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Why Do We Care about Literary Characters?

, 296 pages

4 b&w photos

December 2009



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Why Do We Care about Literary Characters?

Blakey Vermeule wonders how readers become involved in the lives of fictional characters, people they know do not exist.

Vermeule examines the ways in which readers’ experiences of literature are affected by the emotional attachments they form to fictional characters and how those experiences then influence their social relationships in real life. She focuses on a range of topics, from intimate articulations of sexual desire, gender identity, ambition, and rivalry to larger issues brought on by rapid historical and economic change. Vermeule discusses the phenomenon of emotional attachment to literary characters primarily in terms of 18th-century British fiction but also considers the postmodern work of Thomas Mann, J. M. Coetzee, Ian McEwan, and Chinua Achebe.

From the perspective of cognitive science, Vermeule finds that caring about literary characters is not all that different from caring about other people, especially strangers. The tools used by literary authors to sharpen and focus reader interest tap into evolved neural mechanisms that trigger a caring response.

This book contributes to the emerging field of evolutionary literary criticism. Vermeule draws upon recent research in cognitive science to understand the mental processes underlying human social interactions without sacrificing solid literary criticism. People interested in literary theory, in cognitive analyses of the arts, and in Darwinian approaches to human culture will find much to ponder in Why Do We Care about Literary Characters?

Blakey Vermeule is an associate professor of English at Stanford University and author of The Party of Humanity: Writing Moral Psychology in Eighteenth-Century Britain, also published by Johns Hopkins.

"Mind reading, a term oft-circulated within cognitive quarters, refers to the human capacity to infer and keep track of the intentional states of others... Vermule's main contention is that literature refines this skill and helps readers cultivate 'Machiavellian intelligence'—her name for the cognitive advantages that may have evolved in the context of an increasingly complex social order."

"Wide-ranging and jaunty... Vermeule is a major voice in the effort to bring the insights of cognitive science (especially evolutionary psychology) to bear on topics in eighteenth-century literary studies... We arrive at a new and exciting take on the familiar terrain of the eighteenth-century novel."

"The book reads as a tour through literary evocations of mindedness, written by someone with a keen sense of texts and a sharp interest in the contemporary intellectual scene. It will be of interest to anyone who cares about what literature can teach us about the way our minds work."

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