Towards a Poetics of Empathy: Literary Fiction As a Transformative Experience


Shortly after the U.S. election in November 2016, sales of George Orwell’s classic "1984" peaked, leading to a crystallizing moment that author Chinua Achebe identified as literature’s purpose: “People are expecting from literature serious comment on their lives [and want] a second handle on reality so that when it becomes necessary to do so, we can turn to art and find a way out.” Readers seek a way to frame and comment on current affairs. Driven by curiosity, a desire for knowledge of history, or to appease a fearful future, readers find that made-up stories can help them change, cultivate empathy, and promote understanding. In the year of Orwell’s title, Margaret Atwood began "The Handmaid’s Tale," about the elimination of a liberal democracy and succession of a theocratic dictatorship. Atwood was intent on creating what she called an “imaginary garden.” Atwood noted, “Anything can happen anywhere, given the circumstances,” and she imagined what could happen when a ruthless ruling class monopolized power in order to subdue humans, particularly women’s bodies that are literal and metaphorical vessels for advancing civilizations. These novels offer a glimpse of fiction’s capacity to involve readers to assess values governing their worlds and urge them to resist dehumanization. Fiction authors have the ability to imagine worlds and situations, to induct readers to care deeply about those made-up worlds and characters, and to guide them towards illumination, resolution, or poetic justice in their circumstances.

Author Information
Cynthia Wong, University of Colorado Denver, United States

Paper Information
Conference: ECE2017
Stream: Student Learning, Learner Experiences and Learner Diversity

This paper is part of the ECE2017 Conference Proceedings (View)
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Posted by James Alexander Gordon