathy is seen as a social, and not merely psychological, phenomenon that involves “common-sense” notions of fairness and suffering:  According to sociologist Candace Clark, most people, when they describe what they experience when they feel sympathy, say that they “feel sorry for someone” who is experiencing something difficult.11  In addition, the process of evaluation that takes place when we sympathize suggests that sympathy possesses an inherently moral dimension.  In fact, sympathy gains its moral significance to the extent that, to cite Nussbaum, it “includes a judgment that the other person’s distress is bad.”12 Whether or not we are aware of making these judgments of another’s situation, it is impossible to imagine sympathy taking place without some form of assessment of that person’s situation.

The issue of judgment in sympathy, indeed, is critical to understanding the ways that narrative fiction generates sympathy in readers.  As both literary scholar Meir Sternberg and my distinguished opponent, Prof. James Phelan, have amply shown, one of the most salient features of narrative fiction is that it prompts readers to form judgments regarding characters and their actions.  Such judgments occur progressively—that is, as readers move from the beginning to the end of a story.   How are these judgments formed?  Keen suggests the author’s role in prompting such judgments through what she calls “author’s empathy,” an inherently rhetorical strategy that she describes as the “attempt [by authors] to persuade readers to feel with them.”13   In some cases, our empathy with the feelings of an author may involve “feeling with” a particular character—of empathizing with her or him.  In other cases, this process of empathizing with the author’s feelings, rather than leading to empathy for a character, may lead readers to feel other emotions that the author has projected, yet which are not shared by the character.14  One such emotion, sympathy, possesses two characteristics that have a bearing on this rhetorical dimension of narrative experience.  First, narratives that motivate our sympathy for fictional characters implicitly anticipate response on the part of readers.  Indeed, sympathy by nature is a responsive emotion, and, therefore, texts that elicit this response provide structures that enable readers to intuit and interpret the appropriateness of sympathy at particular moments within the progression of the narrative.  This determination of the appropriateness of sympathy at particular moments is another way of saying that which I suggested earlier, namely, that sympathetic response necessarily involves a judgment of the suffering of another.  Thus, as in real-life sympathy, readers’ judgments are built on the extent of their “awareness of the suffering of” the character, as well as their “feeling on behalf of the sufferer,” as they progress through a succession of situations in which the characters are depicted.

This is certainly true for the stories analyzed in my dissertation:  Philip Roth’s “Eli, the Fanatic,” Ursula K. Le Guin’s “Betrayals,” Toni Cade Bambara’s “The Hammer Man,” and Sherwood Anderson’s “Hands.”  Each of these stories, I have shown, leads readers through a series of observations, which in turn lead to judgments that ultimately produce sympathy for characters who in some sense resist their sympathies: the shadowy yeshiva Jew in Roth’s story, the disgraced leader Abberkam in Le Guin; the reportedly violent and obsessive boy, Manny, in Bambara; the accused child molester, Wing Biddlebaum, in Anderson.  To be sure, the precise order in which readers reach these judgments, and the specific attitudes that accompany them, vary from story to story.  Regardless of the individual nuances of readers’ responses to the characters, though, I consider sympathetic judgment—sometimes explicit or conscious, at other times implicit or intuitive—to play an especially important role.  As Prof. Phelan theorizes, “[I]ndividual narratives explicitly or more often implicitly establish their own ethical standards in order to guide their audiences to particular ethical judgments.”15  In practice, this means that, while readers may bring their own interpretive frames and experiences to the reading of a given text, the narrative itself provides its own counterweight to personal presumptions by “persuading” readers to feel and to evaluate characters in particular ways.

Or so the theory goes.  At one point early in my research, I was bombarded by questions from my colleagues: “This all sounds really reasonable, Howard, but how do you know that readers will respond in this way?”  And they each wielded their underlying critiques of my assumptions: the unverified claims of the reader-response theories of the 1970’s, the post-modern and postcolonial rejection of “correct” readings, and so forth.  I took—and still do take—each of these criticisms seriously, yet I remained convinced that the stories at least established parameters for response, even though I lacked any means, other than conventional literary analysis, to verify this claim.  It was at this point that my supervisor, and the custos today, Prof. Bo Pettersson, recommended that I consider testing actual readers as a way of investigating my claims.  Four years and a few gray hairs later, I would like to suggest that the evidence from more than 180 adolescent readers’ responses at least provides some support for the notion that the two stories selected for testing—Bambara’s “The Hammer Man” and Anderson’s “Hands”—do in fact lead readers through complex but, in the end, sympathetic responses to the protagonists in each story.

Basically, there were two components of the testing that I conducted.  The first, a measure of individual empathy and sympathy that is used widely within the field of social psychology, the Interpersonal Reactivity Index or IRI, was given as a pretest to determine the degree to which my subjects feel sympathy for others in their daily lives.  The second set of tests, which I call the Reader Emotions Test, was designed by me in consultation with researchers in the Department of Social Psychology at the University of Helsinki.  The Reader Emotions Test prompts readers at particular points along the progression of a narrative that have been hypothesized to produce certain emotional reactions in readers based on their judgments of the characters.  In the case of “The Hammer Man,” I claimed that readers would experience little sympathy for the main character, Manny, early in the story, on account of the highly negative first impression of him that the narrative provides.  I suggested, though, that this impression would be reversed, and sympathy increased, by the revelation of more favorable details later in the story.  This, in fact, proved to be true among the majority of readers who participated in my study.  In addition, the cross-tabulation of this result with the results from the IRI showed no correlation between readers’ sympathetic responses for Manny and their tendencies to feel sympathy in their daily lives. This result suggests that readers, rather than merely responding based on their ordinary feelings of sympathy for others, were moved by the text to feel sympathy for the character—a finding that would appear to support my hypotheses regarding the sympathetic persuasiveness of the story itself.  The second story, “Hands,” seems to operate in a different way, with readers prompted to feel sympathy for the protagonist, Wing Biddlebaum, early in the story, only to have that sympathy challenged and then reinforced by later developments in the narrative.  Unlike the first story, “Hands” did show a correlation between readers’ sympathetic tendencies and their feelings of sympathy for the main character.  This result does not disprove a connection between the effects of the text and readers’ responses, but it doesn’t supply the independent confirmation of such effects that the first story provides.

While these findings are interesting in suggesting answers to some of my literary critical questions, I also wondered how they might be relevant to my work as a public school English teacher.  All too often, discussions of literary works in schools focus on the content of the stories, in the strict sense, rather than on students’ experiences of that material.  While it is certainly possible and useful for a teacher of literature to discuss “The Hammer Man” and “Hands” in terms of plot, characterization and other literary features, I contend that reliance only, or even mainly, on this approach denies students an important opportunity for the understanding of their own emotions and ideas.16

In terms of “The Hammer Man” and “Hands,” the fact of students’ similar responses presents an opportunity to consider the nature of sympathy itself.  I am not suggesting that these similar responses should lead us to ignore the many differences that exist between students’ reactions to the stories.  Instead, I believe that the discussion of student responses, ideally, involves a negotiation—in this case, between the individual versions of sympathy17 that students have experienced in response to the text.  If, in such a discussion, a student tells me that he “felt sorry” for Manny in “The Hammer Man,” the questions with which I follow up that observation may go a long way towards helping that individual—and the entire class—understand the nature of that response.  What caused you to feel that way?  Do you like him, or do you just feel sorry for him?  Moreover, the implications of such responses for what social psychologists call prosocial behavior—or, “intentional, voluntary behavior that benefits another,” to cite one definition18—should not be underestimated.  If you felt this way towards someone you met on the street, what would you do?  What do you think you ought to do?  If you felt this way towards someone you already cared about, what would you do?  What do you think you ought to do?  Once raised, these types of questions draw on adolescents’ developing capacity for hypothetical reflection by applying the inherently hypothetical nature of fictional narratives to situations that students can readily envision.19  Whatever the extent of a student’s belief in the reality of the fictional world, a narrative is made relevant and forms a kind of construct for later development by bridging the distance between hypothetical and real.

Now, some may view this type of intervention in the lives of adolescents—and, more generally, this focus on the emotional and moral effects of literature—as far removed from the experiences of most readers when they sit down to read narrative fiction.  James Wood, in his chapter “Sympathy and Complexity” from this year’s How Fiction Works, makes precisely this point, even as he recognizes and even defends the notion of the emotional and moral impact of particular works of fiction.  Wood writes, “We don’t read in order to benefit in this way from fiction.  We read fiction because it pleases us, moves us, is beautiful, and so on—because it is alive and we are alive.”20  This is certainly lovely and also true…up to a point: It’s hard to imagine that many people, aside perhaps from literary scholars, engage with fiction that does not please or move or intrigue them or appeal to their sense of the beautiful.  Yet, while the desire for diversion or pleasure may be at the center of reading as a pastime, I would add that we do not lightly put ourselves in the company of hearts and minds that differ radically from our own—which is to say, essentially, that we frequently seek out and even embrace works of fiction that provide points of view, judgments, moral outlooks that feel right to us.  We may not “read in order to benefit in this way,” but we surely set ourselves up for particular outcomes by engaging with particular works of fiction.

However, as I have suggested throughout my dissertation, as well as in my talk today, sometimes those fictions take us in directions that we don’t expect, cause us to feel in ways that we believe we do not want, even rearrange our view of life despite our sense of certainty.   Or, as Wood eloquently puts it,

We encounter scenes and moments and perfectly placed words in fiction and poetry, in film and drama, which strike us with their truth, which move and sustain us, which shake habit’s house to its foundations.21

It is this possibility that lies at the heart of all development, it is this dynamic that fuels the most exciting classroom discussions, that fires the imaginations of young and old, that carries us beyond ourselves into the lives of others, awakening us, making us think, making us feel.  The sympathetic impulse is a deep and intuitive one, a bridge between people who sometimes share little but their common humanity.  When a work of fiction can stir this impulse—can stir it deeply and meaningfully, even for people that we tend to disregard, dislike, discount—it presents a moment of awareness to which we are given the opportunity to attend.  And, even though I would not presume to prescribe what individual readers ought to make of that experience, it is a hard-hearted reader, indeed, who would deny its power.

Professor Phelan, I now call upon you to present your critical comments on my dissertation.



1 David Foster Wallace interviewed by Michael Silverblatt on “Bookworm,” KCRW radio, Los Angeles.  The quoted text was rebroadcast posthumously, on September 16, 2008, as part of a retrospective broadcast on the life and work of Wallace, “Considering David Foster Wallace.”

2 Robert C. Solomon (1997) “In Defense of ‘Sentimentality.’”  In Mette Hjort and Sue Laver, eds. Emotion and the Arts. New York: Oxford University Press.

3 Meir Sternberg (1978) Expositional Modes and Temporal Ordering in Fiction.  Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press,  96-97.

4 Myyry, Liisa (2003) Components of Morality: A Professional Ethics Perspective on Moral Motivation, Moral Sensitivity, Moral Reasoning and Related Constructs Among University Students.  Helsinki: Helsinki University Press. Myyry, who has done extensive research into the connection between empathy and moral development at the University of Helsinki’s Department of Social Psychology, builds this definition based in part on the work of Martin Hoffman (2000) Empathy and Moral Development: Implications for Caring and Justice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

5 Suzanne Keen (2007) Empathy and the Novel. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 5.

6 Martha Nussbaum (2001) Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 301-02.  Nussbaum’s formulation, by emphasizing an “imaginative reconstruction of another’s experience,” may seem to tend towards “cognitive role taking,” which some scholars view “as distinct from empathy-related reactions because it lacks emotionality” (Myyry and Helkama 2007: 251).  Yet Nussbaum’s focus, both in her discussion of empathy and of sympathy/compassion, is primarily on the emotional content of those experiences.  To some extent, Nussbaum’s definition integrates the two definitions of empathy delineated by Hoffman (2000: 29-30), e.g., empathy as “cognitive awareness” and as “the vicarious affective response to another person.”  Keen likewise addresses the emotional and cognitive components of empathy.  She points especially to the implicitly cognitive aspect of narrative empathy, “for reading itself relies upon complex cognitive operations” (Keen 2007: 28).

7 Nussbaum (2001): 327.

8 Lauren Wispé (1986) “The Distinction Between Sympathy and Empathy: To Call Forth a Concept, A Word is Needed.”  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 50 (2): 314-321.

9 Nussbaum (2001: 301) calls this “undeserved misfortune.” Unlike Nussbaum, Kristján Kristjánsson (“Empathy, sympathy, justice and the child,” Journal of Moral Education 33:3 [2004], 300-01) argues that sympathy is considerably different from compassion in that, unlike compassion, it does not involve the determination, involving judgment, that another’s suffering is deserved or undeserved.  For reasons beyond the scope of the present discussion, I tend to follow Nussbaum’s (2001: 302) characterization of the “contemporary usage” of sympathy as a rough “equivalent to what I call ‘compassion,’” as well as her distinction between the two emotions as involving different levels of intensity.

10 See Justin Oakley, Morality and the Emotions (London: Routledge, 1993, 28); and Nancy Eisenberg, “The Development of Empathy-Related Responding,” in Gustavo Carlo and Carolyn Pope Edwards, eds., Moral Motivation through the Life Span (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2005, 76).

11 See Candace Clark, Misery and Company: Sympathy in Everyday Life (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1997, 29-30).

12 Nussbaum 2001: 302.

13 Keen 2007: 140.

14 By stating that we empathize with the “feelings” of the implied author, I do not wish to suggest an “anthropomorphic model of the implied author” (Ansgar Nünning,  “Reconceptualizing Unreliable Narration: Synthesizing Cognitive and Rhetorical Approaches,” in James Phelan and Peter J. Rabinowitz, eds., A Companion to Narrative Theory [Oxford: Blackwell, 2005, 96). As Nünning (2005: 100), in describing Phelan’s rhetorical model, succinctly puts it, “Meaning arises from the recursive relations among authorial agency, textual phenomena, and reader response.”

15 See James Phelan, Experiencing Fiction: Judgements, Progressions, and the Rhetorical Theory of Narrative (Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press, 2005, 10).

16 As I point out in a book review (“Reimagining the Teaching of Secondary English.” Review of The English Teacher’s Companion: A Complete Guide to Classroom, Curriculum, and the Profession, by Jim Burke, Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition, and Culture 7:2 [2007], 312), one of the consequences of the over-emphasis on testing secondary school students in the United States in connection with No Child Left Behind (NCLB) is the concentration on testable (and, therefore, quantitative) material at the expense, often, of experiential learning.

17 Lisa Feldman Barrett (“Feelings or Words? Understanding the Content in Self-Report Ratings of Experienced Emotion,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 87:2 [2004]: 268) points out that “[d]ifferential experience leads to differential attention to these affective feelings, such that people adjust their word use during the self-report process to reflect the contents of their experiences.”  In other words, it is possible, as suggested in chapter 6 of my dissertation, for subjects to use the same term—sympathy—yet have distinctly different understandings of what that emotion implies and what it feels like to experience it.  The type of classroom discussion that I advocate in that chapter, therefore, provides a way for educators to bridge these differences.

18 Nancy Eisenberg and Paul Miller (“Empathy, Sympathy, and Altruism: Empirical and Conceptual Links,” in Nancy Eisenberg and Janet Strayer, Empathy and Its Development.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987: 293) define prosocial behavior as “intentional, voluntary behavior that benefits another; but, unlike the definition of altruism, the motive is unspecified.”  Altruism, on the other hand, “is not performed with the expectation of receiving external rewards or avoiding external punishments or aversive stimuli” (Eisenberg and Miller 1987: 292).

19 There is some debate regarding the efficacy of “hypothetical” narratives, as opposed to real-life narratives, in promoting prosocial behavior, since hypothetical narratives are considered “abstract and not emotionally charged in particular” (Myyry 2003: 19).  In this connection, it would be useful to investigate the distinctions between the types of hypothetical narratives typically used in social psychological research, and narratives of literary fiction, in order to determine whether or not the features in literary fiction that typically engage readers’ thoughts and emotions cause such narratives to be experienced as less abstract and more emotionally charged than less aesthetically developed hypothetical narratives.

20 James Wood, “Sympathy and Complexity,” in How Fiction Works (London: Jonathan Cape, 2008).

21 Wood 2008: 184.