Empathy and (Un)knowable Characters

2022-11-19 ☼ blog

Writing in The Guardian, George Saunders offers a nuanced take on the fiction as empathy catalyst” argument, focusing on literature’s capacity to override our default prejudices. We instinctively label characters, he suggests, but then find ourselves reconsidering those judgments as our initial categories get fractured into a pattern of more specific, nuanced signifiers”. Forced into a position of uncertainty, we become more likely to check our instinctive inclination to judge. In other words, fiction makes room for empathy by reminding us how little we know about other people.

Saunders frames his proposal as an extension of the ideas in David Foster Wallace’s famous This is Water” speech; Wallace also expressed the relationship between knowability and fiction more explicitly in a 2006 interview with John Freeman:

If fiction has any value, it’s that it lets us in. You and I can be pleasant to each other, but I will never know what you really think, and you will never know what I am thinking. I know nothing about what it’s like to be you. As far as I can tell, whether it is avant-garde or realistic, the basic engine of narrative art is how it punctures those membranes a little.

Like Saunders and Wallace, E. M. Forster recognised that our knowledge of other people will always be imperfect, but the consequences he perceived were more pessimistic:

We cannot understand each other, except in a rough and ready way; we cannot reveal ourselves, even when we want to; what we call intimacy is only a makeshift; perfect knowledge is an illusion. But in the novel we can know people perfectly, and, apart from the general pleasure of reading, we can find here a compensation for their dimness in life.

Fictional empathy, for Forster, does not transfer to our real-life interactions. On the contrary, in Aspects of the Novel, he argues that the insight we gain from fictional interiority is a delusion: novels suggest a more comprehensible and thus a more manageable human race, they give us the illusion of perspicacity and of power”.

Why such contradictory conclusions? Once important difference between Saunders and Forster is how they approach the act of reading. Saunders ascribes more importance to the process of reading, the way a character shifts from opacity to transparency as we make our way through a text. Forster focuses on the product of reading: the knowledge we take away from a novel, when we reach the final page and put down the book, having learned everything there is to learn about the characters.1 This also aligns with Forster’s categorisation of flat and round characters — a distinction that can only really be determined in retrospect. In a way, Saunders is suggesting that all characters start flat; only through the process of reading can we establish their roundness. Or, as Reservation Dogs creator Sterlin Harjo more succinctly puts it:2 characters are great when they are exactly the opposite of who you think they are.”

  1. Unless they sprawl into further reaches of canon.↩︎

  2. Invoking some forgotten screenwriting manual on the Watch podcast.↩︎