Literary Blog Hop: Emotions

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Literary Blog Hop

This week's literary blog hop, hosted at The Blue Bookcase, asks the question:

Discuss your thoughts on sentimentality in literature. When is emotion effective in literature and when is it superfluous? Use examples.

First of all, I want to differentiate between sentimentality and emotion, because for me, there are subtle differences. So I turn to my ever-useful Kindle dictionary for some definitions:

sentimentality: excessive tenderness, sadness, or nostalgia.

emotion: a natural instinctive state of mind deriving from one's circumstances, mood, or relationships with others.

To me, emotion is essential to a story. Why do we tell stories? To entertain and to connect with the human condition. Emotion is essential at least in some degree to make that connection. If we don't have love, anger, hate, sorrow, joy, what does any story matter? One of the first books that came to my mind when I tried to think of literary works that strongly invoke emotion is Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham. Philip is constantly beset with some sort of emotion
. Initially, he feels shame and sadness because of his club foot. He is rejected by many because of his handicap, which leads to a lifelong sensitivity about his deformity. Another even more prevalent emotion in the book is love and infatuation. Philip falls in love (or lust) with Mildred, a waitress. This emotion plagues him through much of the book as he struggles to forget about Mildred. He also discovers love in other manifestations as he seeks his calling in life.

In this example, both emotion and sentimentality are present. Philip waxes sentimental over Mildred, an insipid, unintelligent woman who nevertheless exercises a powerful influence over him. Another character, Miss Wilkinson, waxes sentimental over Philip and other men she has loved, declaring dramatically, "Men are always the same. You're heartless, all of you."

An example of a book that uses emotion but not sentimentality is The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway. The old man, Santiago, experiences emotion throughout the book. He is driven by his loneliness and feeling of uselessness as an old man to fight to catch a huge fish. He is driven by his loneliness and love for his wife to turn her picture down so that he doesn't have to look at it and be reminded. The boy is driven by his love for the old man to help him in any way he can, even
though his parents no longer allow him to fish in the old man's boat due to his unluckiness. The human condition is there, ore else the story wouldn't mean much. Sentimentality, however, is not. The old man does not soliloquize over his loneliness or sob over his wife. The boy, while he does cry at one point in the book, does not act in a dramatic way. He simply feels and allows that emotion expression.

What I'm trying to express is that yes, I do think emotion is essential for a book, or at any rate a work of fiction. Why would we care about a book if it didn't stir something within us? I do not think sentimentality is a necessary ingredient, although I believe it is usually present and can add to the book, whether comedically or simply to manipulate our own emotions. (Ingrid's evaluation of Twilight in this respect was in my opinion right on the ball. It also makes me think of Lauren Oliver - not to say I don't enjoy her work, because I do, but she does twist our heartstrings not just to tell her story but to get a response, I think). I took this in a slightly different direction than the blog hop but I enjoyed the thoughts it generated.


  1. Well you've done a great job of explaining why I didn't like The Old Man and the Sea when I read it in high school--I was entrenched in reading sentimentality and more subtle emotion wasn't enough to hold my attention at that point.

    Maybe I actually will reread The Old Man. :)

  2. Love Hemingway and love this post. I do agree that emotion is essential to story, too. I think it's okay to go in different directions with this kind of blog hop. We all interpret the question differently, right? =)

    Thanks and I can't wait to read more.--Miss GOP

  3. Heidi is a recent read that I have mixed feelings about. It often felt overly sentimental. Somehow, I kept reading to the end, though I felt the character was over-the-top Nice. It may have been the exotic locale or the story's setting in the past that allowed me to overlook the blatant in-your-face appeal to emotion.

    Here is my response: Readerbuzz: The Queen Died and the King Died.

  4. Great post! It's no wonder that people are writing longer responses this week than usual. *new follower*

  5. I like the idea that Sentimentality is white processed sugar and emotion is pure honey

  6. Wonderful post. I am a big fan of your blog. I conflated sentimentality and emotion all over my post. I think we associate sentimentality with today's popular fiction, but it has been around forever.

    Check out my hop here.

  7. @Melody - I think a lot of times I still lean toward sentimentality (I love YA after all) but there are definitely some beautiful more subtle books like The Old Man. I can see why a lot of people don't like it but reading it turned out to be a good experience for me!

    @MIss GOP - Yes, I guess half the fun of it is seeing where everyone goes with their answer!

    @readerbuzz - When you wrote that it made me think of Anne of Green Gables. I haven't read Heidi but I think L.M. Montgomery's work is also swimming in sentimentality. I still love it, but I think it stands out to me more than it did when I was younger.

    @As the Crowe flies - Thanks! Yes it seems this question has generated a lot of thought for everyone.

    @parrish lantern - that is a good image.

    @LBC - Thank you! I like the way you explored gender in your post.


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