How Do we Know What Fictive Characters Feel? The Reader as ‘legilimens’ of Rowling’s Cho Chang and Vergil’s Dido Dido and Aeneas, by Pompeo Batoni (1707-1787), picture from Wiki-Commons

How Do we Know What Fictive Characters Feel? The Reader as ‘legilimens’ of Rowling’s Cho Chang and Vergil’s Dido

‘One person can’t feel all this at once, they’d explode’. Hermione Granger is met with disbelief, after explaining a friend’s many emotions. Her snappy retort: ‘Just because you’ve got the emotional range of a teaspoon, doesn’t mean we all have’. But how (by Merlin’s beard) can she explain all this?

In this scene from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2003: 406), Harry Potter and Ron Weasly are puzzled as to why Cho was crying during her kiss with Harry, but Hermione is able to give them a lengthy and detailed enumeration of Cho’s feelings. Is Hermione Granger a legilimens? In the world of Rowling’s Harry Potter a legilimens has the magical power to read other persons’ minds. And while her teaspoon-resembling friend Ron Weasley clearly does not have this power, Hermione indeed seems to be able to read the mind of Harry Potter’s girlfriend Cho Chang. Hermione interprets Cho’s tears as a visible, external feature of Cho’s feelings of guilt, her worries, her uncertainty and her fear. Cho feels guilty because her former boyfriend has recently died, she is worried about what people will say regarding her new relationship, she cannot really figure out her feelings for Harry and she is afraid that she will be thrown off her sports team. Ron does seem right in his evaluation that this is quite a mixed bag of emotions, for just one person. But Hermione’s interpretation does seem to make sense.

Does this mean that Hermione has used legilimency? Not unless readers have this magical skill too: Hermione has used the same skills and knowledge with which readers imagine what it is like for a character to be in a particular situation. Readers combine information from the story with information from outside the text. That is, readers use their own pre-existing knowledge and experiences to make sense of what happens in a story and, thus, of what characters feel. They use emotional schemata to attribute feelings to characters. Hermione combines the information about Cho’s tears with what she already knows about Cho and, more generally, about emotional schemata or roles that are applicable to Cho. Cho is bereaved of her partner, has found a new love and has certain duties to fulfill. When she cries, Hermione reasons, this is due to the impossible combination of all these roles.

Hermione’s explanation of Cho’s feelings illustrates several aspects of the presentation of emotions in stories. First, Hermione shows that you can use an emotional schema, information from outside the text, to attribute feelings to a character that are not otherwise made explicit. Second, her speech is an example of how narrators may use a character to fulfil one of their own tasks, in this case the explanation of the emotions of a character. Third, the example illustrates at least two forms of possible textual expressions of emotions: tears as a visible external feature of emotion and explicit emotional words like ‘sad’, ‘confused’, ‘feeling guilty’ and ‘afraid’. A fourth aspect is the role of narratorial choices in guiding the comprehension process of the reader. It is the primary narrator who is responsible for this combination of Hermione as a secondary narrator and her use of explicit emotional words. These choices befit the genre and target group of the series. A certain level of clarification seems necessary for Young Adult readers resembling Ron and Harry, but an overtly narratorial explanation would, at the same time, be patronizing to readers resembling Hermione, who can figure out stuff like this by themselves. The narrator avoids being patronizing by making use of Hermione in a way that befits her character. An added bonus of these narratorial choices is the entertaining teaspoon exchange.

Teaspoon, picture taken from Wiki-Commons

The character of Dido in Vergil’s Aeneid is not unlike Cho Chang. She, too, is bereaved of her first partner and finds new love, while she, as a queen, also has clear duties to fulfill. We can analyze the presentation of her emotions in the Aeneid using the aspects above. Dido, firstly, evokes many emotional schemata that a reader can use to attribute emotions to her. Dido’s husband was killed, she fled her own country and founded her own new city, Carthage. Aeneas, a Trojan hero destined to found Rome, arrives at her shore and Dido falls in love. This is an unhappy love. Dido kills herself when she realizes that Aeneas will abandon her. Thus, Dido’s life contains at least the following schemata: widow, refugee, queen, Carthaginian and abandoned lover. The schema of a Carthaginian, for Roman readers, evokes associations with unreliability and danger. That of an abandoned lover might remind them of other abandoned – and resentful! – lovers like Medea. Dido’s emotions, secondly, are not only presented by the primary narrator of the Aeneid, but the narrator also lets characters talk and think about them. The goddess Juno, for instance, observes that ‘Dido is on fire with love and has drawn the madness through her veins’ (4.100). Dido herself, too, talks and thinks about her feelings at many occasions, giving direct insight into her own perception of the events and her inner life.

Third, a wide range of textual expressions is used to convey Dido’s emotions. We find explicit emotional words and descriptions of external and internal physical processes (‘the madness draws through her veins’). The narration of Dido’s behavior, e.g. hanging on Aeneas’ every word, is telling of her emotions, as are similes comparing the excited participants of Bacchic rites, for instance. Even the space of her city contributes: activities in Carthage thrive and decline according to Dido’s mood. An important fourth aspect in the attribution of emotions are choices of a narrator on each of the three earlier aspects. A narrator can stimulate or downplay the ways in which readers experience the emotions of a character, by giving more or less attention to certain schemata. In the Aeneid, most attention is giving to Dido as a queen and as a lover, and the conflict that arises between these two roles. The full range of textual expressions is used by the narrator to express these emotions, often in combination. When Dido starts to fall in love (4.1-89), we find Dido and a friend discussing her feelings (secondary narrators), Dido cries and feels love and hope surge through her body (internal and external processes), she wanders through her city like a wounded deer (behavior and simile), while all activity in this city has come to a standstill (space). These narratorial choices together result in an impressive and immersive passage in which readers become highly involved in Dido’s inner life.

Readers can read the minds of fictive characters like Cho Chang or Dido by combining information from outside the text with information from within the text. And, within this text, narratorial choices play an important role in highlighting or downplaying certain emotions. This may, by way of conclusion, be illustrated when we return, once more, to the Harry Potter series. Whereas Cho’s emotions are spelled out by Hermione, the narrator does not treat all feelings in the story this overtly. An example is the love between Ron and Hermione. Harry, Hermione and, especially, Ron do not – or cannot – talk or think about this love in explicit terms until very late in the series. The narrator, however, does use the behavior of Ron and Hermione to suggest how they feel about each other. Strange and childish reactions of both Ron and Hermione throughout the series make sense when interpreted as the jealous actions of teenagers in love (e.g. a squadron of little birds conjured by Hermione to attack Ron). Thus, their actions prepare attentive readers for their later outburst of love.

This blog post is partly based on my article ‘Unhappy Dido, Queen of Carthage’, which can be found in the Mnemosyne Supplement Emotions and Narrative in Ancient Literature and Beyond. This book, published in honor of Irene de Jong, is an excellent starting point for anyone who wants to know more about the presentation of emotions in Greek, Latin and other literatures.

References and Suggestions for Further Reading

Cairns, D., Nelis, D. (eds). 2017. Emotions in the Classical World. Stuttgart.

Henkes, L. 2022. Affective Animation: How Disney Pixar Movies Make Us Cry. Leiden Arts in Society Blog. https://www.leidenartsinsocietyblog.nl/articles/affective-animation-how-disney-pixar-movies-make-us-cry

Rowling, J. K. 2003. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. London.

Sluiter, I., B. Corthals, M. van Duijn, M. Verheij. 2013. ‘In het hoofd van Medea. Gedachtenlezen bij een moordende moeder’, Lampas 46, 3-20.

De Temmerman, K., E. van Emde Boas (eds). 2017. Characterization in Ancient Greek Literature. Leiden.

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