Realist Literature and Empathy: A Case of the “Read Aloud” Book Club
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For most literary scholars, the word “reader” is usually associated with an abstract entity on the receiving end of the text, not an actual reader who does the act of reading and assigns meaning to the text based on their own background knowledge and life experiences. As a result, discussions about literature’s social significance are mostly confined to textual analyses made by literary academics and critics, and not extended to considerations of a text’s functioning within the actual site of reception. This paper is part of a case study of the “Read Aloud” book club, which aims at exploring the potential and contribution of reader-oriented literary studies. It presents an empirical study on the relationship between realist writings and the readers’ sense of empathy with the characters. Through the analysis of the club’s discussions, it is found that 1) the “meaning” of a text is cooperatively constructed by the text and its readers within a specific context of reading; 2) realism’s “verisimilitude” plays a crucial role in the readers’ identification with the characters and events in the story; 3) in the book club context where their viewpoints and experiences are freely exchanged, the readers could potentially develop self-reflection and a sense of empathy for racial and class “others” in both the fictional realm and the real world.
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