Sentimentalism (literature)
Sentimentalism as a literary and political discourse, has occurred much in the literary traditions of all regions in the world, and is central to the traditions of Indian literature
Indian literature
Indian literature refers to the literature produced on the Indian subcontinent until 1947 and in the Republic of India thereafter. The Republic of India has 22 officially recognized languages....

, Chinese literature
Chinese literature
Chinese literature extends thousands of years, from the earliest recorded dynastic court archives to the mature fictional novels that arose during the Ming Dynasty to entertain the masses of literate Chinese...

, and Vietnamese literature
Vietnamese literature
Vietnamese literature is literature, both oral and written, created largely by Vietnamese-speaking people, although Francophone Vietnamese and English-speaking Vietnamese authors in Australia and the United States are counted by many critics as part of the national tradition...

 (such as Ho Xuan Huong). Sentimentalism stresses on material senses as being spiritual and/or considers soul to be material, thus anything done on sentimental level is more or less materialistic rather than spiritual/transcendental.

The term sentimentalism is used in two senses: (1) An overindulgence in emotion, especially the conscious effort to induce emotion in order to enjoy it. (2) An optimistic overemphasis of the goodness of humanity (sensibility), representing in part a reaction against Calvinism
Calvinism is a Protestant theological system and an approach to the Christian life...

, which regarded human nature as depraved. The novel of sensibility
Sensibility refers to an acute perception of or responsiveness toward something, such as the emotions of another. This concept emerged in eighteenth-century Britain, and was closely associated with studies of sense perception as the means through which knowledge is gathered...

was developed from this 18th century notion, manifested in the Sentimental novel
Sentimental novel
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...


In reference to the historical movement of Sentimentalism within the United States of America during the 18th century, Sentimentalism is a European idea that emphasized feelings and emotions, a physical appreciation of God, nature, and other people, rather than logic and reason. The impact on the American people was that love became as important in marriage as financial considerations.

European sentimentalism arose during the Age of Enlightenment
Age of Enlightenment
The Age of Enlightenment was an elite cultural movement of intellectuals in 18th century Europe that sought to mobilize the power of reason in order to reform society and advance knowledge. It promoted intellectual interchange and opposed intolerance and abuses in church and state...

, at the same time as sentimentalism in philosophy. It lasted from around 1720 until the time of the French Revolution
French Revolution
The French Revolution , sometimes distinguished as the 'Great French Revolution' , was a period of radical social and political upheaval in France and Europe. The absolute monarchy that had ruled France for centuries collapsed in three years...

, arising in France and England as early as 1700.

European literary sentimentalism

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 discourse.

Philosophically, sentimentalism was often contrasted to rationalism
In epistemology and in its modern sense, rationalism is "any view appealing to reason as a source of knowledge or justification" . In more technical terms, it is a method or a theory "in which the criterion of the truth is not sensory but intellectual and deductive"...

. While 18th century rationalism corresponded itself with the development of the analytic mind as the basic 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
Moral sense theory
Moral sense theory is a view in meta-ethics according to which morality is somehow grounded in moral sentiments or emotions...

). 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.

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
A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy
A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy is a novel by the Irish-born English author Laurence Sterne, written and first published in 1768, as Sterne was facing death. In 1765, Sterne travelled through France and Italy as far south as Naples, and after returning determined to describe his...

, 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
Sense and Sensibility
Sense and Sensibility, published in 1811, is a British romance novel by Jane Austen, her first published work under the pseudonym, "A Lady." Jane Austen is considered a pioneer of the romance genre of novels, and for the realism portrayed in her novels, is one the most widely read writers in...

by Jane Austen
Jane Austen
Jane Austen was an English novelist whose works of romantic fiction, set among the landed gentry, earned her a place as one of the most widely read writers in English literature, her realism and biting social commentary cementing her historical importance among scholars and critics.Austen lived...

. 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.


Sentimentalism came with the end of French rationalism
In epistemology and in its modern sense, rationalism is "any view appealing to reason as a source of knowledge or justification" . In more technical terms, it is a method or a theory "in which the criterion of the truth is not sensory but intellectual and deductive"...

 with the death of Louis XIV and turned against the strictly reason-orientated way of life which had been used to discipline and civilise society under absolutism
Absolute monarchy
Absolute monarchy is a monarchical form of government in which the monarch exercises ultimate governing authority as head of state and head of government, his or her power not being limited by a constitution or by the law. An absolute monarch thus wields unrestricted political power over the...

. The German "age of enlightenment" first began when the French "age of reason" was supplemented or questioned by social-criticism and emancipatory tendencies. It therefore collapsed approximately with the "epoch of empfindsamkeit" or the Rococo
Rococo , also referred to as "Late Baroque", is an 18th-century style which developed as Baroque artists gave up their symmetry and became increasingly ornate, florid, and playful...


The origin of sentimentalism was chiefly religious, with the emotionally-coloured texts for the oratorio
An oratorio is a large musical composition including an orchestra, a choir, and soloists. Like an opera, an oratorio includes the use of a choir, soloists, an ensemble, various distinguishable characters, and arias...

s of Johann Sebastian Bach
Johann Sebastian Bach
Johann Sebastian Bach was a German composer, organist, harpsichordist, violist, and violinist whose sacred and secular works for choir, orchestra, and solo instruments drew together the strands of the Baroque period and brought it to its ultimate maturity...

 stream being typical examples. Empfindsamkeit is also known as secularized pietism
Pietism was a movement within Lutheranism, lasting from the late 17th century to the mid-18th century and later. It proved to be very influential throughout Protestantism and Anabaptism, inspiring not only Anglican priest John Wesley to begin the Methodist movement, but also Alexander Mack to...

 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.


Sentimentalism asserted that over-shown feeling was not a weakness but rather showed one to be a moral person, and privileged the private life (as opposed to Absolutism's privileging the public life). Arising from religiously-motivated empathy, it expanded to the other perceptions - for example, sensual love was no longer understood as a destructive passion (Vanitas
In conventional parlance, vanity is the excessive belief in one's own abilities or attractiveness to others. Prior to the 14th century it did not have such narcissistic undertones, and merely meant futility. The related term vainglory is now often seen as an archaic synonym for vanity, but...

) but rather as a basis of social institutions, as it was for Antoine Houdar de la Motte
Antoine Houdar de la Motte
Antoine Houdar de la Motte was a French author.He was born and died in Paris. In 1693 his comedy, Les Originaux, was a complete failure, and so depressed the author that he contemplated joining the Trappists. Four years later he began writing texts for operas and ballets, e.g...

. Requited love was, as in serious opera (the Tragédie en musique or Opera seria
Opera seria
Opera seria is an Italian musical term which refers to the noble and "serious" style of Italian opera that predominated in Europe from the 1710s to c. 1770...

), a symbol for a successful alliance between nations. Also 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. Also Samuel Richardson
Samuel Richardson
Samuel Richardson was an 18th-century English writer and printer. He is best known for his three epistolary novels: Pamela: Or, Virtue Rewarded , Clarissa: Or the History of a Young Lady and The History of Sir Charles Grandison...

's sentimental epistolary novel
Epistolary novel
An epistolary novel is a novel written as a series of documents. The usual form is letters, although diary entries, newspaper clippings and other documents are sometimes used. Recently, electronic "documents" such as recordings and radio, blogs, and e-mails have also come into use...

 "Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded" (1740) had great literary influence, with its socio-critical tendencies.

In Germany

The musician and publisher Johann Christoph Bode translated Laurence Sterne
Laurence Sterne
Laurence Sterne was an Irish novelist and an Anglican clergyman. He is best known for his novels The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, and A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy; but he also published many sermons, wrote memoirs, and was involved in local politics...

 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
Gotthold Ephraim Lessing
Gotthold Ephraim Lessing was a German writer, philosopher, dramatist, publicist, and art critic, and one of the most outstanding representatives of the Enlightenment era. His plays and theoretical writings substantially influenced the development of German literature...

 and the whole literary period.

German poets who verged on sentimentalism were Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock
Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock
Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock was a German poet.-Biography:Klopstock was born at Quedlinburg, the eldest son of a lawyer.Both in his birthplace and on the estate of Friedeburg on the Saale, which his father later rented, young Klopstock passed a happy childhood; and more attention having been given...

 (1724–1803), Christian Fürchtegott Gellert
Christian Fürchtegott Gellert
Christian Fürchtegott Gellert was a German poet, one of the forerunners of the golden age of German literature that was ushered in by Lessing.-Biography:...

 (1715–1769) and Sophie de La Roche (1730–1807, the author of the first epistolary novel
Epistolary novel
An epistolary novel is a novel written as a series of documents. The usual form is letters, although diary entries, newspaper clippings and other documents are sometimes used. Recently, electronic "documents" such as recordings and radio, blogs, and e-mails have also come into use...

 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
Sturm und Drang
Sturm und Drang is a proto-Romantic movement in German literature and music taking place from the late 1760s through the early 1780s, in which individual subjectivity and, in particular, extremes of emotion were given free expression in reaction to the perceived constraints of rationalism...



Religious sentimentalism was one of the inspirations for François-René de Chateaubriand
François-René de Chateaubriand
François-René, vicomte de Chateaubriand was a French writer, politician, diplomat and historian. He is considered the founder of Romanticism in French literature.-Early life and exile:...

 and his creation of Romanticism
Romanticism was an artistic, literary and intellectual movement that originated in the second half of the 18th century in Europe, and gained strength in reaction to the Industrial Revolution...

. In popular literature, empfindsamkeit played a role until long into the 19th century, continuing in serialised novels in periodicals such as Gartenlaube
Die Gartenlaube
Die Gartenlaube Illustrirtes Familienblatt , was a forerunner of modern magazines, and the first major success of the German weekly. The name means "The Garden Arbor Family Journal" but the magazine is known worldwide as "Die Gartenlaube"...

. In the theatre, empfindsamkeit was succeeded by rührstück
The term melodrama refers to a dramatic work that exaggerates plot and characters in order to appeal to the emotions. It may also refer to the genre which includes such works, or to language, behavior, or events which resemble them...

 or melodrama.

See also

  • Francis Hutcheson
    Francis Hutcheson
    Francis Hutcheson may refer to:*Francis Hutcheson *Francis Hutcheson -See also:*Frank Hutchison, blues musician*Francis Hutchinson, British clergyman...

    , Essay on the Nature and Conduct of the Passions and Affections and Illustrations upon the Moral Sense.
  • Sentiment
    Sentiment can refer to activity of five material senses mistaking them as transcendental:*Feelings and emotions...

  • Sentimental poetry
    Sentimental poetry
    Sentimental poetry is a melodramatic poetic form. It is aimed primarily at stimulating the emotions rather than at communicating experience truthfully...

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 3476006379
  • 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.
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