Thursday, April 28, 2011


Today, The Blue Bookcase asks:

Discuss your thoughts on sentimentality in literature. When is emotion in literature effective and when is it superfluous? Use examples.

Then Ingrid of The Blue Bookcase goes on to respond to her own modification of prompt, offering thoughts about what makes a "legitimate" RESPONSE to literature.  Hop on over there to judge for yourself whether she makes her case or not, on its own terms...

However, I'll try to respond to the actual question as written.

For the purposes of this brief response, let's first clarify our definitions to note that sentimentality is usually construed as excessive or inappropriate emotion.  And we'll assume that superfluous emotion here means "too much", just as we would expect, so it's actually fairly synonymous with one aspect of sentimentality

So then, how does a writer create a work of sentimentality rather than "effective emotion"?  In my experience, sentimentality in literature is the product of either a. character development that's naive, sloppy, or unskillful OR b. characters who themselves are overly or inappropriately emotional.

In the former case, sentimentality in literature annoys me, as does any piece of writing in which the author shows disrespect to the reader through sloppy writing, and as such is ineffective.  Consider the more recent mystery-suspense from too-prolific supermarket paperback generators - and much current young adult "literature" - in which stock characters set in familiar plots at a fast pace stand in for well developed characters experiencing genuine human challenges and responding with action, thought, and emotion.  In both cases above, sentimentality results from formulaic plotting and ill- or un-developed characterisation.  Or - even worse perhaps - shallowness of insight & talent.  Think Twilight.  Granted, none of these works are literature (at least not in my book), so they needn't meet any standard as such. 

However, sentimentality as a conscious element of characterization can work to thematic advantage:  Consider Dolores Umbridge in the Harry Potter books (whether or not you would classify them as literature): her sentimentality about kittens works effectively to heighten readers' distaste for her otherwise draconian behaviors.  Or take the sentimentality of the chatterbox Miss Bates in Jane Austen's Emma: perfect little character-based commentary on the psychological effects of a parochial, hierarchical society on those with no prospects to change their station.  Or the protagonist in Faulkner's "A Rose for Emily" - there, sentimentality heightens the macabre, producing an unforgettable and complex work of literature.

And in farce, excessive emotion can be hilarious. The cat fight between Helena and Hermia - or better yet, Bottom's Pyramus - in A Midsummer Night's Dream, Almodovar's Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown, or the husbands (and wives) in Lysistrata can double us up with laughter, thus achieving the playwright's literary goal with its intended audience/reader response.

However, in romances like Twilight or unsuccessful attempts at tragedy (you name the one that struck you as cheesy and unbelievable as it escalated to its climax), "superfluous" or too much emotion at an inappropriate time can jar the reader out of the plot and backfire, effectively dismantling characterization to make even previously believable and/or sympathetic characters appear shallow or false, thus undercutting thematic elements as well.

So there, that's my response.  What say ye?

Please do hop back to The Blue Bookcase and then hop to others' responses: Whether I agree or not, I always enjoy the intellectual enrichment of mulling over their views, as everyone offers nuggets of insight.

MFB, sentimentally,

And I found an intriguing discussion of sentimentality, intended as advice for creative writers, on
There, Ginny Wiehardt does an able job of contextualizing the question for writers while offering Welty, Chekhov, and Irving for her exploration of the question.  I must say that I got a tad carried away with this question, visiting multiple sites, but this one seemed to clarify my own focus, and might be a decent place to start one's own internal conversation. 



L.L. said...

I agree with you completely. Sentimentality when not taken completely seriously can be great, such as making fun of a character or showcasing a character's faults. But when sentimentality is the whole point of a novel, things just start to feel ridiculous.

Red said...

I never would have thought of sentimentality being used purposefully as a means of characterization but this makes perfect sense! Fantastic post.

Melody said...

Nice post...I started writing my post on a similar track but didn't have the brain power to fully develop it. :) You've done it beautifully. Sentimentality is typically overdone, but there is the possibility for it to be included in a funny or beneficial manner.

Miss Good on Paper said...

I joined the blog hop, too (thanks to your post). Thanks for sharing! This is such an interesting discussion. I tend to have such a bad attitude about sentimentality, but I'm trying to wrap my head around the idea of books that do it effectively. Thanks again. -Miss GOP

Anonymous said...

Good reminder that sentimentality can be placed in a story purposefully.

Laurie said...

As I studied your comments and your posts (yes, I hopped everywhere!), I was struck with the notion that perhaps readers can quickly infer (or intuit or otherwise sense) when sentimentality is being used intentionally and when it is conjured accidentally or carelessly or unskillfully. In most cases, it seems that the latter is what's objectionable, no?

parrish lantern said...

I agree that if done for humour, sentimentality can work, but like most things it needs to be done well.

LBC said...

Great, great examples. My post went totally off topic, but I also started by thinking about sentimentality as a characteristic, and how that works. I think the question really addresses two things, since you are right in pointing out the difference between the sentimental, and emotion.

Check out my hop here.

Deb Nance at Readerbuzz said...

That's one thing I like about blogging: I love to look around the Internet and see what others have thought about a topic before I post.

Here is my response: Readerbuzz: The Queen Died and the King Died.

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