Empathy and the Critic

“Empathy” is a much-discussed term in the humanities these days. While some critics value it and argue that literature desirably promotes it, other critics worry that appeals to this emotion will neglect important matters of social context. In the literature classroom, the best approach is to take time to consider how texts complicate the impulse to empathize.

In this essay, the author discusses the two major camps in the empathy debate in turn. In the first section, she surveys arguments for teaching empathy through literature; in the second section, she reviews the work of several affect theorists who are deeply suspicious about the politics of empathy.

Each section concludes with a discussion of how the positions under review could more fully address the complexities of social and readerly empathy. The author argues that educators need to release their hold on the supposition that reading enriches empathic concern because, in fact, there is little clear evidence that reading changes behavior beyond the private encounter with the book.

by Ann Jurecic

mpathy and the Critic