Empathy is one of the things that distinguish a human being from other species. This concept can be understood as the ability of an individual to recognize and understand the feelings and emotions of another person.
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In some cases, the word empathy implies that a person can accept the humanity of others despite social, economic, or political differences. This paper is aimed at discussing two novels, namely The Reluctant Fundamentalist written by Mohsin Hamid and Flight by Sherman Alexie. These novels have recently attracted much attention of critics and scholars.
One of the main themes that the authors explore is that the ability to empathize can often be impeded by the borders of race, nationality or culture. Moreover, it can be limited by the memories of violence, humiliation, and loss. Nevertheless, both Mohsin Hamid and Sherman Alexie create protagonists who can transcend these borders. These authors focus on the idea that empathy is essential for the fulfilling life of an individual. The writers also undermine popular stereotypes about the behavior of an individual.
For instance, Mohsin Hamid shows that the need to achieve success does not deprive people of their ability to feel loyalty to ones country or fellow countrymen. In turn, Sherman Alexie demonstrates that different worldviews and ideologies do not necessarily separate people and make them hostile to one another. These are the main questions that should be examined in more detail.
Special attention should be paid to the narrative techniques that the writers employ. They rely on the first-person narration which is particular suitable in those cases, when the author wants to focus on the feelings, attitudes, and emotions of the protagonist, rather than people with whom he/she interacts.
For instance, Sherman Alexie starts his novel with the following introduction. ‘Call me Zits. Everybody calls me Zits. That’s not my real name, of course. My real name isn’t important’ (Alexie 1). To a great extent, this is an allusion to the famous novel Moby Dick by Herman Melville. Similarly, at the beginning of Mohsin Hamid’s novel, Changez introduces himself to the reader and identifies oneself as a Pakistani.
Overall, this form of narrative voice is important because it implies that the major characters may be very subjective when evaluating the behavior of other people and their own actions. Overall, such form of story-telling is often regarded as unreliable narration. It is possible to say that subjectivity is one of the things that prevent a person from being empathetic because he/she is unable to place oneself in the position of others or look at the problem from a different perspective.
This statement is particularly applicable to Zits and his unjustified hatred toward others. Moreover, they tend to focus on their own experiences and may disregard the feelings of others. So, extreme subjectivity is one the main challenges that both Changez and Zits have to overcome.
There is another thing that Zits and Changez have in common. They are aware that they are different from the majority of the population since they are perceived as non-white people. They also understand that they may not be fully accepted by others. This is one of the things that the protagonists are keenly aware of.
For instance, Changez knows that as a Pakistani he had to face more challenges when he was applying to Princeton (Hamid 4). In turn, Zits also understands that he has a complex identity. In particular, the protagonist says, “I’m not really Irish or Indian. I’m a blank sky, a human solar eclipse” (Alexie 5). He cannot identify with any particular group in part because he has never felt the care of his mother or father (Hamid 3).
This lack of care is the underlying cause of his animosity toward others. On the whole, the problem of identity is important for each of these characters. Changez wants to become a full member of the new society, but at the same time, he is attached to his Pakistani heritage.
In turn, Zits is convinced that the community in which he leaves is hostile to him, in part because his father was a Native American. Thus, the concept of identity plays an important role in each of these novels. In both cases, the characters understand that they are different from others. This is one of the main things that should be taken into account by the readers of these novels.
One can identify other barriers that can make empathy very difficult for the protagonists. For instance, Changez has to be competitive in the workplace, and this competition prompts an individual to focus on his/her strengths, but it is difficult for him/her to be sentimental or compassionate.
On the whole, the author shows that Changez’ need to achieve success as a professional and his willingness to integrate himself into the society can often impede his ability to empathize with other human beings. Changez has a chance to climb a career ladder in the firm but he eventually rejects this opportunity and returns to his homeland. So, one should remember about this decision when discussing this character. This is the critical moment in the development of his character and his attitudes toward others.
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In his turn, Zits is afflicted by the memories of abuse both at home and in school. He cannot expect anything good from other people, especially from adults. Moreover, this boy is keenly aware of the social inequality that has become typical of the modern American society. For instance, Zits says, “I hate my country. There are so many rich people who do not share” (Alexie 26). It should be noted that this boy frequently uses the word hate, and it is directed against various social, ethnic, or religious groups.
The protagonist does not explain why he feels in such a way. He cannot even accept the possibility that other people can face the same misfortunes. Certainly, one has to admit that this boy has endured a lot of suffering, but he cannot accept that other people do not deserve his hatred. So, at the beginning of the novel, empathy is not typical of him and he even tries to reject it. This is how the character behaves at the very beginning.
Nevertheless, Mohsin Hamid and Sherman Alexie show that an individual can overcome these obstacles that prevent a person from being empathetic. To some extent, they are able to recognize the humanity of other people and see that they can encounter the same problems. However, their empathy takes different forms.
When speaking about Changez, one should first speak about the September 11 attacks and increasing suspicion of Pakistani people. This is why Changez begins to empathize with his compatriots, especially when he notices that they can be treated unjustly. This is why he quits his job at a prestigious consulting firm and prefers to move back to Pakistan. On the whole, the behavior of this character undermines the so-called common sense story according to which an individual strives primarily for success.
Certainly, it is important for the wellbeing of a person, but he/she also wants to have a sense of belonging to a certain community. Without it the life of a person can hardly be fulfilling. This is one of the reasons why Changez chooses to highlight his Pakistani descent, for example, by growing his beard (Hamid 130).
Later, he decides to become a teacher in a Pakistani university, but he could have made a career in a prestigious American firm. This is how he deviates from the traditional common-sense story. Still, one should bear in mind that his empathy is primarily directed to his compatriots; Mohsin Hamid does not show that Changez can be equally compassionate toward people representing other nationalities or religions. So, his empathy still has national boundaries and to a great extent it is very limited.
The main protagonist of Flight also undergoes a dramatic change. Sherman Alexie is able to create a series of flashbacks during which Zits places himself in the position of other people. For example, he sees himself as a mute Indian boy, an Indian hunter, and most importantly the father of the protagonists. On the whole, these flashbacks demonstrate to him that his hatred leads only to self-destruction. He can see that other people can encounter the same problems or similar forms of injustice.
Thus, he can see the futility of violence and its adverse impacts on an individual. He understands that his deviant behavior, such as shooting can actually harm other people who have nothing to do with problems. So, in this way, Sherman Alexie was able to show how empathy could overcome such barriers as the memory of loss and the feeling of alienation.
Only when he comes to this conclusion, he finds the family where he can feel at rest. On the whole, Sherman Alexie has been able to show the transformation of the main character and this is one of his major achievements as a writer.
These novels tell the stories of people are different in terms of age, education, nationality, and cultural background. However, they struggle to find their way to empathy. The protagonist of Sherman Alexie’s novel is affected by alienation from others, abuse, and the feeling of loss. This is one of the reasons why he is obsessed with hatred, and the very idea of empathy is unacceptable to him. In his turn, Changez is affected by the need to achieve success and integrate himself into the society.
However, due to various external factors, the main characters realize that the ability to empathize is critical for the happiness of a human being. It gives a person a sense of belonging. This is one of the messages that Sherman Alexie and Mohsin Hamid try to convey. The main message that the writers try to convey is that political, cultural or national differences do not deprive a person of his/her right to empathy.
Alexie, Sherman. Flight, New York: Grove Press, 2007. Print.
Hamid, Mohsin. The Reluctant Fundamentalist, New York: Harcourt, 2007. Print.