The Trap of Empathy


Is it possible for fiction to take part in the process of repairing the world?

It’s a question so hokey that it’s hardly ever asked anymore. The idea of fiction as a force for social action turns many people’s stomachs. It conjures up visions of pedantic (and unpoetic) protest poetry, self-important novels in which everyone but the narrator (and presumably the author) is morally reprehensible, and children’s books of the Free to Be…You and Me variety, whose breathless activism dates them before they can be read twice. The reader who truly cares about literature can be forgiven for believing that fiction plus the pursuit of justice equals bad fiction, because it usually does.

But consider for a moment the opposite question: is it possible for fiction not to play a role in the repair of the world?

When we are captivated by a story or novel, we have fallen into the trap of empathy. A compelling situation in a convincing imaginary world can make us suddenly care, and care deeply, about the fate of a person who doesn’t exist. More significantly, this person who doesn’t exist is, more often than not, someone about whom we would be unlikely to care so deeply if he actually existed—because he lives in Russia and we live in New York, or because he is old and we are young, or because he is a he and we are a she, or simply because we do not normally care much about the problems of, for instance, impoverished milkmen with multiple unmarried daughters. And suddenly, we do.

This is, of course, the reason that your third-grade teacher gave for why reading is important: literature allows you to “stand in someone else’s shoes.” But there are limits to the idea that empathy is what makes literature matter. If we actually did read in order to “stand in someone else’s shoes,” it would open the door to all kinds of disastrously bad fiction, as it occasionally has. Authors would exploit our empathy by writing about whatever afflicted party they felt deserved our attention, until novels became little more than longer versions of the pleas for donations that we receive in the mail every day, perhaps with postage-paid envelopes attached to their jacket flaps. The truth is that readers can empathize with a poverty-stricken child, but also with a serial killer. What makes us want to read on is not our willingness to continue standing in a character’s shoes, but rather our suspense about where those shoes are about to step next. And the source of that suspense is the real reason why fiction has no choice but to play a role in the repair of the world.

What causes suspense in a work of fiction? The British novelist E.M. Forster once famously declared that the sentence “The king died, then the queen died” does not have a plot, while the sentence “The king died, then the queen died of grief” does. The causative connection between events, he claimed, was what turned a sequence of events into a plot. But his own example suggests a different explanation. One cannot even say that “the queen died of grief,” after all, unless one believes, even if only for a moment, that a person can mean so much to another that she couldn’t live without him. The beliefs of the storyteller, whatever kind of beliefs they may be, are what really turn a sequence of events into a plot, making us care what happens next—and making us hope for a particular outcome, regardless of where the plot may lead. It is that hope, the wish we have for the fate of these characters whom we would never have otherwise cared about, that has the power to drive us to the story’s last page, and to change our view of the world beyond it.

The Hebrew bible’s reputation as a “moral” book is mainly rooted in the commandments it introduces as the covenant between man and God. But much of the Tanakh consists of long narratives that have no obvious moral. In fact, the characters’ actions in biblical stories typically range from the ethically irrelevant to the morally repugnant. Yet it is often these stories, far more than the didactic fables that appear elsewhere in ancient Jewish literature, that continue to entrance us even if we lack our ancestors’ faith.

There is a moment in the book of Genesis, in the story of Joseph, that has always captivated me. Toward the end of the narrative, after Joseph’s brothers sell him into Egyptian slavery and he endures much hard luck, Joseph enjoys a rise to prominence and becomes an Egyptian minister. While running a rationing program for a regional famine, he suddenly finds himself confronting his brothers, who have come to Egypt for food. The brothers do not recognize him, though he recognizes them. Joseph hides his identity from them, speaking through an interpreter, as he devises various ways to test their loyalties. But he cannot always keep up the act. At one point, we are told, “Joseph turned and went away from them, and cried, and returned to them.”

It is a seemingly irrelevant detail, devoid of any divine overtones, nothing more than a pause in the plot. A man goes to the bathroom to wash his face. Yet in this pause in the story, something familiar and moving and extremely real glimmers at us from between the words. In that moment of looking over Joseph’s shoulder, we instantly feel everything he feels: the shock of seeing someone we thought we would never see again, the drain of always being forced to play a part, the astonishment of aging, the power of unconditional and uncontrollable love, and most of all, the horrifying realization that the past is not a closed book, but an open one, and the world is waiting for us to complete it. And so we read on—aware, suddenly, of the astounding obligations of being alive.

Fiction is made of these moments. No preaching is necessary; we don’t need characters to make us pity them, or tell us why they and their real-life counterparts matter. All we need is for those characters to slip off to the other room for a moment, to make us wait and wonder. And in that moment of suspense, we feel ourselves reaching, at last, to pick up the pieces of a broken world.