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  • The Paradox of Fiction and the Ethics of Empathy:Reconceiving Dickens's Realism
  • Mary-Catherine Harrison (bio)

Since the term empathy was coined in the early twentieth century, it has been used to describe not only how a person relates to another person, but also how a person relates to art. In fact, empathy is a concept born of the union between psychology and aesthetics; early accounts of einfühlung in German and empathy in English were psychological accounts of how a person relates to an art object.1 Only later was the definition expanded to describe interactions between people; empathy is now most commonly understood as the act of imagining oneself in another's place and thus "feeling with" another person. In more recent years, scholars have integrated the aesthetic and interpersonal notions of empathy in order to describe our relationships with the "people" within art, that is, with characters. As philosopher James Harold puts it, empathy is "a phenomenon common to our experiences both in friendship and in fiction" (342). Although we know that characters are not conscious subjects, we empathize with them in much the same way we empathize with other people. Philosopher Kendall Walton puts it this way: characters are "fictional sentient beings," and "we often respond to them, empathize with or simulate them, in much the way we do actual people" ("Projectivism" 428).

While modern empathy studies constitute an exceptionally interdisciplinary field of research, the historical integration of psychology and aesthetics has been undermined by disciplinary segregation between fields that examine either empathy with other people—cognitive science, social and developmental psychology, philosophy of mind, and ethics—or empathy with characters—philosophical aesthetics, cognitive psychology, film studies, and literary criticism. As a consequence, an integrated [End Page 256] account of the relationship between narrative and interpersonal empathy has not been fully realized. In this paper, I address this critical lacuna by investigating the principal difference between our relationships with actual and fictional individuals. As I will argue, empathy for people in distress is one of the most powerful motivations for ethical behaviors, significant not only for how we feel towards other people, but also how we act towards them. But empathy for characters in distress poses a much more complicated relationship between imagination, emotion, and ethics. Readers' emotions can be engaged for fictional suffering, but not their subsequent behaviors. This limiting condition poses an interpretive—and ethical—dilemma for any account of empathy with fictional minds.

The ethics of narrative empathy contribute to one of the single most debated issues in modern aesthetics, the so-called paradox of emotional response to fiction.2 Philosopher Jerrold Levinson provides a useful summary: "Since fictional characters do not exist, and we know this, it seems we cannot, despite appearances, literally have towards them bona fide emotions—ones such as pity, love, or fear—since these presuppose belief in the existence of the appropriate objects" (79). As it is addressed in most of the philosophical literature, the paradox of fiction is limited to discussions of these seemingly contradictory premises.3 But the impact of the paradox is most evident when we consider not its premises but its repercussions for readers' beliefs and behavior. Whether or not our emotional responses are "bona fide," most readers have had the sensation of being moved by fiction. Indeed, early accounts of sympathy—empathy's conceptual ancestor and etymological cousin—assume that our emotional response to characters in a tragedy is no less universal than our response to the suffering of other men.4 As Adam Smith notes in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, we might know that suffering is fictional, and yet we nonetheless respond emotionally—and physiologically—as if it were real: "We weep even at the feigned representation of a tragedy" (52). But if "deep distress" (52) exists on the stage—or in the pages of a book—then what is our response beyond weeping? If suffering is "real" then a spectator can try to ameliorate it, but if it is a "feigned representation" then a reader can do nothing to intercede. What, then—if any—are the ethical effects of our emotional responses to literature?

In Empathy and the Novel...


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pp. 256-278
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