As the New Year begins again, questions of change, development and character reform occur all too frequently. Instead of contemplating how to change ourselves, however, perhaps considering how we would live as our favourite protagonists can tell us something even more important.
Countless times we are asked “what is your favourite novel”, “why do you like Mr Darcy so much?”, “do you relate to the characters?”. It’s hard to answer why we have favourite books, with possible answers including nostalgia, childhood or a revelation of literary significance.
Perhaps this is why we treasure the reliable classics. Following Huck down the river, we retreat back to childhood yet re-emerge with a greater morality. Jay Gatsby will never cease to swallow us up and choke us back out with a shattering shot and a splash in the pool. Although, over time, many of us may have formulated a complex and unique answer to these questions, can we truthfully tell why we like a particular novel so much?
A 2012 psychology study carried out by Geoff Kauffman and Lisa Libby provides us with some answers. They suggest ‘experience taking’ – a theory proposing a state of being that extends beyond sharing thoughts and beliefs, and involves merging with another whilst remaining ourselves. So, when reading a novel, the reader reproduces events, thoughts and feelings as if they are the character, not simply an observer. The more someone takes from the character, the more they will find themselves changing their conception of self and their behaviour.
I would argue that perhaps it is enough to simply steal the experience of our favourite protagonists. Actually living like these characters would often not be as fulfilling as encroaching on their life-changing experiences. Behind Huck Finn’s fantastic imagination and self-recreation is a history of trauma and abuse. As readers, however, we experience only his desperate adolescent mind finding new adventures to erase his past. He fictionalises the episodes with his father to distance himself, and so us, from his reality. The reality of many of our favourite books is often something we would rather shy away from, but this is where the ultimate power of literature lies.
The reason we often idolise the world of our favourite novel is because of the lasting effect it has on us. In fact, we borrow from the experiences of the characters without the harshness of their reality, so the novel’s effect comes from self-epiphany, not its romance. Fiction allows us to savour several different lives whilst protecting our true self. By ‘experience taking’ we can expand our sense of self, selectively taking psychological experiences for our own and not simply living vicariously.
The power of literature, then, lies beyond its obvious bridge between reality and fiction. In our favourite novels we seek more than escapism; we seek a reformed sense of self that is compatible with the complexity of human life and the fact of mortality. By giving in to the experiences of novels we admit to some inescapable human condition, achieving dreams and making choices that in reality would deny the logic of our survival.
Literature brings a dimension to our lives that we find nowhere else. Inexplicable and irreplaceable, it takes us to places within our mind we have never accessed before. I cannot say a part of me would not be a little jealous if I found out someone I knew lived like Nick Carraway or Huck Finn, but I can say they have added to my life, and their characters have inspired and emboldened me on a personal level.
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