How Narrative Relationships Overcome Empathic Bias: Elizabeth Gaskell’s Empathy across Social Difference

Modern and historical scholarship on empathy has consistently demonstrated that people are more likely to empathize with those who are similar to themselves. This empathic bias for similarity means that the affective bonds and ethical motivations that accompany empathy are significantly diminished in relationships with outgroups, as defined by sociological difference.

Modern & historical scholarship on 

has consistently demonstrated

that people are more likely to

empathize with those who

are similar to themselves.


I argue that narrative empathy is uniquely capable of circumventing the similarity bias through compositional strategies related to foregrounding and perspective. Turning to modern research on reading as well as to accounts of reading in the nineteenth century, I propose a two-part argument: first, that the act of reading can overcome the bias that scholars have observed in relationships between people and, second, that narrative empathy has the potential to prevent future cases of bias by reconfiguring readers’ criteria for similarity.

In an extended case study of Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel Mary Barton: A Tale of Manchester Life (1848), I argue that Victorian social-problem literature thematizes empathy across difference and that the self-conscious treatment of cultural difference is particularly helpful for overcoming similarity bias.

by Mary-Catherine Harrison
Assistant Professor, English