Book Review: Hammond, Meghan Marie, and Sue J. Kim, eds. Rethinking Empathy Through Literature

By Theo Savvas, University of Bristol

Emerson famously reported Goethe as declaring, “I have never heard of any crime which I might not have committed” (Emerson, 227). With this, Goethe was suggesting that he could think himself into the position of any criminal, a claim susceptible to all manner of interpretations – an honest admission of human frailty, perhaps, or an explanation of how he managed to render so sophisticated a character as Mephistopheles. But, at the root of all suggestions would be the fact that the comment represents a profound statement of what we would now call empathy. Taken literally Goethe’s claim is provocative because, as the introduction to Rethinking Empathy through Literature makes clear, “empathy” is not easily distinguished from its predecessor “sympathy.” “Sympathy” had been a touchstone of writing of the eighteenth century and was defined most usefully by Samuel Johnson as “fellow feeling,” a definition which for most would now pertain to empathy. Johnson’s phrase seems, indeed, not far removed from the recent definitions of empathy offered by thinkers such as Martha Nussbaum (“the ability to see the world from another’s viewpoint”) and Steven Pinker (“the ability to put oneself into the position of some other person, animal, or object, and imagine that sensation of being in that situation”) (7–8). In this understanding, sympathy is not synonymous with pity. However, with the rise of the nineteenth-century “social problem novel,” “feeling with” morphed into “feeling for”; the coining in 1909 by the psychologist Edward Titchener of “empathy” (from the German Einfühlungsvermögen) offered the possibility of a necessary, if often idiosyncratically employed, distinction to be made. Nevertheless, the nineteenth century understanding of sympathy tinctured our understanding of empathy in the latter half of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty first: empathy tends automatically to be taken as a virtuous affective quality. Rethinking Empathy through Literature (Routledge, 2014) is important because it continues a recent line of work – by scholars such as Lisa Zunshine, and Suzanne Keen – which seeks to trouble such a mechanistic understanding of the term. Indeed, the book, which is split into four sections, might with some justification have been given the title of the third of those sections: “Difficult Empathy.”

Given the importance in the field of Empathy and the Novel (2007), it is appropriate that the opening essay of the first part of this book – “Empathy and Reading” – is by Keen. Although Keen name checks her own book no fewer than seven times in the first five pages (a little more interventionism by the editors was needed on other occasions in the book, too), she does so not to rehearse “all the arguments” put forth there, but to engage with the specific matter of narrative empathy and altruism, and to consider the scholarly debate on the topic which has ensued in the ten years since her book was published (21, my italics). Broadly speaking, Keen rejected the claim that reading necessarily produces greater levels of empathy, and, importantly, she criticised the way in which narrative ethics tended to couch these claims in terms of canonicity, and literary style and quality. She was certainly right to do so. Nevertheless, she was also right to acknowledge there and in later work that most readers thought that there ought to be a connection between narrative empathy and empathy for living others (24). Her engagement with Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature does not challenge the overall argument that we have witnessed and are witnessing a decline in violence (although that thesis is contestable, and depends upon one’s definition of violence), but rather highlights that Pinker does not posit a simple causal relationship between a rise in empathy and a decline in violence. The overall point to take from Keen’s piece here is that more empirical research on the relationship between reading novels and the production of our better (empathic) angels is required.

Keen’s essay sets the tone for the interdisciplinary nature of the other two pieces that make up Part 1 of the book: Susan Lanzoni’s on early twentieth-century poetry and psychology, and the collaborative effort between Lauren Fowler and Sally Bishop Shigley. The latter is an examination of the impact of Margaret Edison’s play W:t on pre-health care students, and might, then, be said to offer some of the empirical research that Keen calls for in her piece. The data provided by the tests conducted (facial electromyography, galvanic skin response and self-report) are inconclusive though, and this is betrayed in the hedged final-line summation: “students at the undergraduate level have the capacity to be moved and changed powerfully by witnessing the human experience through literature” (57, my italics). Fair enough, but the question raised by the work of Keen and others is surely not whether individuals have the capacity to be changed by a work of literature, but whether the work itself has the capacity to change individuals. Trying to cleave to the topic of the book seems also to marginalise the most significant finding which was that viewing the film of the play rather than reading the play produced the far greater responses.

The second part, on “Empathy, Form, and the Body,” expands our sense of what empathy is and what it can do. Where for John Melillo, discussing the way in which certain poetic practice disturbs the relationship between “noise” and “sound,” empathy is better understood as a mediation of affect rather than as an affect itself, for Eleonore De Filip, empathy provides the means for hearing the voices of the “speechless,” both human and non-human alike. De Filip is surely right to highlight that in these instances empathy can only be understood “as an intellectual and emotional gift,” but her argument ought to be considered alongside the final essay in the collection in which Sarah L. Berry demonstrates the ways in which attempts at empathy can backfire (101). For Berry, the employment of “subject-to-object” empathy in Rebecca Skloot’s popular The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (2010) ends up perpetuating stereotypes, so “re-enacting the power imbalance that [the author] attempts to bring to the readers’ attention [sic]” (229).

The dynamic of the relationship between the presentation of empathy in a novel and empathy produced in the reader is fascinating and complex and several of the essays here consider it. Nathan Shank convincingly, if counterintuitively, suggests that a satirical and ironic narrator, such as we find in Fielding’s Tom Jones, might not prevent empathic identification with that narrator by the reader, and Rebecca Mitchell and Erik Leake explore the challenge to readerly empathy posed by “unlikeable characters.” All are stimulating – and Mitchell’s is for me the stand out piece of the collection – but none really develops a take on how or why “difficult empathy” might be linked to the overall success of a novel. Certainly for Richard Wright, one of the subjects of Leake’s essay, the move away from the opportunity for easy empathy produced by his earlier book, Uncle Tom’s Children – replete with characters “even bankers’ daughters could read and weep over and feel good about,” as Wright himself later lamented – was crucial (Wright, 23).

The collection ranges widely, and while this produces certain infelicities and occasional lapses in focus, the geographic and temporal scope allows for the contingent nature of empathy to be brought out. The reader can learn from Catherine Harrison’s reading of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh how provocation of empathy in the reader provided a way into the social problems of nineteenth-century England, while being made aware by Suzanne Roszak and Karen Steigman, writing about Giovanni’s Room and The Talented Mr. Ripley, and Didion’s The White Album, respectively, that in cold war America empathy served as a tool “for social and emotional manipulation” and the promotion of ideological conformity (152). Meghan Marie Hammond exonerates Gertrude Stein of (mis)appropriating the voice of Toklas in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas in her piece, but her admission of the fact that empathy might be something to which one is (involuntarily) subjected crystallizes the most important message of the book as a whole: empathy is certainly difficult; it has the potential to be dangerous, too.


Works Cited

Emerson, R.W. The Complete Prose Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, edited by G. T. Bettany, Ward, 1890.

Wright, Richard. “How Bigger was Born.” Native Son, Vintage, 2000, pp. viii–xxxiv.