Paper 2 - Liz Zharovsky Instructor Plunkett Comedy Sympathy...

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Liz Zharovsky Instructor Plunkett Comedy & Sympathy 15 November 2011 Vonnegut: Under Nussbaum’s Lens Literature appears in various forms and genres, ranging from drama to mystery to romance, and the method by which society interprets its’ valued literature yields a generation of people educated in a specific way. Different theories can develop based on inconsistent analyses of the same piece of literature. Professor of law and literary critic Martha Nussbaum theorizes that “narrative literature does have the potential to make a contribution to the law in particular, to public reasoning generally” (xv). She believes that examining narratives closely can bolster the overall attitude of people toward one another, which can reflect upon humanity as a whole. Nussbaum pushes for the use of sympathy by eliminating bias and “imagin[ing] vividly… another person’s pain, participat[ing] in it and then ask[ing] about its significance” (91). Her theory calls for fair judgment of the characters in a narrative, as readers must identify with the characters in order to understand their actions and personalities. In Kurt Vonnegut’s satirical novel, Breakfast of Champions , he addresses characters as emotionless machines living in a careless world. Vonnegut’s blunt language and insensitivity to his own characters serves as a means of expressing the need for sympathy by shifting the sympathy from character to character, whereas Nussbaum encourages looking at one protagonist to identify with and fully understand. Nussbaum uses the example of Bigger Thomas in Richard Wright’s novel, Native Son , to highlight the need for sympathy when judging a character. She claims that “the white reader has difficulty identifying with Bigger; not only his external circumstances, but also his emotions and
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desires…” (Nussbaum 94). She believes that white, presumably middle-class readers, cannot apply the experiences of Bigger Thomas to themselves, as their lives are considerably different. By “focusing our attention on the individual”, readers can vicariously live through the narrative of Bigger’s life, and in turn, recognize his hardships when judging him as a character (Nussbaum 93). Nussbaum applies Bigger’s case to the law in saying that the extenuating circumstances of a case must be taken into consideration before the reaching of a final verdict. This is not to say that unacceptable or unlawful behavior should be excused. In the larger picture, Bigger represents an individual living in a world of “racial estrangements and mutual fear and hate” (Nussbaum 95). With a new understanding of Bigger, the reader can apply this sympathy to racial and societal issues in the real world. The frank, machine-like narration of Vonnegut’s novel seems unnerving and dehumanizing, but he uses this language to highlight the problematic 1970’s society he lives in.
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