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  • Pleasure and Pain in Literature
  • Oliver Conolly

Why do we enjoy the depiction, in imaginative literature, of situations that typically arouse negative emotions such as pity, sadness, and horror? One view, which aims to dissolve rather than solve the problem, is that we do not enjoy them at all. According to this theory—the pure pain theory—the problem does not arise in the first place. But the theory must explain why we chose to undergo such painful experiences. Are we simply aesthetic masochists? The pure pleasure theory, by contrast, denies that there are any painful aspects to our experience of such literature. This theory must explain how we can take pure delight in the literary depiction of suffering. Are we simply aesthetic sadists? Lying between both extremes is the hybrid theory, which asserts that there are both painful and pleasant aspects of such experiences. The hybrid theory must specify which aspects of the experience are painful and which pleasant. In this paper a version of the hybrid theory is advanced and defended.


The pure pleasure theory denies that we feel painful emotional identification with fictional characters. Why take this view? One reason is that it is a way of resolving the paradox of fiction, as formulated by Colin Radford.1 The paradox asserts that there is an inconsistency between the propositions that: (1) we have emotions for fictional characters, (2) we know that they do not exist, (3) it is irrational to have emotions for non-existent objects. Each proposition seems plausible, yet one must be false. Whilst most of the participants in the debate have attacked the notion that feelings for fictions are irrational, some have [End Page 305] denied that we have such feelings in the first place. One intuition guiding this denial is that the depiction of a fictional horrible event is likely to be less painful than the depiction of an identical but real event. In other words, the mere fictionality of an event is liable, by itself, to diminish the pain we are liable to feel at its depiction in comparison with a real event: I label this the fictionality gap. If the fictionality gap exists, it applies across the board, to the sufferings of Pip in Great Expectations as well as those of King Lear. The characters in those works are fictional, and so the lessening of the pain we feel at their fates must, if the fictionality gap holds, hold merely in virtue of the fact that they are fictional.

It has often been noted—rather than argued, but this is question of impression rather than logic—that one would feel more affected were the stories real rather than fictional. The kinds of events depicted in King Lear—ugly struggles for power, the manipulation of the naïve, the impotence of the good, inconsolable grief—are not in themselves other-worldly, and can be imagined taking place in reality. However it is much more difficult to imagine King Lear in its full particularity taking place in the real world, given the theatricality of its form and language. In order to imagine King Lear as real, one would have to rob it of Shakespeare's poetry, which is other-worldly in its eloquence. French proponents of the Three Unities thought that theatre should aim at, among other things, verisimilitude, but never overcame the problem that the fact that characters in French theatre speak in rhyming couplets might detract from that verisimilitude, which it clearly does. This worry about the transplantability of King Lear into the real world appears to be less of a problem in relation to realist novels, which, as their appellation suggests, are easier to imagine taking place in the real world. Not only is the language used in realist novels less exalted than that used in tragedies, the situations such novels depict tend to be more likely to occur. Clearly, the realist novel is capable of depicting horrible or unpleasant events. About such novels, say, Madame Bovary, it seems to make sense to ask ourselves how we would feel about them if we read them as true stories.

I would like however to question the very intelligibility of the...


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pp. 305-320
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