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Resisting Focalisation, Gaining Empathy: Swedish Teenagers Read Irish Fiction

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Resisting the will to empathise with a focalised character is assumed to be difficult for young readers, yet empirical evidence on how they actually respond is limited. This paper combines recent insights gleaned from cognitive literary studies with a small-scale empirical study of thirty-five Swedish adolescents reading an Irish short story in order to investigate how teenagers respond to a text which is strongly focalised through a single character. The students were asked to rewrite the events in the story from another character’s point of view. Their texts were coded and analysed, as were follow-up interviews with six students. The findings indicate that Swedish-speaking teenage readers rarely have difficulty resisting focalisation, but they often struggle with irony.

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  1. One student wrote that he agreed with Jackie’s interpretation of the events and provided parallels from his own family life. Another student attempted to retell the story, but retained Jackie’s perspective. The focalisation of the narrative may have been irresistible to both students, or they may have simply misunderstood the task. Both were excluded from our study because we were unable to determine what the texts reveal about the students’ understanding of the story.

  2. Several students chose names that did not reflect their sex. Readers should not assume they know the sex of those we cite.

  3. In qualitative research like ours, where one is endeavouring not to manipulate the conditions but rather to capture the day-to-day reality of education, the term “ecological validity” is used to describe the extent to which the data reflect the “normal” situation.


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The research for this article was funded by The Marcus and Amalia Wallenberg Foundation.

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Correspondence to Lydia Kokkola.

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Eva Fjällström is writing her PhD on literary texts in EFL education under a cotutelle agreement between Åbo Akademi University (Finland) and Luleå University of Technology (Sweden).

Lydia Kokkola is Professor of English and Education at Luleå University of Technology. Her main areas of research include reading in a foreign language, Holocaust studies and adolescent fiction. Her most recent study, Fictions of Carnality, has been published by John Benjamins.

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Fjällström, E., Kokkola, L. Resisting Focalisation, Gaining Empathy: Swedish Teenagers Read Irish Fiction. Child Lit Educ 46, 394–409 (2015).

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