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Reading: Processes of Empathy and Othering in Literature: Towards a New Ethics of Reading

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Processes of Empathy and Othering in Literature: Towards a New Ethics of Reading

Author:

Anna Lindhé

Abstract

We often hear that literature’s ability to elicit empathy validates its ethical value in society and in education; in this context, the moral philosopher Martha C. Nussbaum, whose position on the importance of narrative empathy to civic and higher education is well known, immediately springs to mind. Less often do we hear that literature’s ethical potential resides in its ability to block empathy and create the other. This essay develops an ethical-didactic approach to literature that takes into account this ostensibly negative aspect of reading, suggesting that there is an ethical potential in literature’s invitation to respond to the other as other, or, more specifically, in the joint processes of empathy and othering that readers participate in when they read. Rather than relying on empathy alone for an ethics of reading, this essay locates an ethical dimension in this readerly double bind of empathy and othering. My argument is that if readers observe their own participation in this dilemma, they may catch sight of an aspect of themselves—a blind spot—that may increase their awareness of their own role and responsibility in acts of othering not only within literature but also beyond. Using Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw as a case study, this essay explores how literature can be taught and read with an emphasis on the student’s own implication in the creation of the other. Such an approach can facilitate the development of empathetic and critical citizens.

How to Cite: Lindhé, A., 2021. Processes of Empathy and Othering in Literature: Towards a New Ethics of Reading. Nordic Journal of English Studies, 20(2), pp.225–248.
Published on 18 Oct 2021.

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