Understanding Empathy and Sympathy in Literature

Both the words, empathy, and sympathy, are the two human virtues that all of us can easily relate to. Empathy means putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and then trying to understand their situation.

It is most important to learn about the mindset of an individual and it often happens that we end up giving advice to people without thinking that had we been in the situation what would we have done in order to deal with it.

Empathy makes a person understand the other person while enabling the person to put himself in the same situation and then analyze.

Just imagine you have a lot of homework to do, plus your exams are approaching, plus your assignments are piled up and you have no one to offer you assignment help, and suddenly your friend turns up and asks you to relax and not take the stress and do everything one by one.

You wonder if he is easily able to say all such things because he is not in your situation and that is why you don’t pay much heed to his advice. On the other hand, had he been in the same situation as you, you still could have paid attention to his advice. That is what empathy means.

On the other hand, sympathy means feeling bad for the other person seeing the situation he is in. while you sympathize you just show concern and pity for the other person, and while you empathize you understand the other person. That is what differentiates the two virtues. 

In the 19th century, German theorists developed the concept of Einfühlung which means feeling into and which later had been translated into empathy. It signifies identification of oneself with the other person or object, which is so close that one seems to participate in all its activities.

This term is often defined as an involuntary projection of oneself into a nearby object or person and is commonly explained as a result of inner mimicry. The object being mimicked can be human, inhuman, or inanimate.

In practical experiences, we usually observe that we start dancing to the beats of a song, blend into a song being sung, and wave with the motion of a tree in the wind.

The following lines by John Keats clearly define this empathic experience by a person, when he says in a letter that he becomes a part of all I see or if a sparrow comes before my window, I take part in its existence and pick about the gravel. Therefore, Keats used the quality long before the word for it was coined. 

All of us know the meaning of the virtue of empathy but very few of us know its meaning in terms of literature. Therefore, it becomes important to understand it so that students can get effective assignment help while they work on any piece of literary analysis.

In literature, a passage is called empathic when it invokes from the reader a sense of participation with the movements, pose, and physical sensations of the object described in the passage. This technique is usually used in various poems and prose works where we say that imagery is being used.

This imagery makes the reader an active participant in the activities of the passage. Just as when the writer describes the voice of an object, its image, the sensation it creates, all make us feel that we have the object in front of us. And this is the role played by empathy in the field of literature. 

Researchers have made a clear distinction between empathy and sympathy in their paper writing services USA. In contrast to empathy, sympathy means to have a fellow feeling. A feeling is associated not with the physical state or sensations of an object, rather with its mental state and emotions.

This object is mostly human, since we associate our feelings and emotions with it, or it may be a personified one, wherein human-like qualities are given to lifeless objects. The poem To a Mouse by Robert Burns is an engaging expression of sympathy towards a mouse, whose nest has been toppled by the man.

While dealing with the elements for the success of a plot as well as with the characters that are able to engage the readers, several research paper writings have stated that a reader’s sympathy with the character is important for the success of the plot as well as to prepare the reader for the ultimate fate of the character.

This is the sole aspect that keeps the reader engaged in the piece of work. For example, in his drama King Lear, Shakespeare makes his readers sympathize with Cornelia and then with King Lear but makes the readers feel horror and antipathy for his daughters Regan and Goneril.

In the same play, the reader’s attitude towards Edmund, the bastard son of Gloucester, is complex, maybe antipathetic yet with some element of sympathy arisen because of the understanding of his distorted personality. 

On a similar line, Bertolt Brecht’s alienation effect was designed to attract the sympathy of the audience towards the characters in his play so that a critical attitude towards the actions and social and economic conditions of the play, could be encouraged.

The Theory of Moral Sentiments by Adam Smith is the most influential and directly pertinent source for the understanding of sympathy in English literature. In the book, Smith describes the ability and desire to share the experience of others, as natural law and the foundation for morality.

This Smith wrote just before the emergence of the modern concept of literature, and the feature he has talked about is essential to the cultivation of the reader’s ability to enter into the mental states of the characters he is reading about. 

Later, in the 20th century, many theorists have stressed sympathy as being essential to the reading of a piece of writing, and thereafter the technique of both empathy and sympathy saw a development in the literary world.