In a recent New Yorker (the one with a YouTubed Eustace Tilley on the cover), Jonathan Franzen has a wide-ranging essay on sympathy in Edith Wharton's novels. He wonders about the way we readers sympathize with characters (like some of Wharton's) whom we would dislike in real life. He writes: "Becky Sharp may be a soulless social climber, Tom Ripley may be a sociopath, the Jackal may want to assassinate the French President, Mickey Sabbath may be a disgustingly self-involved old goat, and Raskolnikov may want to get away with murder, but I find myself rooting for each of them." Me too, Jonathan, and most of us, I expect.

He asks why and answers, desire. "Apparently, all a novelist has to do is give a character a powerful desire (to rise socially, to get away with murder) and I, as a reader become helpless not to make that desire my own."

Well, sort of. It isn't exactly that I "sympathize," in Franzen's term, with these unlikable types. It isn't that I want to rise socially or that I want to murder or even that I want to make out. I want to read that Becky Sharp or Tom Ripley win. I want to see Raskolnikov and Sabbath and the Jackal succeed. That's not the same thing, and the distinction is crucial.

I think of it as a kind of right-angle turn. Becky and Tom and Mickey and Raskolnikov are working out their desires on a stage in front of me. They are pushing from entrance left to exit right, as it were. But my desire is toward them, from me to the stage, at a right angle to the character's desire. My desire is like but not the same as theirs.

But why do I have even that deflected desire? Why should I, in Franzen's term, "sympathize" with these unsavory/unlikable types?

We come back to our reason for reading in the first place: Jaak Panksepp's fundamental emotion, SEEKING, that foraging, sniffing, hunting drive that we share with all other mammals. Freud's libido, if you will. We want that next thing. When we're reading, we want to learn what happens next. We drive our way through a novel in a rhythm of wanting, liking what we get, wanting, liking what we get, and on and on. Or, if we don't like, we put the book aside (a process I described in Literature and the Brain).

That's why "desire" or "sympathy" or that other literary catch-all, "identification," doesn't really explain my pathological impulses when reading. And, of course, they aren't really pathological. They're just what we do when we respond to stories.

Items I've referred to:

Franzen, J. (2012, Feb. 13 & 20). A Critic at Large: A Rooting Interest. New Yorker, pp. 60-65.

Holland, N. N. (2009). Literature and the brain. Gainesville FL: PsyArt Foundation.

Panksepp, J. (1998). Affective neuroscience: The foundations of human and animal emotions. New York and Oxford: Oxford Univerisity Press.

Most Recent Posts from This Is Your Brain on Culture

How Novels Make Me a Murderer

I want the killer, thief, terrorist, to succeed--why?

Who Says Film Is Dead?

Are movies dead? Not if you can help it.

All about Brain Scans

Find out all about brain scans—or almost all.