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The Sympathetic Imagination and the Human–Animal Bond: Fostering Empathy through Reading Imaginative Literature

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This article is an exploration of human attitudes toward animals as depicted in literature, with special emphasis on enhancing the human–animal bond—a psychological and emotional link generated in the text when empathy develops among humans, animals, and readers. Imaginative literature, featuring both human and animal characters, conveys this bond to the reader through sympathetic imagination and becomes an effective vehicle through which to support both psychological shifts and cultural changes in the reader's perceptions. The psychological shifts produce greatly heightened empathy and a deepening of the human–animal bond in the individual reader; the cultural shifts result in the growth of a less anthropocentric sensibility toward animals in the larger society. In order to understand how these processes occur, a brief analysis of literary works appears in which these psychological dynamics arise: Anna Sewell's Black Beauty; Jack London's The Call of the Wild and White Fang; Arthur Vanderbilt's Golden Days: Memories of a Golden Retriever; Richard Adams' Watership Down; and William Kotzwinkle's Dr. Rat. The reader's emotional identification with literary characters leads, in turn, to his or her experience of sympathetic imagination—the extent to which we can think ourselves into the being of another—and achieves empathy, or simulation.


Document Type: Commentary

DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.2752/175303708X332026

Publication date: September 1, 2008

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