Empathy allows us enter into another person's emotions and feel a little bit of what they are feeling. Literature helps us increase our empathy for others, for it offers us a variety of perspectives that are quite different from our own and immerses us the lives, thoughts, and emotions of the characters.
Alice Walker's story "Everyday Use" gives us an idea of the relationships between a mother and her daughters. The narrator, the mother, has had a rough life. She is a rough woman who has worked hard all her life, has survived a devastating fire, and continues to live in her straightforward, practical way. Her daughter Dee, however, wants something different from life, and she is embarrassed by her mother (an embarrassment her mother feels and regrets). Dee has abandoned her immediate heritage to find herself in her far African past, even taking a new name to separate herself from her own life. She wants the things of her heritage now only for their artistic value, not for their meaning to the family.
The narrator's other daughter, Maggie, was injured in the fire and still bears the scars. She is painfully shy, yet she knows and appreciates her entire heritage. Unlike Dee, Maggie uses what she has, even the quilts that Dee wants to uphold as art objects. Maggie understands the true value in what she has, and her mother gives the quilts to Maggie, who finally smiles a real smile, having realized that her mother values her for who she is.
As we enter into the perspectives of these three characters, we, too, learn empathy that leads us to reflect on the value of our own heritage and how we appreciate and use the objects around us. We realize with Maggie and her mother that making something of ourselves is not the most important thing in life, but that it is rather learning who we really are and enjoying what we have right now.
The poem "If We Must Die" by Claude McKay also provides us with a certain empathy. The speaker reflects on what makes a good death. "If we must die," he declares, it will not be like caged or hunted animals. "If we must die," he continues, it should not be in vain. It should be in defiance and for honor. The speaker proclaims, "Like men we'll face the murderous, cowardly pack" and die "fighting back."
By reading this poem, we feel the anger of the speaker at the injustice he and his companions have suffered. We feel his disgust at being mocked and his determination to stand up to those who are oppressing him. We get a sense of the commitment to persevere even in the face of threats and violence and to go down fighting for what one believes.