Highlighting a trend in current models of narrative empathy that suggests that readers’ ability to empathize with nonhuman characters is dependent wholly on anthropomorphization, this essay explores two narratives that feature chimp characters—Colin McAdam’s A Beautiful Truth and Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves—to consider the challenges that nonhuman characters pose to such models and the empathy-altruism hypothesis. It first considers the cognitive differences between humans and chimps to stress just how difficult it is to represent chimp cognition and emotion in narrative and the resulting challenges that this difficulty poses for models of narrative empathy. It then discusses the mechanisms by which written narratives that refuse to anthropomorphize nonhuman characters, such those by McAdam and Fowler, might inspire a real-world ethics of care among readers for nonhuman subjects. Ultimately, this essay proposes an expansion to current models of narrative empathy by which we recognize the potential of human bridge characters to foster real-world care among readers for nonhuman subjects.
Nonhuman Fictional Characters and the Empathy-Altruism Hypothesis
Erin James is associate professor of English at the University of Idaho. Her monograph The Storyworld Accord: Econarratology and Postcolonial Narratives (2015) won the 2017 International Society for the Study of Narrative’s Perkins Prize and was a finalist for the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment’s Ecocriticism Book Award (2017). Her previous publications include essays in the Journal of Commonwealth and Postcolonial Literature, The Bioregional Imagination (2012), Teaching Ecocriticism and Green Cultural Studies (2012), The Language of Plants: Science, Philosophy, Literature (2017), and the Journal of Narrative Theory.
Erin James; Nonhuman Fictional Characters and the Empathy-Altruism Hypothesis. Poetics Today 1 September 2019; 40 (3): 579–596. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/03335372-7558164
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