Fictional Empathy

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Among the many reasons I hate Henry James is this sentence from The Ambassadors:

A perpetual pair of glasses astride of this fine ridge, and a line, unusually deep and drawn, the prolonged pen-stroke of time, accompanying the curve of the moustache from nostril to chin, did something to complete the facial furniture that an attentive observer would have seen catalogued, on the spot, in the vision of the other party to Strether's appointment.

I read that sentence in the first few pages of the book, tried to deflect the horror of the phrase "facial furniture," failed, closed the book, and vowed that I would read no more Henry James, ever.

But I also hate James for what he did to Isabel Archer, his favorite protagonist and heroine of Portrait of a Lady,. He created the most interesting, appealing character he could--and then tried to see just how much he could ruin her life.

Turns out he could ruin it a lot.

It pisses me off. I take the whole thing very personally. OK, she's only a real fictional character, not a real human being, But who does that? Who, besides God, tries to see just how miserable he can make his own offspring?

One reason I have had trouble writing fiction is that I find it hard to make my characters suffer, or to make anyone a villain. I want for my characters what I want for everyone: to be basically good people whose lives, on the whole, turn out OK. But fiction requires conflict, so someone has to be an agent of conflict, or your fiction sucks. (I wanted to believe otherwise for a while, but unfortunately, it's true.)

There's a scene somewhere in Proust (I forget exactly where--it's been too long since I've read him) about a servant--a cook, maybe--who loves melodramatic novels. She'll cry and cry over the suffering of some character, and one character in particular has a nasty illness that the cook finds especially moving. Under her command is a lowly scullery maid who has this exact same illness. But the cook is not moved by the suffering of a real human being right in front of her. In fact, she gives the girl chores that make her illness worse. The girl's life is merely her life, not part of an artfully arranged story.

The basic ethos of most religions is "care about people who aren't you as much as you care about yourself (unless God gives you permission to exploit/enslave/rape/exterminate them, because they don't quite meet all the criteria for people)."

I'm not saying that I've never resembled Proust's cruel cook and increased the suffering of someone close to me because their "story" just didn't move me, or because I was part of their story and felt they were nasty people who had forfeited my goodwill through their nasty behavior to me. In fact, I know I've done exactly that.

But I am also surprised from time to time at how much I care about people who are not me, how upset I get about the suffering of someone I'll never meet or who died ages ago. It's like these lines from "Cemetery Gates" by the Smiths (fyi: to my horror, I found these lyrics on an oldies site. The Smiths! Oldies! Don't people realize there's a difference between oldies and classics?):

So we go inside and we gravely read the stones
All those people all those lives
Where are they now?
With the loves and hates
And passions just like mine
They were born
And then they lived and then they died
Seems so unfair
And I want to cry

I read and write memoir, and I especially like combat memoir. I find it very easy to be moved by tales of having someone try to kill you while you are cowering in the mud and whimpering in fear.

One of my favorite books is The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien. I have given copies of this book as gifts for 15 years. (Coincidentally, I just lent my extra copy to someone. Hey! If you're reading this, I promise: you'll like this book.) I have taught it repeatedly in all sorts of classes. Students LOVE it--with good reason.

I too love it for all sorts of reasons, one being that it makes the point that a true war story is always a love story:

To generalize about war is like generalizing about peace. Almost everything is true. Almost nothing is true. Though it's odd, you're never more alive than when you're almost dead. You recognize what's valuable. Freshly, as if for the first time, you love what's best in yourself and in the world, all that might be lost. At the hour of dusk you sit at your foxhole and look out on a wide river turning pinkish red, and at the mountains beyond, and although in the morning you must cross the river and go into the mountains and do terrible things and maybe die, even so, you find yourself studying the fine colors on the river, you feel wonder and awe at the setting of the sun, and you are filled with a hard, aching love for how the world could be and always should be, but now is not....


And in the end, of course, a true war story is never about war. It's about sunlight. It's about the special way that dawn spreads out on a river when you know you must cross the river and march into the mountains and do things you are afraid to do. It's about love and memory. It's about sorrow. It's about sisters who never write back and people who never listen.

I cannot stop thinking of a story I heard recently, about a friend of a friend who was hurt enormously when religious strictures got in the way of what should have been a fairly easy and normal course of events. Everyone involved acted from what they thought were principled positions, but all sorts of unnecessary suffering nonetheless ensued.

I'll never meet this person, and despite an utterly avoidable mistake with far-reaching consequences, life has gone on. No one died in the mud.

But no one has really lived happily ever after, either, and the story illustrates quite clearly at least one huge difference between "how the world could be and always should be, but now is not." It's a perfect example of how people fuck things up, not through cruelty or malice but simply through ignorance, bigotry and a very deep fear of change and otherness.

And I really, really HATE that kind of story. I mean I really super-duper HATE it extra, with a heavy sauce of loathing and revulsion on top.

I really hope we stop creating versions of it before too terribly long.

5 Comments

In Washington Square, I appreciated that the main character was never able to make decisions for herself, on her own terms. Her father didn't let her decide who (whom?) to marry. After her father passes away, her fiancee re-appears, thinking that they can go on as they did before. But in the end, she wanted to decide for herself, she wanted to be in control of her own life and choices. She was never allowed to be in charge of her own life. I believe James was commenting on contemporary society and the few choices women had.

I haven't read his other books, but I am interested in reading them. Maybe Portrait of a Lady was his response to Tess of the D'Ubervilles?

Personally, I don't think fictional characters have to be sympathetic or have sympathetic lives (I'm not sure that's what you were saying...). I think nuance can be powerful. Villains are sometimes more interesting than the main characters.

If all novels ended well, we would only have Disney tropes. That's what I like about fiction - there is (are?) a range of characters and endings.

PS. I love The Things They Carried. I also love In the Lake of the Woods by O'Brien as well.

Hi Aerin--

Thanks for the really interesting comment!

In Washington Square

Washington Square was the James novel I liked best or disliked least.

Maybe Portrait of a Lady was his response to Tess of the D'Ubervilles?

Maybe.... but I'm also not a real fan of Hardy's fiction, though I do like his poetry.

Personally, I don't think fictional characters have to be sympathetic or have sympathetic lives (I'm not sure that's what you were saying...). I think nuance can be powerful. Villains are sometimes more interesting than the main characters.

That's most definitely not what I'm saying. I LOVE Lolita, and Humbert Humbert is repellant monster. Grendel is a novel I love so much I wish I'd written it, and the most interesting characters (Grendel and the dragon) in it are literally monsters. I'm saying that I want all of my characters to be sympathetic, which has made it hard for me to write fiction.

But it's very possible to write nonfiction in which most of the characters are sympathetic. And the fact that they're all sympathetic doesn't stop them from ruining each other's lives.

If all novels ended well, we would only have Disney tropes. That's what I like about fiction - there is (are?) a range of characters and endings.

Frankly, there's an even greater range in nonfiction. As O'Brien points out,

In many cases a true war story cannot be believed. If you believe it, be skeptical. It's a question of credibility. Often the crazy stuff is true and the normal stuff isn't, because the normal stuff is necessary to make you believe the truly incredible craziness.

In any event, I'm not advocating happy endings all round. My all-time favorite novella is "Pale Horse, Pale Rider," about the end of WWI and the flu epidemic that followed--one of the worst plagues the planet has known, and it has largely disappeared from consciousness. The final paragraph of the novella breaks my heart every time I read it. It's so thoroughly tragic--and it's thinly veiled nonfiction.

I also love "The Dead," the novella at the end of Dubliners, and it's not exactly cheerful. (And it doesn't really have any villains, come to think of it....)

I'm just saying that I personally find it hard to create anything with the express purpose of making them suffer.

I did manage to do it--I finished a novel a few months ago (a YA fantasy novel and a response to Twilight) and sent it to my agent, who said she really liked it but isn't doing much with it right now, unfortunately. I did have fun creating a villain (he's based on Edward Cullen, of course), and I did make my heroine suffer. But it was hard for me to do.

Thanks Holly, that makes more sense now to me. What you say about villains also makes sense. Humbert Humbert is the ultimate villain - an archetype. But you hear about historical villains - they can be just as despicable.

I think suffering is a part of life. Life can be so random and inexplicable at times. I would be deeply suspicious of any fiction or non fiction without any challenges or suffering. So if I were to write any fiction or non-fiction, I'm certain to put some challenges in there somewhere. Without suffering or challenges, it wouldn't be interesting. It would be as bland as technical manuals.

So if I were to write any fiction or non-fiction, I'm certain to put some challenges in there somewhere. Without suffering or challenges, it wouldn't be interesting. It would be as bland as technical manuals.

it wouldn't even be a story. It would just be, "Some people were born, and grew up, and lived happily ever after until they died."

Fiction ends with the resolution of conflict. After the conflict ceases, so does the story. Hence the far-reaching summary and conclusion, "And they lived happily ever after."

And the fact that they're all sympathetic doesn't stop them from ruining each other's lives.

That's essentially what I was thinking when I first read this post (while I was in Germany). A story absolutely needs conflict, but to me it's more interesting if you can see where all of the characters are coming from while they create conflict for each other. Though, occasionally, you see a classic villain who's portrayed well. :)

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This page contains a single entry by Holly published on July 5, 2011 7:43 AM.

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