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Licensed Unlicensed Requires Authentication Published by De Gruyter Mouton October 6, 2023

The role of pathetic fallacy in shaping narrative empathy

  • Fransina Stradling ORCID logo EMAIL logo and Kimberley Pager-McClymont ORCID logo


One way in which character emotion is communicated in texts is through pathetic fallacy (PF), a figure of speech that projects emotions onto surroundings, which can be conceptualised in terms of variations on the conceptual metaphor emotion is surroundings. This article explores the empathetic affordances of this emotion metaphor, presenting evidence for the ways readers exploit the linguistic forms of PF in Alice Walker’s short story The Flowers to empathise with its protagonist. We draw on think-aloud data and post-reading reflections to analyse evidence of PF perception and empathy, using Pager-McClymont’s protocol for analysing PF perception and Fernandez-Quintanilla’s framework for analysing self-report of empathy. Findings show that (1) PF’s implicit communication of emotions affords empathy even when readers do not recognise the narrative technique, and that (2) specific PF instantiations afford empathy depending on underlying conceptual metaphor, textual context and correspondence with readers’ experiential background.

Corresponding author: Fransina Stradling, University of Huddersfield, Huddersfield, UK, E-mail:

Appendix 1: (Table). Fernandez-Quintanilla’s ‘implicit-evidence-for-empathy codes’ (2018: 236–7)

Perspective Character-oriented perspective taking Participants imaginatively adopt characters’ viewpoint and focus on characters’ inner states and circumstances (rather than self-orientedly imagining themselves in their situation)
Attribution of speech/thought_affiliation Participants verbally articulate characters’ speech/thought in direct form. This may suggest that participants simulate characters’ mental activity. This is seen in sudden shifts to the 1st person pronoun.
Pronoun use/shift Readers’ pronoun use shows differences between (i) talking about characters in the 2nd or 3rd person from an observer position and (ii) the verbal simulation or enactment of characters’ experience in the 1st or 2nd person, where readers suddenly impersonate characters. Pronoun shifts can be accounted for in terms of a tension: when readers enact a character’s consciousness a tension is created between the reader’s simulation of the experience in the 1st person and the reader’s attribution of the experience to the character in the 2nd or 3rd person (Caracciolo 2014, p. 110)
Emotions Attribution of emotional experience Participants attribute specific emotional states to characters. They spell out the emotional implications of story-world events; that is, what characters are likely to feel as a result of the story-world events (i.e. pain, anguish)
Evaluation of what experience is like Sometimes the attribution of emotional experiences (above) is coupled with evaluative expressions. This explicit element of evaluation indicates degrees of how distressing and undesirable the characters’ emotional experience is (i.e. the worst)
Affective understanding Display of understanding of the character’s emotional states based on first-hand experience: readers claim to have first-hand knowledge or experience of a similar situation and, as a result, they verbalise what the experience must be like for characters. These displays of understanding based on similarity of experience can suggest, as noted by Kuroshima and Iwata (2016), (i) affiliation with the target’s stance towards the experience, (ii) understanding of the nature of the experience and its meaning (i.e., what the experience is like), and (iii) a congruent affective stance (i.e. potentially shared feelings)
Other mental states Attribution of thought processes Thought processes are attributed to characters
Attribution of values and beliefs Values and beliefs are attributed to characters
Attribution of goals and needs Goals and needs are attributed to characters situation
Situation Attribution of situation Participants spell out characteristics of the situation characters are going through
Imagined scenario Participants describe a scenario parallel to the events undergone by characters, and they vividly depict the details of the situation, thus suggesting understanding and a potential projection into characters’ situation
Attribution of situational factors Participants attribute situational forces to characters’ actions and circumstances; i.e. they provide contextual explanations for characters’ behaviour


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Published Online: 2023-10-06
Published in Print: 2023-10-26

© 2023 Walter de Gruyter GmbH, Berlin/Boston

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