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Difficult Empathy The Effect of Narrative Perspective on Readers’ Engagement with a First-Person Narrator

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Caspar J. van Lissa, Marco Caracciolo, Thom van Duuren, and
Bram van Leuveren
Difficult Empathy
The Effect of Narrative Perspective on Readers’ Engagement
with a First-Person Narrator
Many claims have been advanced about the effects of specific narrative strategies
on readers’ engagement with characters, but the available evidence is still limited.
One question in particular stands out in the current debate. Is first-person narra-
tive more or less conducive to empathy and trust for the protagonist than third-
person, internally focalized narrative? This essay tackles this question by examin-
ing the effect of narrative perspective on readers’ responses to a complex, and
potentially unreliable, character. To this end, we conducted an experimental study
with 76 Dutch high-school students. Contrary to our predictions, the manipula-
tion of narrative perspective did not affect empathy for the character, but did
affect trust. We suggest that the increase in trust in third-person narrative depends
on the external narrator’s authority, which validates the perspective of the protag-
onist. The essay discusses these and other findings, combining experimental re-
search with a qualitative analysis of readers’ comments on the character.
The question of audiences’ attitude towards fictional characters looms large in
the study of narrative in literature and other media (Eder / Jannidis / Schneider
[Eds.] 2010). Readers and scholars commonly talk about identification or use
metaphors such as closenessand distance (Eder 2006) or putting oneself in a
character’s shoes’, for the experience of relating to a fictional being. Recently,
researchers have given attention to empathic perspective-taking as the main psy-
chological mechanism underlying this experience (Gaut 1999, Coplan 2004,
Mellmann 2010, Keen 2013). Fiction, it is claimed, encourages readers to imag-
ine particular aspects of characters’ psychological life in a first-person way, al-
lowing them to take on those aspects through empathic responses: “While read-
ing we find ourselves in the shoes of a wide diversity of people”, argues Frank
Hakemulder (2000, 97). On the view defended by Hakemulder and others, em-
pathy is central not only to our imaginative interactions with characters, but to
our engagement with fiction as such.
Yet, as highlighted by Suzanne Keen, the evidence suggests that “lowbrow
fiction evokes empathy more reliably than treasured classics” (Keen 2007, 84).
In fact, literary fiction can be said to both encourage and problematize empathic
reading strategies, confronting readers with protagonists who unlike the heroes
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of popular genres call for ambivalent ethical judgments and evaluations. Em-
pathy often depends on a recognition or projection of similarity (cf. Eder 2006,
74-75), while literary texts can foreground protagonists who are distant so-
cially, mentally, or otherwise from typical readers. In this sense, there might be
more to engaging with literary characters than can be predicted through models
focusing exclusively on identification or empathic perspective-taking.
Through the empirical study discussed in the following pages, this article
makes a first attempt at coming to grips with readers’ responses to ‘roundliter-
ary characters (Forster 1985), who are multifaceted and may challenge readers
rather than straightforwardly invite empathic responses. We seek to map readers’
shifting attitudes towards literary characters by focusing on the interplay be-
tween two psychological processes: empathy and trust. There is broad consensus
in the psychological literature that empathy is a complex, multidimensional con-
struct, which involves both affective, sympathetic responses to others’ emotions,
and cognitive perspective-taking (Davis 1983). Trust, on the other hand, can be
used as a measure of a character’s perceived reliability, thus reflecting readers’
evaluation of that character and tying in with discussions on narratorial unre-
liability in narratology (on which more in the next section). We will use as a case
study a narrative situation that is bound to create ambivalence in the audience:
The first chapter of Knut Hamsun’s proto-modernist novel Hunger ([1890]
2001). This text features a first-person narrator who can be suspected of narra-
tive unreliability. While the narrator is not altogether unlikable, his erratic behav-
ior and atypical social status (he is a marginalized, struggling writer) are likely to
complicate readers’ attitude towards him. Through experimental manipulation
of the narrative perspective, the study investigates how readers’ engagement with
the protagonist changes when the text is presented in either first-person form
(possibly unreliable character-narrator) or third-person narration with internal
focalization. “Internal focalization” (cf. Genette 1980) refers to a narrative situ-
ation where the narrator is external to the storyworld “heterodiegetic” and
talks about the characters in the third person while providing information about
the protagonist’s inner, mental life. Our experimental design allows us to exam-
ine how character narration affects readers’ attitude towards Hamsun’s protag-
onist when they cannot depend on a conventionally authoritative, external nar-
rative figure, as in internally focalized texts. Our hypothesis is that first-person
narrative brings out the ambivalence of readers’ responses to characters in liter-
ature, especially when coupled with a potentially unreliable narrator. While the
bulk of the study is experimental, we included two open-ended questions at the
end of the questionnaire to explore participants’ engagement with the character
from a qualitative perspective.
The study of readers’ attitudes towards complex, literary characters bears on
a different, but related, strand of research on the real-world effects of engaging
with fiction. Over the last fifteen years scholars have looked at the impact of
literary reading on the self-concept (Hakemulder 2000), social cognition (Mar et
al. 2006), and theory of mind (Kidd / Castano 2013). These approaches tend to
downplay an important distinction between fiction and literary fiction, as two of
DIEGESIS 5.1 (2016)
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the authors have argued in past work (Caracciolo / van Duuren 2015). Narrative
unreliability is a literary technique par excellence, and understanding the specific
effects of literary characters, as opposed to characters found in popular genres,
seems crucial to assessing literature’s psychological impact. If, as scholars work-
ing in different traditions have suggested (Shklovsky 1965, Iser 1978, Cook
1994), literary fiction tends to challenge rather than confirm readers’ beliefs
and expectations, then this challenge is at least in part created by morally ambiv-
alent characters. Literary characters tend to overstep readers’ comfort zone, con-
fronting them with perspectives and worldviews dramatically different from
their own.
Bringing into focus the psychological dynamics triggered by literary charac-
ters may help scholars and teachers use literature more effectively to prompt
reflection on ethical and social issues. This seems particularly important in a de-
velopmental context: Stephanie D. Preston and Frans de Waal’s (2002) “Russian
doll” model of empathy suggests that empathic abilities become more complex
with increasing age, developing from direct affective emotional contagion, to
cognitive emotion recognition, to affective empathic concern for the misfor-
tunes of others, and finally voluntary cognitive perspective-taking. This the-
ory is supported by empirical research, which shows that both dispositional em-
pathic concern and perspective-taking are not yet fully developed in adolescents,
and that empathic concern predicts their development of perspective taking be-
tween the ages of 14 and 17 (Van Lissa et al. 2014) roughly the age range of
the participants in our study. Moreover, recent work suggests that reading liter-
ary fiction might contribute to the development of affective and cognitive em-
pathic abilities (Kidd / Castano 2013). Given the central (but increasingly con-
tested) role played by literary reading in many educational curricula, the idea of
using literature to improve not just linguistic and cultural competencies but also
students’ intersubjective skills appears promising. However, the study of the psy-
chological effects of literary reading should not be segregated from the study of
the psychological processes underlying it: in order to turn fictional worlds into
tools for cultivating real-world skills in educational settings, we need to know
more about how we relate to these worlds’ elusive inhabitants. As this article will
argue, our responses to characters are often just as multifaceted as the characters
Readers’ responses to character narrators: Open questions
Several scholars have highlighted the scarcity of empirical work on readers’ en-
gagement with characters in literary studies. Keen, for instance, writing about
empathy for characters, notes that most
of the existing empirical research on empathetic effects in narration concerns film
(Tan 1996; Zillmann 1991) […]. Novels and stage drama are least studied empir-
ically (though often theorized about), their length and performance conditions
DIEGESIS 5.1 (2016)
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being, respectively, at odds with the current modes of empirical verification.
(Keen 2013, para. 11)
Two psychologists, Thalia R. Goldstein and Ellen Winner, argue that while
“there have been numerous theoretical explorations of sympathetic reactions to
fictional characters (e.g., Coplan 2004), no research has examined the psycho-
logical components of these reactions” (Goldstein / Winner 2012, 134). There
are, of course, a few exceptions. Willie van Peer and Henk Pander Maat (1996)
and Hakemulder (2000) examined how empathy and sympathy for characters
change as a function of narrative perspective; they found that narrative perspec-
tive does have effects on readers’ responses, but the exact nature of these effects
depends on the narrative’s subject-matter. Maria Kotovych and colleagues
(2011) investigated the textual underpinnings of identification through the lens
of the Gricean notion of “implicature” (an inference based on the assumption
that the narrator has a cooperative attitude towards the reader). They found that
the more is left textually implicit about a narrator’s mental life, the more readers
are likely to draw inferences based on their own experiences, which may lead to
stronger identification. Finally, Geoff F. Kaufman and Lisa K. Libby’s (2012)
study of belief change in response to fictional characters compared the effects
of different narrative situations; they focus on what they call “experience-tak-
ing”, a particular form of empathic perspective-taking that is “experientially
driven […] rather than […] conceptually driven” (Kaufman / Libby 2012, 15).
This notion is also supported in the psychological literature; specifically, experi-
encing empathy-arousing stimuli was found to promote spontaneous perspec-
tive-taking (Hawk / Fischer / van Kleef 2011). Kaufman and Libby’s (2012)
claim is that experience-taking in relating to characters results in more marked
changes in readers’ beliefs and self-concept than modes of engagement that do
not involve experience-taking.
Although some of these studies involved first-person narrative, none of them
investigated the specific effects of unreliable character narration. Kotovych et al.
(2011, 287) do acknowledge that “the reader may abandon the cooperativeness
assumption” as soon as there is a suspicion of unreliability, but their experiments
didn’t test this possibility. Yet the notion of unreliability is central in narratolog-
ical discussion of first-person narrative (Shen 2013). Narrative theorists have
tended to embrace either a rhetorical (Phelan 2005) or a cognitive paradigm
(Yacobi 1981; Nünning 1999) in studying unreliability. Those in the cognitive
camp have argued that unreliability is not a feature of texts and narrators, but an
interpretive construct to which audiences may appeal in attempting to solve tex-
tual inconsistencies (Yacobi 1981). Character narration confronts readers with a
narrator who is distinct from the flesh-and-blood author, and whose perspective
on the storyworld may be limited, biased, or otherwise unreliable. Thus, unreli-
ability invites readers to contrast the story as told by the narrator with hypothet-
ical alternative versions of the events (if the narrator misunderstands what hap-
pened), or with alternative value systems (if the narrator expresses judgments
that clash with what we understand to be the author’s own ethical framework).
DIEGESIS 5.1 (2016)
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Given this sophisticated perspectival play, we may wonder how character nar-
ration differs from third-person narrative in terms of readers’ responses. Van
Peer and Pander Maat (1996) use a first-person excerpt in one of their empirical
studies, but fail to comment on these differences. Hakemulder (2000, chap. 5)
compares the effects of two versions of the same third-person text one with
internal focalization, another without but does not consider a first-person
story. Kaufman and Libby do address the effects of character narration, along
the following lines:
We expected that first-person narratives, by virtue of creating a more immediate
sense of closeness and familiarity to the main character, would be more conducive
to experience-taking [i.e., empathy] than would third-person narratives, which ex-
plicitly position protagonists as separate entities (and, in our view, are more likely
to position readers as spectators). (Kaufman / Libby 2012, 3)
Two factors seem to complicate Kaufman and Libby’s hypothesis: first, third-
person narrative can be rich in details about a character’s inner life, in the tech-
nique known as “internal focalization”. Here the narrative voice remains that of
an external narrator, but the text focuses on the experience of a fictional charac-
ter on the scene. It has often been claimed that this device typical of modernist
fiction creates an illusion of direct access to characters’ minds (Cohn 1978). A
possible explanation for this illusion of transparency is that in internally focalized
narrative the external narrator is always, by convention, authoritative (cf. Doležel
1998, 149). Since the external narrator implicitly endorses the textual references
to a character’s mental life, readers are likely to take these references at face
value, as a faithful reproduction of the character’s thoughts and feelings (for
more on this point, cf. Caracciolo 2014). The second factor that potentially un-
dermines Kaufman and Libby’s claim is narrative unreliability a widely used
literary device, and one that readers may see as a possibility inherent in first-
person narrative. In this narrative situation, the protagonist is understood to be
deliberately telling his or her own story after the fact, and therefore may be ma-
nipulating the audience. As an example, consider Humbert Humbert, the pedo-
phile (and famously unreliable) narrator of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita ([1955]
1997): it seems reasonable to think that a narrator of this sort, despite relating
his first-hand experience, does not create “a more immediate sense of closeness
and familiarity”, as Kaufman and Libby would have it. On the contrary, Hum-
bert Humbert is likely to estrange the audience because of the clash between
their own moral values and those they attribute to the narrator.
Humbert Humbert is a somewhat extreme case, but many 19th and 20th cen-
tury novels feature first-person narrators who are complex in the sense of being
neither completely likable nor completely dislikable. Without coming across as
downright immoral (as Nabokov’s narrator will be perceived by most readers),
these characters often seem unpredictable and morally ambivalent. A degree of
psychological complexity is widely regarded as a distinctive feature of literary
narrative as opposed to more popular genres, in which protagonists tend to con-
form to social stereotypes and norms. Readers’ engagement with these literary
characters is likely to be a multifaceted process that develops over the course of
the reading experience. And yet, while scholars have argued that empathy for
DIEGESIS 5.1 (2016)
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character or related phenomena such as identification or perceived closeness
are central to audiences’ engagement with fiction, the problematics raised by
literary characters remain largely unexamined in empirical studies. First-person
narrative is an interesting test bed because it is likely to trigger conflicting expec-
tations and interpretations: on the one hand, a narrator who relates his or her
own experience may seem more approachable than an external narrator (as pre-
dicted by Kaufman and Libby) and thus evoke notions of spontaneity and au-
thenticity (cf. Korthals Altes 2014, 147-151), which may decrease the imaginative
distance between the narrator and readers. On the other hand, if the narrator
appears unconventional or distant in social and / or ethical terms, he or she may
be suspected of unreliability, and therefore the audience may be encouraged to
take a more distanced stance towards him or her. This ambivalent dynamic may
problematize straightforwardly empathic responses to the narrator.
The experimental study discussed in the next pages makes a first attempt at
addressing these issues. The main research question is whether complex literary
characters evoke greater trust and empathy as first-person narrators or as protagonists
of internally focalized narratives in the third-person form. Put otherwise: given
the same literary character who may arouse suspicions of unreliability, are read-
ers more likely to trust and empathize with him or her if the character is also the
narrator of his or her own story, or if that same story is related by an external
voice focusing on the character’s experience?
The experimental study
We conducted an experimental study in order to test the effects of narrative
perspective on readers’ trust and empathy. Narrative perspective was manipu-
lated (first- vs. third-person narrative), and we measured participants’ age, dis-
positional empathy (i.e., participants’ self-reported predisposition to empathize
with other individuals in the real world); and number of novels read over the
previous year (as an indirect measure of reading expertise). Dependent variables
were empathic concern for the protagonist (i.e., affective empathy), perspec-
tive-taking for the protagonist (i.e., cognitive empathy), and trust for the pro-
tagonist. We recruited 76 Dutch high-school students (39 female), aged between
14 and 18 (M = 16.42, SD = 0.82). We conducted the study during the normal
school hours, making clear that the students wouldn’t be evaluated on the basis
of their answers.
The study involved reading a Dutch translation of the first chapter of
Hamsun’s Hunger, which offers a prototypical example of a complex, unpredict-
able literary character (cf., e.g., Wood 2010, 6): a young and famished would-be
writer recounts in vivid detail his peregrinations through Oslo. While the pro-
tagonist is not completely unsympathetic, in the course of the first chapter he
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confesses lying, cheating, and not paying the rent, and behaves strangely in a
variety of ways (in a scene that caught the attention of many participants, he
even follows two young ladies to their home, in what could almost be seen as an
early instance of stalking). Here is an example of a passage where the narrator
repeatedly lies to his interlocutor:
This was beginning to get interesting. The situation was running away with me,
and one lie after another sprang up in my head. I sat down again, forgot about
the paper and the remarkable documents, became excited and interrupted him
when he spoke. The little dwarf’s gullibility made me reckless, I felt like stuffing
him full of lies come what may, driving him from the field in grand style. (Hamsun
2001, 21-22)
Exchanges of this kind may warn the audience about the character’s potential
unreliability as the narrator of his own story. After reading the first chapter of
Hamsun’s novel (around 8,000 words), the students were asked to complete a
questionnaire with both quantitative measures and (at the end) two open-ended
questions about their attitude towards the protagonist. We divided the partici-
pants into two conditions: one read the original first-person text, whereas the
other read a manipulated third-person version of the same chapter. In rewriting
the text from the first to the third person, we left everything unchanged, except
for one detail: since the narrator of Hamsun’s novel is anonymous, we had to
give him a name in the third-person text; we opted for Henrik as a relatively
common, and neutral-sounding, Scandinavian name. Here is how the passage
quoted above would look in the manipulated version (the texts we used were in
This was beginning to get interesting. The situation was running away with Hen-
rik, and one lie after another sprang up in his head. He sat down again, forgot
about the paper and the remarkable documents, became excited and interrupted
the old fellow when he spoke. The little dwarf’s gullibility made Henrik reckless,
he felt like stuffing his interlocutor full of lies come what may, driving him from
the field in grand style.
The result is reminiscent of a stream of consciousness novel: as in later modern-
ist classics (e.g., James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, 1916), the
narrative perspective is firmly focused on the protagonist’s thoughts and expe-
riences, even as these thoughts and experiences are relayed by an external narra-
Because of random assignment, 56% of participants received the first-person
condition and 44% received the third-person condition. Of all participants, 79%
indicated finishing reading the text within the allotted time, and one indicated
having read the text before (this participant was in the original, first-person con-
dition). Reading comprehension was measured on a five-point scale ranging
from 1 (poor comprehension) to 5 (excellent comprehension). The results of
this self-assessment (M = 3.16, SD = 0.91) did not differ significantly between
conditions (all p’s between .26 and .38).
DIEGESIS 5.1 (2016)
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Before reading the experimentally manipulated text, participants indicated their
age, sex, and reading expertise (defined as the number of novels read in the pre-
vious year). They also completed the Basic Empathy Scale (IRI; Jolliffe / Far-
rington 2006). This scale uses 11 items to assess dispositional affective empathy
(e.g., “I get caught up in other people’s feelings easily”) and had good internal
consistency (Cronbach’s α = .83). Dispositional cognitive empathy is measured
with 9 items (e.g., “I can often understand how people are feeling even before
they tell me”) and also had good internal consistency (Cronbach’s α = .77). Par-
ticipants responded to all items on five-point Likert scales from “completely
disagree” to “completely agree”. After reading the text, participants completed
a manipulation check to ensure that they were aware of the narrative perspective
(first-person perspective or third-person perspective). All participants answered
this question correctly.
Subsequently, participants completed the quantitative outcome measures.
Two three-item scales designed for this study were used to measure participants’
self-reported empathic concern for and perspective-taking with the character
while reading the text. Empathic concern for the character had good internal
consistency (Cronbach’s α = .85, e.g.: “Whilst reading the story I sympathized
with the protagonist”). Internal consistency for perspective-taking with the char-
acter was negative, which suggests the three items might not form a unidimen-
sional scale (a potential violation of tau-equivalence [cf. Sijtsma 2009]). This
problem might be compounded by the small number of items, as alpha tends to
increase with the number of items in a scale. Nevertheless, the scale correlated
predictably with empathic concern for the character (r = .47, p < .001). The cor-
relation was similar in size to that between dispositional affective and cognitive
empathy (r = .40, p < .001), suggesting that the two scales (empathic concern
and perspective-taking) measured different but related constructs. Another set
of items, based on Larzelere and Huston’s (1980) “dyadic trust scale”, measured
readers’ trust for the character and had good internal consistency (Cronbach’s
α = .78, e.g.: “I feel that I can trust the narrator completely”). The questionnaire
also included two open-ended questions, asking participants 1.) to comment on
their attitude towards the character; and 2.) whether or not they trusted him, and
why. We will turn to this qualitative part after examining the main findings of
the experimental study.
A correlation table for the data is provided in Table 1. We used hierarchical linear
regression to analyze the data. The baseline regression model included narrative
perspective, dispositional affective and cognitive empathy, demographics (age
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and gender), and reading expertise. The effect of narrative perspective was ana-
lyzed using a dichotomous variable. Its effect size can be interpreted as the dif-
ference between the first-person condition and the third-person condition. To
allow for the possibility that individual differences might influence the effect of
the manipulation of narrative perspective, we explored whether the variance be-
tween conditions increased significantly when adding individual interactions of
narrative perspective with trait empathy, demographics, or reading expertise, and
interactions of trait empathy with demographics. In a second step, interactions
that significantly increased this variance were added concurrently. For the sake
of parsimony, the resulting model was pruned by removing non-significant ef-
fects as long as model fit remained unaffected. We explored significant interac-
tions with a regions of significance approach, which reveals at what levels of a mod-
erating variable the effect size of the predictor is significant (Preacher / Cur-
ran / Bauer 2006).
Empathic concern for the character
The best fitting model for empathic concern for the character did not include
effects of narrative perspective, indicating that narrative perspective did not pre-
dict empathic concern for the character. Instead, the best fitting model included
main effects of dispositional affective empathy and reading expertise, as well as
an interaction between dispositional cognitive empathy and age (Table 2). Spe-
cifically, participants with greater dispositional affective empathy reported
greater empathic concern for the protagonist. More experienced readers, on the
other hand, reported less empathic concern for the character. Probing the inter-
action between dispositional cognitive empathy and age revealed that, although
the effect of cognitive empathy on empathic concern for the character was
stronger for younger participants than for older participants, it was positive and
significant within the entire age range of our sample.
1. Condition
2. Sex
3. Age
4. Reading expertise
5. Affective empathy
6. Cognitive empathy
7. EC for character
8. PT for character
9. Trust
Table 1: Correlations between study variables. Correlations with condition (first, third) and sex
(female, male) are polyserial.
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Empathic concern for character, R2 = .29, F(5, 70) = 5.64, p < .001
Main effects
Affective empathy
Cognitive empathy
Reading expertise
Age * Cognitive emp.
Perspective taking with character, R2 = .18, F(5, 70) = 2.97, p = .017
Main effects
Narrative perspective
Cognitive empathy
Reading expertise
Narrative persp. * Age
Trust, R2 = .06, F(1, 74) = 4.69, p = .033
Main effects
Narrative perspective
Table 2: Summary of regression analyses
Perspective-taking for the character
The best fitting model for empathic concern for the character did not involve a
main effect of narrative perspective, but did include an interaction between nar-
rative perspective and age. The model further included main effects of disposi-
tional cognitive empathy and reading expertise (Table 2). Participants with
greater dispositional cognitive empathy reported greater perspective-taking for
the protagonist. Participants who had greater reading expertise, however, re-
ported less perspective-taking for the character. Probing the interaction between
condition and age with a regions of significance approach revealed that the third-
person perspective engendered less perspective-taking than the first-person per-
spective for participants older than 17.44, and was not significant for younger
participants within the age range of our sample.
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Trust for the character
Narrative perspective was the only significant predictor of trust for the character
(Table 2). Specifically, reading the text in the third-person perspective signifi-
cantly increased trust for the character compared to the first-person perspective.
The present study set out to investigate the effects of narrative perspective on
readers’ engagement with characters in literary fiction. This engagement was
seen here as a function of two factors: empathy (including both self-reported
empathic concern and perspective-taking) and trust for the character. Contrary
to our predictions, the results indicated that narrative perspective had no main
effect on empathic concern and perspective-taking for the character: Only for
older participants did narrative perspective influence the amount of perspective-
taking for the character; these participants engaged in greater perspective-taking
with the character when they read the text from a first-person perspective. This
result is consistent with Kaufman and Libby’s (2012) prediction that first-person
narratives is more conducive to experience-taking than third-person narratives.
The fact that this effect was significant only for older adolescents is in line with
developmental psychological research, which shows that mature perspective-
taking abilities are still very much under development in adolescence (e.g., van
Lissa et al. 2014; Blakemore / Choudhury 2006). Moreover, engaging in perspec-
tive-taking with complex literary characters may be even more demanding than
perspective-taking in social situations with peers and parents. Perhaps effects of
narrative perspective on participants’ perspective-taking started emerging only
once participants were old enough to perceive similarities between themselves
and the narrator (who is in his early twenties).
We found that narrative perspective does influence trust for the character, as
readers in the third-person condition reported greater trust. Narrative unreliabil-
ity is the prime suspect for this change in trust: readers in the first-person con-
dition might have been more distrustful of the narrator. Because the narrator lies
to some of the characters he interacts with in the storyworld, he could be per-
ceived as manipulating his audience as well. Conversely, the narrator’s authori-
tativeness in the third-person text may have indirectly validated the character’s
actions, translating into a higher degree of trust for him and not just for the narrator.
This notion of trust transfer’, of course, does not rule out the other explanation,
based on the potential unreliability of first-person narrative. Only follow-up re-
search can shed light on the exact mechanisms and causal relationships involved.
What is clear is that questions surrounding trust and reliability should rank high
in the priority list of empirically minded literary scholars, since these phenomena
contribute significantly to the complexity of readers’ responses to characters
(and literary narrative more generally).
DIEGESIS 5.1 (2016)
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Together with the interaction between perspective-taking and age in the first-
person text, the main effect of narrative perspective on trust highlights the com-
plexity of first-person narrative, which calls for two opposite interpretive strate-
gies: on the one hand, engaging with a narrator who recounts his or her own
experiences may create a sense of spontaneity or authenticity in the reading ex-
perience, thus potentially encouraging empathic responses; on the other hand,
when the narrator as protagonist behaves in puzzling or unconventional ways,
readers may be encouraged to question the trustworthiness of his or her narra-
Another interesting finding was that the number of novels read over the pre-
ceding year negatively predicted empathic concern and perspective-taking for
the protagonist. The question was phrased as follows: “How many novels have
you read over the previous year (12 months)?” Thus, participants included in
their answers both literary novels and more popular genres. A possible explana-
tion is that experienced readers are more familiar with fictional characters (in-
cluding the likable protagonists of popular fiction), and thus have learned to read
in more distanced ways, paying attention to aspects of texts different from the
protagonist’s predicament. Clearly, any attempt at using literature as a tool for
developing real-world empathy in adolescents will have to carefully evaluate the
role that literary competence may play in modulating readers’ attitude towards
Finally, the study revealed that dispositional affective and cognitive empathy
predicted empathic concern for the character, and dispositional cognitive empa-
thy predicted perspective-taking for the character. This finding contradicts the
results of a study by Sklar (2009), according to whom real-world empathic con-
cern is not correlated with empathic concern for characters. According to Sklar,
our engagement with characters is to some extent cordoned off from eve-
ryday social interaction: fiction is thought to provide a safe harbor to experiment
with worldviews and social stereotypes that we are reluctant to question in our
day-to-day experience. As Keen puts it, “the perception of fictionality releases
novel-readers from the normal state of alert suspicion of others’ motives that
often acts as a barrier to empathy” (Keen 2007, 169). On this view, people would
be more likely to feel empathic concern for an outsider like Hamsun’s character
than for his many real-world counterparts. Our findings, however, go in the op-
posite direction. This discrepancy might be explained by the fact that Sklar used
the empathic concern subscale of the IRI, which assesses empathic responses in
social situations (cf. Davis 1983). The IRI also contains a fantasy subscale, which
specifically refers to empathic responses to characters. Therefore, the measure-
ment instrument itself seems to cordon off engaging with characters from com-
passionate responses in daily life. By contrast, the measure of dispositional af-
fective empathy (the IRI’s Basic Empathy Scale) we used was more general: it
reflected the extent to which participants reported sharing others’ emotions,
while cognitive empathy measured their awareness and understanding of others’
emotions. The tendency to share or understand others’ emotions might reflect
DIEGESIS 5.1 (2016)
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more basic empathic predispositions that are not exclusive to actual social situ-
ations, and might therefore also generalize to empathy for characters.
Indeed, our study casts doubt on Sklar’s account by showing that participants’
self-reported dispositional empathy is in line with their situational empathy for
the character. The text’s fictionality, therefore, does not make a fundamental
difference when it comes to feeling empathy or sympathy for the protagonist:
real-world intersubjectivity and readers’ responses to characters build on the
same background of predispositions and assumptions (cf. Caracciolo 2013, 32-
33). Effects of the kind posited by Sklar and Keen are theoretically possible, but
they are by no means inevitable or automatic. This points to the importance of
contextual factors in framing readers’ encounters with fictional texts (and be-
ings): the perceived separateness of fictional characters would thus be an inter-
pretive framework that can be activated in specific circumstances for instance,
when we are explicitly instructed to put ourselves in a character’s shoes or when
the strangeness of Hamsun’s protagonist is embedded in discussions of social
and ethical issues.
Qualitative questions
At the end of the questionnaire readers were asked to comment freely on their
attitude towards the character, and on whether they trusted him or not (and
why). The answers to these questions were fairly diverse in length, from single
adjectives (e.g., “curious”, “surprised”, etc.) to paragraph-long descriptions.
Three of the authors (Caracciolo, Van Duuren, and Van Leuveren) coded these
answers, jointly annotating the corpus on the basis of the study’s goals and work-
ing through potential disagreements in an iterative process. This resulted in a set
of 21 codes. Overall, the participants appeared to favor what James Phelan
(1989) would call a “mimetic” stance towards the character, interpreting him in
psychological terms i.e., as if he were a lifelike being without referring to
style or literary themes. (Of course, this could reflect the fact that the qualitative
questions already implied a psychologizing stance towards the protagonist.) The
most frequent codes, with over 10 occurrences across all the answers, are listed
and exemplified in Table 3. A complete list of codes is provided in Table 4 be-
DIEGESIS 5.1 (2016)
- 56 -
Code name
Example (translated
from Dutch; coded por-
tion is italicized)
Ethical condemna-
The reader finds the charac-
ter’s actions ethically ques-
tionable or unacceptable.
[I had] little respect [for him,
because] he didn’t pay his
The character’s behavior is
seen as erratic or surprising.
“No [I didn’t trust him],
[because] he could just change
his mind.”
The reader finds the charac-
ter and his behavior strange,
bizarre, unusual, etc.
I thought he was weird, I
think he was a little con-
fused, as when the lame
man was walking in front
of him.”
The character is seen as un-
reliable, deceitful, etc.
“I didn’t trust him because of
his lies and tricks.”
Psychological evalu-
The reader comments on the
character’s personality.
He is very introverted.”
Positive attitude
The reader’s attitude towards
the character has a positive
valence (respect, admiration,
[I felt] admiration, because
[the character] is not con-
cerned about the future.”
The reader feels sympathy or
compassion for the charac-
ter’s predicament.
“In the beginning I had
compassion for him, he had no
job, no food, no money
and a drafty house.”
Negative attitude
The reader expresses a nega-
tive attitude towards the
Light irritation.”
Social evaluation
The reader remarks on the
character’s social class and
“He is a poor, strange per-
Feelings of distance
The reader comments on the
imaginative distance between
him- or herself and the char-
[I felt] superior, I have
money, he doesn’t have
Lack of interest
The reader doesn’t find the
character (and his story) in-
teresting enough.
I don’t care about his actions.”
Psychological disor-
The reader sees the character
as suffering from mental ill-
He has mental problems.”
The reader expresses pity for
the character.
[I found him] pitiable be-
cause he constantly had
too little money.”
Lack of understand-
The reader states that he or
she couldn’t understand the
character’s psychology.
I did not really understand the
main character.”
Table 3: Main codes (over 10 occurrences). The frequencies show the number of participants
whose answers were assigned each code at least once (so, for instance, if the same participant
expressed ethical condemnation in different parts of the response, he or she still counts as
DIEGESIS 5.1 (2016)
- 57 -
While negative judgments (unpredictability, unreliability, etc.) are clearly prev-
alent, sympathetic responses are not too uncommon. Since these codes exist at
the level of individual words and sentences, a participant’s overall response to
the qualitative items could contain both positive and negative attitudes. We thus
decided to divide the participants into three categories. Most readers (44 out of
76) expressed an attitude towards the character that combines positive and neg-
ative elements. In this class the most frequent codes are: unpredictability (fre-
quency 20), ethical condemnation (17), strangeness (15), positive attitude (14),
and psychological evaluation (13). 28 out of 76 readers expressed a negative at-
titude towards the character. The most frequently occurring codes are ethical
condemnation (15), strangeness (11), unpredictability (11), unreliability (10), and
negative attitude (9). Finally, a small number of readers (4 out of 76) expressed
a positive attitude towards the character. Here positive evaluations (4) and sym-
pathy (4) are the most frequent themes.
The fact that over half of the participants had mixed feelings for the protag-
onist is, of course, an indicator of his complexity, and confirms what we sug-
gested above about the ambivalence of readers’ engagement with characters in
literary fiction: in relating to Hamsun’s protagonist, readers tend to oscillate be-
tween positive and negative attitudes, with a number of participants showing
both in their commentaries. By contrast, feelings of closeness to the character
appear only in a small minority of commentaries (with 5 occurrences in total).
This dovetails with the idea that empathy for the protagonist was disrupted by
other aspects of readers’ stance towards him.
We also compared the distribution of the codes across the two conditions
(see Table 4), though these results are not completely reliable because the par-
ticipants’ responses were not coded blind to the condition. The only statistically
significant phenomenon that can be observed here is that the condition pre-
dicted reports of pity for the character: participants in the first-person condition
were assigned the code pity more frequently (p = .03). Pity is an empathic emo-
tion, in the sense that it refers to the emotional reactions of one person to the
experiences of another (Davis 1983), with a negative valence. This observation
suggests that the first-person perspective might indeed elicit stronger empathic
emotions, albeit not the other-oriented, caring empathic responses (such as em-
pathic concern or sympathy) that we attempted to measure with the quantitative
items. This might be related to the character’s potential unlikability, and to the
suspicion of narrative unreliability in the first-person context: hence, according
to these qualitative results, the participants’ feelings towards the character-nar-
rator were both more empathic and more negatively colored than those partici-
pants experienced in the third-person condition. A qualitative analysis of this
kind is necessarily limited insofar as it is based on interpretive categories and
decisions, but it does suggest hypotheses that may be tested in follow-up re-
DIEGESIS 5.1 (2016)
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Chi square
Ethical condemnation
Psychological evaluation
Positive attitude
Negative attitude
Social evaluation
Feelings of distance
Lack of interest
Psychological disorder
Lack of understanding
Story not long enough
Feelings of closeness
Temporal development
The character should act differ-
Synthetic judgment
Table 4: Frequency of codes per condition.
The main finding of the experimental study discussed in this article is that the
narrative situation has an effect on readers’ trust for the protagonist of a literary
text. This result suggests that, other things being equal, readers may be less in-
clined to trust a deviant character when he or she is also the narrator of the story
possibly, because of the awareness that he or she might be lying or deliberately
manipulating them. When, in our study, the narrative perspective was shifted to
third-person form with internal focalization, readers tended to consider the char-
acter more trustworthy even if his actions and thoughts remained the same. This
discrepancy can be interpreted in light of the different real-world frames acti-
vated by first- and third-person narrative: since character narration is reminiscent
of face-to-face conversation, the audience can develop an illusion of direct in-
volvement in the communicative process (in what Monika Fludernik would call
a “telling” frame, 1996, 50). This idea ties in with Kotovych et al.’s (2011) thesis
that reading and specifically reading texts with first-person narrators activates
inference-making processes broadly similar to those at work in everyday conver-
sation. However, while Kotovych et al. focus on reliable narrators, this essay has
DIEGESIS 5.1 (2016)
- 59 -
shown that readers of fiction are equally likely to cast doubt on the narrator’s
trustworthiness, just as in real life we may question our interlocutor’s reliability
and ethical stance. By contrast, in third-person narrative readers’ access to the
protagonist’s mental life is mediated (and authenticated) by an anonymous nar-
rator who is not, apparently, part of the storyworld. This set-up has two conse-
quences: first, the trust readers place in the external narrator (who is by conven-
tion an authoritative figure) may be transferred to their engagement with the
protagonist, in what Kotovych et al. (2011) call an “association” between narra-
tor and character; second, readers are invited to imagine the character from an
observer position which may result in feelings of distance and / or sympathy.
Moreover, our study indicates that first-person narrative and internal focali-
zation are equally likely to trigger (or not trigger) empathic responses except
for the older participants in our sample, who displayed greater perspective-taking
for the protagonist in the first-person condition. This result may reflect a closer
match not just in age but also in existential outlook between the narrator and
older participants: students aged between 17 and 18 are about to finish school,
and have to face some important life choices. Therefore, these participants may
have appreciated the spontaneity of a first-person narrator who is living through
a period of emotional turmoil and uncertainty, and may have more easily identi-
fied with his narratorial voice than with that of an anonymous, external narrator.
It may be argued that the results obtained here are specific to Hamsun’s text.
Yet Hamsun’s protagonist is similar to many of the round characters of the 19th
and (especially) 20th century novel, and we would expect similar reading strate-
gies in response to such characters. Regardless of the narrative perspective, most
readers did not feel especially close to the protagonist of Hunger, as suggested by
the qualitative commentaries. This finding is perhaps surprising, given the sup-
posed centrality of empathic concern and perspective-taking in relating to fic-
tional characters. On the other hand, it dovetails with Suzanne Keen’s (2007, 84)
intuition that lowbrow fiction (which usually features likable protagonists)
tends to be more conducive to empathy for characters than literary fiction, in
which characters are complex and often ethically ambivalent. Surely, there is
more than empathy involved in engaging with a literary protagonist like
Hamsun’s: a character’s deviation from societal norms is likely to disrupt empa-
thy, inducing judgments of unpredictability, strangeness, and mental illness all
of which can be seen as a manifestation of his or her unconventional and chal-
lenging nature. A principled approach to literary character should account for
these distancing effects, and should explore the interpretive strategies through
which audiences cope with the character’s perceived strangeness (for a first at-
tempt along these lines, cf. Caracciolo 2013).
Further research is needed to shed light on these issues, but the evidence
presented here does question assumptions about the direct effects of textual
strategies on narrative empathy. Indeed, one of the lessons that can be drawn
from our experiment is that literary scholars tend to overestimate the effects of
textual cues on readers’ responses: we had predicted changes in empathy as a
result of narrative strategies (first-person vs. third-person form) while, in fact,
DIEGESIS 5.1 (2016)
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our results show that empathy should be conceptualized as an emergent phe-
nomenon depending on the interaction between textual and non-textual factors:
readers’ age, reading expertise, and dispositional empathy.
We should keep in mind, however, that our study measured readers’ self-
reported empathy as an outcome of reading a certain text. This does not necessarily
reflect what happened while reading Hamsun’s chapter. Readers may have imag-
inatively entertained the protagonist’s viewpoint while reading even as other as-
pects of their experience eventually led them to distance themselves from the
character. Indeed, the ambivalence of most readers’ commentaries suggests that
empathy in the sense of both perspective-taking and empathic concern or sym-
pathy may have been part of the readerly dynamic, but it was compromised by
other factors in the audience’s overall evaluation of the protagonist. In order to
explore these factors, we would need to examine more closely the temporal pro-
gression of readers’ engagement with literary characters. Obviously, the specifics
of this progression will depend on the text used, but the structural tensions and
dynamics underlying it may well be more generalizable.
A final point concerns the possible implications of our findings for the study
of the real-world effects of literary reading. Our choice of a group of high-school
students for our experiment was not coincidental. Perspective-taking is still mal-
leable in teenagers, and it is legitimate to think that literary reading may help
shape empathic competencies by exposing young readers to complex and often
ambivalent social situations. Future research might therefore address longitudi-
nal effects of reading literary fiction on adolescents’ empathy development.
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that, in literary reading, empathy for characters is likely to be complicated, and
may in some cases be counteracted, by other factors. This study has begun to
chart readers’ attitude towards characters as a function of empathy, trust, and
(through the qualitative answers) ethical judgments. The psychological impact of
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Caspar J. van Lissa
Erasmus University Rotterdam
The Netherlands
Marco Caracciolo
University of Freiburg
Thom van Duuren
University of Groningen
The Netherlands
Bram van Leuveren
University of St Andrews
United Kingdom
DIEGESIS 5.1 (2016)
- 63 -
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives
4.0 International License.
How to cite this article:
Lissa, Caspar J. van / Caracciolo, Marco / Duuren, Thom van / Leuveren,
Bram van: Difficult Empathy. The Effect of Narrative Perspective on Readers’
Engagement with a First-Person Narrator. In: DIEGESIS. Interdisciplinary
E-Journal for Narrative Research / Interdisziplinäres E-Journal für Erzählforschung 5.1
(2016). 43-63.
URN: urn:nbn:de:hbz:468-20160607-151127-7
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... ün olduğu ancak kurmaca türlerin buna daha fazla imkân tanıdığı bilinmektedir (Djikic, Oatley ve Moldoveanu, 2013, s. 31). Kidd ve Castano (2013, s. 377) araştırmalarında estetik bir dille kurgulanmış kurmaca metinlerin okurların zihin kuramı becerilerini desteklediği sonucuna ulaşmışlardır. Literatürdeki diğer araştırmalar da anlatıcı (Keen, 2006;van. Lissa, Caracciolo, van Duuren ve van Leuveren, 2016), metafor kullanımı (Laffer, 2016) söylem sunumu (Kuzmičová, Mangen, Støle ve Begnum, 2017;Fernandez-Quintanilla, 2020) gibi belli anlatı tekniklerinin okurda oluşacak empatiyi desteklediğini göstermektedir. Bu çalışmalar, kurmaca anlatıların dilsel düzenlenişinin okura sunduğu olanaklar göz önünde bulundurulduğunda önemli görünmektedir. ...
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Anlatılar, kurmaca karakterin bilincinin okur tarafından algılanması ve duygularının yansılanmasında okura simüle edilmiş deneyimler sunar. Anlatısal metinler bu özellikleriyle benzer deneyimleri yaşamayan bireyler arasında ortaklık kurarak sosyal, bir başkasının zihnini anlayabilmede ise duygusal gelişimi destekleyecek önemli bir eğitsel araç niteliği kazanırlar. Metin ve okur arasındaki etkileşimin bir parçası ve kurmaca metinle ilişki kurma deneyiminin psikolojik mekanizmalarından biri olarak tanımlanan anlatı empatisi, metindeki çeşitli dilsel yapılar ve kullanımlarla desteklenmektedir. Anadili eğitiminin hedeflerinden biri de duyguları ilişkilendirme, düzenleyebilme, sosyal anlayış geliştirme gibi becerileri kapsayan duyuşsal alanın gelişimidir. Bu doğrultuda, mevcut çalışmada Türkçe eğitiminin temel ders materyallerinden biri olan Türkçe ders kitabında yer alan kurmaca anlatı metinlerinin okurda empati gelişimini desteklemesi bakımından incelenmesi hedeflenmiştir. Çalışmada Türkçe 5. sınıf ders kitabında yer alan kurmaca metinlerdeki anlatıcı tipolojisi, zihinsel eylemler ve metafor kullanımı sıklık, çeşitlilik ve bağlamsal izlekleri bakımından betimlenmiştir. Ayrıca çalışmada ders kitabındaki okuru empati yapmaya yönlendiren etkinliklere de odaklanılmıştır. Bulgular, Türkçe ders kitabındaki kurmaca metinlerde üçüncü kişi anlatıcının, biliş, duygu ve algı olarak sınıflandırılan zihinsel fiillerde duygu fiillerinin ve diğer karakterlerin zihinsel durumlarını betimlemeye yönelik metaforların sıklığının yüksek olduğunu göstermektedir. Bununla birlikte, okuma etkinliklerinde okuru karakterle empati yapmaya yönlendiren öz referans sorularının ve dolaylı stratejilerin kullanıldığı izlenmiştir.
... The affective power of literary texts has been acknowledged since Aristotle's Poetics, but in the 20th century, many schools of thought such as formalism, new criticism, structuralism and poststructuralism orientated the attention to formal and structural aspects of texts, whereas the study of emotions was excluded and considered as susceptible to researchers' subjective emotions. Research topics range from the study of literature and empathy (Keen, 2007) to the study of literature and cognition (Hogan, 2011)), negative affects and tone in texts (Ngai, 2005) to empirical perspectives (Sklar, 2013;Van Lissa et al., 2018), and even emotions specific to Finnish literature (Rossi, 2020;Rossi and Lyytikäinen, 2022). ...
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We propose to use affect as a proxy for mood in literary texts. In this study, we explore the differences in computationally detecting tone versus detecting mood. Methodologically we utilize affective word embeddings to look at the affective distribution in different text segments. We also present a simple yet efficient and effective method of enhancing emotion lexicons to take both semantic shift and the domain of the text into account producing real-world congruent results closely matching both contemporary and modern qualitative analyses.
... Research on literature and emotions is an active field in traditional literary studies, particularly after the "affective turn"; a shift in attitude towards how affect is perceived in literary theory that took place about two decades ago (see e.g Smith, 2011 andArmstrong, 2014). Research topics range from the study of literature and empathy (Keen, 2007) to the study of literature and cognition (Hogan, 2011)), negative affects and tone in texts (Ngai, 2005) to empirical perspectives (Sklar, 2013;Van Lissa et al., 2018), and even emotions specific to Finnish literature (Rossi, 2020;Rossi and Lyytikäinen, 2022). ...
Conference Paper
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This paper is a methodological exploration of the origin of mood in early modern and modern Finnish literary texts using computational methods. We discuss the pre-processing steps as well as the various natural language processing tools used to try to pinpoint where mood can be best detected in text. We also share several tools and resources developed during this process. Our early attempts suggest that overall mood can be computationally detected in the first three paragraphs of a book.
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Immersion, Identification, and the Iliad explains why people care about this foundational epic poem and its characters. It represents the first book-length application to the Iliad of research in communications, literary studies, media studies, and psychology on how readers of a story or viewers of a play, movie, or television show find themselves immersed in the tale and identify with the characters. Immersed recipients get wrapped up in a narrative and the world it depicts and lose track to some degree of their real-world surroundings. Identification occurs when recipients interpret the storyworld from a character’s perspective, feel emotions congruent with those of a character, and/or root for a character to succeed. This volume situates modern research on these experiences in relation to ancient criticism on how audiences react to narratives. It then offers close readings of select episodes and detailed analyses of recurring features to show how the Iliad immerses both ancient and modern recipients and encourages them to identify with its characters. Accessible to students and researchers, to those inside and outside of classical studies, this interdisciplinary project aligns research on the Iliad with contemporary approaches to storyworlds in a range of media. It thereby opens new frontiers in the study of ancient Greek literature and helps investigators of audience engagement from antiquity to the present contextualize and historicize their own work.
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The purpose of this study is to analyse Maggie Gee's The Ice People and Octavia E. Butler's Parable of the Sower as examples of post-apocalyptic fiction arguing how the catastrophe is narrated in diary forms and the effects of post-apocalyptic contexts in different aspects of societies by discussing them through the perspective of posthumanist theory. Both novels place a dysfunctional society at the centre and criticise the anthropocentric approaches in the aftermaths of the apocalypse by questioning the core of what gives value to a human being in such a planet while presenting a gap between generations in their struggle to build a promising planet again.
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Leon Festinger’s account of cognitive dissonance, published in 1957, has become one of the most successful theories in the history of social psychology. I argue that Festinger’s framework—and the research it generated over the last sixty years—can shed light on key aspects of readers’ engagement with literary characters. Literature can invite the audience to vicariously experience characters’ dissonance through an empathetic mechanism, but it can also induce dissonant states in readers by encouraging them to take on attitudes and beliefs that are significantly different from their own. I suggest that there are two strategies—or patterns of reader-response—through which the audience can cope with the dissonance between their own worldview and the characters’: attitude change and imaginative resistance. In the first, readers adjust their own beliefs and values according to what they have experienced and learned in adopting characters’ perspectives. By contrast, in imaginative resistance readers’ worldview prevents them from establishing an empathetic bond with characters. I integrate these hypotheses into a model that builds on theoretical as well as empirical insights into reader-response.
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What causes us to feel sympathy for fictional characters? Using audience members from four theatrical productions we tested the relative strength of three oft-cited predictors: understanding the emotions of another (cognitive empathy), feeling the emotions of another (emotional empathy), and experiencing a negative emotional reaction to another's plight (personal distress). Predictors of sympathy held constant for a wide range of ages but differed for males versus females. Level of sympathy was predicted by emotional empathy in males but by cognitive empathy in females. These findings suggest that when watching theatrical performances, sympathy for characters is more other-directed for females than for males.
Ethos and Narrative Interpretation examines the fruitfulness of the concept of ethos for the theory and analysis of literary narrative. The notion of ethos refers to the broadly persuasive effects of the image one may have of a speaker’s psychology, world view, and emotional or ethical stance. How and why do readers attribute an ethos (of, for example, sincerity, reliability, authority, or irony) to literary characters, narrators, and even to authors? Are there particular conditions under which it is more appropriate for interpreters to attribute an ethos to authors, rather than to narrators? In the answer Liesbeth Korthals Altes proposes to such questions, ethos attributions are deeply implicated in the process of interpreting and evaluating narrative texts. Demonstrating the extent to which ethos attributions, and hence, interpretive acts, play a tacit role in many methods of narratological analysis, Korthals Altes also questions the agenda and epistemological status of various narratologies, both classical and post-classical. Her approach, rooted in a broad understanding of the role and circulation of narrative art in culture, rehabilitates interpretation, both as a tool and as an object of investigation in narrative studies. © 2014 by the Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska. All rights reserved.
This book presents an account of the relationships among novel reading, empathy, and altruism. Though readers' and authors' empathy certainly contribute to the emotional resonance of fiction and its success in the marketplace, this book finds the case for altruistic consequences of novel reading inconclusive. It offers instead a detailed theory of narrative empathy, with proposals about its deployment by novelists and its results in readers. The book engages with neuroscience and contemporary psychological research on empathy, bringing affect to the center of cognitive literary studies' scrutiny of narrative fiction. Drawing on narrative theory, literary history, philosophy, and contemporary scholarship in discourse processing, the book brings together resources and challenges for the literary study of empathy and the psychological study of fiction reading. Empathy robustly enters into affective responses to fiction, but its proper role in shaping the behavior of emotional readers has been debated for three centuries. The book surveys these debates and offers a series of hypotheses about literary empathy, including narrative techniques inviting empathetic response. It argues that above all readers' perception of a text's fictiveness increases the likelihood of readers' empathy, by releasing readers from their guarded responses to the demands of real others. The book confirms the centrality of narrative empathy as a strategy, as well as a subject, of contemporary novelists. Despite the disrepute of putative human universals, novelists from around the world endorse the notion of shared human emotions when they overtly call upon their readers' empathy. Consequently, the book suggests, if narrative empathy is to be better understood, women's reading and popular fiction must be accorded the respect of experimental inquiry.
My essay joins the contemporary cognitive-narratological debate on whether readers bring to bear on fictional characters the folk psychology that they apply to real people. While arguing for a continuity in readers’ engagement with real and fictional minds, I point out that some literary techniques harness our imaginative, empathic skills to a greater degree than is likely in real life. Specifically, internally focalized texts encourage readers to simulate characters’ experiences in a first-person way, going beyond our usual second- or third-person stance towards other minds. This can create the illusion that we penetrate more deeply into the mental life of characters than we could ever penetrate into that of real people. In the second part of the essay, I use a short story by Julio Cortázar as case study for arguing that readers’ first-person involvement with characters can also explain the unsettling effect of texts evoking non-ordinary or impossible mental states and experiences. The thrust of this article is that the narratorial function of “authentication” (in Lubomír Doležel’s term) is crucial in creating an empathic bond between readers and characters: since in some situations the narrator’s statements about the mental states of a character cannot be falsified, they are taken to be direct reflections of the character’s experience, thereby inviting readers to adopt an empathic mode of engagement.
Our article reviews empirical work that claims to provide evidence for the psychological benefits and effects of engaging with literature. Psychological research has considerable potential for addressing the limitations of traditional reader-response theories, especially if such research is conducted in an interdisciplinary context where literary scholars can actively shape the experimental setup. In the first part of the article we consider the work carried out in this connection by psychologist Keith Oatley and literary scholar Frank Hakemulder, calling attention to a number of important issues that, in our view, haven't been adequately addressed in their empirical studies. In the second part we turn to our more positive arguments, suggesting that the investigation of the psychological effects of reading cannot abstract from phenomenological data based on readers’ own self-reports. Building on philosophical and psychological views of the self as a narrative construction, we argue that the analysis of readers' life stories may offer important insights into how literary reading can have an impact on readers. The descriptive, qualitative, phenomenological route is less fraught with presuppositions and normative assumptions than Oatley's and Hakemulder's approaches, and deserves being taken into serious consideration.
This essay examines some of the ways that narratives produce sympathy in readers. First, I compare several models that have been proposed to explain how fictional texts structure readers' emotional responses. In this connection, I highlight some of the ways that narratological analyses of fictional narratives can complement approaches to the study of reader response that rely exclusively, or heavily, on psychological assumptions. I demonstrate some of the advantages of a narratologically based approach by analyzing in detail Toni Cade Bambara's short story "The Hammer Man." I contend that Bambara's story systematically moves readers from dislike to sympathy for the story's protagonist. In order to verify my claims about the story's effect on readers, I also review the results of tests that I conducted to measure subjects' levels of sympathy at the beginning and the end of the story. Finally, I discuss some of the implications of the test results for literary studies.