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Sentimentality in Victorian Literature
By Fred Kaplan
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1987 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
The Moral Sentiments
All human nature is mixed, Henry Fielding wrote in Tom Jones (1749), a favorite novel of both Dickens and Thackeray. "Life most exactly resembles the stage, since it is often the same person who represents the villain and the hero; and he who engages your admiration today will probably attract your contempt tomorrow.... A single bad act no more constitutes a villain in life than a single bad part on the stage." Apparently Fielding believed that "human nature" is an entity that, in the tradition of faculty psychology, can be reified from observable qualities and actions. Modern readers are not likely to be as certain as Fielding about what this "human nature" is or even if it is. Even the esteemed Encyclopedia of Philosophy has not attempted to define the protean phrase, while the Oxford English Dictionary is remarkably weak in its historical presentation of the multitudinous uses of the phrase. That all human beings, with the rarest of exceptions, contain both attractive and unattractive, constructive and destructive elements has become a truism of modern culture, whose tolerance for idealizations and personifications in life and in art has been declining noticeably since the eighteenth century. When dealing with "human nature" as a phenomenon and as an explanation of behavior, modern democratic society as a whole desires to be as inclusive as possible while at the same time protecting itself from both criminals and saints.
Fielding himself raised the standard of normative probability in regard to everything, and especially in regard to "human nature." Even his idealized characters, like Sophia Western and Squire Allworthy in Tom Jones, are partly shaped under the pressure of literary realism. The increasingly strong tradition of literary and philosophical realism from the eighteenth century on raised questions of human definition that came to be widely addressed; philosophy, through much of the eighteenth and a good part of the nineteenth century, was moral philosophy and psychology. By the late nineteenth century, though, even those most idealistic about human nature and least satisfied with behavioral definitions were likely to agree with Fielding's inference that you cannot build castles in the mud without getting your hands dirty. Robert Browning dramatically condemns his "Pictor Ignotus" (Unknown Painter) of 1845 who has declined to use his immense artistic talents because he fears and condemns the mixed nature of human beings.
Blown harshly, keeps the trump its golden cry?
Tastes sweet the water with such specks of earth?
Most of the writers and philosophers of what is sometimes prejudicially called the Enlightenment took a positive, rather optimistic view of "human nature." They had no doubt that such an entity existed, and that it could be described in normative terms that applied to the generality of mankind, as the innate disposition or character of individuals and of humankind as a whole. Tradition and the force of belief compelled them to assume that mankind had a maker, though considerable difference of opinion existed about the form and the qualities of the maker, and about the relationship between the maker and the made. But it was widely believed that the maker's greatest creation, humankind, a subdivision of Nature or the total creation, had been endowed with certain inalienable qualities shared by the entire species which could, sensibly and logically, be called "human nature," to differentiate it, for example, from animal nature. At this high level of discussion, then, one could talk about human nature without referring to particular examples, which might or might not prove the rule. For the rule, whose broad features controlled all discussions and depictions of human beings, existed prior to examples, all of which stretched back in a long line to Adam and Eve, to Biblical character typology. The popular imagination then, as now, had no doubt that human character was stable, archetypal, and universal. In the Enlightenment, the educated elite, despite considerable variety of opinion in many areas, generally accepted that "human nature" was an identifiable entity, a real thing, and that it could be defined in universally applicable abstract terms.
Eighteenth-century moral optimism created an exaggerated sunshine in which human nature glowed, and whose brightness much of modern culture has found unacceptably monochromatic. Some of that sunshine glowed from the emerging secular idealism and gradual tilt through the age of revolution toward democracy and a redefinition of human nature that for the first time included human rights. Of course, eighteenth-century British culture had its somber, even dark, views and visions as well. In Gulliver's Travels (1726), Swift makes dramatically persuasive the king of Brobdingnagia's condemnatory definition of humankind as "the most pernicious race of odious vermin that Nature ever suffered to crawl on the face of the earth." Samuel Johnson viewed human nature as innately flawed—even sanity itself was constantly threatened by a natural predisposition to excess and madness—and to speak only of eighteenth-century optimistic views of human nature would be to distort the complex reality by stressing only the dominant tendency.
Strong forces in the Enlightenment—of religion, of philosophy, even of popular culture—resisted moral idealism. The arguments of the most influential moral philosophers, such as Lord Shaftesbury, Henry St. John, Francis Hutcheson, David Hume, and Adam Smith, are informed and invigorated by their awareness of the somber opposition, Calvinistic, theocratic, aristocratic, evangelical, mathematical, and even economic. Whether directly acknowledged or not, the influential phrases of Thomas Hobbes in Leviathan (1651) cast a formidable shadow over the next two centuries.
For the laws of nature—as justice, equity, modesty, mercy, and, in sum, doing to others as we would be done to—of themselves, without the terror of some power to cause them to be observed, are contrary to our natural passions, that carry us to partiality, pride, revenge, and the like. And covenants without the sword are but words, and of no strength to secure a man at all.
Hobbes's overpowering darkness could be lightened only by an exaggerated brightness, a spotlight so bright that it could illumine his darkness. Eighteenth-century optimism is to a considerable extent a reaction against the Hobbesian view of a viciously flawed human nature, which only a repressive state can control and only a god of grace can redeem. Such a dim view of human nature represents the secularization of the Puritan vision, which was based, after all, on daily experience as well as on universal rules about fallen human nature in a fallen world. The Puritan view seemed at times an effective, experiential definition of human nature based on observation of the "pernicious race."
It is precisely this view that the Enlightenment as a cultural movement attempted to reject. Of course, both Puritan and Enlightenment culture tended to evaluate human action in moral terms. Fielding and his latitudinarian contemporaries were as compulsive on such matters as the Puritans, though the tone is noticeably different. Fielding and his contemporaries expressed a very unpuritanical genial tolerance for "natural Imperfections," mainly because they believed in a cosmic framework that absorbed moral flaws into a benign social structure. Nevertheless, on the middle ground of moral performance, the Puritan and Enlightenment cultures were in fundamental agreement on the necessity for a personal and communal code of behavior whose ultimate authentication is the Judaeo-Christian prescription of love, justice, and harmony.
The pervasive challenge for Enlightenment as well as Puritan culture was to interpret and explain immoral rather than moral performance, partly because of its prevalence, partly because it fascinates in a way that moral performance does not. The construct "human nature" needed to be further explored, its mysteries made clear, its basic elements revealed. On the success of this venture depended the earthly paradise or the heavenly city or both, if one's philosophy could contain both. Fielding attempted to explain corrupt actions as consistent with the "natural Imperfections" of human nature, part of his socially oriented theological view of the cosmos in which the emphasis is on the Enlightenment's earthly paradise. His Puritan predecessors and contemporaries, with an emphasis on the heavenly city, explained the same acts as the result of the fallen condition of human nature. Whatever the definition and explanation of human nature, the need to explain and the hope that a satisfactory explanation could be constructed dominated much that was thought and written in British culture at least until the middle of the nineteenth century. The declining interest in modern culture, outside of religious communities, in explaining either moral or immoral performance probably results from the loss of any credible standard against which to evaluate it, and from a reversion to the folk wisdom that holds that such evaluations tend to be reductive. In general, the modern response to nastiness is either active opposition or a stoical reference to "human nature."
Sentimentality in the Western tradition takes its force from a keen awareness of the mixed nature of human nature. It is an attempt, among other things, to generate or at least to strengthen the possibility of the triumph of the feelings and the heart over self-serving calculation. As an offspring of Enlightenment optimism, sentimentality assumes the existence of innate "moral sentiments." Historically, sentimentality found its propitious moment when both the latitudinarian and Puritan explanations of human nature were losing their effectiveness and the possibility of comprehensive alternative explanations, particularly of good and evil, seemed dim. Sentimentality promised to locate the grounds of moral performance in feelings, innate moral feelings, without demanding that these moral feelings produce moral actions (though the desirability of such a result was central to the Victorian consciousness), and without demanding that a belief in the centrality of moral feeling necessitated a comprehensive theory of human nature or of the cosmos that explained all mysteries and resolved all inconsistencies.
Many people, some of them rather admirable, both in the past and in the present have used the word as if being sentimental were a virtue, though often with no sense of an obligation to define its meaning or explain the significance of the concept. The Oxford English Dictionary presents a reasonably clear history of the term. The word sentiment came into English as early as the fourteenth century and meant (in chronological sequence) "one's own feelings," "physical feeling," "mental attitude (of approval or disapproval)," "an emotion," "a thought or reflection coloured by or proceeding from emotion," "an emotional thought expressed in literature or art," and "a striking or agreeable thought or wish." The words sentimental and sentimentality were coined in the middle to late eighteenth century to indicate something "characterized by sentiment" and "the quality of being sentimental," respectively. Throughout the eighteenth century and through much of the nineteenth, neither word had pejorative implications, except in special cases. With slowly gathering force, sentimentalism came to denote late in the nineteenth century the misuse of sentiment, "the disposition to attribute undue importance to sentimental considerations, to be governed by sentiment in opposition to reason; the tendency to excessive indulgence in or insincere display of sentiment." The word sentiment and its various forms could still be used non-pejoratively, as in James Anthony Froude's remark that "a nation with whom sentiment is nothing is on its way to cease to be a nation at all." But the notion of sentimentality as insincerity, as false feeling, even as hypocrisy, became increasingly strong. Though popular culture—and social and political life in general—kept its heart beating with the blood of sentimentality, intellectual modernism and modern high art stigmatized sentimentality as the refuge of philistinism and small minds. Sentimentality was not moral because it was not an expression of true feeling, of natural feeling, and the feelings themselves were not a reliable guide to moral action. The notion of unearned and undisciplined feeling, and the fear of a dangerous misperception of the role of feeling in life in general, reached back to infect with distasteful overtones and to distort ahistorically the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century definitions of sentiment and sentimentality.
The eighteenth-century writers most responsible for imposing moral value on "sentiment" were David Hume and Adam Smith. In his Essays and Treatises (1758) and especially in his discussion of the passions in Treatise of Human Nature (1739–1740), Hume argued that "the ultimate ends of human actions can never ... be accounted for by reason, but recommend themselves entirely to the sentiments and affections of mankind, without any dependence on the intellectual faculties," and that inherent within all human beings is "some internal taste or feeling ... which distinguishes moral good and evil, and which embraces the one and rejects the other." Hume stressed that we act not on the basis of thought but of feeling, and that we all possess a moral "sentiment" that we get pleasure from responding to. Hume's optimistic definition of human nature has its complement in Adam Smith's. In The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), Smith created the genial metaphor of the "internal ... impartial spectator," the "man within the breast," a second self that we all possess, against whose altruistic and benevolent standards we judge our thoughts and actions. This better self serves as an internalized guide and self-corrector, a projection of our innate moral sentiments.
The value of sentiment and its positive connotation in eighteenth-century definitions of human nature, such as Hume's and Smith's, have been obscured to many modern readers in a way that they were not to the Victorians. Part of the confusion results from confounding sentiment with sensibility, the latter connected with the eighteenth-century emphasis on "the man of feeling." The "man of feeling" developed into the Romantic hero of sensibility. The "man of sentiment" developed into the Victorian hero of the good and the moral heart. Some of the classic texts of eighteenth-century literature have contributed to modern obfuscation about the meaning of sentiment and sentimentality to eighteenth- and nineteenth-century readers. Lawrence Sterne's A Sentimental Journey (1759) tempts readers to assume that the feelings are discontinuous, disjointed, even anarchic, and that sexual passion is an expression of sensibility that need not recognize moral and social restraints. Henry Mackenzie's depiction in The Man of Feeling (1771) of a sensibility too refined for active engagement with a coarse society may be taken as a claim that sentiment is asocial or antisocial. And even Oliver Goldsmith's The Vicar of Wakefield (1776), an influential favorite of the Victorians and widely acknowledged to be a powerful teacher of virtue, may contribute to the modern confusion about eighteenth- and nineteenth-century definitions of sentiment since, in that novel, moral sentiment frequently seems to be misapplied to unworthy recipients or, even worse, to be the grounds for self-punishment.
Both Hume and Smith believed that an access of feeling cannot be an excess of feeling. Feeling cannot be self-destructive or socially harmful unless it is divorced from the other attributes of Human nature inherent in all human beings. In that context, there can be no excess, or even misapplication, of feeling, for the basic nature of human nature is moral. The moral sentiments are a constituent, a given part of us, whether we will or no. The more responsive we are to our moral feelings, the better, the more moral, our individual and social conduct will be. The question of sensibility in the Romantic sense and of sentimentality in the modern sense of falsification of feeling has no meaning in this context. On the contrary, it is the absence of the expression of moral feeling and the restriction and denial of the value of sentimentality that are unnatural, that are falsifications of reality.
Excerpted from Sacred Tears by Fred Kaplan. Copyright © 1987 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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