Tuesday 15 March 2011

Emotional engagement

Over the past couple of days, I have been thinking about not only identification with a (fictional) character, but identifying with that character's emotions, too.

I have recently finished two books - True Grit, and Room - and these have both had a smiliar effect on me in that while I found it easy to identify with the narrator, I found it very hard to connect with the story emotionally.

True Grit is written from the POV of a 14-year-old girl. It is a harrowing tale of her mission to avenge the murder of her father. She endures danger, physical suffering and deprivation, and yet because she is so heroic - so brave - and her story told with so little overt emotion, I found it very hard to engage with the fear and pain she must have felt. I enjoyed the book, but it didn't draw me in the way many other novels do. The same with Room. It is a very cleverly-written account of the ordeal of the little boy and his mother, imprisoned in the Room of the title, yet because the boy doesn't realise the seriousness of his situation, I didn't feel any of the emotional tension I might have expected to feel. When I'm reading a novel, I need to feel emotions with the central characters or their situation, but in these two cases I didn't, and both left me feeling strangely unsatisfied.

Is it necessary to spell out emotions in novels? I don't know. Like everything else, it's so subjective. But speaking for myself, I need to feel what the protagonist is feeling, or at least get a feel for the tension, the emotional journey, or whatever, otherwise the story hasn't truly gripped me. In both these novels, I wanted to know what happened, but in a detached and interested rather than emotional way.


  1. A lot of the writers I admire use this kind of emotional spareness - Jack Vance, Richard Stark, Muriel Spark, Patricia Highsmith.

    On the other hand, I like Daphne du Maurier too, and she can't be accused of failing to engage the reader emotionally...

  2. An interesting post, Frances. I guess I can enjoy either kind of novel but like it best when I really feel some emotion at the end.

  3. Thanks for the comments, Tim and Rosemary. Maybe some readers like to choose their own emotions rather than be told what to feel! But I like to feel more involved. You're right about du Maurier, Tim. I found Rebecca quite terrifying!

  4. Frances, I'm right there with you on this one. A few writers have enough other things going for them that I can enjoy their work (Vance, Blish, Highsmith). But, for the most part, that kind of emotional distance typically kills the story for me.

  5. HI, Nevets. Yes - it's disappointing, isn't it, when there's a good story but you feel as though you're reading it from an emotional distance.