Why Do We Care about Literary Characters?
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Blakey Vermeule wonders how readers become involved in the lives of fictional characters, people they know do not exist.
Vermeule examines the ways in which readers’ experiences of literature are affected by the emotional attachments they form to fictional characters and how those experiences then influence their social relationships in real life. She focuses on a range of topics, from intimate articulations of sexual desire, gender identity, ambition, and rivalry to larger issues brought on by rapid historical and economic change. Vermeule discusses the phenomenon of emotional attachment to literary characters primarily in terms of 18th-century British fiction but also considers the postmodern work of Thomas Mann, J. M. Coetzee, Ian McEwan, and Chinua Achebe.
From the perspective of cognitive science, Vermeule finds that caring about literary characters is not all that different from caring about other people, especially strangers. The tools used by literary authors to sharpen and focus reader interest tap into evolved neural mechanisms that trigger a caring response.
This book contributes to the emerging field of evolutionary literary criticism. Vermeule draws upon recent research in cognitive science to understand the mental processes underlying human social interactions without sacrificing solid literary criticism. People interested in literary theory, in cognitive analyses of the arts, and in Darwinian approaches to human culture will find much to ponder in Why Do We Care about Literary Characters?
the publisher and Frey admitted that he altered key facts in his memoir (ibid., May 29, 2007). One thing this shows is that people are inordinately susceptible to labeling. Frey and Random House should have paid more attention to the experiment in which Paul Rozin and Carol Nemeroﬀ gave adults two empty bottles and poured sugar into both. Then they handed the subjects two sticky labels, one marked “sugar” the other marked “sodium cyanide” and said they could put the labels on whichever bottle
output in our own behavior. When we target someone else’s mind, we run inferences about their plight using our own practical reason—but crucially we step oﬀ the track before we take relevant action (here empathy is to be distinguished from emotional contagion, which makes it almost impossible to stop empathizing) (Coplan 2004). Now the simulationists tend to be a bit vague about how this mechanism works, and they usually turn to ﬁction to explain it (Currie 1995). But perhaps they do this because
a long-awaited battle. Turnus, who is proud and stiﬀ-necked, challenges Aeneas to ﬁght and leads the entire Latin army to bloody defeat at the hands of the Trojans. Turnus realizes his error and oﬀers to ﬁght Aeneas one on one. Turnus falls, and Aeneas pierces him in the thigh with his spear. As Aeneas moves to kill him, Turnus pleads for mercy. His plea causes Aeneas to pause brieﬂy: Fierce under arms, Aeneas Looked to and fro, and towered, and stayed his hand Upon the sword-hilt. Moment by
of human behaviors must be. It is nonetheless a strong claim. Carroll represents a growing number of evolutionary psychologists who are willing to take the view that literature and the arts are not byproducts of some other set of functional adaptations but are adaptive in their own right. For an activity to be adaptive, though, and thus a target of natural selection in its own right, it has to be functional. So what is the function of literary or protoliterary activity? The function of literature
all to see. To return to the Family Dashwood (a veritable trove of bias-ridden individuals): the fate of Fanny Dashwood’s husband, the half-brother to Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, is ever to be suspended in the amber glow of his gruesome wife: He was not an ill-disposed young man, unless to be rather cold hearted and rather selﬁsh is to be ill-disposed: but he was, in general, well respected; for he conducted himself with propriety in the discharge of his ordinary duties. Had he married a more