Caring for Character: Empathy as Analytical Tool

In his essay, “Superman is Dead: How We Help Students make sense of Literary Characters,” Barry Gilmore suggests that through an understanding of the empathetic relationship between readers and characters, students can not only broaden their understanding of a particular text through an examination of it’s characters, but also garner more enjoyment from the text far more than if it where approached from a critical academic distance.  Gilmore suggests that in order to encourage students to read and actively engage with texts, it is important to understand why they care about some characters more than others and how this empathetic connection shapes their interest and enthusiasm towards particular texts.  The ability to discern why we as readers might be drawn to a particular character is seen by Gilmore as a way of getting beyond broad analysis and into a more immersive understanding of texts specifically and literature more generally.

Gilmore’s investigation into why we care about character is concerned mostly with examining the role empathy plays in student’s ability to relate to specific characters and how these relationships provide the reader with a more thorough understanding of the work as a whole.  What causes students to identify with certain characters and dismiss others as being unrealistic or unbelievable?  How can we as teachers access this emphatic identification in order to expand students understanding of the literary?  Gilmore speaks beyond the literary implications for examining why we care about character by suggesting that our understanding of the social world expands through an engagement with literature, “we and our students might want to explore the possibility that when we read we are developing more than just tools for understanding how authors shape a believable human being out of airy nothing; we are developing tools, as well, for shaping our own interactions with others.”  Connecting literature with the broader social world is an important step towards engaging students with issues outside of the realm of a purely academic field of literary study.  In order for literature to remain relevant to students, I believe it is important to go beyond the question of character identification and towards an understanding of what it means to identify.  This gets students beyond the simple qualitative assessments of identification, such as whether or not they like or dislike a certain character, and towards a more comprehensive analytical understanding of what it means to like or dislike a character.

The empathetic desire to identify with characters extends into the reasons why students chose to identify with particular characters and how these individual choices can be used both to encourage students to read and to engage with how their empathy informs their understanding of a character within a particular work.  By asking how students care about literary characters, we as teachers are able to highlight the ways in which the complexity of literary craft is used to create a space for identification.  Gilmore points to the tendency for young boys in particular to identify with character archetypes, often associated with genre fiction, and the ways in which a students identification with a particular character or type of character can offer insights into maintaining literature’s relevancy for young readers.  By accessing personal experience regarding why students tend to identify with particular characters, the literary details that make identification possible can be discussed.  The fusion of personal experience or qualitative assessment and literary analysis is offered as the most comprehensive way for students to engage with and understand literary texts.  Identification gives way to an investigation of the literary elements which make the engrossing emphatic connections possible.



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3 responses to “Caring for Character: Empathy as Analytical Tool

  1. I feel that everything I have been reading lately connects, somehow, to the common core standards. Your post and the essay by Gilmore are no exception. The topic of complex text and gaining understanding of texts is something that is covered in the common core standards and Gilmore seems to be considering new ways to help students gain understanding of texts. He seems to be suggesting using a different techniques that engages students in a way that touches upon what they are already pulling from the text. You wrote in your post that, “Gilmore’s investigation into why we care about character is concerned mostly with examining the role empathy plays in student’s ability to relate to specific characters and how these relationships provide the reader with a more thorough understanding of the work as a whole”. This intrigued me because as I previously mentioned it is a new way to look at how students can build on their understanding and students should not be limited to how they develop their understanding. Additionally, we as teachers should use as many different ways to build understanding as possible.

    Thanks for a great post! I enjoyed it especially your closing sentences!

    • tamzinpartridge

      Hi guys,

      I agree with what both of you said about it not being enough to just ask students if they like or dislike a character. In my opinion, there
      Is far more to be learned about the texts and characters from the students themselves. As a teacher we are also a learner and the students can inform and enlighten us about the way they see characters and why. As Brenda and others have said, these insights can be used to understand how people learn and the connections that students make to certain characters and why. This can also be useful for making informed decisions about the texts to be read in class in order to keep the attention of our students. I loved this artice.

      Tamzin Partridge

  2. abthib

    I really enjoyed reading this, and I believe this discussion/topic will come in handy when we reach the “Hunger Games” section. I agree with you that it is not enough to simply like or dislike a certain character and believe that there should also be a discussion that promotes the “why or why not” question – a discussion that questions what it means to like or dislike and to determine why this is (i.e. use this like/dislike aspect as a jumping off point/ spur increasingly complex discussions about literature). Also – observing why students identify with some characters and not others is intriguing because in addition to understanding how literature functions, it seems to open up a psychological discussion about how students function. I think that teachers are always looking for ways to connect with their students and taking note of particularly inspiring or popular characters is certainly one way of doing that.

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