Theoretical Considerations: Multiperspectivity and Narrative Empathy
Multiperspectivity is a notoriously difficult term to define. In the context of my chapter, however, 1 understand multiperspectivity, in line with Marcus Hartner, as “a mode of storytelling in which multiple and often discrepant viewpoints are employed for the presentation and evaluation of a story and its storyworld” (Hartner 353). For Birgit Neumann and Ansgar N finning, multiperspectival narratives include either various narrators, various focalizing instances, or various textual genres, such as “letters or newspaper articles” (Neumann and N finning 102). For my purposes, only the second aspect is of interest, since the multiperspectivity of The Slap and Five Bells is the result of a variety of different focalizing instances that operate independently of the act of narration.2 From a narratological point of view, both texts are heterodiegetic narratives with shifting internal focalization. There are, in other words, multiple focalizers that present varying glimpses of the story world.
As literary characters, focalizers may trigger readers to feel empathy with them. According to Suzanne Keen, narrative empathy can be defined as the “vicarious, spontaneous sharing of affect” (Novel 4), more specifically “the sharing of feeling and perspective-taking induced by reading, viewing, hearing, or imagining narratives of another’s situation and condition” (“Narrative Empathy” 521). Importantly, Keen insists upon the contemporary differentiation between empathy and sympathy, a distinction that everyday discourse often fails to make.3 In contrast to sympathy, which manifests itself as “feelings for another” (Keen, Novel 5), empathy enables readers to experience “the same feeling” (Keen, “Empathy Studies” 130) as a particular character. For Roy Sommer, empathy is “an effect largely created by the text itself, the product of dramaturgical strategies and narrative techniques” (159). Indeed, as 1 will discuss below, it stands to reason that certain textual features may be more inclined to generate empathy within readers than others. At the same time, however, a strict mapping of textual elements and their effects is, of course, impossible. After all, not everyone is triggered emotionally by the same components of a text and, even more generally, research has shown that some individuals have a stronger tendency to empathize than others (Keen, Novel 10). Empathy is, then, best understood as a product of the reading process that may, though need not necessarily, be triggered by certain textual features, but which is eventually determined by the individual reader’s subjectivity.
Besides the individual disposition of readers, there are also plot-related aspects as well as textual features that may play a role in generating narrative empathy. Focusing on the first, Fritz Breithaupt defines empathy as the effect that arises when an observer of a conflict between at least two individuals takes side with one of them (152-153). For him, this includes perspective-taking (Breithaupt 157). Empathy, then, necessarily involves three participants or more, but perhaps, considering how literature can also trigger empathic reactions for characters that are in conflict with themselves, it is more accurate to say that for empathy to come about, there must be at least three different, conflicting world views present. In this sense, empathy results from this side-taking, though Breithaupt similarly concedes that it - at least partially - also determines it in the first place (156-157). In other words, we feel with someone because we have decided to take sides with her/him (see also Serino et al.), though this decision has also been influenced by our ability to feel empathy with her/him. For my purposes here, such an understanding of empathy is helpful, since it can explain the different degrees to which narrative empathy operates in the novels under discussion. In terms of textual features and methods that may generate narrative empathy, “character identification” and “narrative situation” (Keen, Novel 93)4 seem to be prominent aspects. With regard to character identification, scholars have argued that readers particularly respond to those texts that describe aspects with which they are familiar (Keen, Novel 94). Familiarity as the basis for an emotional response can take different forms, though. Patrick Colm Hogan distinguishes between “categorical empathy” and “situational empathy.” While the first describes a reader’s empathy based on her/ his group affiliation, the latter poses that readers are more likely to experience empathy for plot-related aspects, if they themselves have
The Slap and Five Bells 17 encountered similar situations as those described in the narratives (Hogan 135-136; Keen, Novel 80).
Yet, while familiarity may facilitate empathic responses, one can also feel for others who are radically different. C. Daniel Batson and Nadia Y. Ahmad, for instance, have noted the potential of empathy to “help improve intergroup attitudes and relations,” in particular when it involves “the increased awareness of the pressures faced by members of an out-group that an imagine-self perspective can provide” (Batson and Ahmad 173). It is exactly here that the capacity of narrative empathy to promote diversity comes in. After all, fiction can make readers conscious of the hardships of marginalized groups, especially, though not exclusively, when characters of “out-group[s]” act as fo-calizers and readers hence take up “an imagine-self perspective” through their eyes. At this point, it is necessary to consider the positions of authors, too, since writers can employ empathy strategically in order to meet certain aims. In this regard, Keen distinguishes three forms of “[strategic empathy” (Novel 142). It can be “bounded," if its goal is that only members of a particular group respond empathically; “ambassadorial," if only a “chosen” few should feel with the group; or “broadcast," if everyone should “feel with members of a group” in that the text stresses what all humans have in common (Keen, Novel 142).
In terms of narrative situations that can help generate such an effect, scholars have often noted the potential of “an internal perspective” (Keen, Novel 96), be it in the form of homodiegetic narration or het-erodiegetic narration with internal focalization. However, perhaps to the great disappointment of many narratologists, research has shown that narrative situation may in fact play a less significant role in narrative empathy than often assumed. The results of Willie van Peer and Henk Pander Maat’s empirical study, for instance, indicate that its effect is rather limited (152). Despite these results, Peer and Pander Maat argue that it would be incorrect to claim that it has no importance whatsoever. They suggest that “[i]t would seem that effects of point of view are not independent of a story’s subject matter. More particularly, its effects will be more directly felt to the degree that a conflict between main characters exists or arises in the course of the story” (Peer and Pander Maat 152). Here, they make an important point in that they connect Breithaupt’s plot-oriented approach to empathy with considerations of textual features creating empathy. As already noted, this link is especially vital for my argument in that, following Peer and Pander Maat and Breithaupt, I suggest that a narrative’s multiperspectivity can generate empathy particularly if the narrative foregrounds conflict. In the following, 1 want to substantiate this argument in my textual readings by comparing how narrative empathy operates differently in a multiperspectival novel exacerbating conflict between characters, such as The Slap, and one not doing so, such as Five Bells.