When I told a writer friend of mine I was writing about sentimentality, he said, surprisingly, "Are you for it or against it?"
Conventional wisdom holds that sentimentality is categorically repugnant, a wallowing in unearned emotion, the enemy of reason, balance and truth. Sentimentality does possess stalwart defenders, among them the novelist John Irving. During annual readings of A Christmas Carol, Irving writes, "we applaud in Dickens -- his kindness, his generosity" and "his belief in our dignity." Yet when Christmas is over, Irving laments, "Dickens's same 'hopefulness,' as expressed in works like Great Expec-tations, strikes many as mere wishful thinking." Irving insists that "as a writer it is cowardly to so fear sentimentality that one avoids it altogether."
There is no scientific measure of when sentiment slips into sentimentality, emotion in excess of its object. As with pornography, most take an "I know it when I see it" approach. At times, we turn a blind eye to sentimental exaggerations, and even welcome the indulgence. The daring of Michael Moore's irreverence in Fahren-heit 9 / 11, his unrelenting ridicule of the actions of a sitting president, may override excesses like his overlong focus on a mother's grief for her son, the same grief available, after all, to mothers whose sons died in just wars. The compassion of Dickens for his unfortunates -- Tiny Tim, Jo, Pip, Little Nell -- is so genuine the reader forgives the overblown rhetoric.
Sentimental novels of the 18th century -- in particular Samuel Richardson's Pamela and Clarissa -- were a reaction to the stark rigors of the Enlightenment. But sentimental works linger on feeling for its own sake, emotion unearned by a dramatic reality. When sentimentality enters, the artist hesitates before the harsh truths implicit in the story. Sentiment is feeling buttressed by thought. Sentimentality evades and obfuscates.
Dickens escapes from noticing that the system of justice in Bleak House is in no danger of reformation. Sentiment gives way to sentimentality when the author has renounced the hope of remedy and succumbs to elaboration on suffering. Despite its noble intentions, Uncle Tom's Cabin, inspiring tears rather than action, is a paradigm of the sentimental. When Alyosha lectures the boys at the end of The Brothers Karamazov, an exhausted Dostoevski allows sentimentality to accomplish the work of dramatic resolution.
In overvaluing Jack Barnes's stoicism in The Sun Also Rises, Hemingway, intruding his own personality, permits style to supplant substance. In exalting the magical skills of matador Antonio Ordonez in The Dangerous Summer, he ignores the cruelty of that sport. Sentimentality cheats, manipulating the reader. The author John Gardner numbered sentimentality among "faults of soul" in the writer, Hemingway not least.
A curative for sentimentality is poetic justice, from the decaying of Vronsky's teeth in the final pages of Anna Karenina to Swann's wondering whatever he saw in the courtesan Odette in the first volume of Remembrance of Things Past. When at the close of Andre Gide's The Counter-feiters his hero Edouard, unredeemable to the end, focuses his sexual attentions on his youngest nephew, sentimentality is entirely absent.
Virginia Woolf in To The Lighthouse wards off sentimental pity for Mrs. Ramsay, a Victorian woman chafing under the coming exigencies of modernism, by adding the artist Lily Briscoe to her composition. In Libra, with historical truth in the balance, Don DeLillo does not permit himself to weep for the betrayed scapegoat, Lee Harvey Oswald.
In Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient, learning that atomic bombs have been unleashed on two Asian cities, Kip renounces the possibility of personal happiness. Alienated from the white race, he leaves Europe behind forever; a more authentic sentiment has replaced the sentimentality of accommodation. "Sentimen-tality is death to fiction," the novelist Gilbert Sorrentino has remarked, urging that the author be "extremely cold. Let the reader cry if he wants to."
Best-sellers often reek of sentimentality, suggesting that there is a sizable audience willing to sacrifice verisimilitude and artistic truth to revel in an emotional drenching. Short story writer Joy Williams once said that "good writing never soothes or comforts," excluding such excursions into sentimentality as The Bridges of Madison County with its credulity-defying love story.
In that mega-seller, Robert James Waller describes photographer hero Robert Kincaid as a "shaman," a "last cowboy," "like the wind," "a leopard," "some star creature who had drifted in on the tail of a comet," issuing from "the stems of Darwin's logic." Clint Eastwood perceived that Waller's embarrassing sentimentality diminished the character, imbuing him with passivity. Eastwood's film adaptation is far less sentimental than the book.