So relatable? Literature and "relatability"

Image credit: Samuel George Morton

I had already had some contact with Shakespeare by the time I read Hamlet for the first time, and I had enjoyed the poetry of it – but I had never really related to it, nor expected to. What, after all, could a character in an Elizabethan revenge tragedy, who speaks in Early Modern English, have to do with me?

Yet, reading the play, I felt the shock of affinity. Unlike most of Shakespeare’s male protagonists, Hamlet was not a soldier: he was a thinker. He felt anger at the hypocrisy he saw around him. ‘I know not “seems”’, he said, and he was tormented by the limitations of our volatile humanness on our aspirations and ideals: ‘O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space—were it not that I have bad dreams’. All this resonated deeply with my typical angsty teenage self, and seeing my own thoughts and half-ideas articulated so eloquently made me feel like Shakespeare understood me better than I understood myself.

But the striking thing was not merely that the play that moved me – it was the fact that this was something written by someone centuries long dead, and that I could relate to it. In literature, “relatability” can mean a feeling of connection with our shared humanity that transcends the times and spaces in which the writer and reader live. As Alan Bennett so beautifully put it, ‘The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – which you had thought special and particular to you. Now here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours.’

The problem comes when a lack of “relatability” is put forward as a criticism, in a way that implies that relating to the characters or situation is the only way we can enjoy literature. There are many elements to a character that you may find distancing or “unrelatable”, some of these more superficial than others. Occasionally, of course, an unrelatable book is just badly written. But a text can use unrelatable characters as a device. I can’t relate to any of the characters in The Importance of Being Earnest because they are quite clearly ludicrous – but this adds to the humour and gives edge to the satire.

And of course literature can teach us about the experiences of people we cannot relate to. Last year, I read Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings, which gives vivid voice to a broad cast of characters from 20th-century Jamaica. Many of these are gangsters, and their lives extremely violent: they are not the stuff of typical “canonical” literature. It is a valuable political move to give voice and context to people who are often depicted in caricature, or else erased from popular culture entirely. Of course, I can’t relate to much of what they experience, but what great literature does is allow us to empathise anyway. The book is not about you, but you can place the characters on a spectrum of humanity that enables you to understand better who they are and why they are this way: this character is not me, but if I had been born into a different life, it could have been. There is so much more to the human experience than what we experience in our own inner echo chamber. Putting ideas of the self aside when reading can end up expanding our own knowledge and, as a result, our ideas about humanity.

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