We may define sentimentality as a writer's consciously indulging in emotion for its own sake, pushing the reader to emotional peaks through exaggeration, manipulation of language and situation, and such mechanical tricks as dwelling on the suffering and purity of a dying child.
"Spirit," said Scrooge, with an interest he had never felt before, tell me if Tiny Tim will live."
"I see a vacant seat," replied the Ghost, "in the poor chimney corner, and a crutch without an owner, carefully preserved. If these shadows remain unaltered by the Future, the child will die."
"No, no," said Scrooge. "Oh no, kind Spirit! Say he will be spared." — A Christmas Carol (1843), Stave Three: "The Second of the Spirits."
The putative death of Tiny Tim anticipates the death of little Paul in Dombey and Son (1846-8) and recalls the equally sentimentalized death of Little Nell. Early in February 1841, crowds gathered on the quaysides of Boston and New York, anxious to learn whether Little Nell, the heroine of Charles Dickens's The Old Curiosity Shop, had died in the latest monthly instalment (Chapters 71 and 72). Those on board ships coming from England called out to those on shore; whole crowds convulsed into tears--such was the sentimentality of the readership and the appeal to such extreme emotion made by the text. The theatrical lion William McCready, radical Irish M. P. Daniel O'Connell, Lord Jeffrey of The Edinburgh Review, and even Dickensıs confidant and business manager John Forster were all affected. In writing of the death of his heroine Dickens vividly, painfully recalled his feelings at the death of his beloved sister-in-law, the seventeen-year-old Mary Hogarth, on 8 May 1837.
Although modern critics such as Oscar Wilde and notably Aldous Huxley in Vulgarity in Literature (1930) have taken Dickens and other Victorian writers to task for excessive sentimentality, as a third-generation Romantic Dickens was writing in a markedly "sentimental" tradition bequeathed him by such serious writers as Laurence Sterne (A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy, 1768) and Adam Smith (The Theory of Moral Sentiments, 1759). Reason, held the Romantics, had failed to improve either human nature or social conditions in eighteenth-century Europe. Consequently, Romantic writers sought to move readers emotionally and spiritually by appealing to sentiment, "the capacity for moral reflection" (Paul Schlicke, 512). Thomas Gray's "Elegy Written in Country Churchyard," Wordsworth's considerable poetic output, the late-eighteenth-century "sentimental" comedy, the melancholy verses of the Lake Poets, and even contemporary melodrama are all based on the wholesome and instructive nature of the sentimental. Although Dickens's villains are self-centred sociopaths bent on self-gratification and lacking moral scruples, his heroines inculcate genuine feeling as the antidote for egotism, even as they exemplify the Victorian cult of domesticity represented most notably by Coventry Patmore's Angel in the House (four volumes, 1854). Dickens tends to identify with his pathetic characters and so, losing his objectivity, he identifies his childhood self with these characters and thereby sometimes creates an effect rather than a lifelike picture. For more on this subject, see Kaplan's Sacred Tears.
Kaplan, Fred. Sacred Tears: Sentimentalism in Victorian Literature. 1987.
Landow, George P. "Emotionalist Moral Philosophy: Sympathy and the Moral Theory that Overthrew Kings."
Schlicke, Paul. "Sentiment." Oxford Reader's Companion to Dickens. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1999. Pp. 511-513.
Last modified 13 January, 2004