Sentimentalism (literature)

Sentimentalism (literature)

Sentimentalism is the practice of being sentimental, or the tendency to be governed by feelings instead of reason.[1] As a literary mode, sentimentalism has been a recurring aspect of world literature, and is important to the traditions of India, China, and Vietnam.

European sentimentalism arose during the Age of Enlightenment, partly as a response to sentimentalism in philosophy. In eighteenth-century England, the sentimental novel was a major literary genre.

European literary sentimentalism

Philosophical influences

Sentimentalism in philosophy and sentimentalism in literature are sometimes hard to distinguish. As the philosophical arguments developed, the literature soon tried to emulate by putting the philosophical into practice through narration and characters. As a result, it is common to observe both philosophical and literary movements simultaneously in the dog house.

Philosophically, sentimentalism was often contrasted to rationalism. While 18th-century rationalism corresponded itself with the development of the analytic mind as the basis for acquiring truth, sentimentalism hinged upon an intrinsic human capacity to feel and how this leads to truth. For the sentimentalist this capacity was most important in morality (moral sense theory). Sentimentalists contended that where the rationalists believed they could create a morality based upon analytic principles (i.e. Immanuel Kant's "Categorical Imperative") these principles could not be adequately founded in the empirical nature of humans—such as observing a sad image or expressing a strong emotion physically. Therefore, one could not obtain a sound moral theory. However, by developing the moral sensibility and fine tuning the capacity to feel, a person could access a sound moral theory by building from an intrinsic human nature, which each person possessed. Sentimentalists were, thus, often seen as relating to the schools of humanism and empirical ethical intuitionism.


Sentimentalism asserted that over-shown feeling was not a weakness but rather showed one to be a moral person. Arising from religiously-motivated empathy, it expanded to the other perceptions - for example, sensual love was no longer understood as a destructive passion (Vanitas) but rather as a basis of social institutions, as it was for Antoine Houdar de la Motte. Requited love was, as in serious opera (the Tragédie en musique or Opera seria), a symbol for a successful alliance between nations. The "Lesesucht" re-evaluated what was permitted literature, and the novel as a type of literature as versus drama.

Around the middle of the century, sentimentalism set "untouched" nature against (courtly) civilization, as in the works of Jean Jacques Rousseau. In addition, Samuel Richardson's sentimental epistolary novel "Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded" (1740) had great literary influence.

The literary work often featured scenes of distress and tenderness, and the plot was arranged to advance emotions rather than action. The result was a valorization of "fine feeling," displaying the characters as a model for refined, moral and emotional effect. Sentimentalism in literature was also often used as a medium through which authors could promote their own agendas—imploring readers to empathize with the problems they are dealing with in their books.

For example, in Laurence Sterne's novel, A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy, the narrator is using the sentimental character Yorick as a device to critique the obligation of morality, whether it is sentimental or rational. There is a scene early in the novel where Yorick meets a monk and refuses "to give him a single sous [a penny]." He feels discontent when he disregards what he senses he ought to do, even though he appears to obey "better reason" (4). Rationally, he disregards his sentimental obligation because "there is no regular reasoning upon the ebbs and flows of our humours" (6) [i.e. our emotions]. While he argues against the authority of sense, ultimately this sense creates discontent in his conscience. After the monk leaves empty handed, it is Yorick's "heart" that "smote [him] the moment [the monk] shut the door" (7). Accordingly, Yorick has "behaved very ill" (7). He has complied with his rational maxim, the justified action of his "great claims" argument (6). Yet he senses from the conscience of his sentimental nature that he has done wrong.

There are plenty of similar literary examples throughout the sentimentalist movement in Europe in the early to mid-eighteenth century. Even still we cannot be unimpressed by the title of one nineteenth-century novel called Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen. Tugging at the driving forces of the eighteenth century, Austen again calls to light the tension between rationalism in the senses and sentimentalism in the human's sensibility.


In continental Europe, one aspect of sentimentalism was Empfindsamkeit. The sensitive style (German: Empfindsamkeit Stil of music, developed in Germany, aimed to express "true and natural" feelings, in contrast to the baroque.

The origin of sentimentalism in this context was chiefly religious, with the emotionally-coloured texts for the oratorios of Johann Sebastian Bach stream being typical examples. Empfindsamkeit is also known as secularized pietism because it frequently came with moralizing content that had increasingly broken free of church and religious ties. An important theorist of the movement was Jean Baptiste Dubos.

In Germany

The musician and publisher Johann Christoph Bode translated Laurence Sterne's novel, A sentimental Journey Through France and Italy, into German in 1768 under the title Yoriks empfindsame Reise - the translation was a great success. His word "empfindsam" or "sensitive" was a neologism that then became attached to Gotthold Ephraim Lessing and the whole literary period.

German poets who verged on sentimentalism were Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock (1724–1803), Christian Fürchtegott Gellert (1715–1769) and Sophie de La Roche (1730–1807, the author of the first epistolary novel in German) and its influence may also be seen in Goethe's early work Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (1774), a high-point of Sturm und Drang.


Religious sentimentalism was one of the inspirations for François-René de Chateaubriand and his creation of Romanticism. In popular literature, empfindsamkeit played a role until long into the 19th century, continuing in serialised novels in periodicals such as Gartenlaube. In the theatre, empfindsamkeit was succeeded by rührstück or melodrama.

See also


  1. ^ "sentimentalism, n.", Oxford English Dictionary
  • Sterne, Laurence. A Sentimental Journey. New York :Oxford University Press, 2003.

Further reading

  • Renate Krüger: Das Zeitalter der Empfindsamkeit. Koehler & Amelang, Leipzig 1972
  • Nikolaus Wegmann: Diskurse der Empfindsamkeit. Zur Geschichte eines Gefühls in der Literatur des 18. Jahrhunderts. *Metzler, Stuttgart 1988, ISBN 3-476-00637-9
  • Brissenden, R.F. Virtue in Distress: Studies in the Novel of Sentiment from Richardson to Sade. London: Macmillan, 1974.
  • McGann, Jerome. The Poetics of Sensibility: a Revolution in Literary Style. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996.
  • Mullan, John. Sentiment and Sociability: The Language of Feeling in the Eighteenth Century. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988.
  • Nagle, Christopher. Sexuality and the Culture of Sensibility in the British Romantic Era. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.
  • Todd, Janet. Sensibility: an Introduction. London: Methuen, 1986.
  • Tompkins, Jane. Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction, 1790-1860. New York: Oxford UP, 1986.