Self-Knowledge and Empathy

In Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters, the beautiful and confident Cynthia has a deep knowledge of self, akin to the knowledge one gains from taking personality tests. Her half-sister, Molly, hasn’t engaged in much second-level personality assessment and so her responses to people and events are naive and raw – both more principled and truer. Cynthia “feels” but it is always about personal injury. Molly feels because she really cares for others and empathizes. Molly knows people in order to try and understand them. Cynthia knows people to determine whether she likes them or not and whether to contrast them with her own character. Cynthia measures all things by herself. Molly doesn’t know herself well enough to treat her own character as a reference point for the world. While normally we think that self-knowledge is important as a personal developmental step, Cynthia illustrates that this can become a hindrance to real feeling for others.