When attempting to evoke a sympathetic reader response in narrative fiction or creative non-fiction, it would be foolish for an author to assume that the reader will feel sympathy through theme, setting, or plot alone. Novels sought purely on theme may simply evoke an empathetic response, especially if the reader has an association with the theme. In this instance, evoking sympathy rather than empathy is more challenging. Moreover, if a reader does not relate to the subject or plot, evoking a sympathetic response relies on positioning the reader within the story in order for them to react. Segal suggests that ‘When reading fictional text, most readers feel that they are in the middle of a story…The reader often takes a cognitive stance within the world of the narrative and interprets the text from that perspective.’ This highlights the importance of deciding where the reader is placed in relation to the narrator in order to evoke a sympathetic response. Emotional response however, is a purely subjective experience. It is unlikely that all readers will have the same emotional reaction to a narrative, no matter how skilful the author. Yet, tailoring the way that the narrative is told, and choosing which character narrates, can enhance the probability of a sympathetic reader response. Narrative sympathy therefore, is possible, but it is not always guaranteed. This then raises the question, how do authors attempt to evoke a sympathetic reader response in fiction and creative non-fiction? In this paper I will examine the various ways that David Vann in Legend of a Suicide, 2008, and A.L. Kennedy in Serious Sweet, 2016, use narrative point of view in an attempt to evoke a sympathetic reader response. In addition, the essay will analyse the role of the unreliable narrator as a tool, which enables these authors to alter the reader’s perception. As a result, I will argue that narrative sympathy can be evoked in a reader through both first-person and third-person point of view.
Narrative sympathy is difficult to define. This is because of its closeness to empathy. Sklar argues that ‘empathy operates at what I call a “chameleon emotion,” in the sense that, when we experience it, we take on the emotional experience of another as our own.’ This would suggest then that for an empathetic reader response, they must ‘experience’ what the character is experiencing, thus seeing through the eyes of the first person narrator. Furthermore, he suggests that
Our immersion in that experience, […] may impede […] our capacity to form judgements about that character, since we may, […] become too close to view the characters reality objectively. (Sklar, p.48).
Sympathy on the other hand ‘involves a greater distance between the individual who feels and the person, towards whom it is directed,’ (Sklar, p.26). Sklar’s argument sets clear boundaries between how empathy and sympathy are evoked through narrative point of view. Therefore, novels in which the author attempts to evoke sympathy,
anticipate response on the part of the reader, either authorial, or actual. […] sympathy by nature is a responsive emotion, and therefore texts that elicit it provide structures that enable readers to intuit and interpret the appropriateness of sympathy at particular moments within the progression of a narrative. (Sklar, p.53).
If Sklar’s theory were correct, then it would appear that sympathy could only be evoked when the author uses a third person narrator, meaning that the reader has enough distance to make a judgement. Kellog and Scholes suggest that ‘In any examples of narrative art there are […] three points of view – those of the character, the narrator and the audience.’ In order for these three points of view to unite to evoke a sympathetic response, do they need to be independent of one another? Sklar’s theory would suggest so, yet David Vann illustrates that this theory is flawed in his novel Legend of a Suicide.
In the American version of Legend of a Suicide, the book cover reveals that the contents are ‘stories’. For the reader, this determines the way that the novel is read, and therefore, their reaction to the work. Moreover, in the acknowledgements at the rear of the book, in both American and English versions of the novel, Vann states that his stories are fictional, ‘L
but based on a lot that’s true.’ With all of these factors in mind, it is clear that this novel can be read in a variety of ways. In ‘Ichthyology’ for example, the first person narrator tells the story of his father’s suicide:
He took his .44 Magnum handgun from the cabin and walked back to stand alone on the bright silver stern under a heavy, gray-white sky and the cries of gulls, his boots slathered with the dark blood of freshly caught salmon. He may have paused for a moment to reflect, but I doubt it. […]. He spattered himself amid the entrails of salmon, his remains picked at by gulls for several hours. (, p.10).
Notice the lack of emotion in the above quotation from the first person character. The memory itself is written with intricate detail, yet whilst the subject is shocking, the only clue that the reader is given to Roy’s feelings is when he says that he doubts his father paused to reflect. Thus, we have a close first person narrative with regards to action, and a very distant first person narrative with regards to emotion. In the American version of the novel, this chapter would be read as a short story; therefore, the reader might assume that the narrator is hiding his emotions, thus unreliable. As a result, the response is likely to be one of shock rather than sympathy or empathy as the reader is only glimpsing over the character’s life, thus not invested in the novel as a complete entity. Alternatively, if the reader is aware that the story is based on real life events, and with the narration being in past tense, this then creates a distance between the author, reader, and character – this allows the reader enough room to form a judgement. Hildick, suggests that narratives written in first-person-past-tense demonstrate, ‘the effect of an incident on a certain kind of personality.’ By concealing the character’s emotions, Vann is revealing that the memory is too painful to express, thus sympathy may be evoked in the reader. There are flickers of emotion in this chapter though. Vann indirectly demonstrates Roy’s feelings by projecting them onto something less significant, such as the fly and the fish: ‘so little movement that it seemed not to have happened at all, and yet there was the fly, mired in the water, sending off his million tiny ripples of panic.’ (LOAS, p.10). This technique reveals Roy’s feelings whilst creating a distance between himself and the reader, thus heightening sympathy for him. While these examples demonstrate how sympathy may be evoked through the first person narrator, it is not guaranteed, feelings of empathy may be more prevalent in readers who have experienced the death of a loved one. Thus, the reader response is unpredictable.
Reading the U.K version of Legend of a Suicide as a self-contained fictional novel, and without prior knowledge that the work is part autobiographical, can evoke sympathy in a more dramatic way. In chapter two, the author continues the technique of juxtaposing facts with emotion as the narrative steps back in time. This allows the reader to observe the other characters in the novel and also, and more importantly, it brings Roy’s father Jim back to life. Vann does this through retrospect but also free indirect discourse from Jim:
Rhoda in the walnut orchard that afternoon piecing together her thousand-piece puzzle […], never looked back to where my father sat utterly lost on the porch steps. He didn’t understand her. He had no idea how to comfort her. (LOAS, p.19).
The final line in this quotation could be read from either Roy’s first person thoughts, or through Jim’s third person point of view. It is clear here that Vann is juxtaposing the father and son to allow the reader to make a judgement. Roy’s interpretation of the scene for example, is to assume that his father is ‘lost’, suggesting that he is not there, or cannot be found. Then the third-person interruption from Jim, suggests that his father is very much alive. This desperation to bring his father back to life may evoke sympathy for Roy but it also sets up Jim’s narrative voice for chapter five.
The first-person-past-tense perspective in Legend of a Suicide, allows the character of Roy to speculate why his father killed himself, Hildick argues that
the method’s ‘distancing possibilities’: that is, the way it can be used to give the impression that the dust has cleared, that the action took place some time ago – possibly many years – [shows] that the narrator has had ample opportunity to see everything in perspective, (Hildick, pp35-36).
The first–person perspective allows the narrator and the reader valuable insight into Jim’s personal relationships, but through Roy’s point of view. In chapter one, for example, the reader experiences Roy’s parent’s marital break down closely, through Roy. Whilst Roy’s mother Ruth is kept at a distance in this chapter, allowing the suicide to be the prominent feature, the following chapter focuses closer on her character after the break up. On his return from visiting his father and stepmother Rhoda, Ruth question’s the boy about his father’s new wife, “Is she pretty?” My mother’s voice quietened on this.’ (LOAS, p.17). The quiet voice suggests an emotional fragility, as well as Ruth’s own reflection on herself. “No, she’s deformed,” I said, and my mother laughed again.’ (LOAS, p.17). Roy is clearly protecting his mother’s feelings in this scene. Yet in order to evoke the reader’s sympathy for Ruth, Vann has to juxtapose her character with Rhoda:
My new stepmother, Rhoda, untied the ring for my father with thin white fingers. I looked up again at that blank eye, drawn to it[…] I realized too late that she was watching me […] She laughed out loud, right there in the middle of service in front of everyone, at the same moment that she was slipping my father’s ring onto his finger. Her laughter startled all of us, but especially my father […]. His mouth opened slightly as he looked up, and for the first time in my life, I saw him frightened. (LOAS, p.11).
The description of Rhoda in the above quotation seems almost sinister. Moreover, this is described from Roy’s viewpoint, thus steering the reader towards negative feelings for Rhoda. This is further heightened by Roy’s observation of his frightened father. This juxtaposition of characters allows Vann to not only creates a sympathetic response for Ruth, but it is also allows Roy to divert blame from his mother. It is clear then that Vann is deviating from the traditional form of first person narration where ‘we are inside the characters head, so our experiencing of his sensations […] feel natural and plausible. […] It feels as if it’s happening to the reader.’ If Vann had chosen to use this type of narration, where the reader got full access to Roy’s emotions, the reader would feel only empathy for Roy. Furthermore, there would be no freedom for judgement, the novel would lack sympathy, and the response would be different to what Vann is hoping to achieve.
In her novel Serious Sweet, A.L. Kennedy uses third-person-limited narration interspersed with the first-person point of view presented as italicised monologue. Kennedy uses this technique to demonstrate the internal conflict of her main characters John and Meg. An example of this occurs when Meg visits the hospital for an internal examination:
Meg bent to remove her shoes, blood distantly roaring in her ears at the unexpected upset. Her body had decided to be nervy and easily unbalanced. This wasn’t her fault. […] there was this sensation of childishness in her fingers which, because she was in an adult situation, made her stomach tick and become wary. 
In the above quotation, the third-person-limited narrator begins by using the character’s name ‘Meg’ to create a distance. Furthermore, rather than describing her sensations, such as ‘her body felt’, the narrator separates Meg by saying ‘her body decided’. This separation between Meg and her body allows the reader to respond to the uncomfortable feelings of the character. The character of ‘Meg’, however, intervenes with free indirect discourse by saying, ‘This wasn’t her fault,’ thus indicating that something bad has happened to her. The gap between actions told at a distance and the immediacy of the characters thoughts evokes a sympathetic reader response. In, Consciousness and the Novel, Lodge describes this as ‘the realism of assessment that belongs to third-person narration [and] the realism of presentation that comes from the first-person narration,’ by combining the two, Kennedy creates a juxtaposition between seeing and feeling thus provoking a judgement. Furthermore, Meg’s ‘sensation of childishness’, in the above quotation, juxtaposed with her ‘adult situation’ creates a feeling of sympathy due to her adult vulnerability. Moreover, as Meg’s examination draws closer, the distance between Meg and her own bodily self becomes more distant:
And when this is suggested, you loosen the sheet until it’s opened and simply resting across your outspread lap as a rug might if you were reading at some fireside in some cosy evening on some other day.
It’s good to imagine that. (Serious Sweet, p.75).
Notice how the third person narrator changes the ‘she’ to ‘you’. Whilst it may seem that Kennedy is asking the reader to feel what Meg is feeling in order to evoke empathy, the ‘you’ in this instance is Meg. The character is creating distance, as if she is looking down on herself and her situation. In using the ‘you’, Kennedy provokes the reader to make a judgement based on how they might feel or react in a similar situation. The third-person distance, however, remains between reader and character, thus the reader is not feeling with Meg, yet is forced to feel for her. The italicised line at the end of the quotation is a direct intrusion into Meg’s thoughts; therefore, Kennedy is able to redirect the ‘you’ to the ‘I’ allowing the reader to direct their sympathy towards Meg. Whilst structurally Serious Sweet and Legend of a Suicide differ, the realism of assessment and realism of presentation is very much prominent in both novels.
Vann provides subtle clues throughout each chapter of his novel that something bigger is going to happen. At the close of chapter three, Roy realises he is unable is unable to bring his father back, and instead, his mother’s ex-partner John is ‘practically delivered to [his] doorstep,’ (LOAS, p. 34). This is the point in the novel where the point of view changes to third-person-limited and the reader questions the reliability of the narrator. Booth argues that ‘If he is discovered to be untrustworthy, then the total effect of the work he relays to us is transformed.’ Vann deliberately shows the reader that Roy is unreliable, not only through the change in point of view, but also through obvious changes in the plot. On page thirty-nine for instance, Roy speaks of a sister who is never mentioned before this point, thus indicating that what they are about to read is merely Roy’s fantasy. Furthermore, the change in point of view allows the reader to compare what they have learned about Roy at the beginning of the novel, with what they are about to read. By this stage, the reader has formed a relationship with the character of Roy from his first person point of view, and therefore, has gained his trust. Any alteration to his original narrative can therefore, be viewed sympathetically. Booth suggests that
By the simplest expedient of creating a character who experiences the rhetoric in his own person, it has been made less objectionable. Every adjective and detail intended to set our mood is part of the growing mood and experience of the central character; the rhetoric now seems functional.’ (Booth, p.202).
Vann is following this exact structure, which evokes sympathy for the reader by creating distance from the original narrative, thus allowing the reader to compare. On Sukkwan Island for example, ‘A place like Ketchikan, where Roy had lived until age five, but wilder, and fearsome now that he was unaccustomed.’ (LOAS, p.37), notice how Vann is juxtaposing Roy’s place of upbringing, as seen in the beginning of the novel, with this unfamiliar place, which causes a reaction in Roy. Yet what Vann is really doing is telling the reader that Roy’s journey into this fantasy is frightening for him. Throughout the chapter, the reader is immersed in this huge outdoor space, cold and unfamiliar with a heightened sense of monotony. Roy’s imaginary relationship with his father becomes one of perseverance rather than warmth, so when his father says,
I don’t know how I got this way. I just feel so bad. I feel okay during the day, but it hits at night. And then I don’t know what to do […] I’m really trying. I just don’t know if I can hold on. (LOAS, p.71)
the reader wonders just whose account this really is. Bearing in mind this is a fantasy chapter, the above quotation is in fact the voice of Roy, told through the voice of his father. Vann is indirectly demonstrating Roy’s desperation in this scene, and therefore, creating distance in order to evoke sympathy in the reader. As the chapter draws to a close, the reader begins to see that the real Roy has begun to figure out that his fantasy world has brought him no closer to his father:
Watching the dark shadow moving before him, it seemed as if this were what he has felt for a long time, that his father was something insubstantial before him and that if he were to look away for an instant or forget or not follow fast enough and will him to be there, he might vanish, as if it were only Roy’s will that kept him there. (LOAS, p.116).
The reader can easily see that Jim in fading away in the above quotation, yet by presenting the narrative through Roy’s point of view, and with a lack of emotion, the reader has ample room to judge. This technique allows the reader to feel sympathy for the character, so when ‘Roy became more and more afraid, and tired, with a sense that he could not continue on, and he began to feel sorry for himself.’ (LOAS, p.116), Vann is telling the reader that Roy’s fantasy narrative is too upsetting for him. Therefore, when on page 128, Roy puts a gun to his head and shoots himself; the reader sees this is a shocking act of desperation. This evokes not only sympathy for Roy, but also for Jim because the reader will have a deeper understanding, through Roy, of his father’s emotional state at the point he actually took his own life.
Kennedy uses the unreliable narrator in a more immediate form. Take for example the character of John Sigurdsson, rushing to his office in Westminster, ‘He was very breathless, which was not a good sign,’ (Serious Sweet, p.86). The beginning of this quotation is a distant third-person narrator; yet following the comma, the third-person-limited narrator brings the reader closer to how John feels. This is followed by his immediate thoughts, ‘But all is well. More than. Everything is fine,’ and then later, ‘And he wasn’t too hot. Not flustered. He did have these small red prickles of something on his skin – despair, unease, panic.’ (Serious Sweet, p.86). This type of alternation between distance, closeness, and immediacy, demonstrates how the juxtaposition between points of view can reveal to the reader that the character is trying to conceal his emotions. Thus, the italicised first person monologue is unreliable or untrustworthy. Kennedy uses the unreliable narrator to build tension in her narrative. John’s unreliability is a key tool in the plot as the reader discovers he is disclosing government information to the press. Without this, and without the third-person narrator, the reader would only see through John’s eyes, thus his actions might be seen us unprofessional. Furthermore, it would not reveal the difficulty that these actions cause his character, thus would not evoke sympathy. Therefore, when the plot unravels as it does the reader’s sympathy is heightened.
In Legend of a Suicide, the plot begins to unravel with a surprising shift in chapter five, when the third-person-limited point of view changes from Roy to Jim. Whilst Vann continues to ensure that the reader knows that these chapters are a fantasy; ‘[Jim] pushed himself back further away from Roy but this was phony, another act, […] And though it couldn’t be his son there, it kept being his son there.’ (LOAS, p.130), the last line in this quotation hints to the reader that Roy is still very much narrating. This is achieved through the use of free indirect discourse. The narrative is shown though the eyes of Jim yet Roy’s voice consistently intrudes:
If Roy were still alive, and Jim could take him somewhere now, he would take him sailing around the world. That was something Roy had actually wanted to do. He had said so himself. And it was something Jim could have arranged just as easily as homesteading. He had the money for a boat, he knew how to sail, he had the time. But for that to have been possible, he would have had to listen to Roy. He would have had to notice him while he was still alive. (LOAS, p.152).
With exception of the first line, the remainder of the above quotation is the voice of Roy. This can be identified in the tone. The first line is Jim fantasising, it seems light-hearted, dream-like, yet the remainder has an angry tone and is intensified by the use of ‘actually’ and the repetition of ‘had’. These lines correspond to Roy’s version of his life in chapter one, thus confirming that this is in fact Roy speaking. Vann’s use of free indirect discourse here is to allow Roy to express his anger, because if he had expressed these feelings in the previous chapter in third-person-limited, the reader would have been too close to Roy’s thoughts to feel sympathy. It is important to remember that chapter four and five are fantasy stories, and although Jim is the primary character in chapter five, it is Roy’s fantasy. Thus, the narrator that we hear in both chapters is Roy. The juxtaposition between Roy and his father allows Vann to evoke reader sympathy for Roy by indirectly revealing Roy in his purest form; therefore, the free indirect discourse is essential in maintaining a distance in order to allow the reader to judge. On discussing Jane Austin’s Emma, Booth suggests that
The solution to the problem of maintaining sympathy despite almost crippling faults was primarily to use the heroine herself as a kind of narrator, through third person, reporting on her own experience,’ (Booth, p.245).
It is clear that Vann is using this same technique, and by diverting Roy’s thought and faults onto his father, he is creating sympathy for Roy at a distance. It is through the examples such as the one above that Vann proves that sympathy can be evoked in the reader when they are close to Roy’s thoughts. Yet for the overall effect to be plausible, the unreliable narrator is an important, if not necessary, device.
In chapter five and six of the novel, the point of view returns to first-person, thus confirming that the chapters written in third person were fantasy. There is however, a final twist in Vann’s novel. In the final chapter, Roy is referred to as the boy: ‘I like to think that the boy is helpful,’ (LOAS, p.221). For the reader, this change identifies that the narrator is in fact Vann himself. This creates a distance between the author and his own childhood self, thus creating a sympathetic response. Furthermore, the reader can at this stage, feel a greater amount of sympathy for Vann due to the entire structure of the novel. The reader will be aware that Vann has brought his father back to life over and over again.
In this paper I have demonstrated the various ways in which narrative point of view can be used to evoke a sympathetic response in readers by looking at David Vann’s Legend of a Suicide and A.L. Kennedy’s Serious Sweet. Whilst traditionally first-person point of view was believed to be more likely to evoke empathy, the essay has demonstrated that by using emotional distance, in conjunction with close observation, the author can create a sympathetic response; this is due to the reader having the accessibility to make an emotional judgement. Furthermore, the essay has looked at how the unreliable narrator can be an effective tool in concealing emotions, setting up the plot and diverting readers from the truth in order to create character sympathy. Overall, however, I demonstrated that in order for sympathy to be evoked, there must be a juxtaposition, whether it is between first and third person viewpoint, between characters, or between what is revealed, and what is not. This juxtaposition is essential in order to evoke sympathy in the reader.
Booth, Wayne C., The Rhetoric of Fiction (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1961)
David Lodge, Consciousness and the Novel (London: Random House, 2012)
Hildick Wallace, Thirteen Types of Narrative (London: McMillan and Co Ltd, 1968)
Kennedy, A.L., Serious Sweet (London: Jonathan Cape, 2016)
Kress, Nancy, Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint (Ohio: Writer’s Digest Books, 2005)
Scholes, Robert and Kellog, Robert, The Nature of Narrative (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1966)
Segal, Erwin M. in, The Art of Sympathy in Fiction: Forms of Ethical and Emotional Persuasion ed. Howard Sklar (Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company, 2013)
Sklar, Howard, The Art of Sympathy in Fiction: Forms of Ethical and Emotional Persuasion (Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company, 2013)
Vann, David, Legend of a Suicide (London: Penguin Books, 2008)