Sentimentalism


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Sentimentalism

 

a literary and artistic movement that emerged in Western Europe and Russia in the second half of the 18th century, in response to the crisis of Enlightenment rationalism.

Sentimentalism received its fullest expression in Great Britain, where the ideology of the third estate, as well as its internal contradictions, first appeared. According to the sentimentalists, the dominant chord of human nature is feeling, and not reason, which is compromised by bourgeois practices. Sentimentalism did not break completely with the Enlightment but remained loyal to the ideal of a normative personality, establishing as the precondition for its development not a rational restructuring of the world but the liberation and perfection of “natural” feelings. In sentimental literature of the Enlightenment the hero is more individualized, and his inner world is enriched by his ability to empathize and to respond sensitively to what is going on around him. By origin or conviction, the sentimental hero is a democrat. The rich inner world of the common man was one of the chief discoveries and triumphs of sentimentalism.

Sentimental motifs (the natural idyll and melancholy contemplation, for example) first appeared in the poetry of J. Thomson (The Seasons, 1730), E. Young (Night Thoughts, 1742–45), and T. Gray (Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, 1751). An elegiac tone and patriarchal idealization are inseparable in sentimentalist poetry. A concrete social reflection of the village theme is found only in the poetry of the late sentimentalists of the 1770’s and 1780’s, such as O. Goldsmith, W. Cowper, and G. Crabbe, who allude to the impoverishment of the peasant masses and to deserted villages. Sentimental motifs are found in the psychological novels of S. Richardson and the later works of H. Fielding (Amelia, 1752). However, sentimentalism attained its ultimate form in the works of L. Sterne, whose unfinished Sentimental Journey (1768) gave the sentimentalist movement its name. Like D. Hume, Sterne showed that men are not “identical” but are capable of being different.

In contrast to preromanticism, a parallel movement, sentimentalism rejected the irrational. Contradictory moods and emotional impulses were subjected to rationalistic interpretation by sentimentalism, which found the dialectic of the soul comprehensible. The main features of British sentimentalism, as represented by Goldsmith, the later works of Smollett, and H. Mackenzie, are an emotional sensitivity that is not without exaggeration, as well as irony and humor that permit a parodic deflation of the Enlightenment canon and simultaneously a skeptical attitude toward the possibilities of sentimentalism. (The last is characteristic of Sterne’s works, for example.)

European cultural interchange and the typological similarity in the development of European literatures resulted in a precipitous spread of sentimentalism (in France, the psychological novels of P. de Marivaux and the Abbé Prevost, Diderot’s bourgeois dramas, and Beaumarchais’s The Guilty Mother, and in Germany, C. F. Gellert’s “serious comedy” and F. G. Klopstock’s rational sentimental poetry). Not unexpectedly, the democratic currents in sentimentalism were most radically expressed in Germany (the Sturm und Drang movement) and, to an even greater degree, in France (Rousseau). The peak of European sentimentalism is Rousseau’s creative work (Julie, ou la Nouvelle Héloïse, 1761). In the Confessions, Rousseau presented a sentimentalist hero determined by the social environment. Later, Goethe did the same in Werther. Diderot’s sentimentalist heroes are also placed in a social context (Jacques the Fatalist and Rameau’s Nephew). G. E. Lessing’s dramaturgy developed under the influence of sentimentalism. At the same time, a wave of open imitations of Sterne swept over French and German literature.

Among the Russian representatives of sentimentalism were M. N. Murav’ev, N. M. Karamzin (Poor Liza, 1792), I.I. Dmitriev, V. V. Kapnist, N. A. L’vov, and the young V. A. Zhukovskii. Focusing primarily on the world of the upper classes, Russian sentimentalism was, to a significant degree, rationalistic and highly didactic (for example, Karamzin’s Letters of a Russian Traveler, part 1, 1792). The Enlightenment currents in sentimentalism were more important in Russia than in Western Europe. Russian sentimentalist writers polished the literary language and introduced conversational norms and colloquialisms. Scholars have found indisputable features of sentimentalist poetics in the creative work of A. N. Radishchev.

The literary genres of sentimentalism included the elegy, the letter, the epistolary novel, travel notes, diaries, and other prose forms in which the “confessional motif is prominent. In sentimentalist literature, openness verging on self-exposure resulted in an extraordinary increase in interest in the writer’s personality. Sometimes the writer became the “hero” of biographical legends. The aspect of the writer’s creative individuality became fundamental in the aesthetics of romanticism.

V. A. KHARITONOV

In the theater sentimentalism developed through a struggle against the artificial conventions of courtly classical theater. As a result of the cult of feelings and the heightened interest in man’s inner world that characterized sentimentalism, the rigid classical deportment and artificial declamatory manner of verse recitation were rejected. The new repertoire required the actor to develop natural deportment, to develop a character, and to convey the intonations of emotional, conversational speech. Staging and design changed, with the standard “palace” decorations giving way to more realistic decor and traditional costumes to more modern clothing. A specific type of makeup was also introduced. All of these changes led to an increase in realistic tendencies in acting, manifested in varying degrees in the art of the outstanding actors of the second half of the 18th century, including D. Garrick (Great Britain) and F. L. Schroder and J. F. Brockmann (Germany). In the Russian theater sentimentalism influenced the acting of A. D. Karatygina, la. E. Shusherin, and V. P. Pomerantsev.

L. A. LEVBARG

REFERENCES

Problemy Prosveshcheniia v mirovoi literature. Moscow, 1970.
Blagoi, D. D. Istoriia russkoi literatury XVIII v., 4th ed. Moscow, 1960.
Tronskaia, M. L. Nemetskii sentimental’no-iumoristicheskii roman epokhi Prosveshcheniia. Leningrad, 1965.
Elistratova, A. A. Angliiskii roman epokhi Prosveshcheniia. Moscow, 1966.
Fitzgerald, M. First Follow Nature. New York, 1947.
Istoriia zapadnoevropeiskogo teatra, vol. 2. Moscow, 1957.
Aseev, B. N. Russkii dramaticheskii teatr XVII-XVIII vekov. Moscow, 1958.
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