About the blog: The Instrumental Narratives blog aims to popularize the insights and methods of narrative scholarship and features analyses of instrumental storytelling by high-profile narrative scholars. The analyzed cases deal with uses or abuses of the narrative form, storytelling practices or narrative sense-making in many areas of life: politics, journalism, business, identity work, artistic or literary sphere, activism, and forms of social participation. The blog texts evaluate possible societal risks or benefits of contemporary storytelling, for example through cases from the author’s own national, linguistic, or cultural sphere.
One of the pleasures, undoubtedly, of a good novel or short story is experiencing the emotions it arouses. Sometimes these are positive, making us cheerful, upbeat, hopeful, or amused, but sometimes we are disturbed, shocked, anxious, or deflated. Still, as David Hume recognised, even these latter can afford a kind of pleasure.
My question is this: how important are such emotions among instrumental values of narrative? My answer: not as important as is sometimes claimed.
I will focus on a couple of examples: two emotion-inducing narratives. In both cases the narrative passages are from well-known novels, both appearing towards the end of the novels.
First, Mrs Bennet’s effusive reaction to news of her daughter Elizabeth’s engagement to Mr Darcy, in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Most readers would agree that her happiness, for all its self-serving, materialistic basis, is pleasingly infectious, and amusing:
“Good gracious! Lord bless me! only think! dear me! Mr. Darcy! Who would have thought it! And is it really true? Oh! my sweetest Lizzy! how rich and how great you will be! What pin-money, what jewels, what carriages you will have! Jane’s is nothing to it—nothing at all. I am so pleased—so happy. Such a charming man!—so handsome! so tall!—Oh, my dear Lizzy! pray apologise for my having disliked him so much before. I hope he will overlook it. Dear, dear Lizzy. A house in town! Every thing that is charming! Three daughters married! Ten thousand a year! Oh, Lord! What will become of me. I shall go distracted.” (Ch. 59)
In striking contrast, second, here is the dour and dispiriting end (the final two paragraphs) of Thomas Hardy’s novel Tess of the d’Urbervilles:
Upon the cornice of the tower a tall staff was fixed. Their eyes were riveted on it. A few minutes after the hour had struck something moved slowly up the staff, and extended itself upon the breeze. It was a black flag.
“Justice” was done, and the President of the Immortals, in Æschylean phrase, had ended his sport with Tess. And the d’Urberville knights and dames slept on in their tombs unknowing. The two speechless gazers bent themselves down to the earth, as if in prayer, and remained thus a long time, absolutely motionless: the flag continued to wave silently. As soon as they had strength, they arose, joined hands again, and went on.
The black flag on the prison tower signals that Tess is dead: she has been hanged. The two “speechless gazers” are Tess’s sister Liza-Lu and Angel Clare, Tess’s husband.
The first passage offers a reader delight and amusement, the second a kind of weary, cathartic sadness.
What role do such emotions play in our appreciation of literary narratives? Answer: It depends on what kind of evaluation is at stake and what kind of reader we have in mind.
I will frame the discussion by introducing two distinctions and then addressing, and challenging, two claims about the significance of emotions for narrative. I will end with some polemical claims of my own.
The first distinction is between two kinds of readers.
I will label them, in a rough and ready way, the Ordinary Reader (OR) and the Professional Literary Critic (PLC)
These are roles rather than exclusive classes, so one and the same person could be an OR on one occasion and a PLC on a different occasion, even regarding a single text.
The role categories are not precisely defined. Roughly, but precise enough for our purposes, an OR is a reader who gives primary focus to character, plot, incident and (fictional) world, someone prepared to get caught up in a story, imagining the events as if real, and taking pleasure from emotional engagement with the fictional goings-on.
A PLC in contrast, perhaps a literary scholar, academic, teacher, or reviewer, is a reader with a different kind of interest, an immersion in detail certainly, but someone who treats the text as a literary and linguistic artefact, keen to understand how it works, what tradition it belongs in (or repudiates), what its aims are, what themes it explores, and how successful it is at an artistic or aesthetic level.
The contrast between these kinds of readers relates to what I have referred to, in The Opacity of Narrative (2014), as “transparent” and “opaque” modes of reading.
The second distinction is between what I will call felt emotion and expressed emotion.
A felt emotion is an actual emotional experience of a reader in response to a narrative or narrative fragment.
A reader of the first passage is likely to share some of Mrs Bennet’s joy, delighted that the trial of love has ended happily, perhaps smiling empathetically at Mrs B’s enthusiasm, albeit perhaps more impressed by the happy outcome than the promise of new-found wealth for Lizzy.
The second passage will not elicit such positive feelings. There is no feel-good experience at this ending. Only depression and a kind of heavy despair. Readers are likely to be emotionally drained to encounter the end of Tess’s tragic life in this lonely and macabre setting.
An expressed emotion is not an actual felt emotion in a reader but a quality of the narrative text itself.
The Mrs B passage expresses joy, a kind of giddy excitement, and an overwhelming delight. These expressed emotions are emergent properties of the writing, supervening on features of the text: the broken sentences, the short staccato phrases, the vocabulary, the tone, the exclamation marks, the implied breathlessness. Also expressed, with authorial irony, is a view (at the heart of Mrs B’s philosophy) about where the true value of marital happiness lies. Delight about the riches and wealth to come is itself an emotion expressed, both by the character and in the text’s sentences.
The passage about Tess is equally expressive but in a completely contrasting manner. Here the expressed emotions are not attributed, at least directly, to any character. The observers are “speechless”. If the joy in the passage about Mrs B emerges from the bright, exuberant exclamations, the solemn gloominess and hopelessness expressed in the Tess passage shows itself in the plainness of the prose, as well as in the external viewpoint. There is little sign of rhetorical flourish or witticism and only an implied emotion in the characters.
But the narrative point of view is unmistakable. The inverted commas round “Justice” mocks the patent injustice manifested and the bitterly sarcastic phrase “President of the Immortals” to refer to a supreme, but implacably cruel, god (seemingly based on Zeus as portrayed in Aeschylus’ tragedy of Prometheus) emphasises the crushing of Tess by forces (fate, the gods) quite beyond her control. The term “sport” reminds us of Gloucester’s anguished cry in King Lear: “As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods. / They kill us for their sport”. The final words in the novel “they arose, joined hands again, and went on”, echo the end of Paradise Lost when Adam and Eve leave the Garden of Eden, “They, hand in hand, with wandering steps and slow, / Through Eden took their solitary way”. Such allusions again reinforce the expression of gloom and despair.
Before we seek out some connections between these distinctions, let me introduce two claims sometimes made about emotional responses to fictional narrative, both concerning the instrumental values they might contribute to.
These claims concern a supposed didactic value of such emotions, and a clarificatory value.
First, it is sometimes claimed that the emotions aroused by literary narratives perform a didactic function: they can teach us about emotional response itself, its forms and its appropriateness, and if all goes well can make us more emotionally sensitive, in particular more empathetic.
Jenefer Robinson makes such a claim: “it is only through an emotional experience of a novel that one can genuinely learn from it … the emotional process of engaging with characters and situations in a novel is part of a ‘sentimental education’, an education by the emotions” (Deeper than Reason, 2005, p. 156).
Then, second, it is sometimes claimed that emotions aroused by a literary narrative can also serve to clarify the narrative itself, thus aiding our appreciation of a work. Here, again, is Jenefer Robinson: “our emotional responses are a vital part of understanding a narrative text…: if I laugh and cry, shiver, tense, and relax in all the appropriate places, then I can be said to have understood the story” (Deeper than Reason, pp. 122–123, italics in original).
The didactic and clarificatory roles of emotion are distinct because one could occur without the other.
I suggest we should be cautious about both claims.
Take the didactic claim: that the arousing of emotions in literary narratives has the capacity to increase emotional sensitivity in readers, in particular empathy. Clearly this is a claim about felt, not expressed, emotions: it involves the actual emotional states of readers. It is also an empirical claim. Do readers who respond with (appropriate) emotions to works of fiction exhibit significantly high degrees of sensitivity or empathy (against a control group)? There is no conclusive evidence one way or the other. How could there be? The terms are far too vague.
What kinds of readers are at issue? If they are those who habitually adopt the PLC role then the field of enquiry is narrowed but anecdotally there is no strong evidence that literary academics or teachers are more empathetic than academics in other areas or members of the public at large. However, ORs are simply too diffuse a group, sociologically, psychologically, or in terms of age, education, interests, or disposition, to promise any kind of coherent empirical result.
Yet it is ORs that seem more suitable experimental subjects. Why? Because felt emotions are likely to play a more prominent role in their responses than in the responses of PLCs. A PLC reader will attend primarily to expressed rather than felt emotions: i.e. emotions grounded in narrative itself. That is not to say that those in a PLC role do not feel emotional responses to the works they study but given their focus of interest they will seek out empathy, for example, not in their own felt reactions but as a quality of the writing they set out to explore.
Does feeling joyful with Mrs B and depressed at Tess’s death tend to make us more empathetic? Surely the explanation is the other way round. Only a reader already possessed of some degree of empathy will respond in these ways. Empathy is a condition for the responses not a consequence of them. There is no reason to believe that empathy is increased by exposure to such passages. So the didactic claim, in this context, is unsupported.
What about the clarificatory claim: that the arousing of emotions in literary narratives can help us understand and appreciate the narratives better?
This is also partially an empirical claim but it is also normative, to the effect that a condition for a proper understanding is having the appropriate emotions. Once again, it is felt, not expressed, emotions that are required. And that suggests that the focus is on ORs more than PLCs.
However, in both our examples a test for understanding the passages is, arguably, the ability to grasp the expressed emotions: to see in the narrative the emotions of excitement and depression. It might be that some readers (ORs) will recognize the expressed emotion on the strength of experiencing the felt emotion. But for an experienced PLC reader such a prompter is not needed. The expressive qualities of the writing are plain to see. In fact it is virtually inconceivable that any (serious) reader should wonder, for example, if it is joy or sadness expressed in the lines about Tess and only able to confirm the right answer by appealing to an emotion felt. Some degree of understanding must be a condition for an emotional response, even though misunderstanding can lead to inappropriate responses. So the normative claim is deeply suspect.
This suggests that there is no indispensable role for felt emotions in understanding narrative. What a proper understanding requires is the recognition of expressed emotions. This is part of the training of a PLC and it is rooted in a sensitivity to language as much as a sensitivity to feelings. Needless to say, someone with no emotional capacity is unlikely to have a deep grasp of expressiveness in language.
In conclusion, our two passages offer little support for either the didactic view of emotional response or the clarificatory view. Admittedly, much more could be said about both views. What the passages do suggest is that the felt emotional responses––joy or depression––in ORs arise when readers become attached to characters, with the pleasures that this attachment entails. Only because the lives of Lizzy Bennet and Tess in some sense matter to us do we react as we do. But these empathetic feelings do not in themselves either explain or justify a heightened literary value in the works. In fact, such responses are more characteristic of, and often more pronounced in, many forms of fiction we rarely consider in terms of literary value, romances or TV soap operas, for instance.
PLC readers, in contrast, will not give special weight to felt emotions, concentrating on the expressive qualities, among other kinds, exhibited in the novels. Thus for an informed opinion of literary and aesthetic value the PLC standpoint is likely to be more securely grounded than that resting on felt emotions alone.
It is one thing to feel pity and fear watching a tragedy, another to discern the pitiable and fearful in the tragedy itself. We do not do justice to narrative if we overemphasise the former at the expense of the latter.
Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. 1813.
Hardy, Thomas. Tess of the d’Urbervilles. 1891.
Lamarque, Peter. The Opacity of Narrative. London: Rowman and Littlefield. 2014.
Robinson, Jenefer. Deeper than Reason: Emotion and its Role in Literature, Music, and Art. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2005.
Peter Lamarque is Professor of Philosophy at the University of York and was Editor of the British Journal of Aesthetics (1994–2008). He works principally in aesthetics and the philosophy of literature. His books include Truth, Fiction, and Literature (Clarendon Press, 1994, with Stein Haugom Olsen); Fictional Points of View (Cornell UP, 1996); The Philosophy of Literature (Blackwell, 2008); Work and Object: Explorations in the Metaphysics of Art (Oxford UP, 2010); The Opacity of Narrative (Rowman & Littlefield International, 2014); and The Uselessness of Art: Essays in the Philosophy of Art and Literature (Sussex Academic Press, 2019). A revised and enlarged second edition of his co-edited volume (with Stein Haugom Olsen) Aesthetics and the Philosophy of Art: The Analytic Tradition: An Anthology (Wiley-Blackwell) was published in 2019. His book Work and Object was awarded the American Society for Aesthetics Outstanding Monograph Prize (2011) and the Premio Internazionale d’Estetika (2018) from the Italian Society of Aesthetics.