On sentimentality

It is generally agreed that sentimentality, whether in novels, films, plays or whatever, is a Bad Thing, but there seems little agreement on what precisely constitutes sentimentality. When we try to define it, when we try to state clearly the criteria that differentiate that which is mere sentiment from that which is genuine emotion, we flounder. We sometimes try to take our lead from the word “genuine” and define sentimentality as “false emotion”, but that really won’t do, as real emotion, and even perhaps profound emotion, can easily appear sentimental when vitiated by indequate expression. Neither is there any agreement on what works are sentimental, and what aren’t: for instance, I find the closing chapters of Great Expectations almost unbearably moving, although I know there are those who dismiss it as mere sentimentality; on the other hand, what I perceive as toe-curling sentimentality in so many of the classic Disney films is perceived by many others as charming. There are even cases where I find myself enjoying that which I can acknowledge is, indeed, sentimental – like, say, the operas La Bohème or Madama Butterfly: these are unashamed tear-jerkers, but I can, without any embarrassment at all, have a good cry while listening to them, and feel all the better for it afterwards. But why I should enjoy the sentimentality of Puccini but deplore that of Disney, I do not know: is it possible that there are such things as “good sentimentality” and “bad sentimentality”? If so, what criteria differentiate between the two? Or is it merely the case that it is all entirely subjective, and that sentimentality is merely sentiment of which one does not personally approve?

In a book I wrote about recently on this blog, the author Mark Dietz, in a digression from his principal themes (the passage in question appearing only in a footnote), defends sentimentality:

Now, according to a rather curious definition, sentimentality is false emotion; however, if we  take a closer look at sentimental emotions what bothers us is not their falseness, but a tendency to represent emotions that are too large, too close to the surface, too awkward, too cloying, too freely expressive. In none of this is falsehood really at blame; were falsehood present, we would have another complaint altogether – chicanery, deceit, subterfuge – all of which suggest a second level to the emotion, a something underneath the surface, an irony, perhaps. Sentimentality is thus, to my mind, if it is true sentimentality, to be valued as sentimentality (and frankly, I do think we ought to learn how to value sentimentality, for without it the world is missing a rather common and surprisingly varied ingredient), an emotion that resides on the surface of life –untempered, unalloyed, unprofound – large, voluble, broad, impersonal, awkward, and vast.

“Too large, too close to the surface, too close to the surface … too freely expressive … untempered, unalloyed, unprofound …” All of this takes us close, I think, to the heart of the matter, but the heart of this matter is worthy, perhaps, of even closer examination. “An emotion that resides on the surface of life”: ay, there’s the rub. It lies on the surface, or, at least, too close to the surface: one need not dig too deep to access it. It is too easily accessed, too easily found without being earned. And that, I think, is why we so often think it to be a Bad Thing: certain emotions do, we feel, need to be earned. But only certain emotions: we do not feel this way about the emotion of mirth, for instance. A man slipping on a banana-skin may be considered a cheap laugh because the emotion of mirth has been too easily accessed, but we would not describe this as “sentimental”. No, we reserve the term “sentimental” only for those types of emotion we think worthless unless they are hard-earned – and these are the feelings of grief, and of sweetness. It’s almost as if the lachrymose and the sweet are qualities so valuable that they must be hard-earned, and that if they were too easily accessed, if they were too close to the surface of life, then these valuable emotions are necessarily cheapened. It is for this reason that a cheap laugh can be more easily forgiven than a cheap tear.

But none of this gives us objective criteria to determine what is sentimental, and what isn’t; and neither does it explain why La Bohème and Madama Butterly move me, while Pinocchio and Bambi merely irritate. I find this particularly troubling, as, when I survey those works that mean most to me, I can see that I respond strongly to direct expressions of powerful emotion. The emotional upheavals in Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy, the heartbreak of the final scene of Chaplin’s City Lights, the despair of Othello when he knows that he has thrown away a pearl richer than all his tribe, the emotional turmoil of Lady Dedlock when she realises her daughter is still alive, the interlocking passions and the pity of Long Day’s Journey Into Night, the final bars of Tchaikovsky’s 6th symphony in which the throbbing phrases disappear into silence … this is the kind of thing I find myself responding to keenly. Are all these examples sentimental? Are only some of them sentimental, but not others? If so, what are the criteria to determine which ones are sentimental, and which ones aren’t? And if we can’t tell, are we entitled to use this word at all in a pejorative sense?

I have to end this post with these unanswered questions because, even after years of pondering them, I haven’t come across answers I find satisfactory. But nonetheless, these questions remain important for me because I find myself valuing deeply works that project powerful emotion, and which some, at least, may consider “sentimental”; and, conversely, I often find myself unengaged by works in which human emotions are kept at a decorous distance, despite recognising artistic merit in many such works. In the immortal words of Boney M, “show me emotion, tra-la-la-la-la”.


8 responses to this post.

  1. I have always felt much the same about “sentimentality”. I even thought I might one day write an important essay on it which would change people’s ideas – but no doubt I shan’t. Just thinking about it now, perhaps it’s films in particular where I enjoy a lot of sentiment and find it’s used to create great art: The Apu Trilogy, as you mention, but also I think of Murnau’s Sunrise and perhaps more than anything The Night of the Hunter – especially the final scene where Lillian Gish stands in the porch surrounded by children and holding a shotgun and defends the rights of innocents in the face of evil. Casablanca, the scene in the cafe, when all the Frenchmen sing the Marseillaise to drown out the Germans. The entire works of Vittorio de Sica.

    Sentiment’s a tool of the artist as much as anything else is – it’s not necessarily bad.


  2. Hello Obooki, I agree with all the examples you give of films which some may think sentimental, but which are, nonetheless, tremendously moving. In that scene from Casablanca where they start singing La Marseillaise, I especially love the bit during the second verse where the camera closes in on the “good-time girl”, and even she is singing in fervent, tearful passion. Of course, the whole scene is derived from a similar scene in La Grande Illusion in which the French POWs burstspontaneously into La Marseillaise in defiance of their German captors – but who cares? It’s just perfect as it is.

    I don’t know whether it’s my imagination, but it does seem to me that there is a difference beween scenes that we acknowledge to be cheesy, but which we love anyway, and others where the emotions provoked are real and profound. But since I cannot articulate the nature of this perceived difference, I won’t insist upon it.


  3. I am a student at a University and my friend – who is dear to me – says my essays are too sentimental and that is why they do not get consideration for higher marks I would like to see why this is so – we seem to “fall out” to often over this. I am not even sure if I can understand what he means BY sentimentality
    Why I wonder does it seem so upsetting – to some anyway – to have to call a friend SENTIMENTAL


    • Hello Patricia, and welcome to the blog.

      If i were you, the next time your friend criticises your essay for being sentimental, I’d ask: (a) How do you define sentimentality? (b) Given your definition, what is it in my essay you find sentimental? and (c) Why is this a bad thing? Your friend may have good answers to all three of these questions, but it would at least help clarify matters! 🙂


  4. Posted by Mark David Dietz on December 19, 2011 at 2:36 am

    Himadri, I am so sorry that I somehow missed this when it first appeared. Certainly, it is in the spirit of our past discussions on this issue. But it asks a question I suppose that I had not considered to the extent that I no doubt should: How do we know senitmentality? If I ever get that blog going, I shall have to give it another go. The only passing thoughts I have are:

    1) Sentiment was David Hume’s preferred term for emotions; his morality is often called “emotivist” for two reasons: he saw emotion as a necessary prequel to rational thought and he believed that we possessed something of a moral sense that enabled us to determine what was or was not moral. His philosophy fell on deaf ears amongst philosophers, but inspired the 18th century “man of sentiment” to which I believe the term “sentimental” is a backlash. (Pope, remember, much prefered bathos.) The writers of sentiment led directly into the Romantics and were largely obscured by the likes of Wordsworth, Coleridge, et al who appraoched emotion in quite a different form. The gap between emotions and reason is still an awkward blemish on modern human reasoning, at least to my mind that is the case.

    2) I think the sentimental is one end of the picture of emotions, out of which we grow increasingly complex emotional responses, so that dealing with the sentimental must be a first step in learning to be comfortable that as humans we are always creatures of emotion. The “unemotional” does not literally exist. At least that is the way I look at it. At the very least we are better thinking of the “unemotional” as a type of emotion rather than a lack of emotion. Part of this has to do with extent. When we hear the word emotion our tendency is to imagine very large emotions (which do tend to force themselves away from reasoning and thus toward a kind of shallowness), while smaller, more nuanced emotions tend to actually enable reason — and I do follow Hume, without such emotions as curiosity or discomfort or confusion or interest, reason would remain dormant. So part of this problem lies in allowing for the richness of emotions that are necessarily large and robust.

    3) Something of the sense of being “taken in” seems to reside with this issue. I worry that we let this fear overly dominate our thinking today.

    And I will need to think on this more…

    Not sure why I am not getting updates for your blog. I have signed up three or four times.

    Best, Mark


  5. Posted by Di on March 27, 2014 at 2:28 pm

    Ah, as you mentioned Giacomo Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly”, do you know the play “M. Butterfly” by David Henry Hwang?


    • I have heard of it, certainly, but once again – no, I haven’t seen this. (Wasn’t the musical “Miss Saigon” also based loosely on “Madama Butterfly”?) People often object to Puccini because he went out of his way to tug at the heartstrings: indeed, that is often his primary purpose. But that is actually teh very reason why i love Puccini so much!

      I wrote a post about Puccini here.


      • Posted by Di on March 28, 2014 at 2:03 pm

        “Miss Saigon”, yes, so I’ve heard. But I generally avoid books and films and such things by Westerners about Vietnam, especially the war.

        (This is a quote from “M. Butterfly”:
        “Consider it this way: what would you say if a blond homecoming queen fell in love with a short Japanese businessman? He treats her cruelly, then goes home for three years, during which time she prays to his picture and turns down marriage from a young Kennedy. Then, when she learns he has remarried, she kills herself. Now I believe you should consider this girl to be a deranged idiot, correct? But because it’s an Oriental who kills herself for a Westerner–ah!–you find it beautiful.”)

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