Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Sympathy Project

How crazy is it to say this: The development of the idea of sympathy in 19th century literature was one of the great achievements of the time.  I'm slighting the 18th century Germans.

The success of Pamela (1740), the first modern novel, depended on a very crude idea of sympathy.  Richardson identified or chanced upon a new audience, newly literate female servants who were primed for a story with a female servant for the heroine, with a protagonist just like me.  For non-servant readers, the new experience was to identify so strongly with someone not like me. Not that it's so easy to identify with Pamela today.

I don't think, though, it was until the 19th century that many writers discovered just how powerful the novel was, just how easy it was to direct readers' sentiments towards or away from almost any character. And more importantly, just how artistically and ethically effective these techniques could be when employed by a really skilled writer.

I'm thinking, for example, of Dickens, and especially Hugo.  The condemned murderer in The Diary of a Condemned Man (1829), the Gypsy and hunchback in Notre Dame of Paris (1831), the whole range of urchins, orphans, and thieves in Les Miserables (1862): Hugo wanted action from his readers. Political reform at most, copious tears at the minimum.  The reader was really supposed to regard various categories and behaviors of his fellow man differently after closing the novel.

By mid-century, most of the great writers were working on The Sympathy Project.  Not just Hugo and Dickens: George Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell, Anthony Trollope, Theodor Storm, Adalbert Stifter, Henry James, Mark Twain ("All right, then, I'll GO to hell"), Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoevsky.  All of those Naturalists.   Poets and playwrights, too.  Not everyone.  But an unbelievable amount of artistic and intellectual effort was devoted to creating these incredibly complex patterns of human fellow-feeling.  Excrutiatingly complex, thinking of certain works by Henry James.  The careful reader's sympathetic response to Anna Karenina, for example, ought to be complex.

In Silas Marner (1861), George Eliot carefully directs her reader into the thoughts of every major character, including the candidate for "villain."  We are likely to end up with more understanding of everyone, regardless of their mistakes, eccentricities, or bad actions.  But Eliot is also making an argument about sympathy, enforcing some limits.  The villain crosses a moral line, and we're not with him when he does, a minor key variation on poor pregnant Hetty's "Journey of Despair" in Adam Bede (1859), where the reader and the author are with Hetty, really with her sympathetically - but only up to a point.  Sympathy is withheld, and she's on her own.

I know an English professor, an 18th century specialist, who taught a Jane Austen seminar that, he said, was a complete failure.  He could not penetrate his students' love, love, love for Austen and her characters.  For some reason, he never has this problem with the Vicar of Wakefield, also a likeable fellow.  As Rohan Maitzen suggested a couple of days ago, sympathy can be as bad for the reader as antipathy.  Both can inhibit critical thought.  Elizabeth Bennett, wonderful, amazing Elizabeth Bennett, is not allowed to be ethically compromised.  What, then, do these loving readers make of the last part of Pride and Prejudice? On the other hand, she is one of the greatest creations of imaginative literature.

I was thinking this would be a good place to discuss Gustave Flaubert's A Simple Heart (1877), perhaps his single serious attempt at a sympathetic character, an amazing character, created using the exact same techniques he uses on his horrible people. But I think I've written enough.  The 19th century International Literary Sympathy Project is beginning to look to me like one of the great achievements of civilization.  But literature can do other things, too.  That's all I'm saying.


  1. Tiny correction -- 1740 for Pamela.

    You're last paragraph is quite a statement but I'm not prepared to disagree.

  2. Why, what did I write?


    Reasonably big correction, actually.

    It's not so smart to summarize all of 19th century literature like that. I have a long list of major writers who are busy with Other Things. But it's there, I swear. I'm only beginning to grasp it. Must. Read. Middlemarch.

  3. Interesting set of essays this week--I read them in reverse chronological order, so early on I was thinking "what about Heathcliff?" Of course, you talked about WH earlier in the week...

    Anyway, I understand your point about manipulating for tears, or at least sympathy, which is one of the reasons why I couldn't stand The Old Curiosity Shop.

    My current soapbox is how every story doesn't have to be a love story--there is more to fiction (and life) than romantic love, which is not to belittle it, but there are other stories.

    I think Gaskell evolved from working the sympathy angle in her early social problem works to examining individual growth in W&D.

    Middlemarch is magnificent...will be rereading this winter as part of the Eliot project.

  4. I agree, more or less, about the G.I.L.S.P. And, obviously, about which book you must. read. next. But I was struck by the "International" part, which got me thinking about the limits to that sympathy: how far is it constrained by, say, nationalist or other attitudes (e.g. the British not always so good at being sympathetic to national or racial 'others')? (Dickens is probably the easiest to fault here.) I think the theory is better than the practice, then, at times--which is not to say the theory is therefore invalidated, although that has been a trend in a lot of recent criticism.

  5. Speaking of lack in British sympathy for other nations, how about Villette? Yeee, the memory makes me squiggle my lips.

    I found that P&P problem puzzling from A-level days. I was always dissatisfied with my teacher's argumentative gymnastics to make dear Lizzy not appear to be seduced by Pemberley's magnificence (as any normal person would be, really). I avoided questions on the topic; one try to give the "right" answer earned a D.

    It was all a part of my thesis that Austen did not fit perfectly into the corset-bursting feminist image many try to fit her into but that's an argument for another day.

  6. Rohan - an analogy I've been knocking around: the arguments for women's suffrage were implicit in the arguments for men's. But it sure took a long time for (non-French) women to be allowed to vote. The Enlightenment arguments were nevertheless a massively important innovation.

    So the enlargement of the scope of the novel in the 19th century is as important as the particular applications, and some of the specific applications are a lot more important than others.

    JaneGS - so how about a weeklong series on Other Stories? I'm not surprised that Gaskell moved on to other kinds of stories at some point. I look forward to reading them.

    I was so tempted to include Villette this week, a book I have been pondering for other reasons. My personal implied "Charlotte Brontë" assures me that Lucy's prejudices are not meant entirely seriously, and are in part devices deliberately meant to make Lucy less sympathetic. Other readers' implied CBs may say something different, though, and mine might be fibbing.

    Hey, Imani, how goes it? Welcome!

  7. Thinking of Felicite in A Simple Heart is a wonderful idea! Rather than go on here, I'll just put the link to a post of mine that discusses the story:

    I was also thinking of the figure of the prostitute in 19th French lit - hugely sympathetic to overcome her moral deficiency mid-century (and obliged to die converted to religion at the end of the novel), dangerously powerful by the time Nana comes alone at the end (although still obliged to die). It's intriguing to see how sympathy is manipulated, and how it is used to alter cultural ideology over time.

  8. I'd like to make just a little argument for other 18C writers who participated in this sympathy project (nice term!). They weren't always necessarily aesthetically success (up for debate, of course), but they were simply obsessed with sympathy, and certainly recognized and exploited its power. I think perhaps it's difficult to sympathize with a lot of those 18C novels because they seem foreign and bizarre to us (sometimes), but people at the time often responded emotionally to them and really loved them (Mackenzie's Man of Feeling, for example). And then there are books like Sterne's A Sentimental Journey that DID do really interesting things aesthetically with sympathy. I just hate to see the 18C dismissed after a brief reference to Pamela!

  9. litlove, thanks for the link - I read that post oh so long ago. I wish I had remembered it - you give exactly the background I was thinking about.

    More thanks to Dorothy. If I were to pursue this idea more seriously, I would have to try to figure out what those Sensibility Novels were really doing. The only one I've read is The Sentimental Journey, which I love, but I know I don't read that book the way its contemporaries did.

    And I didn't dismiss the 18th century with Pamela - I also briefly, covertly alluded to Goethe and Lessing and the Storm and Stress writers!

  10. Really interesting series, thanks! I don't need sympathetic characters to enjoy a book but they do have to make sense. Characters who do off-the-wall things for no discernible reason do turn me off. This is a typical manifestation of my Spock-like INTJ (Myers-Briggs) nature, which makes me think we bring our social preferences to our reading and react accordingly. A society that is more traditional and oriented towards group cohesion would prefer moralistic stories about social order where individual feelings are irrelevant, while an individualistic society would prefer stories with sympathetic characters we can relate to. I wonder which came first—individualism or sympathetic stories?

  11. Sylvia - it's pretty clear to me that the early modern and Enlightement changes in ideas about individualism are at the root of the New Novelistic Sympathy. But maybe I'd better stop there. I have just barely thought about this.

    Do you have any Great Book, Big Canon examples of off-the-wall nonsense? Do you mean Dada and Surrealism, or Rabelais, or something else?

  12. I can't think of any examples off the top of my head, but they do come up from time to time. In some of these cases it seems characters are made to do things just to move the story along. But it's a high class problem—there has to be good characterization in the first place for something out-of-character to happen!