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[Moodle of AAW]
George Eliot & reading novels as education for a graduate attribute
Department of Psychology,
University of Glasgow.
This page is an unfinished
note about George Eliot's argument that novels (fiction) are an education in
"sympathy": in our ability to feel with and for other people. (Or possibly, in
developing our "theory of mind", as some psychologists might put it.)
Keith Oatley not only took this seriously, but (with collaborators and
students) has published some psychology experiments trying to test the theory.
Ursula Leguin has perhaps extended this line of thought in some of her
Particularly by articulating things about imagination; why that is central to
human thinking and being; and how novels and stories in general in effect
allow children and adults to learn about life beyond their past experience, by
thinking about how life might be, could be, .....
George Eliot's argument
"The greatest benefit we owe the artist, whether painter, poet or novelist,
is the extension of our sympathies." [George Eliot]
George Eliot articulated her argument in an essay
"The natural history of German Life".
The essay is a review of, or commentary on, two books by
W H Riehl (1855/6)
Die Bürgerliche Gesellschaft and Land und Lutte
Ways to access this essay include:
References for citing
- Eliot, George (1856/83) "The natural history of German life"
- Westminster Review (1856, July) pp.51-79
and also re-published in:
- The works of George Eliot (1881) pp.188-236
(Standard Edition: Essays) Edinburgh: Blackwood.
(or New York: Funk & Wagnalls edition)
The extract (6 pages) consists of two passages (pp.51-56 & 71-72)
from the full essay (30 pages).
Ursula Le Guin's extension to George Eliot's argument
It's not clear that Le Guin was explicitly aware of Eliot's argument, though
many things she says are largely aligned to it; and in one or more respects,
she adds to it in the essays in this book:
Ursula K. Le Guin (2004)
The wave in the mind. Talks and essays on the writer, the reader, and the imagination
(Boulder, Co: Shambhala)
All these relate to Eliot's view of the nature, importance, and educative
value of writing novels. But in the second of the four listed above,
Le Guin adds two points.
- "Fact and/or/plus Fiction" p.127 ff.
- "The operating instructions" p.206 ff.
- "A matter of trust" p. 223 ff.
- "The writer and the character" p. 235 ff.
a) Firstly, how imagination is vital to people; and indeed that we cannot
live properly if we cannot imagine (and so perhaps choose to bring about)
things which we haven't yet experienced. I would say that to formulate a plan
means imagining a state of affairs which is false, a fiction; and then acting
to turn this fiction into fact; and that this is a central part of living, at
least as a human.
b) Secondly (as I myself might put it), there are things we cannot afford
to learn from experience because they are too damaging, and/or things we
generally only do once in life. So we must understand them in advance,
imaginatively. She ends the essay with this:
"The reason literacy is important is that literature IS the operating
instructions. The best manual we have. The most useful guide to the country
we're visiting — life."
The question is: is this Shelley's version of George Eliot's theory, and
written considerably earlier?
"The great instrument of moral good is the imagination" -- Shelley.
A defence of poetry by Percy Bysshe Shelley, written in 1821,
a year before his death.
Eliot argues directly for the educational and moral value of reading
Shelley is in effect presenting the same argument, but his immediate
application is against thinking that poets (including dramatists)
are immoral. He is also discussing reason vs. imagination; and tacitly
arguing (as Eliot also tacitly agrees) that lecturing the audience on the moral
of a story is not only less entertaining but less effective than depicting the
feelings of the characters.
This is because direct reason doesn't connect to your own feelings and doesn't
make you see others as human ...
The key passages are less than a third of the way into Shelley's essay.
"The whole objection, however, of the immorality of poetry rests upon a
misconception of the manner in which poetry acts to produce the moral
improvement of man." .... "poetry acts in another and diviner manner." ....
"The great secret of morals is love; or a going out of our own nature, and an
identification of ourselves with the beautiful which exists in thought,
action, or person, not our own. A man, to be greatly good, must imagine
intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another and
of many others; ..."
"The great instrument of moral good is the imagination; and poetry
administers to the effect by acting upon the cause. Poetry enlarges the
circumference of the imagination by replenishing it with thought of ever new
delight, which have the power of attracting and assimilating to their own
nature all other thoughts, and which form new intervals and interstices whose
void for ever craves fresh food. Poetry strengthens the faculty which is the
organ of the moral nature of man, in the same manner as exercise strengthens a
Oscar Wilde's rebuttal
Eliot's essay defends the "frivolous" activity of reading fiction, while Wilde
defended all frivolous activities. In this they are on the same side.
Eliot however defends fiction in terms of deeply moral and serious values;
while Wilde rejects and mocks any such argument.
Eliot's argument, however, is that serious fiction is in some crucial, deep way
realistic: about real feelings, and real human experience.
Wilde's seminal essay The decay of lying (1889 / 1891 ) is an attack
on realism, and an argument for the unrealistic imagination.
(See also On the decay of the art of lying (1880) by Mark
Twain.) As such, it is in important ways a rebuttal of Eliot's
defence of reading in terms of its moral value, even though they are both
defending the apparently frivolous nature of pleasure and reading fiction.
Wilde's argument, unlike Eliot's, is aligned with an important point, seldom
noted. Almost all human successes and advances come from rejecting realism,
and imagining something that is not currently real and true, and then making
it happen. When people today use phrases such as "we are where we are", "we
must be realistic" etc. they in fact are arguing that only the past is real,
and the future not; that how we see the past now is fixed and inevitable; and
that things cannot change. This is deeply false (though does have the
advantage that you don't have to learn anything new, let alone change your
mind). I gained this realisation from
a talk by Jim McColl.
All planning, including engineering, is based on imagining the non-existent
and then bringing it into being, making it real, creating it. This is true
of successes in every field, including novel-writing, engineering, and
Wilde's The picture of Dorian Gray shows that he was fully aware that
this applies to evil as well as good imaginings.
(As for example the genocides of Mao, Stalin, and Hitler, which all required
detailed planning i.e. imagining.)
Modern fantasy, then, also rejects realism as important or desirable. The
extension of Eliot's argument means that this needn't be immoral.
However that doesn't in itself mean that it may not be more imitative and
tired than original and imaginative about the underlying qualities.
Susan Sontag (2005) "At the same time ... (the novelist and moral reasoning)"
English Studies in Africa vol.48 no.1 pp.5-17
Enlarging the mind, or learning to manipulate people?
ToM ("Theory of Mind") is simply tracking what other's know, for both your own
and sometimes their benefit.
High-functioning psychopaths understand how others feel very well, but don't
feel any fellow-feeling any more than a predator or a surgeon does.
Eliot on the other hand, is arguing about expanding one's understanding more
fundamentally: coming to understand feelings — and so life —
that are new to you.
Is this a kind of graduate attribute?
Obviously reading novels is not a graduate attribute in the usual sense that
it is something which few have before they enter HE, but all should have
(regardless of their discipline) when they leave.
However it is quite like graduate attributes in that:
it is something usually done without the intention to self-improve;
which the person may not be aware of having acquired;
yet which has, if Eliot and Oatley are right, a deeply educational personal
effect: i.e. beneficial and widely applicable across many contexts.
Keith Oatley and others have done academic psychological research along
(also here: news flashes;
on how reading novels is an education of one's emotions and understanding of
The following refs are an arbitrary selection, and in no way are complete or
up to date: they might at best get you going on the topic. They are listed in
reverse chronological order, NOT alphabetic by author.
- Oatley, K. (2017) "On truth and fiction." In M. Burke & E. T. Troscianko
Cognitive literary science: Dialogues between literature and cognition
pp. 259-278 (New York: Oxford University Press).
- Djikic, M. & Oatley, K. (2014)
"The Art in Fiction: From Indirect Communication to Changes of the Self"
Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts
vol.8 no.4 pp.498-505 doi:10.1037/a0037999
- Panero, M. E., Weisberg, D. S., Black, J., Goldstein, T. R., Barnes, J. L.,
Brownell, H., & Winner, E. (2016, September 19). Does Reading a Single
Passage of Literary Fiction Really Improve Theory of Mind? An Attempt at
Journal of Personality and Social Psychology Vol.111 No.5 pp.e46-e54
Link to corrected article
(doi of the correction:10.1037/pspa0000067
faulty doi:10.1037/pspa0000064 )
- Djikic, M., Oatley, K., & Moldoveanu, M.C. (2013)
"Reading other minds: Effects of literature on empathy"
Scientific Study of Literature Vol.3 no.1 pp.28-47
- Kidd, D. C., & Castano, E. (2013)
"Reading literary fiction improves theory of mind"
Science vol.342 pp.377-380
- Oatley, K., Mar, R. A., & Djikic, M. (2012) "The psychology of fiction:
Present and future" In I. Jaen & J. Simon (Eds.)
Cognitive literary studies: Current themes and new directions
(Austin, TX: University of Texas Press).
- Oatley, K., & Olson, D. R. (2010)
"Cues to the imagination in memoir, science, and fiction"
Review of General Psychology, 12, 56-64.
- Mar, R. A., Oatley, K., & Peterson, J. B. (2009)
"Exploring the link between reading fiction and empathy: Ruling out individual
differences and examining outcomes"
Communications: The European Journal of Communication, 34, 407-428.
- Oatley, K. (2009)
"Communications to self and others: Emotional experience and its skills"
Emotion Review vol.1 pp.206-213
- Djikic, M., Oatley, K., Zoeterman, S., & Peterson, J. (2009b)
"Defenceless against art? Impact of reading fiction emotion in avoidantly
Journal of Research in Personality, 43, 14-17
- Djikic, M., Oatley, K., Zoeterman, S., & Peterson, J. (2009a)
On being moved by art: How reading fiction transforms the self
Creativity Research Journal 21, 24-29.
- Oatley, K. & Djikic, M. (2008) "Writing as thinking"
Review of General Psychology 12, 9-27.
- Mar, R.A. & Oatley, K. (2008)
"The function of fiction is the abstraction and simulation of social experience"
Perspectives on Psychological Science, 3, 173-192.
- Mar, R.A., Oatley, K., Hirsh,J., dela Paz,J. & Peterson,J.B. (2006)
"Bookworms versus nerds: Exposure to fiction versus non-fiction, divergent
associations with social ability, and the simulation of fictional social worlds"
Journal of Research in Personality vol.40 no.5 pp.694-712
- Oatley, K. (1999)
"Why fiction may be twice as true as fact: Fiction as cognitive and
emotional simulation" Review of General Psychology vol.3 pp.101-117
Brain scan research on novels
Learning is painful; so novels must/may be painful too
"If you travel with us you will have to learn things you do not want to learn
in ways you do not want to learn".
[Doris Lessing, from a letter replying
to a reader who had been seriously disturbed by reading one of her novels.
Quoted in Alan Yentob's "Imagine" TV programme on Doris Lessing, broadcast
Tues 27 May 2008, 10:35pm on BBC1]
Bugs, more to do
Actually read the extract carefully. [Shelley? Eliot?]
Types of ToM
Mind contents: all
K. of world IS shared
goals, tastes, values differ too
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