Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Sympathetic Realism in Nineteenth-Century British Fiction

By Rae Greiner
Indiana University

Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012

This book proposes a new model for understanding the “sympathetic realism” of the nineteenth-century realists. Sympathetic Realism reads fictional works by novelists such as Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Joseph Conrad, and Henry James, as well as philosophical and historical writings by authors such as Jeremy Bentham, in order to demonstrate the ways in which the protocols of sympathetic imagining, developed (especially) by Adam Smith in The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), are at work in the forms, rather than simply in the contents, of these works. Such a sympathy does more than foster emotional identification with others. It provides a way of thinking “along with” them. By abstracting feeling away from its origins, by turning feelings into figures of speech, sympathy enables much more than emotional sharing, for it need not involve feeling at all. Sympathy’s most important contribution is not one-to-one emotional matching but instead a more mundane, more ordinary sense of comfortable, proximate agreement with others, a shared mentality or state of mind. Thus its most profound effect: sympathy produces realism. It is the cognitive process enabling us to experience a world held in common with others, to feel confident that our perceptions are theirs.   

Sympathetic Realism revises standard accounts of sympathy and realism. It considers sympathy as a way of thinking, an imaginative operation. Sympathy is neither an emotion in its own right nor an activity in which feeling necessarily results, but is instead the imaginative process through which the real is substantiated.  Neither sympathy nor the sympathetic realism of the novelists and writers in question stakes a claim on transparency. The sympathetic realism operating in their works functions as a means of provisional understanding, aware that we neither have nor should desire unencumbered access to other minds. Critics who describe realism as a “habit of mind,” and who define nineteenth-century literary realism in particular as an historicizing mode, thus describe what sympathetic realism feels like for readers and for (some) characters alike: as a way of inhabiting the mindsets out of which arise a sense of historical reality, a collective confidence in shared human sentiments and beliefs.  

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