Narrative Empathy: A Universal Response to Fiction?

Suzanne Keen, Washington and Lee University

The proposition that narrative empathy[1] qualifies as a literary universal could have no less likely an advocate than me. I have argued that no one narrative reliably evokes empathy from all its readers, listeners, or viewers (Empathy and the Novel, 65-84).  I have also suggested that the co-creative work performed by readers (listeners, viewers) contributes substantively to the scripted worldmaking of fiction and nonfiction narrative (“Empathy in Reading,” 50-4). It is in my view literally the case that no two readers encounter and respond to the same narrative, because no two readers bring the same set of literary predispositions, life experiences, identities, desires, and memories to the co-creative task (50).

For their part, authors and makers of narrative across media apparently differ in their ambition to evoke empathy from readers: some making it a priority and employing broadcast and ambassadorial strategic narrative empathy to assure empathic responses from as many readers as possible; some taking it for granted as they aim representations at a familiar in-group and employing bounded strategic empathy (Keen “Strategic Empathizing”); and some swearing it off altogether, whether in pursuit of a more rational response, or aiming for discordant emotions such as disgust or shock. Literary historians and scholars of narrative genres have demonstrated that many of the qualities that readers and critics associate with empathic potential in a work of fiction, such as representation of a character’s interior perspective, have histories of development (Fludernik and Keen 456-7). Look early enough in the literary tradition and you just won’t find it.  Treatments of core qualities of narrative that can be presumed to exist from pre-historic oral storytelling to the present diversity of narrative media and modes seem more promising leads in the quest for formal universals, but several logical leaps intervene between identifying a literary universal (such as a character type, event, or plot sequence) and affirming the emotion that its appearance might be supposed reliably to evoke from most people, across the millennia. Empathy may be a narrative universal not in the sense of being a demonstrable effect of narrative (where the empirical evidence is scanty), but rather as an enabling condition for narrative derived from, and evolved along with other aspects of our shared humanity. In that case, however, it ceases being the business of a narrative theorist to describe it. We are on solid ground observing that literary practice in a variety of genres reveals that makers have sought to communicate audiences whose feelings, attitudes, and commitments they might sway by means of strategic narrative empathy, but the uncertainty of the effects and the difficulty of demonstrating causal links between underlying human biological abilities, cultural expressions in diverse historical contexts, motives, messages, and responses should give us pause.

Historians of the emotions such as Ute Frevert argue that empathy is a modern, global, recent arrival—pervasive and influential, to be sure, but no more universal than the emotions, such as honor and shame, that were more highly valued and motivating in the past (Frevert 10-12). In contrast, neuroscientists and evolutionary psychologists suggest that empathy is an evolved ability that has contributed to human survival from prehistoric times, undergirding care for helpless infants (Hrdy 137-38) and success in anticipating the behavior of prey animals (Sarnecki). The science of mirror neurons suggests that the human shared manifold for intersubjectivity (Gallese) is physiologically related to the capacities of birds to fly in a flock together, primates to imitate each other (de Waal 52, 63-4), or pack animals to support one another (Cassidy and McIntyre). Whether empathy is a new name for a very old phenomenon (Wispé), or a relatively recently fashionable capacity, contributing, as Steven Pinker has argued, to lessening of violence, warfare, and mass murder in contrast to our prehistoric ancestors as a humanitarian context for kinder behavior develops (169-77), remains a subject of debate. As Pinker writers, “the word empathy is barely a century old” (573) and the form of it “that gets valorized today—an altruistic concern for others—cannot be equated with the ability to think what they are thinking or feel what they are feeling” (574).[2]  Pinker astutely observes that “today’s empathy craze has been set off by scrambling the various senses of the word empathy” (576) and he criticizes overselling the consequences of possessing a mirror neuron system (577).

Even for those who regard empathic ability as a fundamental human trait, rooted in our bio-physiology and social natures, failures to empathize over boundaries of difference and limitations of empathy’s reach suggest that its targets are far from universal (Young 32; Keen, “Empathy Studies” 127). Just because humans can feel empathy does not mean that humans routinely do share feelings with one another, especially across boundaries of difference as evidenced by empathic faltering caused by familiarity/similarity biases (Hoffman 197, 206). Furthermore, the psychology of human empathy has amply demonstrated that the variety of phenomena that go under the umbrella term “empathy” (Batson 3-16) exist to greater and lesser degrees across populations of people, as studies using empathy scales such as Mark Davis’s IRI reveal (Davis 85). Some people have such low empathic ability as to find the cognitive and affective invitations of narrative fiction unappealing, whereas others, such as high-empathy individuals who resonate to the imaginary experiences of nonexistent beings, may spend significant numbers of their waking hours immersed in fiction. These individual differences may be altered by exposure to fiction (Koopman and Hakemulder), but it is important to acknowledge that even those psychologists who regard empathy as a capacity of other-orientation shared by all humans generally see it as stronger in some and weaker to the point of pathology in others.

Yet setting all these caveats to the side allows me to ask whether narrative empathy taps into universals of narrative—universals associated with the core ingredients of stories, with the maker or author’s techniques for evoking reactions from an audience, or with the responses of readers/listeners/viewers to the shared qualities of narrativity.  This entire set of possibilities rests on the assumption that narrative is a distinctive form of communication shared by human beings over a certain developmental age, which shows in children’s pretend play (Boyd 5-6) and is fostered by all cultures, albeit in different media and genres. This far I can go. Though it would certainly be possible to generate a list of literary themes that might be supposed to evoke similar reactions from members of diverse human audiences, including potentially empathetic responses, such a project would require many layers of historical and contextual scrutiny, and I do not attempt it here. I accept Alan Richardson’s caution that the study of literary universals “will prove more convincing if it concentrates on formal features and constraints, rhetorical and prosodic devices, and questions of genre and narrative, treating thematic elements or other aspects of content more sparely and with special caution” (Richardson 569-70). In my view, this advice makes sense for two reasons. First, some evidence does exist (for instance about the impact of rhythmic language) of highly predictable effects of literary devices on diverse audiences, and the field of empirical aesthetics.[3] Second, the systematic investigation of impact can proceed towards empirical demonstration if specific devices or features, whose presence, absence, or prominence can be manipulated, receive our scrutiny.  I agree with Richardson that theme and content should be handled with caution. Taking Richardson’s advice means setting aside several promising content-based suggestions about narrative empathy, including Lynn Hunt’s historical argument that in eighteenth century Britain (in tandem with the emergence of human rights discourse), certain character types typified by their vulnerability became targets of compassion, fellow-feeling, and sympathy, precursor terms that contain aspects of what we now label empathy (Hunt 28-32). While representations of cruelty to animals and children certainly play a part in the history of developing empathetic representation and human rights discourse, there is nothing automatic about that trajectory.  As Simon Dickie has argued, cruelty itself may evoke glee and other forms of sadistic pleasure, cementing group identities by mocking and excluding derided others.

To broach the three angles of approach that I have identified—concerning matters of form and genre, matters of craft, and matters of reception—in the endeavor of identifying possible narrative universals, I suggest first how narrative empathy might (or might not) intersect with them. As I have previously defined it, narrative empathy involves “the sharing of feeling and perspective-taking induced by reading, viewing, hearing, or imagining narratives of another’s situation and condition.” It “plays a role in the aesthetics of production when authors experience it. . . in mental simulation during reading, in the aesthetics of reception when readers experience it, and in the narrative poetics of texts when formal strategies invite it. Narrative empathy overarches narratological categories, involving actants, narrative situation, matters of pace and duration, and storyworld features such as settings” (Keen “Narrative Empathy”). Certainly, the involvement of formal qualities and generic conventions cue up readerly expectations, as Peter Rabinowitz has persuasively argued in Before Reading. Yet documenting the precise role played by narrative techniques deliberately manipulated to evoke predictable audience responses has been rather more elusive than conclusive.[4] The collaborative co-creation of fictional worlds by readers and viewers, the theorizing of what they bring to the narrative transaction, and the documentation of reliable stimuli of empathy in reading or viewing narrative would all benefit from further study.

Many narrative techniques have been nominated as especially likely to induce empathy:

These techniques include manipulations of narrative situation to channel perspective or person of the narration and representation of fictional characters’ consciousness (Schneider 2001), point of view (Andringa et al. 2001), and paratexts of fictionality (Keen 2007: 88–9). Other elements thought to be involved in readers’ empathy include vivid use of settings and traversing of boundaries (Friedman 1998), metalepsis, serial repetition of narratives set in a stable storyworld (Warhol 2003), lengthiness (Nussbaum 1990), encouraging immersion or transportation of readers (Nell 1988), generic conventions (Jameson 1981), metanarrative interjections (Fludernik 2003; Nünning 2001, 2004), and devices such as foregrounding (Miall 1989), disorder, or defamiliarization that slow reading pace (Zillman 1991). (Keen “Narrative Empathy”).

Examining this list for candidates that might universally—or at least ubiquitously and reliably—invoke empathy narrows the scope of inquiry.

In narratives, representation of fictional consciousness from an inside view, using the variety of techniques associated with perspectival narrative situation, develops in the 18th and 19th centuries, as Franz Stanzel intuited and subsequent scholars have demonstrated (Keen and Fludernik). Though it is true that dramatic soliloquies in the early modern period and lyric poetry in the classical period offer internal perspectives, a perspectival center of consciousness (described by some as especially empathetic) develops centuries later. Though ubiquitous now, it is far from a narrative universal taken over the millennia for which we have evidence.  Even in empirical work undertaken with large numbers of research subjects today, formal manipulations of perspectival representations of characters’ consciousness do not necessarily reveal a link to empathy. When put to the test, for example in contrast with first-person narrative perspectives, “manipulation of narrative perspective did not effect empathy for the character” (van Lissa, Caracciolo, van Duuren, and van Lueveren 43). Similarly, paratexts of fictionality only make sense as empathetic primers of readers when the generic distinction between fiction and nonfiction narrative influences readers’ and viewers’ sense of the relative force of a narrative’s truth claims. This distinction also has a history. The possibility of a narrative universal seems not to inhere in the fiction/nonfiction difference, for the boundary between these categories is highly permeable and movable (Lennard Davis). Nailing down the distinctiveness of fictional narrative (as contrasted with nonfictional narrative) from a formal angle is in itself an area of narratological controversy.[5]

Within the scope of narrative artists’ tool-kit lie the various shapes and delivery-systems that alter the pace and offer opportunities for immersion in a story world. These seem more likely to reveal narrative universals than fine-grained decisions about technique. For example, serial delivery of stories—with its repetitions and returns and its leveraging of interruption and gaps to create cliff-hangers around breaks in the narration—seems intuitively to evoke empathy and other emotions of reception, though recipient impatience or boredom pose risks. Lengthiness and seriality on their own may interfere with the story-world trance of transportation or immersion that seems highly likely to be involved in narrative empathy.[6] Several other tactics of stories ancient and modern, metalepsis (commonly known as frame-breaking) and metanarrative interjections,[7] may work with narrative disorder and foregrounding (or defamiliarization) to evoke empathy, as David Miall and Don Kuiken have argued (and provided useful tools for studying).  The core affects associated with narrativity itself, curiosity, surprise, and suspense (as theorized by Meir Sternberg in Expositional Modes and Temporal Ordering in Fiction) may be reliably generated by the tension between the story and discourse, but curiosity about, surprise at, and suspense felt for circumstances and emotions represented within the story world suggest a sympathetic (congruent) rather than an empathetic (matching) emotion structure. Richard J. Gerrig’s now classic work on participatory responses to narrative places readers’ responses at the center of the scholarly endeavor to identify causes and correlates of empathetic narrative impact, a project to which psychologist and novelist Keith Oatley has also materially contributed. The most promising work on narrative universals when it comes to readers’ emotional experiences of empathy and other emotions will combine the insights of psychologists carrying out empirical studies of real readers with the resources of rhetorical theories of narrative as a mode of human communication and persuasion.

Yet when we reach what logically must be the sweet spot for such interdisciplinary collaborations and conversations, profound challenges to acceptable conclusions about literary universals remain. The necessity for limiting variables in empirical work inevitably appears reductionist to literary critics whose disciplinary assumptions include respect for both complexity and uniqueness. I agree with Claudia Breger’s suggestion that narrative worldmaking is a “multidimensional, ‘multivectoral’ assemblage of heterogeneous elements” (Breger 227), where readers criss-crossed with the markers of intersectional identity co-create with authors. As long as we swear off making over-simplified predictions about how (for example) narrative empathy leads inexorably to altruism and good world citizenship (in Martha Nussbaum’s formulation), we need not be at an impasse. Narrative empathy could be an especially vital quality if it is a capacity that permits co-creation and narrative communication in spite of our manifest differences.  If it is true, in Breger’s words, that “the rhetorical processes of narration and reading engage affects, bodily memories, and associations in layered transactions between characters, narrators, implied and actual readers and authors” (227), then narrative empathy could be involved as latent network of connections, potentiating activation of the shared manifold for intersubjectivity. It could work across the ages, crossing the gulf created by time and distance, and it could link makers and recipients despite the barriers of unfamiliarity and dissimilarity. Narrative empathy in this conception could be a literary universal without over-promising a consistent response to any one narrative technique, genre, character type, or plot event, and without boiling down the ocean of story.

[See also Patrick Colm Hogan, “Comments on Keen.’”]

Works Cited

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Batson, C. Daniel. “These Things Called Empathy: Eight Related but Distinct Phenomena.” The Social Neuroscience of Empathy.  Eds. Jean Decety and William Ickes. MIT P, 2011, pp. 3-16.

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de Waal, Frans B. M. “The ‘Russian doll’ model of empathy and imitation.” On Being Moved: From Mirror Neurons to Empathy. Ed. Stein Bråten. John Benjamins, 2007, pp. 49-69.

Dickie, Simon. Cruelty and Laughter: Forgotten Comic Literature and the Unsentimental Eighteenth Century. U of Chicago P, 2011.

Fletcher, Angus and John Monterosso. “The Science of Free-Indirect Discourse: An Alternate Cognitive Effect.” Narrative 24.1 (Jan. 2016): 82-103.

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Frevert, Ute. Emotions in History—Lost and Found. New York: Central European University Press, 2013.

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[1] See the definition and discussion at Living Handbook of Narratology.

[2] On this topic, see Keen, “‘Altruism’ Makes a Space for Empathy, 1852″

[3] The field of empirical aesthetics (after the pioneering research of Berlyne) has focused more on music and visual art than on literary texts, but researchers at the Max Planck Institute are on the case: .

[4] Over a decade ago, in Empathy and the Novel, I documented the lacunae in the research about potentially empathy-inducing narrative techniques.  Since that time, good empirical work has been done about the impact of free indirect discourse (Fletcher and Monterosso), worldmaking that invites immersion reading (Johnson), fiction that offers opportunities for a feeling of belonging through joining a fictional crowd, and sympathetic depictions of outgroup members (Gabriel and Young). The most prominent studies, such as Kidd and Castano’s research on the benefits of reading literary fiction on Theory of Mind do not zero on particular narrative techniques whose presence or absence makes a difference in readers’ empathy (though they speculate about the influence of fiction’s invitation to fill gaps through inferences). Vera Nünning’s research into the cognitive benefits of fiction reading deserves attention, not least because she brings a narratologist’s sensitivity to the potential Protean impacts of form, following Meir Sternberg’s influential cautions in “Proteus in Quotation-Land.”

[5] For starting points on this debate, see Dorrit Cohn, The Distinction of Fiction and the response in Poetics Today by Gérard Genette, Nitsa Ben-Ari and Brian McHale, “Fictional Narrative, Factual Narrative.”

[6] For suggestive theorization of the role of transportation in voluntary pleasure reading, see Nell, Lost in a Book. For an empirical study of the impact of reader transportation/immersion on empathy, see Johnson, “Transportation into a story.” For the involvement of readers’ emotions, experiences, and expectations, see the works of Melanie C. Green and her collaborators.

[7] On the effects of metalepsis and metanarrative, see the discussions of the theoretical issues in essays by Monika Fludernik and Ansgar Nünning.