“Only connect” (E.M. Forster)
As I neared the end of Cormier’s young adult novel Tenderness, I found myself baffled to discover that I could not determine which of the two protagonists frightened me the most: Eric Poole, a teenage psychopath convicted with the murder of his mother and stepfather or his troubled fifteen-year-old sidekick Lorelei “Lori”, who is utterly fixated on the young serial killer. Cormier dares to empathize with two monstrous characters in their pursuit for “tenderness”, an emotional state that is both perceived and experienced in strikingly different ways for each protagonist. Both characters’ actions and rationalizations are deeply disturbing, hinging on the nightmarish realm; yet Cormier’s naturalistic portrait of these unbalanced, multilayered characters – a murderer with virtually no sense of empathy or remorse and his naive stalker who lacks any sense of self – serves to captivate the reader, instigating an empathetic response and sense of wonder at the portrayal of a deeply unsettling, beautifully tragic love story.
The narratives we engage with most readily are fundamentally social in nature and the majority of these concern the dynamics of human relationships, romantic or platonic. Thus, an understanding of narratives entails an understanding of human nature and the ways in which their values, beliefs and emotions relate to their interpersonal relationships and behaviour. Models of discourse-processing in cognitive psychology may serve to increase our understanding and provide insight into the immense appeal of engaging with narratives describing the complex nature of both healthy and fundamentally destructive human relationships. These models explore a certain similarity between social- and story-processing, with current emphasis placed on uncovering how the mind itself represents what the text describes. Zwaan (2004) formulated a similar hypothesis concerning the fact that words may serve to activate neural events that appear similar to those occurring during an actual experience of their referents . If engaging with a narrative results in a cognitive and emotional simulation of a specifically social in nature real-life experience, how might this reflect on readers’ fascination with ambiguous, characters and complicated, unconventional relationships? It is important to consider the relevance of such hypotheses, especially since readers seem to create models of the characters and events they read about, readily updating their representations as the new information becomes available and is processed.
The discourse of romance was established in the oral fairy tale tradition, wherein the concept of romance is overwhelmingly significant for the progression of the narrative. McGlathery (1991) demonstrates the vital role of romantic relationships in fairy tales by categorizing the fairy tale relationships according to type. The common denominator that underpins McGlathery’s types of romance (brother-sister; beauty-beast; father-daughter…) is the presence of an erotic component in all dyadic relationships. However in the case of traditional fairy tales, it remains to be seen how such an interpretation might accord with other prevalent elements of the text, such as the establishment of justice and the hero’s/heroine’s coming into moral and physical maturity.
In Beastly (2007) a modern adaptation of Beauty and the Beast, Alex Flinn introduces the internet chat-room, as a postmodern element to describe the impossibility of forming an emotional attachment of substance. As Janet Malcolm describes in Psychoanalysis; The Impossible Profession, personal relations are, in essence, “a messy jangle of misapprehensions (…) romantic love is fundamentally solitary, and has at its core a profound impersonality. (…) We cannot know each other.” As Kyle, the young protagonist of Beastly discovers, the world wide web is rampant with magical creatures searching for love: from a mermaid that seeks to become human, to a frog who is desperately seeking a princess to kiss, and is having some trouble using the keyboard with his webbed feet!).
Bruner (1986) has proposed that narratives form a distinctive mode of thought that focuses on human agents, their relations and interactions. Gerrig (1993) further hypothesized that real world and narrative processing are subverted by the same cognitive mechanisms. This hypothesis might offer an explanation for the emotional attachment readers form with specific focalizing characters, or the lasting impact of readers’ thoughts and emotions, even after turning the last page of a novel. An example of readers’ commitment to a most ambiguous coupling in a work of classic literature is found in the Catherine-Heathcliff relationship in Wuthering Heights. Arguably, one of Emily Brontë’s major achievements in the narrative, is her ability to sustain the readers’ sympathy for her two protagonists and support in their relationship, despite the unfavourable portrayal of both Catherine and Heathcliff, and her systematic stripping of the heroine’s attractiveness and dignity.
The structure of sympathy and the shift in both characters’ and readers’ empathetic response is masterfully explored in Lucy Christopher’s novel Stolen (2009) in which the teenage protagonist is kidnapped by an Australian youth, and transported to the Australian outback. In this case, the dystopic setting conflates with the protagonist’s emotional attachment towards her captor. Throughout the novel, Gemma’s horror and feelings of hatred towards the menacing landscape undergo a transformation, shifting towards an understanding and appreciation of the harshness and beauty of the desert and a subsequent burgeoning attraction for her kidnapper.
Concluding this series of thoughts, we may be able to reach an understanding of the magnetic effect these complex narratives hold over young readers through a developmental approach to adolescence. If adolescence is considered a most vital and urgent intermediary stage, leading to the crystallization of identity and the adoption of social roles, a multifaceted depiction of human psyche and of the varied dynamics and possibilities of interpersonal relationships may serve to facilitate individuation, providing a constructive, educational framework that will form the base for social understanding.
Mar, R.A., Oatley, K., Hirsh, J. de la Paz, J., Peterson, J.B. (2005) Bookworms versus nerds: Exposure to fiction versus non-fiction, divergent associations with social ability, and the simulation of fictional social worlds.
Zwaan, R. A. (2004). The immersed experiencer: Toward an embodied theory of language comprehension.
Rapp, D. N., Gerrig, R. J., & Prentice, D. A. (2001). Readers’ trait-based models of characters in narrative comprehension. Journal of Memory and Language, 45, 737–750.
McGlathery, J. (1991) Fairy tale romance: The Grimms, Basile, and Perrault.
Bruner, J. (1986). Actual minds, possible worlds. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Carruthers, P., & Smith, P. K. (Eds.). (1996). Theories of theories of mind. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.
Picture: Oberon and Olivier in the 1939 adaptation of Wuthering Heights