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Empathy in literature, Empathy -- Fiction


In this short essay, I want to address the relationship between positivity and negativity in affect theories and literary analysis by focusing on the connection between empathy and literature in early modernity, a period when affect theories emerge robustly and are articulated in treatises such as De anima et vita (1538) by Juan Luis Vives (1492–1590) or Nueva Filosofía (1587) by Oliva de Sabuco (1562–1626?).1 We begin with the proposition that fictional narratives may move us to care for others and help them. Indeed, the idea that fiction can make us more empathetic and, thus, turn us into better human beings is a powerful hypothesis that has been the subject of a great number of discussions and publications.2 However, as we continue to investigate whether and how fiction may lead to prosocial behaviour via empathic responses and what are the narrative strategies that authors may employ to elicit empathy in readers, we need to acknowledge that: (1) the connection between empathy and prosocial behaviour, known as the empathy– altruism hypothesis, is still a controversial one and more empirical evidence is needed to back it up; and (2) there is no direct correspondence between empathic authorial intention and audience reception, a phenomenon that can be discussed through notions such as failed empathy or empathic inaccuracy.


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