In her new book, Why do we care about literary characters? (2010), Blakey Vermeule argues that novels, and particularly eighteenth century British novels, exemplify the kind of explicit concern with intricate levels of mindreading with which readers care about engaging themselves. Characters read each others’ minds in the interest of self-preservation, flourishing, and status enhancement, and experiencing such fictions allows the reader to learn what she needs to survive and flourish in her own Machiavellian world. Vermeule’s book echoes Zunshine’s thesis in Why we read fiction: Theory of mind and the novel (2006): we read fiction because it stimulates our need for mindreading at several different levels of recursion (e.g., “Emma knew that Ricardo expected Angela to hope that Roger would call her.”) and because partaking of gossip just makes us feel good. Indeed, both Zunshine (p. 4) and Vermeule (p. 99) use the word “craving” to describe the reader’s stance toward social scenarios that require complex mindreading. An important difference though, is that Vermeule purports to speak of “caring” about characters, while Zunshine defends her avoidance of the topic of such engagement in fiction by noting on the next-to-last page of her book that, “[Theory of mind] is always much more than whatever cluster of cognitive adaptations we have isolated to make the discussion of it manageable“ (p. 163). That’s as much ground as Zunshine grants to her reader’s complaint that we can’t mindread without emotions. The reader accepts her hedge because she has presented a solid argument for what does interest her, and she leaves the emotion side of the theory of mind coin to others to explore.
Vermeule, though, claims to address “care,” which she defines as “to be anxious and to exert mental energy” and “expending charity, even passion” (12). She claims an evolutionary psychological parentage for the concept. She notes, in brief, “Why do we care about fictional characters? The very short answer is gossip: we need to know what other people are like, not in the aggregate, but in the particular” (xii). She believes that a genuinely literary moment centrally features a character engaging in Machiavellian reasoning, which “engages some of the things we care about most” (81), and claims that the most celebrated literary characters are Machiavellian (52), that “the most important social information is whether somebody is inclined to cooperate in social exchange or to cheat” (146), and that the “highest power” one has in a social exchange is to get that assessment right (187). What we care about is making sure we come out ahead of others in personally relevant domains, and we care most about literary characters who do just that.
Survival strategies are important, so we care about them. But there is another way to look at caring, one that the philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt treats with clarity and power in his essay “The importance of what we care about” (1998). (Vermeule mentions this titular phrase in her book [p. 73] and attributes it to Frankfurt, but she does not engage his ideas, nor cite his work in the bibliography.) Frankfurt says, “A person who cares about something… identifies himself with what he cares about in the sense that he makes himself vulnerable to losses and susceptible to benefits depending upon whether what he cares about is diminished or enhanced” (1998, p. 83, Frankfurt’s emphasis). And further, “…if there is something that a person does care about, then it follows that it is important to him. This is not because caring somehow involves an infallible judgment concerning the importance of its object. Rather, it is because caring about something makes that thing important to the person who cares about it” (1998, p. 92). It seems, though, that Vermeule’s reader feels care because she makes an “infallible” evolutionarily-driven judgment that leads her to assess exposure to Machiavellian characters and their actions as important to her own social understanding.
So, why do we care for fictional characters? Frankfurt does not comment on this question, but we might be able to construct a Frankfurtian response. First, he does not deny the important role of evolution in human caring. In his meditation on love, an extreme form of caring, he notes, “What we love is shaped by the universal exigencies of human life,” but then he adds, “together with those other needs and interests that derive more particularly from the features of individual character and experience” (Frankfurt, 2004, p. 47). The character the reader cares for or loves fits who the reader is, today, in the moment of reading, not only as a human who wants to survive and flourish, but as a cultural being with a particular cultural, personal and interpersonal history, which her care for particular characters may help her to understand better. Frankfurt does deny that we can care for an individual only as a token of, even a fine exemplar of, a class: “The significance to the lover of what he loves is not that his beloved is an instance or exemplar. Its importance to him is not generic; it is ineluctably particular” (2004, p. 44). Thus, perhaps we don’t care for literary characters because we get loads and loads of social information from them – isn’t our effort better spent in getting social information relevant to the living, breathing cast of characters in our own lives?—nor because they are exemplars of Machiavellian pursuits which could somehow edify us. Frankfurt’s account of care can thus accommodate those readers who care about individual embodiments of a whole range of characters: the weak ones, the misguided ones, the self-delusional ones, the ones who would very much like to be Machiavellian, but eventually discover that, alas, they are not -- the ones, in short, who make us vulnerable to emotional losses because they suffer while we are identifying with them.
He claims that it is “volitional necessity” that moves us to care and to love. He says that “[caring about something] serves to connect us actively to our lives in ways which are creative of ourselves and which expose us to distinctive possibilities for necessity and for freedom” (1998, p. 93) and ends his essay on care in this way: “The person does not care about the object because its worthiness commands that he do so. On the other hand, the worthiness of the activity of caring commands that he choose an object which he will be able to care about” (1998, p. 94). Maybe the history of human engagement with fiction is less the history of a creature craving mindreading in order to more efficiently usurp the goods of its conspecifics, and more the history of a creature who is exceptionally good at caring, and much in need of more and more things to care about, or to love, than the world could ever make available in the creature’s lifetime.
Frankfurt, H. G. (1998). The Importance of what we care about. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Frankfurt, H. G. (2004). The Reasons of love. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Vermeule, B. (2010). Why do we care about literary characters? Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.
Zunshine, L. (2006). Why we read fiction: Theory of mind and the novel. Columbus, OH: The Ohio State University Press.