Literature and tolerance in the Victorian era

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The research being carried out by Dr. Nina Engelhardt fills a gap in our understanding of tolerance as well as in (cognitive) literature, and her project has led to her being included in the Baden-Württemberg Foundation’s Elite Program for postdocs.

In public discourse, the word "tolerance" is often defined as respect, acceptance and recognition of other cultures. Though in actual fact, the term comes from the Latin word "tolerare", which means "to suffer" or to put up with something. Dr. Nina Engelhardt from the Institute of Literary Studies of the University of Stuttgart explores this issue in her research, and investigates the role of literary fiction in expanding the concept of tolerance. As a part of the Elite Program for postdocs run by the Baden-Württemberg Foundation, she was eligible for funding for her project.

Her objective is to investigate the subject of tolerance in literature and the literary strategies used in visualizing the emotional, cognitive and physically crippling ’suffering’ in the process of tolerance, as well as to define the role of literature in discourse on tolerance. Her research focuses on British literature in the 19th century. During this era, the concept of tolerance underwent a critical development away from a religious context towards questions of identity and its different manifestations, including ethnicity, gender and a general openness to change. Literary texts had an impact on this development, and were themselves shaped by it in turn.

Difference seen as something to "suffer" instead of to empathize with

Literary texts offer a valuable insight into the way historical and culture-specific experiences of tolerance are represented and understood. Previously, the role of literature in the discourse around tolerance, especially with regard to how the concept is currently understood, has received little attention or has been restricted to religious tolerance. In order to analyze how the concept of tolerance expanded beyond religious tolerance during the course of the 19th century, Nina Engelhardt has developed a cognitive and sensory analytical framework for literary texts which is independent of the ’rejection component’ (Forst 2013) - meaning the belief or practice rejected by the person doing the tolerating. Unlike equating tolerance with sympathy or empathy as is typical in literary studies, the project focuses on the specific nature of tolerance. Tolerance doesn’t mean having to share the feelings or perspectives of another person, but rather the focus is on the person doing the tolerating and their cognitive, emotional and physical ’suffering’ because of the difference and dissent.

In order to investigate how narrative texts depict individual, personal and embodied experiences of tolerance and thus how it reflects tolerance itself, the researcher uses a sensory approach, and analyses processes of physical and mental negotiation which in conflict situations are often accompanied by fear and vulnerability. The cognitive, emotional and physical suffering which often occurs in situations where there is a lack of tolerance is often not addressed, but can however be expressed in literary depictions. Engelhardt uses methods from cognitive literary studies to analyze these correlations.

A new insight into how our understanding of tolerance has developed

By analyzing the previously unresearched topic of tolerance in Victorian novels, this project is providing new insights into both tolerance research as well as (cognitive) literary studies. It reveals the ethical and aesthetic strategies in tolerance processes, and investigates how texts shape the discourse around tolerance and are shaped by it in turn. "The project shows the potential of the literary perspective in providing a critical assessment of the cognitive and emotional dimension of tolerance", says Nina Engelhardt, summarizing her project. "This approach can provide insights into the challenges and possibilities of tolerance which cannot be provided by other approaches, and can develop a perspective into a modern understanding of the development of tolerance which has previously been overlooked."

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