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  • Why We Read Fiction: Theory of Mind and the Novel
  • Timothy Roberts
Zunshine, Lisa . Why We Read Fiction: Theory of Mind and the Novel. Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press, 2006. $59.95 h.c. $22.95 s.c. 198 pp.

Over the last thirty years, literary criticism has brought the reader into the text with a vengeance. Much reader-response criticism, however, leaves important questions unanswered. For instance, why do readers respond to some texts more than others? And how exactly do readers fill in the text's "gaps" to construct a coherent narrative? Lisa Zunshine's Why We Read Fiction offers a way forward, using knowledge about the mind, derived from evolutionary psychology, to map the interaction between text and reader. It aims to answer why the human mind is predisposed to appreciate some texts more than others.

Zunshine claims that we are predisposed to appreciate works of fiction that encourage us to speculate about other minds, because our brains are structured to attribute goals and intentions to others. This tendency served us well in our prehistoric past: our ancestors were people who could accurately decipher the motivations of other animals and humans, because they tended to reproduce more successfully than those who did not.

Why We Read Fiction links this biological claim to the practice of reading. As Zunshine describes her project, "I advance and explore a series of hypotheses about cognitive cravings that are satisfied—and created!—when we read fiction" (4). Zunshine explains how great fiction can stimulate our unique ability to make guesses about the thoughts of other people and give us pleasure from doing so.

Zunshine illustrates how this works by posing the following question about Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway: When Woolf tells us that Peter Walsh is "positively trembling" when he meets Clarissa, how do we automatically "know" that he's trembling with desire, and not with Parkinson's disease? It's because "[l]iterature pervasively capitalizes on and stimulates Theory of Mind mechanisms"—our hardwired theories about how others think and behave (10).

Great literature, such as Pride and Prejudice, exploits our Theory of Mind's tendency to spring into action at the slightest pressure: [End Page 210]

Faced with Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy, our Theory of Mind jumps at the opportunity (so to speak) to speculate about their past, present, and future states of mind. (19)

We like certain books because they function as a kind of gymnasium for our mind-reading faculties: they challenge us to create a believable set of motivations for a character, which is extremely rewarding (think of how much time we spend speculating about other people's thoughts!) As Zunshine says, "Fictional narratives, from Beowulf to Pride and Prejudice, rely on, manipulate, and titillate our tendency to keep track of who thought, wanted, and felt what and when" (5). This, she suggests, is the primary pleasure of reading.

The rest of the book applies this theory to several classics—Beowulf, Don Quixote, Clarissa, Lolita, and Dashiel Hammett's The Maltese Falcon. Zunshine uses these texts to show how fiction has evolved an increasingly complex set of rhetorical techniques to test, deceive, and stimulate the reader's Theory of Mind.

Her study of Samuel Richardson's Clarissa offers the fullest account of how our minds ascribe intentions to fictional characters. Zunshine makes the startling claim that Lovelace—Clarissa's daemonic male lover—has intrigued generations of readers because he actually believes his own lies.

Because we "take our own mind-reading capacity completely for granted and notice it no more than we notice oxygen when we wake up in the morning" (85), we are tricked easily by novels that seek to manipulate us. Lovelace is particularly well-equipped to wreak havoc on our mind-reading abilities, because unlike many other deceptive characters in fiction, he is dishonest to himself as well as others. In this, Lovelace is far more complex than straightforward liars such as (say) Milton's Satan who, according to Zunshine, "knows that he lies" (85). Conversely, Lovelace "at times appears not to know that he lies" and "regularly [fails] to keep track of himself as the source of his...


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pp. 210-212
Launched on MUSE
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