Sentimental Novel: in The 18th Century

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      The sentimental novel or the novel of sensibility is an 18th century literary genre which celebrates the emotional and intellectual concepts of sentiment, sentimentalism, and sensibility. Sentimental novel exploits the reader’s capacity for tenderness, compassion, or sympathy to a disproportionate degree by presenting a beclouded or unrealistic view of its subject. Sentimentalism, which is to be distinguished from sensibility, was a fashion in both poetry and prose fiction beginning in the 18th century in reaction to the rationalism of the Augustan Age. It arose partly in reaction to the austerity and rationalism of the neoclassical period.

      Sentimental novels relied on emotional response, both from their readers and characters. They feature scenes of distress and tenderness, and the plot is arranged to advance both emotions and actions. The result is a valorization of ‘fine feeling’, displaying the characters as a model for refined, and sensitive emotional effect. The ability to display feelings was thought to show character and experience, and to shape social life and relations. The assumptions underlying the sentimental novel were Jean Jacques Rousseau’s doctrine of the natural goodness of man and his belief that moral development was fostered by experiencing powerful sympathies. Rousseau’s Nouvelle Heloise (1761) is sentimental in that it exhibits a passionate attachment between the sexes that rises above the merely physical.

      The sentimental novel exalts feeling above reason and raised the analysis of emotion to a fine art. An early example in France is Antoine-Francois Prevost’s Manon Lescaut (1731), the story of a courtesan for whom a young seminary student of noble birth forsakes his career, family, and religion and ends as a card shark and confidence man. His downward progress, if not actually excused, is portrayed as a sacrifice to love. In England, Samuel Richardson’s sentimental novel Pamela (1740) was recommended by clergymen as a means of educating the heart.

      In the 1760s the sentimental novel developed into the ‘novel of sensibility’, which presented characters possessing a pronounced susceptibility to delicate sensation. Such characters were not only deeply moved by sympathy for their fellow man but also reacted emotionally to the beauty inherent in natural settings and works of art and music. The prototype was Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy (1759-67), which devotes several pages to describing Uncle Toby’s horror of killing a fly. The literature of Romanticism adopted many elements of the novel of sensibility, including responsiveness to nature and belief in the wisdom of the heart and in the power of sympathy. It did not, however, assimilate the novel of sensibility’s characteristic optimism. The vogue of the sentimental love novel was one of the features of the Romantic Movement, and the form maintained a certain moving dignity despite a tendency to excessive emotional posturing - The debasement by which the term sentimental came to denote self-indulgence in superficial emotions occurred in the Victorian era, under the influence of sanctimony, religiosity, and a large commercial demand for bourgeois fiction. Sentimental novels of the 19th and 20th centuries are characterized by an invertebrate emotionalism and a deliberately lachrymal appeal.

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