CHAPTER ONE INTRODUCTION
1.1 Stephen King and His Works
Stephen King is a famous contemporary American writer who specializes in horror novels. Born September 21, 1947, in Portland, Maine, King was only two years old when his father left home on the pretext of buying cigarettes, and he has been living with his mother and brother ever since. The King family relied on relatives for financial support during King’s childhood. They moved frequently and didn’t settle in Maine until King was 11. As a result of his childhood experiences, King develops an introverted personality and a very keen sense of observation. He has found Lovecraft’s The Lurker at the Threshold left by his father and can hardly tear himself away from the horror genre. King has loved reading and writing since he was young, and his love of horror fiction has grown with time.
Clearly, King’s works reflect his personal experiences, and the simple moments of daily life have provided him with inspiration for his novels. King once characterized his high school years in 1962-1966 as “completely unremarkable”, describing himself as “tall and awkward, overweight, with buck teeth and coke-lens glasses” (Magistrale, AS 3). The fact that he is tortured because of his appearance and sensitivity has always resulted in him revisiting a sense of being a pariah in his high school years. During King’s early period of writings, most of his protagonists are teenagers who are rejected or abandoned by their peers. For instance, the heroine in Carrie is ridiculed and bullied by her peers because of her first menstrual period. Likewise, in Rage, a student shoots his teacher and then takes the entire school hostage to oppose teenage oppression. After graduating from high school in 1967, King studied English at the University of Maine and worked in gas stations and laundry rooms in order to pay for his tuition. King’s work experience not only brings him writing inspirations shown in Maximum Overdrive and The Mangler, but also teaches him the value of money and dedicated work. Therefore, he frequently portrays pragmatic working-class protagonists such as Dolores Claiborne, John Smith and Red Redding.
1.2 Theories of Empathy
1.2.1 Theory Development
In general, empathy refers to a person’s emotional experience that is the same as that of the observed when observing others in a certain emotional state. By putting oneself in another’s shoes, it is a kind of alternative emotional response that involves observing, discerning, and experiencing the feelings and emotions of another person (Li 121). According to the Oxford English dictionary, empathy means the ability to understand another person’s feelings, experiences, etc. Research shows that empathy is the basis of human interaction and the core expression of all psychological phenomena. It is possible that there would be no communication between people, no understanding of others, and no harmony in society in the absence of empathy. Empathy is a concept shared by different disciplines such as aesthetics, psychology, philosophy, psychoanalysis and ethics. Although they are illustrated differently in theoretical contexts, they highlight commonality over individuality.
Empathy first appeared in aesthetics. Friedrich Visher, a German aesthetician, put forward the “aesthetic function of symbols” in 1863. He believes that this function is “the humanization of objects” caused by “people projecting or feeling themselves into natural things”. His son Robert Visher created a new concept “Einfuhlung” based on his father’s idea in the following years. The word is composed of two roots “Ein” and “fuhlung”, meaning “to infiltrate feelings”, which is translated into “empathy” or “empathy affect”. (Zhu Guangqian 601)
CHAPTER TWO “ZERO DEGREES OF EMPATHY” IN THE SHADOW OF TIMES
2.1 Lack of Empathic Caring: Cold State Apparatus Executors
In Foucault’s view, the authority of the state never ceases to discipline its citizens. Regardless of the historical period, every authority seeks to establish a rational and legitimate discipline mechanism, as well as to penalize those who fail to comply with it. His study “analyses punitive methods not simply as consequences of legislation or as indicators of social structures, but as techniques possessing their own specificity in the more general field of other ways of exercising power and regards punishment as a political tactic” (23). In order to implement these political tactics, the state apparatus and the “people” who work for them come into being.
In Firestarter, published in 1980 and setting during the Cold War, King presents a group of cold-blooded and ruthless people who serve the state apparatus. Following World War II, the US executed the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, and the North Atlantic Treaty, demonstrating a determined effort to confront the Soviet Union from political, economic, and cultural angles. The Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union became increasingly tense in the 1970s. Military and economic competition cause a frenzied exploitation and plundering of natural resources, and the ecological environment suffers substantial damage from biochemical weapons and industrial pollution. People’s suicidal behaviors lead themselves to the path of extinction (Tian 52). In the background of the Cold War, both the U.S. and the Soviet Union are racking their brains to improve their strength in all areas, and biological warfare has become widely popular.
2.2 Lack of Empathic Caring: Indifferent Bystanders
In the shadow of the particular era, there are not only spokesmen and executors of the cruel and violent state apparatus, but also bystanders who choose to remain indifferent to human cruelty. They do not actively commit acts of harm, but accept the role of accomplices to “evil”.
King depicts such a suffocating picture of the end of the world in The Long Walk. Although the novel tells a story that takes place in the “possible world” of the future, it echoes the real world in the United States. In the highly authoritarian, military-controlled United States, a man known as The Major is the head of the military government, and every year 100 boys under the age of 18 are chosen to compete in a cross-state road Competition. It is important to note that the entire process is monitored by high-tech chariot soldiers at all times. Whenever a competitor’s walking speed falls below four miles per hour for more than half a minute, a warning will be given, and after the third warning, the competitor will be “ticked” and mercilessly shot by the soldiers. There is no finish line and no escape allowed, and the winner who reaches the end can get any prize promised by The Major. This means that competitors will be sleepless all day for many consecutive days, even eating and urinating during the process. Although blisters and cramps sprout on their toes, wind, sunlight, hail, and rainstorms batter them, they cannot slow down or stop.
CHAPTER THREE “ZERO DEGREES OF EMPATHY” IN PATRIARCHAL FAMILIES .......... 30
3.1 Lack of Empathic Caring Between Husbands and Wives .............................. 30
3.1.1 Violent Confrontation ................................. 31
3.1.2 Self-Isolation ........................................ 34
CHAPTER FOUR CONCLUSION ....................................... 46
CHAPTER THREE “ZERO DEGREES OF EMPATHY” IN PATRIARCHAL FAMILIES
3.1 Lack of Empathic Caring Between Husbands and Wives
According to Rowland Miller, intimacy is one of the most fundamental aspects of human social behavior (1), and the husband-wife relationship, as a type of intimate relationship, has a strong ethical and emotional connection. It has been shown that a healthy relationship between couples is conducive to happiness of individuals and families, while the opposite can lead to endless psychological pain. The patriarchal family, as a form of hierarchy in the family, always results in female oppression. With various interpretations of the relationship between husbands and wives in a patriarchal family, King shows how male violence and male discourse lead to a lack of empathy in the family, furthering moral decline. Above all, King uses different family tragedies to confirm modern American society’s ethical crisis.
Magistrale has commented that King’s novels are full of macroscopic examinations of American life, with works published after the 1990s “tending to include a more realistic and sympathetic treatment of women” (AS 16). Due to the Baby Boom following World War II, thousands of women were left to take care of their children as full-time housewives. In this way, women are disadvantaged both within their households and in society as a whole due to a patriarchal society and its oppressive and violent practices. The married life depicts in Dolores Claiborne is a realistic portrayal of American family life during this time. Dolores’ tragic marriage appears more realistic and believable thanks to the first-person narration in this novel, which is one of King’s few novels that does not take on a supernatural dimension.
CHAPTER FOUR CONCLUSION
King’s work is nourished by postmodern popular culture and his personal upbringing experience. As demonstrated by his writing, the lack of empathy between oneself and others presents the complexity of human nature and exposes the different forms of problems in American society in terms of democratic politics, social production, education, marriage, ethics, and morality. It is common for these problems to erupt in extreme forms, creating a bizarre, horrific story atmosphere, but horror is only the means to an end in King’s narrative. Just as Magistrale says, “any attempt to access King’s contribution to the field of contemporary American fiction must account for those elements that distinguish his work from the artistically sloppy productions of other writers in the horror genre” (SD 149). The negative empathy expressed in King’s works reflects his deep humanistic concern. Moreover, reflective storytelling has succeeded in creating a “postmodern Gothic novel” with his own unique personality, bridging the gap between serious literature and popular fiction.
“King’s fictional universe is a profound awareness of the most emotional and deep-seated American anxieties” (Magistrale, SD 150). By studying the “zero degrees of empathy” in King’s novels, people can see how the writer presents the main idea through the plot and characters, as well as the various causes and forms of empathy deficiencies in modern society. There is a particular historical context in which ordinary public officials exhibit extreme ideological empathy erosion, treating others as objects and displaying brutal human nature; the bystanders are numb from too many brutal events and display the vulnerability of human empathy; the victims, also sacrificed by violent power, are forced to reduce their ability to empathize to zero because of their strong desire to survive.