Empathy with Fictions

British Journal of Aesthetics 40 (3):340-355 (2000)
Abstract
IT IS DIFFICULT for me to read Pride and Prejudice without empathizing either with Elizabeth Bennet, or sometimes with her father, Mr Bennet. Not only do my own responses to and opinions of the events and characters of the book at times resemble theirs, but even when they do not, I find myself seeing the event from Elizabeth’s or Mr Bennet’s point of view. For example, at the close of the book, Elizabeth’s former dislike of Mr Darcy has completely vanished, in part because of learning of a number of good deeds that Mr Darcy has done very quietly for their family. When Mr Darcy proposes to Elizabeth (for the second time) she is delighted to accept him. However, everyone else in Elizabeth’s family despises Mr Darcy, and they also believe that Elizabeth still hates him. So it is easy to understand Mr Bennet’s surprise and distaste when Mr Darcy asks Mr Bennet for Elizabeth’s hand; after all, Mr Bennet still believes Mr Darcy to be prideful and haughty. While I am not myself surprised to hear Elizabeth’s response—the reader learns much more of Mr Darcy’s character than Mr Bennet does—I do have the experience of imagining being surprised. I am also capable of empathizing with Elizabeth, who is excited, flustered, and a bit ashamed at having so misjudged Mr Darcy early on, and I can imagine having these feelings for people I have misjudged. I can (to some degree) understand why she finds explaining all this to Mr Bennet so difficult. I go back and forth, as I read, between the perspectives of Mr Bennet and Elizabeth. These experiences of mine are experiences of the sort that I call ‘empathizing with fictions’, although we sometimes might describe such experiences by saying that we ‘identified’ with a particular character or characters in a story.
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    Amy Coplan (2004). Empathic Engagement with Narrative Fictions. Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 62 (2):141–152.
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