Abstract

There is a paradox at the heart of literature that has not been sufficiently explored in theories of the novel, a paradox that could be expressed like this: if readers feel themselves into the fictive Other’s inner life they may simultaneously participate in the generation of the Other—or the Other’s Other. This paradox suggests that empathy in literature is not without its ethical costs. In asking us to empathize with certain characters, empathy is blocked for others. The ethical potential of literature is often assumed to originate in its appeal to our empathy; but if empathy in literature is intimately bound up with processes that create the Other, any straightforward connection between literature and ethics is disrupted. This article uses Silas Marner (1861) as a case study to explore what I call the paradox of narrative empathy, while also revealing an unforeseen ethical insight at the heart of George Eliot’s novel that has not previously been attributed to that “charming minor masterpiece.”

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Additional Information

ISSN
1934-1512
Print ISSN
0039-3827
Pages
pp. 19-42
Launched on MUSE
2016-03-02
Open Access
No
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