2. Developing Empathy through Reading Fiction
2.1 Definition of Empathy
2.2 Developing Empathy through Reading Fiction
3. Narrative Empathy through Reading All the Bright Places
4. All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven in the EFL Classroom
4.1 Goals of Teaching All the Bright Places
4.2 Teaching Ideas
Have you ever cried while reading, could you ever not help smiling, or even laughed out loud? Have you ever felt so involved in a story that you could not think about anything else, and your emotional life was dependent from the emotional life of the protagonists? In these moments, the reader's emotional life is significantly influenced by the story in his/her hands.
All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven is a story comparable to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Two members of completely different social groups, who are unhappy with their lives, surprisingly fall in love and try to safe each other – but cannot. Since the two protagonists, Finch and Violet, suffer from different mental illnesses and traumas, All the Bright Places also addresses a topic that still receives too little empathy in our society.
In teacher trainings, you gain an understanding of some of the skills that are developed through reading literature. Accordingly, one of the things people learn through reading literary texts is to adopt the perspectives of others because in the flow of reading one is repeatedly confronted with the opinions, feelings, and thoughts of other (fictional) individuals. If reading fictional literature promotes the ability to understand the perspectives of others, does it not by inference also promote the ability to empathise? Is reading fictional texts a component of the development of empathy? And how big, how significant, is this component?
This leads to the question: How does reading Young Adult Literature contribute to the development of empathy, and how can this process be addressed and fostered in the classroom - using the example of All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven? To answer this question, I will first outline how readers develop empathy in the process of reading Young Adult Literature, in order to illustrate this in the following chapter using All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven as an example. These findings will also be related to foreign language teaching: goals as well as teaching ideas will be suggested on how All the Bright Places can be used in the classroom to support the empathy development of adolescents.
2. Developing Empathy through Reading Fiction
2.1 Definition of Empathy
Empathy is the experience of directly participating in the emotional state or the intention of another person and thereby understanding them (cf. Bischof-Köhler 261) or the “ability to project oneself, emotionally, into a situation” (Ritivoi 61). This means that one person does not feel exactly the same as another person for whom they develop empathy, but that the first person imagines and empathises with the feelings of the second: “we feel what we believe to be the emotions of others” (Keen 208). Further, what Ritivoi calls “[r]e-enactive empathy” (62), the individual not only feels approximately the same as the target of empathy, but furthermore understands its possibilities of action, intentions, and activities. Davis distinguishes between cognitive and emotional empathy. Cognitive empathy merely deals with taking perspectives and theory of mind and can take place rationally and without any empathizing with feelings. Emotional empathy means feeling similar emotions (cf. Davis 6f), as it is concerned in this paper.
Further, Ritivoi explains that “empathy is grounded in a relationship: . . . we recognize someone else’s feelings as we enter a relationship with that person and then come to share those feelings” (63). A bond is often formed when there is common ground between two individuals. How significant such commonalities are in the development of empathy is debatable. However, various studies show that the stronger one’s personal bond is with the person concerned, the stronger one feels towards him/her or one’s feelings are influenced by his/her situation. Accordingly, the weaker the bond, the more consciously one has to put oneself in the empathy target's place. Consequently, emotional empathy requires prior cognitive empathy in some cases because these “’as if’ scenarios . . . can promote understanding of others by placing us in the same conditions through thought experiments” (ibid. 62).
2.2 Developing Empathy through Reading Fiction
Can a fictional character evoke the same empathy as a person? In relation to Ritivoi, this requires first and foremost a connection between the reader and the empathy target, the character for whom empathy is being developed. Such a bond is created when the reader is fully immersed in a fictional world and experiences it through the eyes of the characters.
Being absorbed in a narrative can stimulate empathic imagination. Readers go along with the author/narrator in a (fictional) thought-experiment, imagining how it would be to be in the shoes of a particular character, with certain motives, under certain circumstances, meeting with certain events. (Hakemulder and Koopman 79)
"Imagining how it would be in the shoes” the reader adopts the perspective of the characters. “We make similar inferences about what the other is thinking and feeling as in conversation, and making such inferences would increase our understanding of and identification with the character” (ibid. 97). This way, reading functions as a try out space for perspective-taking and empathizing in real life. These processes of perspective-taking and sympathy lead to increased empathy (cf. ibid. 97f).
Furthermore, the connection between reader and character, similar to that between two people, is strengthened when there are commonalities that can be related to each other. Not only the "feeling of recognition" (Ritivoi 52) but more profoundly the "creation of commonality, even mutuality, between the reader and the protagonists of the story, whether because the story presents readers with already familiar characters and with shared values or beliefs, or creates familiarity through specific techniques” (ibid. 54-55) creates a bond between the reader and fictional world. It is remarkable that narratives create many points of connection, so that a reader usually always finds a way to build a bond with the fictional character and the fictional world. The closer the bond, the more sympathy the reader develops.
Despite being drawn into the fictional world, the reader still creates a special distance between him/herself and the characters and the events of a story (cf. Hakemulder and Koopman 79). That way, relating this to Bischof-Köhler’s theory of differentiation, they differ themselves from the book and experiment with perspectives and positions more freely (cognitive empathy). This phenomenon is particularly evident in terms of fictional texts because fiction “releas[es] readers from the obligations of self-protection through skepticism and suspicion [in contrast to non-fictional narratives]. Thus they may respond with greater empathy to an unreal situation and characters because of the protective fictionality” (Keen 220; cf. Hakemulder and Koopman 92).
It becomes clear that building a bond between reader and character is of extraordinary importance in order to develop empathy. This process is influenced by a number of factors.
At first glance, there are two possible stimuli that trigger empathy: The expressive behaviour of another person (expression-mediated empathy) and also the situation (situation mediated empathy) (cf. Bischof-Köhler 269ff). Concerning the first, the empathy target clearly shows his/her intentions and emotions, from which the reader’s feelings are affected in the same way. Hence, the reader empathises with their feelings. If empathy arouses from the situation, the empathy target does not have to show its emotions, but it is enough to learn about its situation, which is usually unusual in some way. In both cases, the reader participates in the character’s situation as if he/she was in his/her place and thus empathises with his/her feelings, but only, if the reader somehow identifies with the character concerned.
More precisely, this process works like this (cf. Ritivoi 56f): the overall plot is surrounded by suffering, negativity, and above all innocence. Now the focus is put on a group of people and additionally a specific person of this group, whom the reader builds a connection to (through specific narrative techniques, which will be addressed later on). Due to this connection to an affected character, the abstract suffering becomes concrete. As a result, this distant suffering that affects the protagonist of the story appears very close to the reader. Through the connection to the (usually) protagonist, the reader is drawn into the narrative and suddenly suffers along with him, although he/she might never have dealt with this issue before. “Reading literature . . . triggers a type of imagination” (Hakemulder and Koopman 81), which forces us to adopt their perspective and engage with people and circumstances, whose situation otherwise seems too distant. In this way, one builds a bond with this group that was not or hardly there at all, and further one’s understanding and empathy towards them. “This epistemic leap starts with the concreteness of the story – no matter how incomplete – of one particular victim” (Ritivoi 60).
Whilst Bischof-Köhler focuses on the influence on general empathy, Keen makes an alternative classification of the factors that influence especially narrative empathy. She distinguishes between character identification and narrative situation (cf. Keen 217ff).
What goes with character identification is among others the description of a character’s traits, actions, goals, plans and motives, their role in the plot, their reliability and transparency. The relationship between the reader and a character can be compared to a friendship, where sympathy increases when two people trust each other. A reader's trust in a character is primarily based on the fact that he/she relies on the information received during reading being true and presented realistically (realistically from the perspective of the focalising character, in the sense of not being exaggerated). Besides, realism of the characters and personal experiences that can be related to a character, strengthen the bond (cf. Hakemulder and Koopman 91; cf. Ritivoi 60). Realistic characters are round ones, who are defined of more than their most striking characteristics but are complex and not to be divided into black and white. Personal experiences can again be based on commonalities between reader and character. What also plays into this are a character's reactions to what is happening in the story. To build up empathy, the story has to “reach readers with appropriately correlating responses” (Keen 215).
Narrative situation puts the focus on aspects of narrative analysis. A first-person narrator is the easiest to identify with because it seems close, authentic, reliable and realistic to the reader. This is mainly increased by the thought (processes) of the (in most cases) protagonist that the reader experiences in a narrative, either in form of narrated monologue, quoted monologue or psycho-narration. Furthermore, this means that a homodiegetic or auto diegetic narrator often comes across as more authentic, since this narrator experiences the narrative him/herself and does not look at it from the outside. In particular, character’s conflicts are a method often used to convey that character’s thoughts and feelings. Along with this, it is rare for the reader to oppose the character whose thoughts they are reading, as this character seems to make sense and acts with reason.
Moreover, the bond depends on how much the reader is drawn into the world of the story (cf. Hakemulder and Koopman 90f). Hence, tension of the storyline also plays a part. In turn, the bond between reader and character strengthens as you go further into the story, following a character. Nevertheless, it should not be forgotten that a story, no matter how exciting, can seem boring to a reader if the genre, context and time of reading are undesirable. Besides, readers already have a certain “empathic sensitivity to others” (ibid. 84), which influences their ability to take on perspectives, and recognize and experience affective and emotional states of others (cf. Bischof-Köhler 261).
In addition, literary texts usually go with gaps, which the reader automatically fills with information (cf. Hakemulder and Koopman 89). By filling the gaps, different readers never see a literary character through the same eyes but give it something individual. How these gaps are filled depends on the reader's personal experience. The reader unconsciously gives the character something of his or her own, which strengthens the bond and thus empathy.
Following a character through a story, the reader experiences situation-mediated empathy, as he/she reads about the events first-hand, as well as expression-mediated empathy, since the empathy target’s thoughts clearly show his/her emotions and state of mind.
3. Narrative Empathy through Reading All the Bright Places
Relating Finch and Violet to Ritivoi’s theory of a suffering group of which one member’s concrete story is told, the group concerned is mentally ill teenagers, more precisely suicidal ones suffering from bipolar disorders, depression, and survivor’s guilt. Finch and Violet are two teenagers who wish to die at no less than one point of the story. Moreover, it is a love story of two members of two different worlds, where nobody expects them to even know, let alone like each other.
Theodore Finch is a good-looking weirdo. He is into guitars, sex, driving and running (fast), facts about suicide and most of all Violet Markey. He does not care what others think of him and does not want to waste his "awake" time. Finch suffers from bipolar disorder, where he is either "asleep", meaning lost in his depression and hides in his wardrobe, or "awake" living the life of a teenager. The seventeen-year-old deals with many conflicts: he is bullied by his classmates, feels unaccepted and left alone by his father, takes care of his mother and his sister (cf. pp. 71ff), and to top it all off he falls in love with a girl being so different from him, that he does not feel as if he could ever be enough for her. At the same time, Violet is both the reason why he desperately wants to stay awake "this time" (p. 63, cf. p. 185) and a factor that helps him to do so. Finch does not know who he is and is in a constant search for identity. Therefore, he goes through different phases (“I’m trying out Theodore Finch, ‘80s kid, and seeing how he fits.” (p.36)), “looks different every year, not agewise but personwise” (p. 91) and finally asks himself “Which Finch does [Violet] like? What if it’s only a version of the real Finch?” (p. 205). So inside he is controlled by an insecurity about himself, although outwardly he usually presents himself as self-confident and invulnerable, never missing an opportunity to flirt with Violet, for example (cf. pp. 31, 54, 95). Finch's character is unpredictable and surprising, which is why he always has something mysterious about him. As a reader, it is almost impossible to anticipate his next move. His biggest fear is of himself and “of Asleep" (p. 221). Hence, he lives day by day and desperately fights to stay awake “this time” (p. 63) (since he met Violet).
Violet Markey “is cheerleader popular – one of those girls you would never think of running into on a ledge six stories above the ground.” (p.6) Her traits, goals, plans and motives are greatly influenced by what she thinks is expected of her. She works hard to be able to attend her dream college, does not ever break any rules or contradict her parents. Although she is invited to popular parties, she prefers to stay in bed and read (after she sometimes attended one of those parties for one or two hours, because it is expected of her). Violet secretly wishes to be a writer but has forgotten how to write since the death of her beloved sister due to a car accident, which Violet survived and feels guilty for ever since. Since then, she is constantly stuck between the past and the present, death and life, Eleanor and herself. Violet is not dead, but she is not alive either. She tries to be both herself and her sister, “be like her . . . see what she saw. I can be both of us at once so no one will have to miss her, most of all me.” (pp. 23-24) Symbolically, Violet wears her sister's glasses, through which she can only see through a blur. Through Finch, Violet learns to live again. To mark the turning point of her life symbolically, she takes off her sister’s glasses, and additionally, her chapter subscriptions change from the number of “days to go” until college to dates. Although at the beginning she is uncomfortable with her contact with Finch in front of her friends, she falls in love with how she can talk to him openly about everything, how he motivates her to live and that he is in fact not like her popular friends. In return, she wants to help him, save him and keep him awake. But Finch does not know how and neither does she, until it is finally too late, and she blames herself for the end.
From this sketch of the two protagonists, it can be seen that the reader is introduced to two completely different characters: one being popular, successful in school and loved by her family; the other one being nicknamed “freak”, keeping secrets and preferring to spend time alone. What they have in common is that they both suffer from mental health issues. Finch battles depressive episodes on a daily basis and Violet lets her survivor guilt take over; so, one day they both meet on the edge of a bell tower to put an end to their suffering. Due to the differences in their characters, any reader can find him*herself in characteristics of Violet Markey or Theodore Finch – maybe, or probably, one can find oneself even in both.
What they additionally both have in common is their introductory scene: Finch and Violet both stand up on the bell tower to jump down, but, as they did not expect the respective other to be there, surprisingly save each other. Due to this introduction, from the first second the reader is aware of the fact that they are both struggling with inner conflicts; conflicts that seem so insoluble to them that their death was the only way out. Moreover, the knowledge of these conflicts is one that is withheld from Violet and Finch's peers. Thus, the reader feels privy to a secret, which strengthens the connection enormously.
As for the reliability of the characters, it is striking that Finch keeps secrets from the reader. At no point does he directly and honestly define what he means by “the Asleep” and how he then feels, nor does he take the reader there with him. When Finch is asleep, the events are told exclusively from Violet's perspective, no longer in regular rotation as before. Emphasizing this, he also tells Violet lies to escape the truth. Many of his secrets, however, are explained to the reader with and along, e.g., the origin of his scar, the origin of the nickname "Theodore Freak" and the designation "Bipolar Disorder", with which he does not identify himself. This is why his secrecy in front of the reader is only authentic and the gradual unravelling of the secrets increases the reader's level of mutual trust, as it seems that Finch, too, has come to trust the reader more and therefore starts to explain his secrets. Violet, in contrast, does not have secrets from the reader (just from the rest of the world, being all the other characters). She seems reliable and trustworthy. All these points strengthen the bond between the reader and the protagonists, as well as allows two opposing accesses to the story.
The first-person auto diegetic narrator alternates between Finch's and Violet's perspectives so that the reader experiences the story from two different, complementary points of view. This increases the level of authenticity, realism, and trust in the two protagonists.
Violet’s and Finch's thoughts are presented as narrated monologues and highlighted in italics. The italics make these thoughts seem more urgent, as if they are not merely thought, but shouted in the mind. Violet and Finch's thoughts are extraordinary important because they often contrast with their actions. Their actions are guided by expectations placed on them by society or themselves, but their thoughts are free and therefore used to infer their feelings and mental states, which make up the characters, the plot, and the causality of the story. Here is an example: after Violet was saved by Finch on the bell tower, she does what she thinks is best: she lies about what really happened up there and goes with the story about her saving Finch, though her thoughts shine through that she wants to be saved not only by Finch just before she actually dies, but also from her thoughts and what she might do to herself: “I know what you were doing first period, Violet Markey. your parents are on their way. Doctors are standing by, ready to escort you to the nearest mental facility.” (Italics in orig.) (p. 18) Instead of talking to someone, she repeats to be “not ready” (pp. 22, 25, 31) in any situation demanding her full presence in the here and now because she is, as mentioned above, so stuck between death and life. For the reader, therefore, it feels as if he/she knows more about the protagonists than any figure around them, as if he/she is being let into their secret thoughts. This priviledged position strengthens the bond between reader and protagonists.
Moreover, Finch's thoughts often bring humour to tense situations, which comes across as authentic and sympathetic to the reader. For example, while standing on the edge of the bell tower: “Note to self: Before attempting to take own life, remember to take a leak.” (p. 7) Finch’s as well as Violet’s thoughts help the reader to see how the protagonists perceive a certain situation or other characters of the story. The narrative monologue of both characters, which often reflects their true thoughts and feelings, becomes strikingly abrupt in scenes that Violet and Finch spend together. This emphasises that together they do not have to pretend and live up to expectations but can say and act on what they otherwise only think.
Reading All the Bright Places for the first time and not knowing about the end of the story, the reader experiences the events together with the characters. Finch has grown on one and one notices how he positively influences Violet. As a result, one feels with Violet the uncertainty when Finch disappears, the hope of his return when messages of him turn up, the disbelief when a dead body is pulled out of the Blue Hole, the emptiness when it actually seems to be Finch and the undefinable chaos of emotions when Violet finds hidden messages from Finch on her last wanderings. Since the outcome of this story is anything but predictable (or the reader ignores every hint of Finch's possible end because one does not want to believe it), the tension increases. In addition, this tension is increased by empathising with the characters.
The scenes in which the reader feels the most empathy with the characters are accordingly those in which one has the most part in the inner life of the characters, which are determined by the emotions of the characters and to which the reader can personally relate the most. In All the Bright Places, for example, this concerns the scenes in which Finch explains his depressive inner life, in which Violet finds Finch dead, in which she mourns him and during her last wanderings, but also those in which the two protagonists are particularly happy.
In conclusion, this means that the stronger the bond between the reader and the two protagonists Violet and Finch, the stronger the empathy he/she develops in the reading process. This bond is further strengthened by the characters, as well as by trust, reliability, perspective taking and especially by narrative monologues. Thus, the more a reader engages with the story cognitively, i.e. characterises the protagonists, tries to understand their action steps and actively empathises with how Violet and Finch feel, the stronger the bond and thus the empathy with them grows.