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Review of Blakey Vermeule's Why Do We Care About Literary Characters?

Book under Review:

Why Do We Care about Literary Characters? by Blakey Vermeule. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010. 296 pp.


Why Do We Care about Literary Characters? answers the question of its title with a solid understanding of cognitive science and evolutionary psychology. Vermeule posits that our capacity for paying attention evolved in an environment saturated with other people and other minds. Consequently, we are wired to personify most of the things we think and care about Because literary characters are so often vehicles for ideas and arguments, they are perfectly matched to our cognitive mechanisms for caring and paying attention.


Review of Blakey Vermeule’s Why Do We Care about Literary Characters?

Blakey Vermeule’s Why Do We Care about Literary Characters? is the sort of book that would once have been described as “charming.” It is elegant, quirky, mildly confessional, occasionally digressive, often brilliant, and always, well, charming. It is also, though, a serious work of literary criticism that advances both literary Darwinism and cognitive cultural criticism by proposing answers to the often-overlooked question asked by its title. I believe that it is a question that takes us deep into a fundamental aspect of human nature. Concern for fictional characters—sometimes boarding on the obsessive—can be found in every human culture despite the fact that such concern does not appear to enhance the genetic fitness of anyone besides the storytellers, writers, and actors who bring the fictional characters to life. Across space and time, human beings have cared more about the fates of fictional entities—from Sun Wukong and Sundiata to Hamlet and Harry Potter—than they have about any but their closest friends and relatives. This is something well worth getting to the bottom of.

Vermeule begins with a clear statement of the problem: caring about anything requires an investment of scarce resources such as attention, emotional connection, and intellectual engagement. We possess limited supplies of these resources, and there are far more things in the world to spend them on (people, places, animals, inanimate objects, food items, ideas, etc.) than we could ever possibly care about. Whenever we spend a scarce resource, of course, we incur an opportunity cost; when we care about something, we sacrifice the ability to care about something else, and we lose the benefits that this other caring might have conferred. “Why,” asks Vermeule, “should we spend attention on people who will never care about us in return? Why should we divert our attention away from people who might even pay us back one day?” From the evolutionary perspective, these are very real problems; nature, with its well-known efficiency, almost always selects against organisms who expend resources without realizing benefits. Vermeule rightly concludes that “caring about strangers—not just strangers but fictional strangers—seems at best a waste of time and at worst a form of madness” (12).

So why do we do it? Vermeule begins to answer the question by offering a pair of observations—call them postulates—that frame the rest of the book. First, she postulates, with the ample support from cognitive psychologists, that people “cannot reason or even think without emotion—indeed, without narratives” (23). To this now-commonplace observation, she adds the remarkably perceptive insight that humans “think about most things—facts, values, norms, society, even our own fates—by binding them up into figures and stories about other people” (23-24). Humans have always personified the problems that they spend time thinking about. This is true of the big issues (war, plague, death, time, which often correspond to gods or other mythological characters), but it is also true of small personal problems (I frequently invest both my computer and my car with human agency, and I try to solve problems by figuring out what they “want”). Invoking the Machiavellian intelligence hypothesis first proposed by Nicholas Humphrey in 1976, Vermeule argues that our big brains evolved to keep outwit, keep track of, and defend ourselves from other people.

Here is the payoff: if we accept that our cognitive apparatus for solving problems is based on the creation of narratives and the personification of problems, then the distance between other people and literary characters shrinks dramatically. We can care about literary characters the same way that we care about other people because we are hard-wired to see almost every important thing—people, problems, threats, opportunities, cars, and computers—as narrative agents with functioning, understandable minds. “Narrative” and “character” are the conceptual frameworks through which we process almost everything that we know. Literary characters are inhabitants of narrative who often personify more general attributes, conflicts, and character traits. In theory, they should seem real to us because we process knowledge about them the same way that we process knowledge about almost everything else.

The ultimate test of any literary theory, of course, lies in its ability to say interesting things about literature—here especially Why Do We Care about Literary Characters? rarely fails to charm. Vermeule’s readings range across vast tracks of the world’s greatest literature, with extended readings of such diverse texts as (among others) The Aeneid, The Faerie Queen, The Magic Mountain, Tom Jones, Emma, Clarissa, Caleb Williams, The House of Mirth, Atonement, and, in the final chapter, two novels by South African novelist J.M. Coetzee: Elizabeth Costello and Disgrace. These readings extend the book’s theoretical apparatus in often-surprising ways. Through readings of Tom Jones and Atonement, for example, Vermeule explains the ways that novels can exploit expectations we normally have for divine authority: to uncover deception, reward virtue, punish vice, and establish ultimate justice for all. In her skillful handling of House of Mirth and other supporting texts, she explores the paradox that “literary narratives have been very snobbish about gossip” (150) even though writers rely intensely on gossip to frame their narratives and develop their characters. Literature appeals to people for exactly the same reasons that gossip does, and, Vermeule wryly suggests, novelists act disingenuously when they pretend moralize against the very social force that make their work possible.

Perhaps the most important point that I can make about Why Do We Care about Literary Characters? is that its author very clearly cares about literary characters. Vermeule does not come across (as authors of this sort of book occasionally do) as a theorist looking for texts to support an argument. Rather, she appears in her own story as a genuine lover of books—someone who has spent many pleasurable hours with Elizabeth Bennett, Tom Jones, Anna Karenina, and Elizabeth Costello, and who sees them as friends—flawed but magnificent—without whom life would be much poorer. Why Do We Care about Literary Characters? is a sophisticated work of literary theory, but it is also a compelling reminder to sophisticated literary theorists that we started studying literature because we once fell in love with the people we met in books. Those of us who needed the reminder can only be grateful for the gift.

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