Thursday, December 4, 2008


After yesterday's musings on the idea that one of the purposes of fiction is to help you see things from a point of view that is not your own, I got to thinking about Martin Luther King, Jr's "Loving Your Enemies," and how he believes that agape, God's love for mankind--and by extension, the fellow-feeling of one human for another--will help people find a way to love their enemies. His assumption, as he reveals late in the sermon, is that we can all be moved by agape, that we all have some empathy for our fellow human beings.

How do we develop our sense of empathy? Certainly most of us who are interested in books do it by reading about people so different from us that we couldn't even have imagined them, before. Many of us do it by modeling our behavior on the behavior of someone we admire. Children learn empathy from caring for animals, creatures who are smaller and even-less-listened-to than themselves.

So where's the line, for a reader, between having empathy for a grieving character, and wallowing in a tear-jerker of a novel? I ask this question because I just finished reading Francine Prose's new novel Goldengrove, and I didn't like it. I thought I would--I knew the basics of the plot, that the narrator's older sister, Margaret, dies and the family has to learn to come to terms with her death--and I love the Hopkins poem (Spring and Fall) from which the title is derived. But I didn't like the novel, because it seems to me that there is no change in the narrator, Nico. The world changes around her, and she grows physically, but it is almost as if the sister's death freezes her mental processes. Even in the brief epilogue, as an adult, Nico almost believes she can enter into a painting, as she believed it as a child, before her sister's death.

Most of the novel is taken up with Nico's relationship with her dead sister's boyfriend and her superstitious attempts to be open to communication from beyond the grave:
"Margaret's room was sweltering. I walked over to the closet. The glitter comet winked at me. Margaret wanted me to find it.
I said 'I know you're not angry. I know you understand.' Nothing stirred. Not a breeze. I said, 'I'll take that as a yes.'"

It seems to me that the nearest Nico comes to change is when she says, near the end of the novel:
"I no longer expected Margaret to contact me from the beyond, and I stopped trying to analyze each new stage of my relationship with her ghost. It was hard, letting go. But if I'd learned anything that summer, it was how essential it was to hold on to the here and now, the one thing after the next."
So maybe my perception that she doesn't change is some kind of misunderstanding over what seems to me to be passive acceptance, but what she would call holding on to the here and now. Maybe I can't empathize enough with Nico. Maybe, because I've been lucky enough so far in my life, I'm not equipped with enough empathy to understand this character, or like this novel.

If you're equipped with that kind of empathy, I'd be interested to hear what you think about Goldengrove. But if you're like me, it's just a tear-jerker, and I avoid those.

1 comment:

Cschu said...

I haven't read Goldengrove, but perhaps it is asking us to empathize with people who are simply paralyzed by grief in a more enduring way than most of us are. It certainly sounds like that was the case with Nico. I have a lot of trouble empathizing with someone who is incapable of coming to grips with the reality of the situation and finding a way to move forward. But it happens to a lot of people.