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Feeling Emotion for Fictional Characters

By Edited Nov 13, 2013 0 0


Can I feel pity for Anna Karenina? If not, what is my state of mind when I read Tolstoy’s novel?


The relationship between the reader and a fictional character is one that can be seen as somewhat of a mystery, concerning why and how the reader can feel emotion when reading about the character. In answering the question of whether I have the capacity to feel pity for Anna Karenina I will argue that in fact I can feel the emotion of pity, something which is directly related to Anna’s story. However, I will aim to discover that this feeling of pity is not a result of ‘existence belief’ whereby my thoughts indicate that Anna herself and her situation are real. Therefore the main conclusion to be found in this essay concerns how it is I am experiencing what feels like real life pity, yet I am aware that the novel is not real and merely fiction.

Whilst I hold the belief that we feel pity whilst reading about Anna, the emotion I am expressing arises from an imaginative representation of her situation. Although it seems obvious that to feel for Anna I have to ‘suspend my disbelief’ and indulge myself in her world but this doesn’t have to be strictly true. The argument I represent stems from the idea that what we read in a novel or view on a screen can be directly related to real life situations or the potential reality of the fiction. For instance, as I read about the intense anxiety and jealousy within Anna brought about by the passionate love for her husband, on a certain scale I myself can, through imagination and past experience at least attempt to acknowledge this suffering. This argument known as ‘counterpart theory’ is described by philosopher Kendal Walton – ‘If Charles is a child, the movie may make him wonder whether there might not be real slimes or other exotic horrors like the one depicted in the movie, even if he fully realizes that the movie-slime itself is not real.’ (‘Fearing Fictions’ Pg 10, 1978). On the basis that I have felt pity before, it is this relation from the novel to myself that generates the capacity for me to pity Anna. In a sense then, I am merely forming a mental representation of the events I am reading without having to acknowledge any real life existence of Anna. The idea described above known as the ‘Thought Theory’ allows the reader to process different thoughts about characters in a novel instead of primarily reading about them and accepting this as truth. For example Steven Schneider in his article ‘Paradox of Fiction’ argues ‘the only type of beliefs necessary when engaging with fictions are “evaluative” beliefs about the characters and events depicted; beliefs, for example, about whether the characters and events in question have characteristics which render them funny, frightening, pitiable, etc.’ For instance in feeling any emotion for Anna in the novel, the reader has evaluated the situation she is in, seen her characteristic as pitiful consequently generating a feeling of pity. In this sense, it could be argued, the pity I feel is a secondary emotion rather than a primary emotion that would occur if I believed in the character and her story.

Scared Child

In arguing for the ‘Thought Theory’ I am disagreeing with the idea first forwarded by philosopher Colin Radford that our emotional response towards fiction is irrational. Radford makes the claim that ‘The only way I can react rationally to a character’s downfall is if I believe something genuinely terrible has occurred. If there is no belief on my behalf that a character is suffering, I cannot rationally feel bad.’  In this argument, Radford seems to be suggesting that as long as we are conscious to the fact we are reading Anna Karenina whilst feeling pity for Anna then this is an irrational response. The two key elements in this idea being consciousness and irrationality it is the idea with our emotions being irrational that I disagree with. I do acknowledge however that when engaging in fiction we are conscious to this fact. The way in which this can be proved is through the conscious reaction we display to events in fiction. For instance if we were viewing a horror film where a murder occurs and we genuinely believed the events unfolding were real our initial reaction would be to call the police or perhaps challenge the murderer. Similarly, when reading Anna Karenina if we fully indulge ourselves with the sorrowful situation of Anna many would turn away from fiction forever, eternally repelled by the emotional response the novel has provoked. Radford’s idea that we are also irrational in our emotional response to fiction is in my opinion false, as discussed through the idea of the ‘Thought Theory’.

Similarly to the ‘Thought Theory’, what is known as the ‘Pretend Theory’ aims to disprove the ideas of Radford that we are can be moved emotionally by fictional characters and their situations. In terms of our example of Anna Karenina, the Pretend Theory would suggest that no matter how real the feeling of pity seems for the reader, this feeling is in fact only made up or as the Philosopher Kendall Walton declares a ‘quasi-emotion’. The key idea behind Walton’s theory is that he disagrees with the so called ‘existence belief’ and because we don’t truly believe in what is happening to Anna our resulting emotions cannot be real either. Therefore, no matter how real our pity for Anna feels, it is almost a trick of the mind that leads us to this emotion. This may be attributed to the fact that the author of a novel or the director of a film purposefully wants us to feel a certain way when engaged with their fiction. As this happens, whether we want to or not we find ourselves being manipulated into the desired thought of the author that we should pity Anna Karenina. In order with us to ‘go along’ with what the author wants us to feel we almost convince ourselves we don’t know what is coming or what we should be feeling, although at times it seems obvious. Walton uses an example within children’s fiction to further his point, ‘The child hearing Jack and the Beanstalk knows that make-believedly Jack will escape, but make-believedly she does not know that he will. It is her make-believe uncertainty, not any actual uncertainty that is responsible for the excitement and suspense that she feels.’(‘Fearing Fictions’ pg 26, 1978). It can be said that whilst this idea works well with child-like mentality, as it would with hide and seek for instance, in looking at our case of Anna Karenina it is hard to imagine the mind set of an adult entertaining a game of make believe in their head over what the fate of Anna will be. The theory is also exposed on the basis that we cannot make believedly guess that Anna will kill herself as we do not know this before we read it. At the time when Anna actually kills herself are we really to believe that the pity we are feeling is make believe? Whenever something traumatic happens in either a novel or fiction we have no form of control over what we feel whereas in make believe we have at least some element of control.

Jack and the Beanstalk

In conclusion, I feel I have demonstrated why we feel pity for Anna Karenina based on the ideas that a fictional character in many circumstances can be related to reality and the human condition. There isn’t any recognisable evidence that suggest our emotional response stems from the belief that we slip into the mind frame that the fiction in front of us is real. It is in my opinion; the acknowledgement that what is happening in Anna’s fictional life could to some degree happen to somebody or has happened to somebody. It is also important to accept that the content of fiction is always able to manipulate us to some degree emotionally depending on how well the content can engage emotions.



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