Psychologically Significant Fiction

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What works of fiction have psychological significance? Here we offer micro-reviews of novels and a few shorter works that concentrate on one or more of the themes that we think may be important for improving theory-of-mind and other kinds of social understanding, and for developing selfhood. We have done no empirical investigations to survey which works are especially helpful. Their psychological properties are inferred on theoretical grounds. 

The micro-reviews are written not as interpretations of the works, but as attempts to bring out their significance for the psychology of fiction: their effects on readers, with hints about how the effects are achieved.

Works are listed under four themes that we think might be especially significant, though typically fictional explorations of any of these themes also include others. Micro-reviews are by Keith Oatley, otherwise the reviewer is identified.

Understanding the minds of others

Jane Austen (1813). Pride and prejudice. London: Dent (1906). 

Jane Austen's most successful novel, and arguably her best, has a plot that is specifically about coming to understand the mind of another person. Unlike love stories in which a protagonist falls in love instantly when he or she sees a stranger (in the way that Dante fell in love with Beatrice), in this anti-romantic love story, Elizabeth Bennet at first experiences the very eligible Mr Darcy as rude, standoffish, and proud. With extraordinary deftness Austen enables Elizabeth to come gradually to love Darcy by coming to know him, and enables the reader to experience the growth of this love in the same way. A superb conception.

Marcel Proust (1913-1927).  À la recherche du temps perdu. (English translation, under the title of In search of lost time, London: Penguin, 2003.)

Proust's long novel is a gradual discovery by his narrator, Marcel, of a purpose in his life: to write a novel about memory and the nature of art, which also offers portraits of people he encounters. These portraits start with memories of Marcel's mother and members of his family and acquaintances in childhood. They then extend to people he meets in the fashionable world of Paris society. Among Proust's methods for these portraits are depictions of characteristic actions or turns of speech of his characters which are not quite conscious to them, but which imply something significant in the person, and indicate his or her preoccupations. Sometimes such actions are not flattering, but Proust's intent is not to sneer but, by enabling us readers to recognize such indications in fictional characters, to be able to recognize comparable characteristics in people we know, and thereby also in ourselves. By becoming conscious of them in these ways, we can undertake a kind of therapy on ourselves.

Understanding relationships 

Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1985). Love in the time of cholera. (Trans. E. Grossman.) London: Penguin (1989).

At the beginning of the novel Fermina Daza rejects the naive Florentino Ariza, and marries Juvenal Urbino, a doctor.. But Florentino keeps his love for Fermina alive, and in their old age, when Juvenal dies, Forentino and Fermina communicate with each other in a series of letters. Fermina realizes that Florentino has matured, and in the end they are united. The book is about two kinds of love. The first is Fermina's for the man who is her husband for most of her life. Juvenal is rational, orderly, modern, and for the most part reliable. The second kind is with Florentino, romantic and traditional. His love sustains itself throughout a life that is made meaningful for him by this love, which is perhaps a kind of disease.


Anton Chekhov (1899). "The lady with the little dog." (In Anton Chekhov. Stories. pp. 361-376.Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. New York: Bantam 2000.)

This story starts with Dmitri Gurov, who feels dissatisfied in his marriage to a woman he is afraid of. He tries to compensate for this by having affairs. At the seaside resort of Yalta, he sees a lady, Anna Sergueyevna, walking with her little dog. He contrives an acquaintance. After a week of conversation and going about together, Gurov and Anna make love. At the end of their holiday they return home to their spouses, thinking they will never see each other again. But both are appalled to find that the other has become so important to them, that the rest of their life becomes paltry and meaningless. Gurov travels to Anna's home town, hoping to find her. He does so, and they arrange to meet from time to time in secret. This makes the urgency of their relationship all the stronger, but at the same time yet more difficult and persecuting to both of them. Chekhov ends the story by saying that although they hoped for a resolution, their difficulties were only just beginning. This is a story with which we have found empirical effects (Djikic et al., 2009).* As compared with reading a version of the story in a non-fictional format that had the same characters and events, and which was just as interesting to read, readers of Chekhov's story changed their personalities more. We think this was because the story loosens up the personality of readers by inviting them to identify with the characters, and to imagine themselves to be in their position.

* Maja Djikic, Keith Oatley, Sara Zoeterman, & Jordan B. Peterson (2009). On Being Moved by Art: How Reading Fiction Transforms the Self. Creativity Research Journal, 21, pp. 24-29.
Abstract: An experiment tested the hypothesis that art can cause significant changes in the experience of one’s own personality traits under laboratory conditions.  After completing a set of questionnaires including the Big-Five Inventory (BFI) and an emotion checklist, the experimental group read the short story "The Lady with the Little  Dog" by Chekhov, while the control group read a comparison text that had the same content as the story, but was documentary in form. The comparison text was controlled for length, readability, complexity, and interest level.  Participants then completed again the BFI and emotion checklist randomly placed within a larger set of questionnaires. The results show the experimental group experienced significantly greater change in self-reported experience of personality traits than the control group, and that emotion change mediated the effect of art on traits. Further consideration should be given to the role of art in the facilitation of  processes of personality growth and maturation.


Dynamics of interactions in social groups 

George Orwell (1949). Nineteen eighty-four. London: Penguin (1954)

In this novel, perhaps the most famous of literary dystopias, George Orwell depicts a totalitarian society. Winston Smith works as a functionary in the Ministry of Truth (meaning the Ministry of Lies and Propaganda), changing historical records in newspapers and other documents to make them fit with the current ideology of The Party. He has an affair with Julia. For a while this is a tender relationship and an individualistic rebellion that puts love before societal obligation. But Winston and Julia are easily detected by the Thought Police. O'Brian, a member of The Inner Party, explains to Winston how The Party's real purpose has nothing to do with the good of the people: as with other organizations, its purpose is to maintain itself. After torture and re-education, Winston betrays Julia and himself. The dynamics of societies and their effects on people have seldom been so forcefully put, in an imagined world that has many features of the one in which we live.

Virginia Woolf (1925). Mrs Dalloway. London: Hogarth Press. (Current edition London: Panther, 1976.)

This novel, one of the triumphs of literary modernism, has as its centrepiece the interactions in a social group before and during a party held by the novel's protagonist, Clarissa Dalloway. The novel contains some of the very best depictions of stream of consciousness in English, but its principal theme is the inter-relatedness of people. Woolf uses a number of  methods to show how, soon after World War I, the inhabitants of London are bound together in their lives. At the core of the novel is the well connected and well established Clarissa who exists in relation to a person who functions as her alter-ego, Septimus Warren-Smith, although she never meets him. Septimus has been driven mad by the War, and has become disconnected and disestablished.


The problematics of selfhood in the social world 

Fyodor Dostoyevsky. (1866). Crime and punishment. (Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. New York: Vintage, 1993.)

One of the great novels of selfhood: Rodion Raskolnikov, a student who has no money, decides to murder an unpleasant old woman who is a money-lender, on the grounds that he is an exeptional person, and that the murder of someone worthless is justified in pursuit of a higher purpose. The book is remarkable for its exploration of the nasty side of selfhood: Raskolnikov is self-deceiving, and often despicable, but Dostoyevsky manages to make him continually engaging. It is also remarkable for its counterpoint between Raskolnikov's centre of consciousness and that of the prosecutor, Porfiry, who comes to suspect him of the murder, not because of any external evidence but by coming to understand his mind.


Joseph Conrad (1917). The shadow line. London: Penguin (current edition 1986).

In this novella, the narrator is an officer in the merchant navy as he achieves his first command, a sailing ship, in which he puts to sea from Bangkok. The shadow line is that line one crosses from youth to adulthood,. The young captain crosses it not when he steps onto the deck of his new ship, but when at sea they are becalmed for two weeks, and the members of his crew become sick with a fever that they have taken on board in port, so that it becomes impossible to work the ship. He finds that most of the ship's supply of quinine has been stolen. Why did he not inspect the ship's medical supplies properly before leaving port? Will any of his crew members die because he was too eager to put to sea? Will the ship be lost if a sudden storm occurs with all sails set, and no way of lowering them? Will he reach port at all? The young man makes the classical descent into himself, in self doubt, guilt, and anxiety, without which the kind of transformation into adulthood cannot occur. Conrad's focus is not on the physical aspects of the situation, but on the relationships and interdependence of the young captain and his fellow crew members. As the young man crosses the line, will the result be an increment of maturity, or psychological damage?


J.D. Coetzee (1999). Disgrace. London: Secker & Warburg.

This is an extraordinary novel about a complacent but disappointed man David Petrie, confronted by truths of European colonialism and racism. He is a white professor in South Africa who seduces a woman undergraduate student taking one of his classes. We do not know she is a person of colour but we infer this from her name, Melanie. A scandal occurs and David is forced to leave his university job. He goes to live with his daughter, on a farm. Losing his job is only the first in a series of disgraces that he suffers. This is one of the most searchingly intelligent and moving of post-colonial novels about how, and whether, one can sustain selfhood in the aftermath of exploitation of others from which one has benefitted.
Joseph O'Neill (2008). Netherland. New York: Pantheon.
Although the themes of this novel include those of understanding relationships and understanding the dynamics of social groups, its centre is that of selfhood, of being a young person who moves to a new life as an immigrant, not knowing whether the habits and customs of youth can continue to give life meaning or make it supportable. On the surface, the novel is about the integration of foreigners into American society, about the taking up of new customs, about whether one can transform old habits and suit them to the new place. Underneath, in the netherland, the novel is of wistfulness and melancholy. it is about how what one learned in one's youth constantly infuses the present with meanings that may or may not be appropriate as one moves into those stages of life that one might not quite want to enter. For the protagonist, Hans, the future might be to settle in America, or to live alone, or to return to a wife he doesn't understand, or to take as central to his life a son he doesn't yet know. Is it possible that meaning can be formed in the new, when it has only a vaguely recognizable structure, when we have as yet no words for it?