Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Sympathy for fictional characters

"I have a bit of a confession to make: I have never quite understood what is meant by “identifying with characters”, or why being able to “identify with characters” should be considered a criterion of literary merit. I often encounter “I couldn’t identify with the characters” as criticism, or “I could identify with the characters” as approval, but whenever I have asked what precisely is meant by “identifying with characters”, I have never yet received a coherent reply.
Part of it seems to be the demand that the reader should like the characters – or, at least, like some of the characters – especially the protagonist. I think “identification” means a bit more than just that, but liking a character does seem a prerequisite. But even at this first hurdle, there are questions: must one like the characters in order to admire – or even like – the work they appear in? Does one necessarily like Eugène de Rastignac? Would one wish to live next door to Hedda Gabler? Invite the Macbeths round to tea? Are the works in which these characters feature any lesser, or do we admire or like these works less, because we do not like their protagonists as people?
[...] Identification, in the sense in which it is commonly used, seems to me to indicate a state of imaginative oneness with the characters – a state in which we find ourselves sharing their feelings, their motives, their emotions and imaginations. And I remain unconvinced that “identification” in this sense is necessary for appreciation of literature. Or even, for that matter, desirable, as this state of oneness may well skew our responses and our judgements, and thus act as a barrier to our appreciation."
Anthony Trollope declares "No novel is anything, for purposes either of comedy or tragedy unless the reader can sympathise with the characters whose name we find upon the page.  Let the author so tell his tale as to touch his reader’s heart and draw his reader’s tears, and he has so far done his work well." 
Obviously, he's wrong. Tom argues "Novels can serve many purposes and work in many ways and touch neither the heart nor the tear ducts and yet be well-done work."
George Eliot resembles Trollope. "What’s interesting here, actually, is that Eliot’s notion of realism is directly tied to some idea of sympathy. True realism, including coarseness, selfishness, and whatever other ugly qualities are part of the portrait are the only path to true sympathy."
"The development of the idea of sympathy in 19th century literature was one of the great achievements of the time. [...] By mid-century, most of the great writers were working on The Sympathy Project.  Not just Hugo and Dickens: George Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell, Anthony Trollope, Theodor Storm, Adalbert Stifter, Henry James, Mark Twain ("All right, then, I'll GO to hell"), Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoevsky.  All of those Naturalists.   Poets and playwrights, too..." 
- George Eliot makes an argument about sympathy, enforcing some limits. Example: Adam Bede
- "sympathy can be as bad for the reader as antipathy. Both can inhibit critical thought."
- "The 19th century International Literary Sympathy Project is beginning to look to me like one of the great achievements of civilization.  But literature can do other things, too."
The other things literature can do. Great books that don't have sympathetic characters. 
"What should one tell the reader who refuses to look into Wuthering Heights because the characters are unpleasant?  Stay away from all those other books?  Or, try another approach - it's a lot more pleasant than it looks."
"Tastes, I am told, cannot be disputed.  Tastes can be cultivated, though.  The taste for characters with whom one does not sympathize should be cultivated.  That's what I want to argue.  And, honestly, I'm not convinced that a taste for "characters I can identify with" or "characters I understand" is any less arbitrary than not wanting to read about poor people, or not wanting to read depressing books (examples drawn, sadly, from life).
[...] One more disclaimer, while I'm jabbering about tastes.  One of my problems with that Wuthering Heights straw man up above is that I don't really care if he likes the book.  I don't care that much if I like the book!   Something about Wuthering Heights has kept it alive, has attracted so many good readers.  I want to figure out what it is.  Looking for sympathetic characters in Wuthering Heights is a hindrance to understanding the novel.  The strange thing is that once I do begin to figure out what the author is up to, what is actually in the book, I begin to like it, a lot.  This is what I mean by cultivating a taste.  Critical distance is pleasurable."
"When I read Wuthering Heights, I encounter a fine assembly of weirdos, misfits, idiots, and monsters, a few of whom deserve my pity, but none of whom deserve much more. Yet there is one character with whom I sympathize strongly: I care about what happens to her, and I wish her well in her goals.  She's not much like me, so there's little identification with her, but I appreciate and benefit from the offer of friendship she makes me, and enjoy the opportunity to get to know her better." 
Tom means Emily Bronte. The implied author, not the real person.
"I don't particularly care about sympathetic characters.  They're a literary device useful for achieving specific goals.  Other devices are useful for achieving other goals.  Sympathetic attention to the book will point us in the right direction.  Then we can puzzle over whether the goals were achieved, or whether they were worth trying in the first place."
"Really, here's the most important reason to be careful about indulging in the entirely natural impulse to sympathize with the admirable and interesting characters in a novel.  It turns out that certain novelists are aware of this predilection and have learned to manipulate it for their own sinister ends."
Tom mentions Nabokov (Lolita, Pnin), Ford Madox Ford and William Thackeray.
"I lose sympathy for Gwendolen because in adversity she proves to have a bad character. 
[...] It seems that the narrator is not just describing her heroine but justifying her, even pleading for her, and also against Grandcourt.  The narrator has taken sides.  Why should I trust her judgment?  Perhaps because she is omniscient, but then why is she unable to tell me what went on in the boat, in the action behind Chapter 55?  Somehow her omniscience fails her there.
I have spent a lifetime of reading fiction learning to distrust narrators.  Here I am identifying the heart of my struggle with Daniel Deronda.  Eliot gives me a surprising number of reasons to distrust this narrator.  Am I supposed to read the novel this way?  No, I suppose not."


  1. I remember that post about the sympathetic character in Wuthering Heights being the author. I wonder if there's something to that. I didn't have to work at enjoying Wuthering Heights-- it was a joy to read from first page to last-- same with Hedda Gabler. But I find other books upsetting or difficult that have characters that aren't any more unpleasant than Heathcliff or Hedda-- for instance, Madame Bovary. Are there any books that are objectively good that you have difficulty reading because of content/characters?

    1. I suspect that your response to Madame Bovary has less to do with the characters than with the implied author, with his tone and voice and probably also his attitude and world view.
      Regarding your questions, at the top of my head there are 3 books that I didn't consider bad but which I couldn't stand: Lord of the Flies by William Golding, The Quiet American by Graham Greene and The Book of Daniel by E. L. Doctorow. In all 3 cases, it's because of the author, not the characters.
      Also thinking about Corregidora. No, I don't think that one is good at all. No. But The Book of Daniel, which I extremely hate, is a brilliant novel. You may even call it a masterpiece.