Lots and lots of dots, in blue water

Much of my research has focused on the emotional and ethical impact of empathy and literature. How do we imagine ourselves in the place of fictional characters and “feel with” their emotions? How can our feelings for fictional characters affect our real-world beliefs and behaviors? My research has focused on cross-class empathy in Victorian literature about poverty. Nineteenth-century novelists and poets, I argue, were at once deeply invested in prompting empathy for the poor and skeptical that they could ever fully succeed.

Two of my favorite quotes about empathy are from contemporary American writers Barbara Kingsolver and Annie Dillard. Both illuminate some of the key obstacles to empathy; together they suggest how literature might work to overcome some of those barriers.

“The power of fiction is to create empathy. It lifts you away from your chair and stuffs you gently down inside someone else’s point of view. It differs dramatically from a newspaper, which imparts information while allowing you to remain rooted in your own perspective. A newspaper could tell you that one hundred people, say, in an airplane, or in Israel, or in Iraq, have died today. And you can think to yourself, “How very sad,” then turn the page and see how the Wildcats fared. But a novel could take just one of those hundred lives and show you exactly how it felt to be that person rising from bed in the morning, watching the desert light on the tile of her doorway and on the curve of her daughter’s cheek. You could taste that person’s breakfast, and love her family, and sort through her worries as your own, and know that a death in that household will be the end of the only life that someone will ever have. As important as yours. As important as mine.”
Barbara Kingsolver, “Jabberwocky”

“On April 30, 1991 – on that one day – 138,000 people drowned in Bangladesh. At dinner I mentioned it to my daughter, who was then seven years old, that is was hard to imagine 138,000 people drowning.
“‘No, it’s easy,’ she said. “‘Lots and lots of dots, in blue water.’”
Annie Dillard, “The Wreck of Time”

Mary-Catherine Harrison, Ph.D.

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