The Affective Fallacy

This problem involves the reader’s inability to divorce her or his personal reactions to a text from the affect that the text organically triggers. Let’s say my dear Aunt Mable particularly loved oversized fake jewelry which, though eccentric, merely underscored what I loved about this spectacular lady. Then, I read a short story in which a scurrilous jewel thief steals a diamond and replaces it with a fake. But I am unable to muster any sympathy for the hapless victims of this crime, because all I can think about is Aunt Mable. This is a problem, and an obvious one. But of course, our individual reading practices are probably not as obvious to ourselves as they may be to others: we have enormous blind spots when we involve ourselves in our calculations. So, I hereby advise you to make the meaning you read in a text dependent on the situation and invoked context the work “licenses” you to think about. That said, it may not be easy to carry out this advice without a method of differentiating your personal reasons for feeling certain emotions from the interpretation you create from reading emotionally.

The new critics suggest a method called the “objective correlative,” a process of working backward from an instance in the text where you had a strong emotion in order to figure out whether you’ve had an appropriate response. The name of the term suggests how it works: “objective,” something or someplace you can point to in a text, rather than something you infer or something else outside of the text that it made you think of; and “correlative,” something or someplace that creates a response in you that you feel sure would correlate to other readers’ responses. For example, in most of the second half of Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, it’s raining. When it rains a great deal or for a prolonged period of time (days, weeks, a month), I tend to get moody and dour in my outlook on life–or rather, moodier and dourer. Is this evidence? Would every possible reader have noticed this fact and had an emotional response to it? Should I interpret the novel as gloomy and dark based only on this aspect? No—not solely based on my personal hatred of rain! And even the likelihood that others would be depressed by a watery deluge wouldn’t necessarily work as evidence, unless I can tie it to other facts to create a pattern. Luckily for me but not for the protagonist, Frederic Henry, I can note he is fighting in the Italian front in World War One, and it’s not going well; he feels his life is out of control; his personal stoicism doesn’t seem to help him from being overwhelmed by trauma; and he’s probably shell-shocked. Check.

Harder to assess are those instances where we use our sympathetic reactions to judge a situation: we want to make sure that the standards we have used to judge the actions or beliefs of a character match those which may be sponsored by the text, and those standards are not always easy to find or describe concretely. Certainly the answer is never to stop reading while being attentive to our feelings! But our emotional response, especially if the text comes from a historical period or culture remote from ours, needs to judge the text on its own terms. For example, in Samuel Richardson’s novel Pamela (1740), the title character, a serving girl in a wealthy squire’s mansion, is kidnapped by her would-be benefactor, Mr. B., who repeatedly tries to rape her. Clearly we are meant to sympathize with Pamela, because that’s horrible. But by novel’s end, Pamela agrees to marry a “reformed” Mr. B., and even though our senses scream that this is a terrible personal move for her, the novel also makes a case that this is a good social climb in class-conscious England, and people really can change (especially if they have the angelic Pamela urging them to do so). It can take a lot to adjust to a different century’s judging standards.

But here’s a contrary example that proves the perils of assuming the past is always another country: in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899), the narrator Marlow makes frequent use of the N-word to describe the African inhabitants of the Congo jungle. It may be tempting to assume that in the late nineteenth century the term was commonplace rather than the hurtful racist epithet it remains today, and that we ought to ignore our emotional response to condemn Marlow for his racism. But no, a little digging makes clear that the term was just as explosively volatile then (Conrad’s 1895 novel The Nigger of the Narcissus was sold in the US under the title Children of the Sea). So we should judge the use of the word as an example of Marlow’s racism, even in a book seemingly dedicated to showing how bad the imperial project in Africa could get.

Avoid the affective fallacy by pinpointing places in the text where you had an emotional response and checking to make sure that response was sponsored by the text. Judge actions and characters by using the evidence presented by the text.


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