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Reading literature can provide aesthetic distance from one’s everyday need to evaluate actions, events, feelings, and thoughts, in moral and ethical terms. The reader trusts the writer to take them into other lives in which moral and ethical values are very different, or even seemingly non-existent. In reading they act and go where they know they would never allow themselves to go—or simply could not go—outside the pages of the book. The reader is therefore enabled to experiment with sets of values very different from the ones they are used to inhabiting. Having become involved during reading in this way, the reader is then free afterwards to ponder their response in their own time, and according to their own principles. Literature often does not offer answers or judgments, but presents situations which inevitably pose a series of questions.
This is at its most pronounced perhaps when the narrator of a story or poem is unreliable—a liar, or untrustworthy in some other way. This character might well be the sort of person we’d never consort with outside the pages of a story. On reading literature, we tend to do more than consort with the main character; in some way we become him or her for the duration of the reading. This can be uncomfortable as the writer pushes us to empathise with the character, yet we pull away from him or her, struggling with our habitual moral and ethical judgments and feelings.
I recently presented a group of bachelor’s in medical science (BmedSci) students with Rebecca Ship’s Dracula1 which is written in the voice of a self mutilator and drinker of blood. One of the students was angry: ‘Why have you given us this horrid thing to read?’ She didn’t want to try to explore the experience of such a …