Empathy is often described as the experience of understanding another person’s thoughts, feelings, and condition from their point of view, rather than from your own. It is to imagine oneself in another’s place in order to understand what they are feeling or experiencing. Confidence on the other hand is the feeling or belief that one can rely on someone or something; firm trust. In Russell Banks short story “The Child Screams and Looks Back at You” he utilizes the two elements of empathy and confidence to play interesting yet integral roles throughout the tale. Rather than having these symbols intertwine with one another to compliment the atmosphere of the story, Banks seems to instead have them collide and imply that there’s a sort of tradeoff or misunderstanding between empathy and confidence. This intern shed’s a more noticeable light on not just the stories symbols but also it’s motifs such as loneliness.
The first sequence involving the element of empathy takes place during the description of Marcelle’s relationship with her ex-husband Richard and the reasoning for their separation. Richard was depicted as being continuously drunk and abusive toward Marcelle and their children, he would then wake up ashamed of his actions and beg for their forgiveness: “For years she had forgiven him, because to her when you forgive someone you make it possible for that person to change”(635). Marcelle’s viewpoints on forgiveness symbolize the empathy she feels towards Richard since she has been continuously trying to understand how he is feeling and looking at his problems from his perspective. That to not forgive someone who has hurt you, denies their chance to change into a better person. But after five years of this behaviour Marcelle had decided that she cannot empathize with a person who is never going to change.
Banks then uses the symbols of empathy and confidence through the Doctor Wickshaw’s interaction with Joel and Marcelle. This is shown when Wickshaw tells Marcelle that her son probably has the flu, instructing her to keep the boy in bed, well hydrated, to provide the boy with aspirins if his temperature reaches one hundred four degrees, and making house calls just in case of an emergency. These actions clearly symbolize the social roles of confidence, authority, and authoritative cheerfulness doctors must project in order to display a form of empathy. However Banks challenges these models by offering different perspectives on the use of empathy. Wickshaw’s use of empathy seems to be centered around avoiding to become emotionally invested in his patient and caring for his well being while remaining professionally distanced. Yet with Marcelle Wickshaw uses empathy to win her trust since he is the physician who knows what he’s talking and what’s the best solution for her child. Marcelle does so without question because it’s more terrifying to have a doctor you can’t trust rather than a a doctor who admits uncertainty.
Banks motif of loneliness is consistently mentioned throughout the story in terms of Marcelle’s need for affection after leaving Richard and having brief relationships, Marcelle’s dream about walking across a meadow while holding hands with her favourite son only to inevitably let him go and be taken away, Marcelle describing what it is leak to view a child live, as well as Joel’s convulsions and strange rambling about no longer feeling alone. Marcelle states that when a person’s own child live’s they carry with them their earlier selves, “so that you cannot separate your individual memories of him from your view of them now, at this moment.”(Bank). It’s an interesting motif that really compliments the kind of empathy Bank is attempting to have readers relate to, whether or not that person is a parent. But Readers feels a sort of empathy towards Marcelle knowing that life is at times viewed from the same perspective, it moves too rapidly, becomes blurred, grayed out, and eventually gone.