Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1251

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The Scottish Enlightenment of the late eighteenth century represented a remarkable efflorescence of cultural activity. Among its prominent contributors were the chemist Joseph Black; his close friend, the geologist James Hutton; Hutton’s followers, John Playfair and James Hall; the economist Adam Smith; the historian William Robertson; the philosopher Adam Ferguson; and the portrait painter who preserved likenesses of them all, Henry Raeburn. However, for all this talent in other disciplines, imaginative writers were slow to appear on the Scottish scene. The few notable exceptions included the forger of the Osian poems, James Macpherson, as well as the rhetorical critic Hugh Blair. Another great exception was Tobias Smollett, but he made his career largely in England.

Philosophers, a term that then included scientists, tended to find more ready access to print culture than did literary practitioners, but by the later eighteenth century these philosophers had been followed by a remarkable group of literary lawyers, who brought to writing the same critical skills that their profession required. Henry Mackenzie was one such lawyer. Through most of his life, Mackenzie was the most prominent arbiter of literary opinion in Edinburgh. He championed the dialect poetry of Robert Burns, for example, and he strongly encouraged the early literary efforts of Sir Walter Scott, also a lawyer, who dedicated his first novel, Waverley: Or, ’Tis Sixty Years Since (1814), to Mackenzie. Highly regarded as a critic, editor, poet, and playwright, Mackenzie wrote many essays for literary periodicals, was active in the Highland Society, and oversaw the multidisciplinary Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh when they appeared in 1785. A hardheaded, practical opportunist, he had nothing in common with the hero of his most famous book.

The Man of Feeling, a short and fragmentary novel of fewer than one hundred pages, is the work for which Mackenzie is best remembered. Though often cited as the quintessential sentimental novel, and seemingly a reflection of its times, The Man of Feeling remained in manuscript for several years. When it was finally published, it became extremely popular. Mackenzie went on to write two more novels. Of these, The Man of the World (1773) was intended to be a contrastive sequel to The Man of Feeling. Its title character, appropriately named Sindall, was as iniquitous as Harley was good. Mackenzie’s third novel, Julia de Roubigné (1777), was strongly influenced by Mackenzie’s theatrical aspirations. In it, he attempted to move from melodrama into genuine tragedy. Though little known by modern readers, Julia de Roubigné is often considered Mackenzie’s best work. It is indebted to a novel with a similar title, Julie: Ou, La Nouvelle Héloïse (1761; Eloise: Or, A Series of Original Letters, 1761; also as Julie: Or, The New Eloise, 1968; better known as The New Héloïse), by Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

As a novelist, Mackenzie belongs to an intermediate period in the history of the form. His three works came after the contributions of Samuel Richardson, Henry Fielding, and Smollett earlier in the eighteenth century but before the advent of Jane Austen and Sir Walter Scott early in the nineteenth century. He may be a lesser figure than any of these, but he is significant nevertheless. Mackenzie’s experimentation with the form of the novel owed something to Lawrence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gent. (1759-1767; commonly known as Tristram Shandy), which is, in addition to its other qualities, an outrageous parody of the structural perfection achieved by Fielding. The tone of The Man of Feeling, however, was different from those of the works of either Sterne or Fielding, both of whom believed in ironic detachment. Sterne also favored a playfulness, and sometimes a naughtiness, entirely foreign to Mackenzie.

Mackenzie’s book was arguably the work of literature that most embodied the idea of sentimentality in literature, and it was an important bridge to the novel that would represent the virtual apotheosis of that idea, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (1774; The Sorrows of Young Werther, 1779). Mackenzie’s ideas about sentiment were influenced in part by Richardson’s emphasis on inner feeling, by Fielding’s celebration of the variety of human nature, and by Rousseau’s emphasis on the natural goodness of humans and the depravity of society, which inverted normative Christian assumptions. Rousseau in particular emphasized the virtue of feeling and denigrated the stoic restraint that, in the past, had often been premised on an awareness of either Christian Original Sin or human weakness and vulnerability generally. Mackenzie’s novel paints a portrait of a man who, even at great cost to himself, offers a great depth of sentiment to a world that does not understand it. It thus partakes in the Christian sense of benevolence but adds to it a sense of innate human goodness.

It would be a mistake to assimilate Mackenzie totally to a proto-Romantic paradigm, as there were important differences between The Man of Feeling and the emphasis on expressiveness and authenticity that would mark the Romantics of the generation after Mackenzie. Without accusing Harley of insincerity or imposture, the character evinces a certain performative quality, a manifest demonstrativeness that sees feeling as a trait to be exhibited. This exhibition stands in contrast to the Romantic vision of an innate human tendency that pours out from a sort of hydraulic reserve no matter what the conscious will would have. Readers are meant to admire Harley’s overflow of feeling, to perhaps take aspects of it into their lives, and to be aware of the need to show they are doing things for others. They are not, however, meant to imitate it wholesale. Harley’s life, after all, ends tragically, and even though this is because he is too good for the world of the novel, that world is meant to stand for the same world that the book’s readers must inhabit.

Harley is not, in contemporary parlance, a “role model,” and this fact demonstrates the limits to the reach of his sentimentality. Furthermore, that sentimentality dovetails with eighteenth century ideals of politeness and gentlemanliness. Those ideals are to some extent incompatible with Romanticism’s emphasis on the wild and the uncultivated. For instance, Harley—the man of sentiment—cannot be anything other than upper class, and this is true despite the novel’s considerable critique of inequality.

That critique of inequality is itself quite significant. Most of the figures of the Scottish Enlightenment were, in their various ways, rather hard-headed, and they were generally proponents of nascent capitalism, even if out of a sense of a general benevolence rather than a crudely defined self-interest. However, the same economic forces that Adam Smith saw as ultimately benign were sharply critiqued by Mackenzie. Harley falls victim to the selfishness of others and their indifference to his message of compassion and sympathy, but he also struggles against the looming capitalist tide: He preaches altruism to a society whose growing taste for the pursuit of self-interest is evident even among the friends who urge Harley to go to London in the first place. Harley is a profoundly contradictory figure, in that his reluctant pursuit of self-interest at the behest of others launches him on a doomed career of feeling and caring for others rather than accomplishing anything for himself. The contradiction between self-interest and accomplishing good things, the novel argues, is hardly limited to the experience of its protagonist. Thus, while Mackenzie’s novel is a portrait of an exquisitely sensitive man, it is also a form of social critique.