One of the beautiful things about literature is that it provokes empathy for human beings. If it doesn’t provoke empathy—if one cannot place itself in the shoes of the characters, it is not a good story.
The reason why we love stories is because we want to feel transported. We want to experience and feel for the other. Stories and literature provide this connection for us.
Unfortunately, this emotion of empathy was not “taught” to me at the university level until my senior year. Much of my classes were spent critiquing and dissecting the work, the character, and its symbols. Deconstructing the work is all too important, and I would never say otherwise. However, there was a critical part of the piece missing.
The critical piece can be divided into two types of questions. The first type being that of empathy: How does this make me feel/Can I see from this characters point of view? The second type exemplifies aspects of application: So what? What does this mean, and how does this apply to me today? Is this a story that can be lived out in my own life?
Robert Coles, a psychiatric, author, and professor at Harvard, wrote a phenomenal book called The Call of Stories. In this book he explores the integration of literature and therapy. At one point in the work he discusses a phenomenal discussion with one of his patients:
“Have you ever read The Catcher in the Rye?” Yes, I answered . . . he began a lively monologue on that novel, on Holden, on Pencey Prep, on “phonies,” on what it means to be honest and decent in a world of “phoniess.” Holden’s voice (Salinger’s) had become Phil’s; and uncannily, Holden’s dreams of escape, of rescue (to save not only himself but others), became Phil’s. The novel had, as he put it, “got” to him: lent itself to his purposes as one who was “flat out”; and as one who was wondering what in life he might “try to catch.” (37-38)
This is incredible! There is a unity that happens between the reader and the characters. The characters compel, inspire, and challenge. When we read a good story, it isn’t for just a good plot. We read because we want to make sense of the world. We read because we want to be spoken to, we want to feel compelled.
Coles’ experience with his patients can transfer to other scholars of literature. Mark Edmundson argues in his book Why Read? that:
We should not teach our students that the aim of every reading is to bring up the questions that might debunk the wisdom at hand, then leave it at that. We must ask the question of belief. Is this poem true? Can you use this poem? Or are you living in a way that’s better than the poem suggests you might live? To these queries, we should expect only heartfelt answers. (60)
My AP Literature teacher, Nick Miller, always asked the question, “So What?” Awesome, Holden thinks everyone is fake and that’s a poor existence. That’s great that Hamlet thought it necessary to commit suicide. So what? Why does that matter? How does this character’s life affect the way in which we live? Can we live this literature, this story, this poem? Can we embody the characters and words so that we can be shaped into better selves?
These are the questions that I find myself asking whenever I encounter literature. Yes, literary theory is all too important. As my professor Billie Jean Wiebe said in her Narrative class: “Theory is how we understand the world.” But we must never stop there. The great professors and writers I have known and read never stop there. We must ask: how is the literature compelling us? How are we being asked to change?
Coles, Robert. The Call of Stories. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1989. Print.
Edmundson, Mark. Why Read? New York: Bloomsbury, 2004. Print.