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Empathy for the devil: The poetics of identification in psychopath fiction

Bentham, AA 2014, Empathy for the devil: The poetics of identification in psychopath fiction , PhD thesis, University of Salford.

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As Philip L. Simpson notes, humankind has an ‘ongoing...fascination with tales of gruesome murders and evil villains’ (15). Popular culture abounds with depictions of the mad and the bad; and perhaps no single disorder holds as much morbid appeal as psychopathy, the baffling condition which combines what Hervey M. Cleckley terms a ‘mask of sanity’, with a seeming lack of the qualities usually deemed to constitute humanity. My thesis focuses on how authors have sought to explain, interpret and understand the psychopathic individual, and explores how literary techniques have manipulated readers’ responses to the moral questions posed by psychopathic characters. Between the mid-nineteenth century and the present day, authors have increasingly used empathetic narrative techniques to encourage readers to identify with and accept the villains whose stories they so voraciously consume. I track the transitions in narrative style, structure and form which take us from depictions of the psychopath as fiendish ‘other’, for example Rigaud in Charles Dickens’s Little Dorrit, to modern portrayals of the psychopathic murderer as hero, as seen in Jeff Lindsay’s series of Dexter novels. I consider what the reader gains from reading such material and how we as readers negotiate the paradox of empathising with characters who are themselves incapable of empathy. I also explore whether cultural fascination with the psychopath is based on a desire to understand the workings of the psychopathic mind, a perverse delight in our fear of the aberrant ‘other’, or whether it reveals something altogether darker and more disturbing about ourselves.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Themes: Memory, Text and Place
Schools: Schools > School of Arts & Media
Funders: Non funded research
Depositing User: AA Bentham
Date Deposited: 11 Jul 2014 12:27
Last Modified: 10 May 2016 11:45

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