It’s all about me: Sympathizing and relating to characters

“Otherwise, many of these questions are exactly the kind of thing I steer my classes away from. In particular, it’s not relevant whether you like the character: literature is not a popularity contest or a beauty pageant, and characters you hate may be the most important to understanding what a book is doing. “Relatable” characters are usually ones that don’t make us think, that we’re perfectly comfortable, and thus mentally passive, with. And there’s no merit in sympathizing with someone you can “relate to,” after all–no possibility for moral growth. While your personal experience (with food, say, in this case) inevitably affects your initial response, sharing anecdotes is also at best a warm-up exercise for literary analysis. At the end of the day, the characters in the book are not you, their experience is not your experience, and the point of the exercise is not personal enlightenment or self-revelation, but something far more other-directed, something that respects the book as offering you something rather than reflecting you back at yourself.”

“Julie & Julia: The Reading Group Guide; or, Why English Professors Aren’t Welcome in Book Clubs” by Rohan Maitzen on September 13, 2009

This is certainly good advice when it comes to reading books, but most people don’t read books. What is really sad is that this complaint could just as easily be applied to our relationships with people. We separate ourselves into groups of people we can “relate to.” People who we are comfortable with and don’t make us think or challenge our accepted ideas. The result she describes, mental passivity and no possibility for moral growth, is all the more applicable to our social relationships and our life as a whole. As a result we are unaware that some people live different lives than ours, think differently about the world, have different values than we do. And being unaware are unable to engage and interact with each other to make compromises, reach consensus and solve problems.

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~ by severalfourmany on November 2, 2012.

One Response to “It’s all about me: Sympathizing and relating to characters”

  1. Yes! Wonderful points. I have a similar irritation with educators and students who want all the reading to be ‘relevant’ to the student. Well how much are you going to miss that way? How are you going to broaden your perspective and become relevant to the world? (Which is way more important than the world becoming relevant to you.)

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