Sentimentality

Sentimentality

Sentimentality is both a literary device used to induce a tender emotional response disproportionate to the situation, [I. A. Richards gave just such a quantitative definition: "a response is sentimental if it is too great for the occasion." He added, "We cannot, obviously judge that any response is sentimental in this sense unless we take careful account of the situation" (Richards, "Practical Criticism", "Sentimentality and inhibition").] and thus to substitute heightened and generally uncritical feeling for normal ethical and intellectual judgments, and a heightened reader response willing to invest previously prepared emotions to respond disproportionately to a literary situation. [This was essentially the defining criterion of "sentimental" discovered in a dozen basic handbooks by Brian Wilkie (Wilkie, "What Is Sentimentality?" "College English" 28.8 [May 1967:564-575] , p. 564f; Wilkie appends some textbook definitions.] "A sentimentalist", Oscar Wilde wrote Alfred Douglas "is one who desires to have the luxury of an emotion without paying for it." [ Oscar Wilde "De Profundis" 1905; Michael Tanner took the quote to introduce "Sentimentality", "Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society", New Series, 77, (1976-77:127-147.] Yeats wrote, "Rhetoric is fooling others. Sentimentality is fooling yourself."

In modern times ["Sentimental" began to accrue negative connotations in the nineteenth century. Before that it had been been an adjective denoting "feeling", as in "The Man of Feeling" (1771), Lawrence Sterne's "Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy" andFlaubert's "Sentimental Education" (1869). ] "Sentimental" is a pejorative term that has been casually applied to works of art and literature that exceed the viewer or reader's sense of decorum—the extent of permissible emotion— and standards of taste: "excessiveness" is the criterion; [Wilkie 1967, took the example of Henry Clay Work's maudlin lyric of Temperance propaganda, "Come Home, Father".] for most of the twentieth century Tchaikovsky's symphonies were denigrated as "sentimental". [Tanner makes a brief note of this (p129f).] "Meretricious" and "contrived" sham pathos are the hallmark of sentimentality, where the morality that underlies the work is both intrusive and pat.

Sentimentality applies feelings in inappropriate situations. The sentimental fallacy is an ancient rhetorical device that attributes human emotions to the forces of nature, such as mourning or anger.

Complications enter into the ordinary view of sentimentality when changes in fashion and setting— the "climate of thought"— [Wilkie 1967:569.] intrude between the work and the reader. The view that sentimentality is relative is inherent in John Ciardi's "sympathetic contract", in which the reader agrees to join with the writer when approaching a poem. [Ciardi, "How Does a Poem Mean?" (Boston) 1959:846f.] The example of the death of Little Nell in Charles Dickens' "The Old Curiosity Shop" (1840-41), "a scene that for many readers today might represent a defining instance of sentimentality", [Wilkie 1967:569.] brought tears to the eye of many highly critical readers of the day. [Edgar Johnson, "Charles Dickens: His Tragedy and Triumph" (New York, 1952) I:309.]

Notes

References

* [http://etext.virginia.edu/cgi-local/DHI/dhi.cgi?id=dv4-30 "Dictionary of the History of Ideas":] "Victorian Sensibility and Sentiment"


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