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Disturbing Thoughts: Representations of Compassion in Two Picture Books Entitled The Island
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". . . thoughts are some of the most disturbing things there are."

Martha Nussbaum, Upheavals of Thought

The title of my paper and the quotation by Martha Nussbaum from which it draws both invoke the double meaning of the word disturbing. In my title, disturbing functions simultaneously as an adjective that modifies the noun thoughts and as a verb that signifies a dismantling of those thoughts. The epigraph comes from Nussbaum's discussion of compassion, which serves as the core theoretical concept that informs this essay. In an Australian context, discussions of compassion arguably circulate most overtly and publicly in relation to the Australian federal government's position on asylum seekers. Over the past ten years, no issue has divided public opinion in Australia as much as the debate concerning the treatment of asylum seekers in Australia. Two picture books entitled The Island, one written and illustrated by Armin Greder and the other written by John Heffernan and illustrated by Peter Sheehan, engage with national issues concerning the arrival of immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers while also functioning as allegories for any situation in which a community mistreats an outsider.

These two picture books call upon young readers to evaluate individual and group actions. Readers bear witness to unethical behaviour by a group that is offset by the compassionate actions of an individual. The books differ in the means by which they position readers to evaluate the actions of the communities and the dissenters while inviting a similar response: the acknowledgement that compassion is a necessary aspect of social justice and human (and creature) flourishing. In these narratives, readers both recognize themselves and acknowledge others, leading to an understanding of how the ethical actions of an individual can challenge—or disturb—group belief systems.

This discussion of recognition draws upon the work of Rita Felski, who structures her book Uses of Literature around an analysis of four categories of textual engagement—recognition, enchantment, knowledge, and shock—in order to argue that these categories help critics understand how texts invite a range of emotional responses from readers. Felski's definition of recognition is particularly useful for analyzing how Greder's and Heffernan's picture books position readers to respond compassionately:

Recognition . . . refers to a cognitive insight, a moment of knowing or knowing again. (That recognition is cognitive does not mean that it is purely cognitive, of course; moments of self-apprehension can trigger a spectrum of emotional reactions shading from delight to discomfort, from joy to chagrin.) When political theorists talk about recognition, however, they mean something else: not knowledge, but acknowledgment. Here the claim for recognition is a claim for acceptance, dignity and inclusion in public life. Its force is ethical rather than epistemic, a call for justice. . . .


Building on both senses of recognition described here, Felski demonstrates how emotions and ethics inform analyses of literature through both thought processes and emotional engagement. What Felski identifies as "recognition"—a recognition of self and an acknowledgement of an other—relates to an important aspect of compassion: an acknowledgement of another person's misfortune.

Felski's work on and defence of recognition as a key literary and political term as well as her claim that the "force [of recognition] is ethical" can be usefully supplemented by Nussbaum's treatise on the ethics of emotions more generally and on compassion specifically. Nussbaum outlines her argument about the importance of emotions in her essay "Compassion: The Basic Social Emotion," an argument that she develops more fully in her book Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions. For Nussbaum, recognition is a crucial part of compassion, a concept that she connects to the acknowledgement of a similarity between a privileged self and a suffering other:

Equipped with her general conception of human flourishing, the spectator looks at a world in which people suffer hunger, disability, disease, slavery, through no fault of their own. She believes that goods such as food, health, citizenship, freedom, do matter. And yet she acknowledges, as well, that it is uncertain whether she herself will remain among the safe and privileged ones to whom such goods are stably guaranteed. She acknowledges that the lot of the beggar might be (or become) her...

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