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  • 2018Fernandez-QuintanillaPhd

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Language and narrative empathy: an empirical stylistic approach to readers' engagement with characters

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

Publication date2018
Number of pages389
Awarding Institution
  • Lancaster University
<mark>Original language</mark>English


Narrative empathy, broadly understood as the sharing of characters’ perspective and emotional experiences, is thought to be often involved in readers’ engagement with characters. A number of claims have been made in the literature about the potential effects of particular narrative techniques on readerly experiences of empathy. However, most of these discussions are based on narratological hypotheses, and empirical work in the area has been rather thin. This study seeks to understand the role of textual, but also readerly, factors in readers’ empathetic (or otherwise) engagement with characters.

I take a qualitative linguistic approach that combines stylistic-narratological textual analysis and empirical reader-response research. I analyse some short stories by Uruguayan author Eduardo Galeano, and focus on narrative techniques which have been regarded as being somehow involved in either empathetic or non-empathetic reader responses ― point of view, speech and thought presentation, emotion presentation, and characterisation techniques. I also consider readerly factors such as contextual appraisal (including moral evaluation) and the reader-character relationship. The empathy potential of these textual and non-textual phenomena is then considered in the light of what readers report. I conducted two focus group discussions with readers who shared their experiences of the characters after reading three stories. Through thematic analysis (using Atlas.ti), I relate readers’ self-reported involvement with characters to insights from textual analysis and scholarly claims.

While my findings support some of the assumptions in the literature, they also problematise some claims about the direct effects of textual cues. I argue for a nuanced approach that accommodates the interaction between textual and readerly phenomena, and conclude that narrative empathy is a highly flexible and context-dependent phenomenon given the complex interplay between textual and readerly factors. The main contributions of the study are to do with (i) the value of the focus on language (a stylistically-informed approach to the stimulus texts and a linguistically-aware approach to readers’ responses), (ii) the gathering of empirical data on readers’ responses through focus groups, and (iii) the in-depth qualitative analysis of these responses, whereby I map out the complex interplay between textual and readerly factors, and develop a typology of potential linguistic evidence of empathetic responses.