Guilt, Empathy and the Ethical Potential of Children's Literature

  • Maria Nikolajeva
Keywords: children’s literature, young adult literature, cognitive criticism, emotions, empathy, ethics, emotional education, Pullman, Suzuma


The paper takes as its point of departure cognitive criticism, the direction of inquiry that investigates readers’ cognitive and affective engagement with literature, partly based on recent brain research. It argues that for young readers who may not yet have developed full comprehension of fundamental moral issues and who have not attained the literary competence necessary to understand fictive characters’ mental processes, representation of emotions in literature may produce a problem. Since guilt is a complex social emotion, involving a reconciliation of several contradictory goals, such representation demands well-developed empathy and advanced mind-reading skills, as well as factual knowledge of relevant legislation and understanding of moral implications of crime, guild and remorse. The paper examines these issues through a reading of two texts for young audience, Forbidden (2010), by Tabitha Suzuma, and His Dark Materials trilogy (1995-2000), by Philip Pullman. The former is totally focused on guilt, in legal as well as moral sense, experienced by two siblings who enter an incestuous relationship. In the latter, guilt is less conspicuous, yet proves on closer consideration to be a major plot engine in the protagonist Lyra’s physical and spiritual quest. While Suzuma’s novel has an overt educational agenda, it is ambiguous in supporting young readers’ ethical position towards the protagonists’ guilt. In Pullman’s trilogy, guilt becomes closely connected with the fundamental philosophical issues of determinism and free will. Although Pullman does not provide any clear-cut ethical guidance either, the use of emotion discourse, or emotion ekphrasis, is more subtle, not least because the genre allows a outward projection of emotions in the form of dæmons. Lyra’s guilt becomes a driving engine in her maturation process. The ultimate argument of the paper is that literature provides an excellent training field for young readers’ developing of empathy skills, and the vicarious experience of guilt exposes readers to a wide range of ethical questions.

Keywords: children’s literature; young adult literature; cognitive criticism; emotions; empathy; ethics; emotional education; Pullman; Suzuma

(Published: 15 May 2012)

Citation: Barnboken tidskrift för barnlitteraturforskning/Journal of Children’s Literature Research, Vol. 35, 2012

How to Cite
Nikolajeva, M. (2012). Guilt, Empathy and the Ethical Potential of Children’s Literature. Barnboken, 35.
Tema: Skuld/Theme: Guilt