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


Sentimentalism: A term usually used pejoratively today to refer to works that play excessively and unconvincingly on the audience’s emotions, particularly those of pity and sympathy. Authors are open to the charge of sentimentalism when, having failed to establish adequate motivation, they elicit those emotions through fast-acting, artificial means (for example, scenes involving tearful goodbyes and the use of saccharine romantic music). Literature is also labeled sentimental when an author exploits and exaggerates sensibility, i.e., susceptibility to feeling rather than reason.

What is viewed as sentimental in one era may not seem so in another; furthermore, what strikes one person as unvarnished sentimentalism may be compelling and moving to another. Although contemporary critics and readers find incredibly “hokey” the types of deathbed scenes common in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century sentimental novels and comedies, many critics and readers of those eras were impressed by the power of such works to express and evoke genuine emotion.

EXAMPLES: Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) is steeped in sentimentalism, as reflected in the scene in which a young slave mother, carrying her child, leaps from ice floe to ice floe across the Ohio River in a desperate attempt to escape a slave trader, and the death of the angelic Evangeline, who gives each of her family’s slaves a lock of her hair, having preached to them the value of living a good Christian life:

It is impossible to describe the scene, as, with tears and sobs, they gathered round the little creature, and took from her hands what seemed to them a last mark of her love. They fell on their knees; they sobbed, and prayed, and kissed the hem of her garment; and the elder ones poured forth words of endearment, mingled in prayers and blessings, after the manner of their susceptible race.

The musical Annie (1977; adapted to film 1982) and the television series Lassie (1954—74) are seen by many modern audiences as extremely — and sometimes excessively — sentimental; critically acclaimed films noted for their sentimental power include West Side Story (1961), Field of Dreams (1989), Million Dollar Baby (2004), and Boyhood (2014).