Empathy, Ethics, and Justice in Children's War Literature

Veldhuizen, V., 2020, (Unpublished) [Cambridge]: University of Cambridge. 221 p.

Research output: ThesisThesis fully external

Using cognitive narratology, this theoretical thesis examines how the three linked concepts of empathy, ethics and justice are created and communicated in children’s war literature. Due to the divisive nature of war literature, the basis of this thesis lies on the in- and outgroup theory of empathy, according to which the extend of our empathy is strongly tied to who we identify as “like us” (ingroup) or “unlike us” (outgroup). The limits of our empathy have a direct influence on both our moral frameworks and our ability to perceive the ethical implications of textual actions and characterisation; if we are not empathically engaged, the consequences of a character’s motivations and actions are irrelevant to us. In complex situations like those in war stories there is another layer of moral importance; justice. The reason for going to war, how it is conducted, and how it is resolved are so specific that they have their own justice philosophy. Children cannot be assumed to be aware of this, or to have the power to influence it. Yet it plays a significant part in children’s war literature. This thesis argues that in children’s war literature empathy, ethics, and justice build on each other in a bottom-up manner. It then further examines how this is achieved in the genre, and what its potential impact on the reader may be.
The thesis examines this by analysing the construction and communication of each concept separately in a bottom-up approach, starting with empathy and ending with justice. These sections are divided up into two chapters dedicated to the narrative techniques most relevant to the concept analysed, in a top-down approach, starting with narrators and ending with scripts. A different novel is analysed for each technique, both to demonstrate the argument using the most appropriate example, and to showcase the patterns within the genre. The thesis concludes that through these narrative techniques a complex web of empathy, ethics, and justice is constructed, in which each technique plays a direct role in the concept communicated to the reader. Because young readers are still developing cognitively, as well as building their life experience and reading skills, children’s war literature can provide a strongly influential training ground for them to learn and grow as empathic and moral people.
Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • University of Cambridge, UK
  • Nikolajeva, Maria, Supervisor, External person
Place of Publication[Cambridge]
Publication statusUnpublished - 2020
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