Saturday, November 19, 2011

A Quick Study in Creating Empathy

I was thinking some more about my post of the other day, and I wondered if perhaps I wasn't over-reacting a bit in thinking I was so disappointed by the ending of Page from a Tennessee Journal. I decided to do some examination of the area that seemed to be the major problem: my lack of investment in the characters' emotional lives. To do this, I thought it would be most appropriate to compare a scene from Page to a scene in a book with characters I did care about. I chose Ann Turnbull's Alice in Love and War, comparing Alice Newcombe and Page's Eula Mae McNaughton. There is a scene in each book in which each woman suspects that the man she loves and has devoted herself to may be less than faithful. Of course, it's not a perfect comparison; Eula Mae is the wife who is being wronged, while Alice is the "other woman." But I thought it would be as close as anything I could find, and I want to be fair.

Warning: This is going to be a LONG post because I need to quote some passages from the books to make the comparison.

First, I'll post the section from Page. To set the context, Eula Mae is at a prayer dinner to mark the beginning of the tobacco planting season, and she's working with her sisters-in-law to get the dinner ready. One of them has dropped a pretty heavy hint that Eula Mae's husband may be the father of a sharecropper's unborn baby. This section gives Eula's reaction.

“I don’t believe that hired man was there long enough to give anybody a baby, do you, Eula Mae?” Belle swept past her.

Eula tried to make her feet move. There had to be some mistake. The woman…what was her name…couldn’t be pregnant, not if her husband hadn’t come home. Every imaginable thought poured into her head, but only one stuck to the inside of her brain like honey to a hive. She had to get home right now.

As she clicked the harness moving her horse faster, Eula’s buckboard bounced on a rut in the lane. She could barely remember how she had gotten this far. She recalled stumbling out of Fedora’s kitchen and mumbling something about forgetting her corn bread and she had to return home immediately to retrieve it. As she passed the stand of trees near her barn, she peered at the sky. The sun, a shade past its peak, told her it must be half past one. She had just missed the onslaught of men coming out of the fields and into the Thornton yard to begin the prayer dinner. She thought she spotted Reverend Hawkins as she made her hasty retreat, but she really couldn’t be sure. She pulled the buckboard in front of the barn. Without unharnessing the animal, Eula led him to the horse trough filled with water and ran into her own kitchen. Frantically, she reached for her journal.

(skip 5 paragraphs)

The wooziness increased, and Eula felt the bile rise to her throat. The grandfather clocked in her parlor bonged two. She had never laid down in the middle of the afternoon because of sickness in all of her married years, not even when she was racked with the fever. But maybe, just this once, getting off her feet might help her put that imagination of hers to rest. Her father had always told her that imagination in a woman was not only unnecessary but a dangerous thing. Eula eased herself on top of the coverlet, not caring that her shoes carried the dirt and dust of Ben Roy’s backyard on them. The room felt warm though the window was opened wide to let in the mild, new-rose-scented May afternoon. She put her hands to the side of her head to push out the thoughts that no decent woman should carry. If she was really a good wife to her husband, she should be able to come up with the real reason for the short supplies, the missing money, and Alex’s peculiar behavior over the planting.

(skip 2 more paragraphs)

Maybe if she closed her eyes for just a moment, these devil-placed thoughts might fade away and make room for the true answer. Somehow she knew that ever Reverend Hawkins couldn’t help cleanse her mind. She had to pray directly to the Lord for forgiveness for thinking the unbelievable.
Next, let's look at a section from Alice in Love and War. Alice has run away from home to follow a soldier who is in the king's army. She's been with him for several months, but the fighting is about to be suspended for winter, and Alice is unsure of what's going to happen now.  

But he didn’t seem eager to go up, as he usually would be.  He lit his pipe, and they stayed in the parlor, surrounded by damp, steaming clothes, slopped beer and loud drunken voices until Alice was so weary she could no longer stand, but sagged against him. Even then he merely searched out a stool for her, and continued to stand and puff and his pipe and occasionally frown or stare into the distance. Alice felt unable to reach him.
At last the parlor began to empty. Most of the men were billeted in surrounding cottages and farms, and went out.

“I need to rest—to sleep,” Alice pleaded.

Robin nodded then, knocked out his pipe on the fireplace and – almost reluctantly, she felt – led her up two flights of narrow stairs to the attics. There were others sleeping there, but Robin had found them a space in a little side room where they could be alone. It was warm from the rising heat of the fire downstairs, and with their layered blankets and outer clothes over them they were cosy enough.

“This is good,” she said, snuggling close to him. “You always find good places for us.”

She knew it was because of his way with women – even busy innkeepers’ wives, or frosty women like her aunt.

He kissed her forehead. “Yes. You’ll be safe here."

“I’ll be safe?” She searched his eyes in the darkness, suddenly afraid, as she’d been at Tor Farm when he said the army was moving on.

He rolled away from her and lay on his back. “I’m going home, Alice. I’ve been given leave—“

“Home?” Her breath came short. “When?”

“Tomorrow. I meant to tell—“

“But – when will you be back?”

There was a silence – and she knew. She knew he would be there for the entire winter and would not return until the army was on the move again.

(skip 6 paragraphs of dialogue)

It’s all planned, she thought. He’s been planning this awhile, and never told me. Why won’t he take me to his home? And where is his home? He had never told her the name of the place where he lived, only that it was near Oxford.

(skip 10 paragraphs of dialogue)

She wanted to believe him. And when he began to kiss and cuddle her, his touch was so gentle, and the smell and feel of him so familiar, that she thought he must love her; it must be true. And yet she lay awake for hours afterward, thinking, and worrying, and wishing she had Nia to turn to for advice. She suspected that Robin was also awake, but he gave no sign. Tomorrow, she thought, I’ll insist he gives me an address to send to if I should need him.  I’ll make him write in in my father’s book. The decision comforted her, and at last she fell asleep.

So...the first thing I notice is that Alice uses dialogue to communicate much of what is happening, while Page uses narrated action. Of course, Alice has Robin to interact with, and Eula is alone. But that dialogue/narration difference carries over to the way the characters' thoughts are communicated, too. We don't see Eula's thoughts, only that they aren't acceptable to her. "Every imaginable thought poured into her head, but only one stuck to the inside of her brain like honey to a hive. She had to get home.” – “But maybe, just this once, getting off her feet might help her put that imagination of hers to rest.” – “She put her hands to the side of her head to push out the thoughts that no decent woman should carry.”

What, exactly, are those thoughts that poured into her head? What are the "thoughts that no decent woman should carry"? I can guess what they are, but I don't know, really. Compare that to Alice's thoughts:

It’s all planned, she thought. He’s been planning this awhile, and never told me. Why won’t he take me to his home? And where is his home?” – “Tomorrow, she thought, I’ll insist he gives me an address to send to if I should need him.  I’ll make him write in in my father’s book.”

We hear the specific content of Alice's thoughts, which lets us get to know her as a person. We can see exactly what she's concerned about. It makes Alice more real to me.

I guess it is related to something from interpersonal communication class. Research shows that we tend to like people who self-disclose. I suppose that is because the person is saying, "I trust you enough to tell you something personal about myself," and we reciprocate that trust by liking the person.  Throughout the quoted passage, Alice lets us know how vulnerable she feels. She doesn't come out and say, "I feel vulnerable," but we can tell by the way she is so sensitive to Robin's lack of attention to her that she fears he will leave her. For me, at least, that makes me feel truly sorry for her, because I've been there and I know how it feels. Poor girl.

Eula, on the other hand, keeps us at a distance. She doesn't want us to know what she's thinking - she doesn't even want to know, herself, what's she's thinking. I feel sorry for her, sure, but in a very external way. It's the difference between watching someone on TV who is suffering from some disease and watching your friend suffer from that disease. 

Oops, here we are again - I'm ranting about "telling" vs. "showing," aren't I? But it matters. It matters a lot.

If you are still with me at this point, bless you!

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