Why Fiction is Good for You

Forget moral edification: psychological research shows literature’s mind-altering effects.

Graham Greene once said in an interview that too many of his characters left from the door by which they came in. In some of Greene’s fiction, though, change occurs: the whisky priest in The Power and the Glory and Holly Martins in The Third Man each leave by a door through which they did not enter. They have been transformed by their experience. What about ourselves as readers? Do we change in the course of a story?

A century ago many people thought that literature could change us, and be improving. We moderns may no longer be so sure. But we can turn the assertion into a question: can fiction be good for us? A small Toronto research group has started to investigate this kind of question and has found that reading fiction has worthwhile effects, including potentialities for the transformation of selfhood. We propose that fiction is a kind of simulation of the social world1. Stories were the very first simulations, designed to run on minds thousands of years before computers were invented. If we are right, then just as pilots’ skills dealing with unanticipated events improve when they spend time in a flight simulator, so people’s skills understanding themselves and others should improve when they spend time reading fiction.

Later in this essay I will describe some of the methods we have used to explore and, we believe, to demonstrate the transformative power of fiction in readers. First, let me give you some examples of transformation in the fictions themselves. Those I have chosen deal with love, sex and in some cases marriage, mine fields fiction writers enjoy picking their way across. Some of these works you may recognize, others not, but all of them involve a profound change in the attitudes, behaviour, thoughts and emotions of the characters.

Anton Chekhov’s “The Lady with the Dog” is widely regarded as one of the world’s greatest short stories. It starts with a self-involved married man, Gurov, on holiday in the seaside town of Yalta. He sees a lady walking a dog and makes her acquaintance. She is married and also on her own in Yalta. Her name is Anna, and Gurov starts going about with her. They have an affair, and then return to their spouses. But back in Moscow, rather than the memory of the affair fading slowly and pleasantly, Gurov finds he can only think of Anna. He travels to her town, and he and she arrange to see each other from time to time. Instead of doing what he has previously done, abandoning the women he has had affairs with and getting on with his life, he is transformed. His self-absorption becomes generosity toward Anna. The story ends with the narrator saying that although it seemed to both Gurov and Anna that a lovely new life might be possible, their most difficult period was only just beginning.

Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is another transformative story. It depicts a love that grows only gradually between Elizabeth and the story’s suitable man, Mr. Darcy, as each of them transforms from disdain to understanding. Things start at a low point. At a dance, Darcy, who from his breeding should represent the height of good manners, refuses to dance with anyone except the sisters of his close friend Bingley. He says to Bingley about Elizabeth, loudly enough to be overheard: “She is tolerable; but not handsome enough to tempt me; and I am in no humour at present to give consequence to young ladies who are slighted by other men.”

In this novel, the trail of clues, like an investigation of the detective genre that would come later, requires the making of inferences that are very engaging for the reader. In Pride and Prejudice, these inferences are made in conversations and revelations. This is a novel not of forensic explanation but of social explanation, of how such a shocking thing was said and what it might mean about Darcy.

Romance stories that have followed Pride and Prejudice—including those of the very successful Canadian publisher Harlequin—tend, like Austen’s story, to start with a man who in many ways is eligible but who behaves aggressively or in a sexist or self-involved way. At the start of the story, he is not a complete human being. The heroine’s task is to transform him by a kind of alchemy into a man who is capable of love. Early in the novel, because Bingley is in love with Elizabeth’s sister Jane, Darcy has the opportunity to observe her, and comes to respect Elizabeth’s “mixture of sweetness and archness in her manner” so that, were it not for what he regards as the inferiority of her family connections, he thinks he would be in danger of falling for her. By the middle of the book he has fallen for her, and proposes. Elizabeth is insulted by the way in which, in his proposal, he emphasizes his social status in comparison with hers, and she rejects him. As she discovers more about him, however, she comes to respect him so that when, toward the end of the book, Darcy saves her youngest sister, Lydia, from a shameful situation in a way that only she knows about, she warms to him. She thanks him, and says:

“Let me thank you again and again, in the name of all my family, for that generous compassion which induced you to take so much trouble, and bear so many mortifications …”

“If you will thank me,” he replied, “let it be for yourself alone … your family owe me nothing. Much as I respect them, I believe I thought only of you … You are too generous to trifle with me. If your feelings are still what they were last April, tell me so at once …”

Elizabeth, feeling all the more than common awkwardness and anxiety of his situation, now forced herself to speak; and immediately, though not very fluently, gave him to understand that her sentiments had undergone so material a change, since the period to which he alluded, as to make her receive with gratitude and pleasure his present assurances. The happiness which this reply produced, was such as he had probably never felt before; and he expressed himself on the occasion as sensibly and warmly as a man violently in love can be supposed to do.

In the course of the story, Darcy’s attitude—indeed the inner movements of his being—has transformed.

Between the publication of Pride and Prejudice and today, of course, huge societal transformations have taken place in Europe and North America in relations between the sexes. Let’s consider a short story written about halfway between Austen’s time and our own, published by Kate Chopin, in Vogue in 1894. It is called “The Dream of an Hour.” It starts like this:

In her room, Mrs. Mallard collapses into an armchair as if exhausted, emits occasional sobs and stares from her open window at trees and patches of blue in a cloudy sky. She hears street sounds and sparrows twittering in the eaves. Then comes this:

There was something coming to her and she was waiting for it, fearfully. What was it? She did not know; it was too subtle and elusive to name. But she felt it, creeping out of the sky, reaching toward her through the sounds, the scents, the color that filled the air.

Now her bosom rose and fell tumultuously. She was beginning to recognize this thing that was approaching to possess her, and she was striving to beat it back with her will—as powerless as her two white slender hands would have been.

When she abandoned herself a little whispered word escaped her slightly parted lips. She said it over and over under her breath: “free, free, free!”

Knowing that Mrs. Mallard was afflicted with a heart trouble, great care was taken to break to her as gently as possible the news of her husband’s death … She wept at once, with sudden, wild abandonment, in her sister’s arms. When the storm of grief had spent itself she went away to her room alone. She would have no one follow her.

This story was written during the early years of the feminist movement. Kate Chopin points readers toward alternative ways of thinking about marital relationships. Her depiction of Mrs. Mallard’s transformative emotion, growing from the inchoate to the distinct, is striking, as is its implicit allegory for how the women’s movement might grow. It was not that the Mallards’ marriage was especially bad, or even that Mrs. Mallard did not love her husband. Marriage at the time carried more general implications. Mrs. Mallard thinks: “There would be no powerful will bending hers in that blind persistence with which men and women believe they have a right to impose a private will upon a fellow-creature.”

In our own time, few writers depict the ambiguities of sexual connection better than Alice Munro. Her stories tend to focus on the relational and the way in which actions of the unconscious, or barely conscious, mind affect others. Her story “The Bear Came over the Mountain,” which was then transformed by Sarah Polley into the movie Away from Her, starring Julie Christie and Gordon Pinsent, deals with a married couple, Grant and Fiona. He was a professor who had affairs with students, and then, “without making the error of a confession—he promised Fiona a new life.” He took early retirement. They moved to the country, and 20 years later Fiona’s mind starts to fail.

When she moves into a nursing home, Grant is not allowed to visit for the first month, so she can settle in without the wrench of the familiar. When he does visit, changes have occurred. Fiona is polite but appears not to know him as her husband. An aphasic man in a wheelchair has become the object of her affection. In Grant’s mind, the juxtaposition of Fiona’s new relationship with the memory of his sexual disloyalty presses heavily on him. Fiona has always had an ironic side to her, and Grant wonders whether she is not now putting on a kind of performance for him. Here she is in a community that, like the university, has its own rules and customs, that is closed to outsiders.

Grant finds himself yearning strongly for Fiona even in her mentally diminished state. He continues to visit, although he has no real place in the nursing home. He feels increasingly altruistic toward his wife. Could this change be reparation prompted by guilt? The story takes us through a series of transformations and brings us close to Grant and Fiona. What takes place between them points to something about love that is extraordinarily touching.

For a final example, let’s turn to poetry; not just any poetry, but the sonnet form, which is specifically structured to effect a transformation between the octave (its first eight lines) and the sestet (its last six lines). Here is Shakespeare’s 27th sonnet:

Weary with toil, I haste me to my bed,
The dear repose for limbs with travel tired;
But then begins a journey in my head,
To work my mind, when body’s work’s expired:

For then my thoughts (from far where I abide)
Intend a zealous pilgrimage to thee,
And keep my drooping eyelids open wide,
Looking on darkness which the blind do see;

Save that my soul’s imaginary sight
Presents thy shadow to my sightless view,
Which, like a jewel hung in ghastly night,
Makes black night beauteous, and her old face new

Lo! thus by day my limbs, by night my mind,
For thee, and for myself, no quietness find.

In the octave, it is as if the poet is writing a letter to his loved one. The poet says that although he is tired with his work, he has gone to bed but cannot sleep. He lies awake, thinking of his loved one. It is dark and this makes him, like a blind person, unable to see. Then there is a transformation into the sestet. Suddenly, the poet can see all too clearly, in his imagination. He sees the beloved’s shadow (meaning reflection as in a mirror, or outer behaviour), which is beautiful. In his imagination, the loved one is not lying quietly alone in bed. The poet imagines the beloved’s behaviour being shown off. The effect is ghastly. Now there is another transformation, into the last two lines of the sonnet, its final rhyming couplet. This part is no longer a letter, no longer the alarming thought that the beloved might be on display to someone else. It is a reflection on what goes on between the beloved and the poet. Although night is a time for quietness, the beloved is not quiet, nor is the poet. In this relationship, there is no quietness between them.

We know from this and other sonnets in the sequence that the poet fears his love is not fully reciprocated. This poem explores a transforming experience. As we read it, we can reflect on our own intimate relationships, how we might start to say something to a loved one, then suddenly find what we are saying transformed by an alarming realization, elaborated in the imagination.

The idea of transformation in literature is old. In the Poetics, Aristotle proposed that a good plot has a peripeteia, a turning point at which there occurs “a shift of what is being undertaken to the opposite … in accordance with probability and necessity.” If it is well done, despite its unexpectedness, we readers see it as a comprehensible transformation of the starting state. Yes, we think, that could happen, in just that way. Because our minds can reach out into this new state, it means—does it not?—that psychologically it is potentially part of us. We too can change mentally from what is ordinary and familiar toward something different. The writer does not intend the reader to believe or feel some particular thing. Rather he or she asks the reader, in effect: What do you think? What do you feel about this?

In our research, we have employed psychological methods to investigate effects of fiction in readers. One is the “Mind-in-the-Eyes” test, which measures empathy and understanding of others’ minds. Participants look at a series of photos of people’s eyes, as if seen through a letterbox and, for each image, choose the most appropriate of four words to describe what the person was feeling, such as “joking, flustered, desire, convinced.” We found that people who read mainly fiction had substantially greater empathy than those who read mainly non-fiction, and the more fiction people read the better they were at this test. Another method was an interpersonal perception test in which subjects watched 15 short video clips of social interactions between people, then had to say what was going on. In one clip, for example, they were asked which of two children, or neither, was the offspring of the two adults in the scene. Although the effect was not so large, those who read predominantly fiction performed better on this test than those who read predominantly non-fiction. We have found, too, that the effect does not depend on people with a particular kind of personality being attracted to reading fiction.

To investigate how fiction might affect a reader’s sense of identity, we randomly assigned 166 participants to read either “The Lady with the Dog,” Chekhov’s short story that I described at the beginning of this essay, or a control text—a version of the story rewritten in documentary form as the proceedings of a divorce court. The texts were the same length and had the same characters, content and reading difficulty. The readers found the control text just as interesting but not as artistic as Chekhov’s story. Before and after reading, our participants completed questionnaires that assessed their personality traits and their emotions. We found that people who read the Chekhov story underwent larger changes in personality than those who read the control text, with the types of changes varying from person to person. Results from the emotions questionnaire indicated that the personality changes were mediated by the emotions experienced while reading.

We believe that readers of the literary story were more easily taken out of themselves. Probably they found it easier to identify and empathize with the characters than did readers of the documentary version. They perhaps became a bit more like the characters—each in his or her own way—or else perhaps they found themselves disapproving of the characters’ actions. In any event, the readers’ personalities loosened up somewhat. Although the changes we measured were probably temporary, repeated reading of fiction may have more lasting effects.

In this study, we found that the same information can have different effects simply because of the form in which it is written. Perhaps this has something to do with the way the brain processes fiction. In our daily lives we use mental models to work out the possible outcomes of actions we take as we pursue our projects in the world. Fiction is written in a way that encourages us to identify with at least some of the characters, so that in a story we suspend our own goals and insert those of a protagonist into the processes by which we usually direct our own plans and actions.

This is why I liken fiction to a simulation that runs on the software of our minds. Fiction is not best thought of as something that is just made up. It is best thought of as narrative with the subject matter of selves in the social world. It is a simulation that is useful because negotiating the social world effectively is extremely tricky, requiring us to weigh up myriad interacting causes and effects. Just as computer simulations can help people negotiate complex tasks such as flying a plane, so novels, stories and dramas can help us understand the complexities of social life.

So should we worry about the development of social skills in societies in which reading is on the wane? Perhaps not. As yet, we have investigated only reading, but we suspect people derive comparable benefits from films of the more thoughtful kind, perhaps even from computer games: those that are not just shoot-’em-up scenarios, but that also are based in simulations of social worlds. In its many guises, fiction continues to be a primary source of entertainment. Our research shows that it can be far more than that.

  1. You can read about the work of this research group at http://www.onfiction.ca.