Monthly Archives: February, 2011

The Spectrum of Novelistic Empathy

The spectrum of novelistic empathy: at one end, Tolstoy, who envelops his characters with an unconditional love, suffering himself as they go wrong and act foolishly; at the other end, Flaubert, whose razor-sharp wit ceaselessly probes the pretensions and false hopes of his creations, mercilessly exposing the shabbiness of their fantasies and the pettiness of their ambitions. Flaubert writes as a vivisectionist and coroner, for whom all souls are dead matter to be cut open and put on display, Tolstoy as a loving parent, who experiences acutely the anguish of a creator who extends without hesitation to his offspring the freedom to live outside his blessings. For Flaubert there is no hope — bourgeois society is irredeemably corrupt and noxiously superficial, while for Tolstoy, hope always abounds, and only our lapses in attention prevent us from grasping it and rising up into true fellowship with our fellow human beings. But it is interesting to reflect that the satirical edge of Jane Austen’s works places her in the neighborhood of Flaubert, making her into something of a vivisectionist who is also a Christian, while the triumph of true love in Stendhal confers to him the singular achievement of having elevated atheism to the status of a spiritual truth.

Flaubert’s approach prevails in the modern world, for Tolstoy’s vision can only maintain its credibility so long as the ties of religion and family remain strong. In an individualistic society, religion can no longer fulfill the deepest needs of people, regardless of what people claim they believe.