Literature of sensibility

The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018

Literature of sensibility

Literature of sensibility: A term most commonly used to refer to eighteenth-century literature that emphasized emotional sensitivity and charitable feelings, particularly as manifested in the sentimental comedy and the sentimental novel. The literature of sensibility, which drew on the thought of philosophers such as Anthony Ashley Cooper, the Third Earl of Shaftesbury, who asserted the natural benevolence of humankind in Characteristicks of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times (1711), arose largely in reaction to two seventeenth-century philosophical currents: Stoic rationalism, which privileged reason and alignment with natural law, and English philosopher Thomas Hobbes’s characterization of humanity in Leviathan (1651) as inherently selfish and self-interested. Sentimental comedies, novels, and poems exalted benevolence, sympathy, and sensibility as inherent human traits, depicting situations designed to demonstrate the exquisite sensibility of characters as well as to elicit emotions ranging from pity to joy from readers. Thus, deathbed scenes, fainting virgins, reformed prostitutes, and blushing brides are common.

While most critics confine the term literature of sensibility to sentimental works dating from the eighteenth century, some use it to refer to any work following in this tradition. What was once celebrated as sensibility is often derided today as sentimentalism.

EXAMPLES: Eighteenth-century examples include Laurence Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey (1768), Henry Mackenzie’s The Man of Feeling (1771), and Fanny Burney’s Evelina (1778). A typical passage from The Man of Feeling follows:

Had you seen us, Mr. Harley, when we were turned out of South-hill, I am sure you would have wept at the sight. You remember old Trusty, my shag house-dog; I shall never forget it while I live; the poor creature was blind with age, and could scarce crawl after us to the door; he went however as far as the gooseberry-bush; which you may remember stood on the left side of the yard; he was wont to bask in the sun there; when he had reached that spot, he stopped; we went on: I called to him; he wagged his tail, but did not stir: I called again; he lay down: I whistled, and cried ’Trusty’; he gave a short howl, and died! I could have laid down and died too; but God gave me strength to live for my children.

Movies such as It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), Old Yeller (1957), Love Story (1970), Terms of Endearment (1983), and My Girl (1991) follow in the tradition of literature of sensibility.