The Sentimental Novel Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

The Sentimental Novel

The sentimental novel, also known as the domestic novel, deviated from the literary norms established by such authors as Herman Melville, Henry David Thoreau, and Mark Twain to focus on the intimate details of women's private lives during the nineteenth century. A form of literature which was most popular in early and mid-nineteenth century America, the sentimental novel is traditionally dismissed in literary histories, though works such as Susan Warner's The Wide, Wide World (1850), Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852), and Maria Cummins' The Lamplighter (1854) were at one time among the most popular publications in American letters.

The sentimental novel has historical roots in Europe, particularly in Samuel Richardson's Clarissa; or, The History of a Young Lady (1747-48) and Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded (1740), both of which tell of men seducing virtuous women. American authors in the early nineteenth century replicated and amplified this theme, though later domestic novels expanded the variety of conflicts and protagonists: the unique social, spiritual, political, and economic circumstances of nineteenth-century America conditioned the issues that confronted the female characters and the ways in which such issues were resolved. Sentimental novels appealed primarily to female and middle-class readers who, in colonial and Revolutionary America, were taught to read in order to teach their sons democratic ideals. This idea of influential republican motherhood evolved into the "cult of domesticity," in which women were the guardians of spirituality and virtue, and which is embodied in the domestic novels' morally pure protagonists—such as Little Eva, from Uncle Tom's Cabin, and Eliza Wharton, from The Coquette (1797).

Sentimental novels are traditionally contrasted with the writings of Melville, Thoreau, and Nathaniel Hawthorne, who exalted individuals who transgress against cultural conventions. The historical identification of the sentimental novel with the "feminization" of American, and especially Southern, culture reinforces the criticism that these works uncritically replicate conventional ideas and values. But the identification of women as protectors of the family links sentimental novelists with abolitionism, which often argued against slavery by noting its destructive impact upon families, and with other political movements such as prohibition. Consequently, some recent critics argue that domestic novels are less formulaic than initially perceived, and have interpreted them as expressions of proto-feminism and as attempts to celebrate the traditional role of women in society.

Despite the common criticism that sentimental fiction portrays an idealized account of domestic life, authors frequently insisted that their stories were grounded in reality, and feminist theorists such as Jane Tompkins and Cathy N. Davidson have challenged the idea that domestic novels are merely romantic and idealistic. Instead, these critics contend that the novels portray issues and characters that were relevant to nineteenth-century women—familial relations, issues of dependence and independence, and definitions of virtue and femininity. Although mundane and conventional behavior frequently dominates the private world represented in the domestic novel, the genre lends insight into both the cult of domesticity and the resistance to that ideal that emerged from the increased education of women under American republicanism.