The UVic Writer's Guide

Sympathy and Empathy

Sympathy is "feeling with," whereas empathy is "feeling into" (a translation of the German concept of "Einfuhlung" developed in the nineteenth century). One sympathizes with the feelings of other people or animals.

Writers often depend upon engaging readers' sympathies in order to achieve desired effects through the readers' fellow-feeling with characters in drama or narrative, or the persona in poetry and what she or he expresses (see catharsis and hamartia).

For instance, Shakespeare arouses our sympathy for Hamlet, and Robert Burns makes us feel a sympathetic fright along with the "tim'rous beastie" of his poem "To a Mouse" (1786). Likewise, writers manipulate readers' antipathy toward characters, such as Iago in Othello, or more often create a complex interplay of sympathy and antipathy, as in our mixed feelings even for a murderer like Macbeth

Empathy is a closer identification than sympathy, giving one a sense of participating in what is being described or seen. Moreover, the object of empathy may be not only a living being but something inanimate (the sea, a tree).

Shakespeare, in his poem "Venus and Adonis" (1592), describes a snail that on being struck "Shrinks backward in his shelly cave with pain"; in "Endymion" (1818) Keats describes a wave that "Bursts gradual, with a wayward indolence"; both descriptions invite empathy with the objects described. Empathy implies an identification with the things described, whereas descriptions evoking sympathy still view the object as separate from the speaker and reader. (See also metaphor and simile.)

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Copyright, The Department of English, University of Victoria, 1995
This page updated September 23, 1995