Challenging empathy and resisting compassion

narrative strategies in Alexis Wright's Plains of Promise and Doris Pilkington Garimara's Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle


Empathy (and its affiliates, sympathy, pity and compassion) involves a sense of inclusion through one’s imaginative inhabiting of the other’s perspective, but the notion of an empathic response is complicated when the indigenous text might become the object of the white reader’s compassion. This paper considers narrative strategies employed in Alexis Wright’s Plains of Promise (1997) and Doris Pilkington-Garimara’s Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence (1996) that work to resist or enhance readers’ empathic identification with the suffering of the indigenous characters, in particular the mothers and daughters. A key technique used in narrative fiction and narrative nonfiction is focalisation, the means by which a text conveys the perspectives of the narration or characters. This paper traces the deployment of different levels and modes of focalisation in the two works. It argues that in Plains of Promise that the text’s construction consistently resists enabling a reader’s empathic response. This is not a failure of communication within the text but part of its expressive sovereignty.
Original languageEnglish
JournalJournal of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature
Issue number2
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 1 Sep 2019


  • Indigenous Literature
  • empathy
  • colonisation
  • narrative technique
  • Australian Literature
  • Mothering
  • Stolen Generations

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