Feeling bad for the Bad. An Empathetic Reading of Cormac McCarthy's "Child of God"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2013

28 Pages, Grade: 1,0




2.Variations of a Feeling: Empathy, Sympathy and Compassion
2.1 Requirements for Empathy
2.2 Empathy for the Antagonist

3.Challenges of Empathic Readings
3.1 Empathizing with Lester Ballard
3.2 Lester’s Empathy




Cormac McCarthy’s Child of God has provoked a variety of polarizing reactions with its extreme content and unusual protagonist. While many of the immediate reactions are certainly those of shock, disgust and unwillingness to identify with or feel for the main character, it is interesting to note that a substantial number of readers find themselves almost involuntarily feeling sympathy for this creature - a depraved man who doesn’t offer much to warm a reader’s heart in the traditional sense. Browsing through online reviews 1, I found reactions similar to my own reading experience of Child of God. This led me to wonder why it apparently seems so hard to allow ourselves to feel for McCarthy’s unusual protagonist:

Child of God is much much darker with the main character, Lester Ballard, who is never going to win any popularity contests - unless there is one for rather anti-social necrophilic murderers. The writing is sparse but the descriptions and dialogue are vivid and despite our friend Lester being impossible to like on any level whatsoever I did reluctantly feel sorry for him, which is all credit to the writing.2

This is one of those books that, when you read it, and really like it, it makes you wonder if you should be worried about yourself.3

Lester has gravel pits and leaves a nasty taste in your mouth, and he's not there to make you happy, but McCarthy pursues his dark character so perfectly that you kind of end up feeling for the backwoods pervert by the end of it all.m 4

The beginning was a little disjointed […] but once it got going, I "enjoyed" this novel. I say "enjoyed" because this is another story of a wholly awful human being.5

I chose these quotes because they emphasize an involuntary and (from the perspective of the reader) unwonted reaction to any enjoyment or positive response that the book may cause. This also resonates with what Suzanne Keen6 has observed in her studies of empathic readings of unsavory literary characters - that there is a pressure to align with certain societal expectations about the judgment and understanding of inhumane behavior, and that this pressure often plays into how we report our impressions of and feelings for the character in question. In short, it might be a determining factor of to what extent we allow ourselves to feel for someone like Lester Ballard. He is certainly not a figure that the reader would immediately take to in the classical sense of character identification. Specifically the idea of having shared psychological traits with him challenges the reader’s self-image when taking his acts and desires into consideration. Yet as many readers attest in the case of Lester Ballard - often with apologetic undertones- there is a sense of inexplicable empathy for someone whose actions are inacceptable by any societal standards. In the following pages I would like to look at the reasoning behind, and challenges for, an empathic reading of Child of God, drawing not only on literary definitions of empathy, but also including philosophical, sociological and psychological approaches to this phenomenon.

2. Variations of a Feeling: Empathy, Sympathy and Compassion

Looking at definitions of empathy, I have turned to Martha Nussbaum, who has treated this emotional as well as cognitive phenomenon extensively in Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions 7 . Referring to its occurrence in literature since the Greek tragedies, she distinguishes particularly between what Aristotle terms “pity”8 as well as sympathy, empathy and compassion which are often used synonymously, but each with their own specific niche of application. According to her definition, empathy designates “an imaginative reconstruction of another’s experience” (Nussbaum, 302), while she prefers the term compassion - the “painful emotion occasioned by the awareness of another person’s undeserved misfortune” - as being less neutral, suggesting an increased intensity in feeling (Nussbaum, 301).

In my discussion of McCarthy’s novel I will use the word empathy more frequently, as I find it more fitting and more useful for a broader approach in this context. The reasoning behind this is, based on the above definitions, empathy expresses the most objective acceptance of another perspective, even if this perspective is not in alignment with our own experiences or even opinion. Compassion might require the step of leaning further toward the character in question, whereas pity implies a stronger distance and, as Nussbaum points out, condescension. However, the lines between these definitions can be quite indistinct and can overlap frequently - both in their application and interpretation. In my reading of Child of God, I’ve found that while I feel a though I understand certain behavioral motivations of Lester Ballard, I nonetheless do not feel strong sympathy for him - sometimes even antipathy. It therefore seems important to stress the distinction between objective understanding and strong emotional support or approval for a character9. While Nussbaum refers to compassion in the definitions that I draw on, empathy often acts as a “psychological guide” (Nussbaum, 330) at the base of the feeling of compassion. Although she argues that we can have compassion without exercising empathy (compassion for animals is an example she uses, a we can never fully recreate or understand their experience), it remains a highly important tool “in the service of getting a sense of what is going on with the other person, and also of establishing concern and connection” (Nussbaum, 331). Heinz Kohut, one of the leading empathy theorists, stresses its importance as a part of compassionate emotions. Nussbaum summarizes his standpoint: empathy is limited, fallible and value-neutral […] empathy is a valuable guide to accurate responding, an ‘informer of appropriate action’- appropriate not in the ethical sense, but just in the sense of conforming to the person’s aims, whether these are beneficient or malevolent. (qtd. in Nussbaum, 331).

I think that precisely this distinction is important when considering the novel, in that before we can feel concern for Lester, we need to understand and be informed in a value- neutral fashion. Sociologist Candace Clark, a supporter of this distinction, claims that empathic processes can lead to sympathy, but they do not necessarily do so. One can take the role of the other, understand the other's plight and his or her feelings about it, and feel either the emotions appropriate to the other or emotions not appropriate to the other (Clark, 295).

I also agree with social psychologist Daniel Batson’s usage of empathy. He distinguishes it from sympathy or compassion - although also noting that the three terms are often interchangeable - because to him it has less of a “moralistic” tone (qtd. in Nussbaum, 331). In the following chapters I will look more precisely at the necessary predicates for empathic reactions in my focus on McCarthy’s third novel.

2.1 Requirements for Empathy

Nussbaum discusses Aristotle’s definition of compassion 10, comparing it to her own critical approach which stresses the three crucial cognitive elements required to feel this painful emotion caused by another’s misfortune. It is important to note that Nussbaum argues that compassion requires cognition, and is in this way different from emotional pain reactions of grief or fear. The three cognitive elements she mentions as necessary to feel compassion are: 1) the belief that the sufferer’s affliction is serious and not trivial, 2) the belief that the sufferer does not deserve the pain inflicted upon him 3) the belief that there is possibility that the person who feels compassion could go through similar experiences as! the sufferer (Nussbaum, 306-307). To be more specific about the first element, Nussbaum reviews the scale of “size”, i.e. which misfortune are severe enough to trigger compassion in someone. By quoting Candace Clark’s study Misery and Company: Sympathy in Everyday Life, she reminds us that today sympathy is no longer limited to the classical tragic plights such as death, illness, disaster, crime victimization, war trauma and physical or mental abuse. Today even “milder” plights such as physical unattractiveness, car trouble, insensitive parents, accidental embarrassments, ruined vacation and even boredom (to name but a few out of her extensive list) can cause Americans to feel for a “sufferer”11. Nussbaum stresses that while many of the reasons for empathy today are similar to those given by Aristotle or Rousseau, Clark’s additions goes to show that severity is relative; sympathy can be triggered by anything the sympathizer considers to be of valuable size - that is, sufficiently painful. However sympathy peaks when the sufferer’s plight is beyond human control (Clark, 293). In following Lester’s descent into abject poverty and destitution, we experience first-hand his spectrum of suffering, from plain discomfort to harrowing feelings of loneliness and desolation. It doesn’t take much to feel bad for someone who has to sleep on soaked and frozen mattresses or in wet caves, but the strongest feelings of pity are probably elicited when Lester’s emotional isolation reaches extremes, or rather when he is no longer able to maintain his defiant nature in the face of the exterior forces putting him down. All the while his ability to seek comfort and console himself in his own ways stands out as an almost admirably independent quality:

In the black midday he woke half frozen and mended up the fire. Hot pains were rifling through his feet. He lay back down. The water in the mattress had soaked through to his back and he lay there shivering with his arms crossed at his chest and after a while he slept again. When he woke it was to agony. He sat up and gripped his feet. He howled aloud. With gingery steps he crossed the stone floor to the water and sat and put his feet in. The creek felt hot. He sat there soaking and gibbering, a sound not quite crying that echoed from the walls of the grotto like the mutterings of a band of sympathetic apes (COG, 150).

Another important aspect to examine more closely when evaluating requirements for empathy is the notion of fault. As indicated above, compassion is mostly reserved for the undeserved misfortune, implying a deflection of all culpability away from the sufferer. Again referring to Greek tragedy, Nussbaum reminds us that compassion need not be examined if the sufferer is generally seen as a good person. However, according to Aristotle it is not inconsistent to feel for someone who has caused their own misery “out of their own bad character or culpable negligence- so long as one can either see the suffering as out of all proportion to the fault or view the bad character or negligence as itself the product of forces to some extent excusably beyond the person ’ s cont rol” (Nussbaum, 312, my emphasis).

Much of what happens to Lester in the first half of the novel is not a direct result of his own actions and some would even count as one of the above-mentioned classically tragic plights, i.e., the loss of his parents, the dispossession of his property, his being wrongly accused of rape and so on. This also leads to one of the arguments for an empathic reading of the character of Lester Ballard. He is regarded by his community as someone who in their opinion inherited “the crazy”. The descriptions of Lester’s grandfather (COG, 77-78) as well as his father’s suicide, stress not only the social impact, but also the possible hereditary influence on his own behavior. His father’s discovered suicide even causes one of the narrators from the community to display a form of pity, stating that 9 year old Lester shouldn’t “have to see a thing like that” (COG, 22). It’s one of the few occasions that a community member demonstrates compassion for Lester, by acknowledging the effect such a sight can have on a child, as distinct from the general effect of an absentee father figure on a young boy. He is repeatedly compared to other “crazy” community members, but it is always explicitly stated that he topped anyone else’s condition by far: “You can trace em back to Adam if you want and goddamn if he didn’t outstrip em all” (COG, 78).

It is interesting to note that he is never described as evil or malicious per se, but rather as a bitter character who is “crazed” or “sickish”, words indicating a certain lack of control over one’s actions by way of interior instability. Someone who is inexplicably sick, who “always was and always will be”- to use the sheriff’s elaborate “dog” metaphor (COG, 47) almost seems like a being incapable of change. If this is the case and the reader believes in the “sickness” ascribed to Lester, it might in some ways relieve him of the agency attributed to fully capable and sane persons. It might then also make us feel for him, as by this definition he is not the cause of his own condition - rather some exterior force has shaped him that way.

However, when we weigh what else we learn about him against these assertions, we might also question the statements made about him. Lester demonstrates that he is not without agency - despite being disowned, excluded and deserted - in astounding feats of defiance throughout the novel. He proves incredibly adaptive to his changing environment and often seems more at ease in the raw conditions of nature than with his fellow men in the social community of Sevier County. That part of his survival instinct stems from an inner anger, giving him an air of “constrained truculence” (COG, 5), might also alter the way we view his behavior - in terms of violence being his only currency within the community. The following passage is a testament both to his defiant strength against the ferocity of the community that engulfs him, as well to that community’s need for him as a ritualistic scapegoat in order to be able to purge itself of its own vice. According to Gary Ciuba, his presence is needed to “deflect attention away from violence in families, focusing instead on monstrous others who seem entirely removed from the ordinary world”12:

He could not swim but how would you drown him? His wrath seemed to buoy him up. Some halt in the way of things seems to work here. See him. You could say that he’s sustained by his fellow men, like you. Has peopled the shore with them calling to him. A race that gives suck to the maimed and crazed, that wants their wrong blood in its history and will have it. But they want this man’s life. He has heard them in the night seeking him with lanterns and cries of execration. How then is he borne up? Or rather, why will not these waters take him? (COG, 147).


1 "Child of God."Goodreads. N.p., n.d. Web. 8 Aug. 2013..

2 "Gary's Review Child Of God."Goodreads. N.p., 23 May 2012. Web. 8 Aug. 2013.

3 "Melody's Review Child of God."Goodreads. N.p., 22 May 2009. Web. 9 Aug. 2013.

4 "Architeuthis's Review Child of God."Goodreads. N.p., 25 Aug. 2012. Web. 9 Aug. 2013

5 "Jeff's Reviews Child of God."Goodreads. N.p., 15 May 2013. Web. 9 Aug. 2013

6 Keen, Suzanne. Empathy and the Nove l. pp. 72-80.

7 In further references abbreviated as Nussbaum. as distinguished from quotations out of the other source I’ve used in this paper: Nussbaum, Martha C. The Fragility of Goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy.

8 Pity is obviously still used often synonymously with empathy and compassion, however Nussbaum stresses that she refrains from using it excessively, due to the reason that unlike in Rousseau’s and the Greek tragedian’s use, pity today has come to have nuances of condescension and superiority to the sufferer (Nussbaum, 301-303).

9 For example one may empathize with someone to whom one refuses compassion on grounds of fault (Nussbaum, 329).

10 While she uses the word compassion specifically when referring to the following criteria, I nonetheless will refer to them in the most part being necessary for empathy, too.

11 Clark, Candace. qtd. in Nussbaum, 307.

12 Ciuba, Gary M. Desire, Violence and Divinity in Modern Southern Fiction: Katherine Anne Porter, Flannery O ’ Connor, Cormac McCarthy, Walker Percy. p. 184.

Excerpt out of 28 pages


Feeling bad for the Bad. An Empathetic Reading of Cormac McCarthy's "Child of God"
Free University of Berlin  (John F. Kennedy Institute for North American Studies)
Cormac McCarthy in Context
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Cormac McCarthy, Child of God, Empathy, problematic reading, literary analysis, character analyis, theory, definition empathy, sociology, philosophy, psychology, lester ballard, protagonist child of god, reader identification
Quote paper
Alena Saucke (Author), 2013, Feeling bad for the Bad. An Empathetic Reading of Cormac McCarthy's "Child of God", Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/307276


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