“Privileged glimpses into the human heart” : the empathic narratives of Heart of Darkness and The Great Gatsby




Shear, Richard James

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While comparative analyses of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby have repeatedly and fruitfully discussed similarities in their structure, theme, and characters, little has been written about the integral role that empathy plays in shaping both narratives. This essay draws on recent philosophical, psychological, and literary theories of empathy to analyze how Marlow and Nick’s descriptions of empathic experience, displays of empathic behavior, and use empathy to imaginatively reconstruct others’ experiences in narrative reveal that these narrators’ engagement with empathy ultimately encourages readers to reflect on its functions and limitations as well as the nature of its relationship to story-telling. While Marlow and Nick criticize and at times condemn Kurtz and Gatsby they also identify and are drawn into ambivalent empathic relationships with Kurtz and Gatsby that allow them to understand and reconstruct the mental states of these men whose ideas conflict with the norms of their respective societies. Although the content and narrative method of Marlow and Nick’s narratives reveal their capacity for empathy, their retrospective and subjective empathic accounts are always mediated by their own beliefs, biases, and blind spots, and therefore their ability to empathize with others and accurately reconstruct others’ mental states is limited. Nonetheless, these narrators display a capacity for empathy that, at least according to their own limited perspectives, is largely absent from the egocentric, narrow-minded, and prejudiced societies in which they find themselves. Ultimately, Nick and Marlow’s empathic understanding of others, particularly Kurtz and Gatsby, inspires and enables them to construct narratives that critique the immoral and dehumanizing norms of their societies and speak to empathy’s ability to provide humans with an awareness and understanding of others’ experiences that can facilitate moral action.



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