These novels are concerned with evoking a certain kind of feeling from their reader. They included purposefully distressing scenes, as well as tender ones, that were utilized as important plot elements. Character’s emotions strongly influenced their actions and how others perceived them. The authors also relied on the reader’s emotional reactions to shape their understanding of the characters and plot.
Explore Sentimental Novel
Sentimental Novel Definition
Sentimental novels are works of fiction, first published in the 18th century, that explored readers’ and characters’ feelings. These novels (and poems) were inspired by Rationalism, a literary movement that sought to extinguish unnecessary emotion from literature.
Throughout history, authors like Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Oliver Goldsmith, Frances Burney, Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, and others published sentimental novels and poems. Some scholars cite Dombey and Son by Charles Dickens are a particularly interesting and powerful work of sentimentalism.
The genre continued in the 19th century in which it was expanded. Today, examples of this genre can still be found, as can characters or events that were particularly inspired by the concept of sentimentalism.
Examples of Sentimental Novels
Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmith
Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmith was published in 1766 and is also categorized as a comedy or satire. The book was one of the most popular novels of Victorian literature. It tells the story of a lovable vicar who deals with bankruptcy and the abduction of his daughter. Here is a quote:
My friends, my children, and fellow sufferers, when I reflect on the distribution of good and evil here below, I find that much has been given man to enjoy, yet still more to suffer. Though we should examine the whole world, we shall not find one man so happy as to have nothing left to wish for; but we daily see thousands who by suicide shew us they have nothing left to hope. In this life then it appears that we cannot be entirely blest; but yet we may be completely miserable!
The Sorrows of Young Werther by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
The Sorrows of Young Werther by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe is an epistolary novel published in 1774. It is one of the most important novels of the Sturm un Drang period in German literature or a period in which authors prioritized individual perspectives and emotional extremes. It explores a young man’s reaction to his unrequited love through a series of letters. Here is an excerpt:
The human race is a monotonous affair. Most people spend the greatest part of their time working in order to live, and what little freedom remains so fills them with fear that they seek out any and every means to be rid of it.
The Power of Sympathy: or, The Triumph of Nature by William Hill Brown
The Power of Sympathy: or, The Triumph of Nature was the first sentimental novel published in the United States. It appeared in 1789 and was written as an epistolary. This means that it’s composed of a series of smaller documents, such as letters. Throughout the book, the author illustrates character struggles with various human weaknesses, including seduction. Here is a quote from the beginning of the book and the start of the second letter:
‘Wish you success!” In what? Who is this lady of whom you have been talking at such an inconsistent rate? But before you have leisure to reply to these inquiries, you may have forgotten there is such a person, as she whom you call Harriot have seen many juvenile heroes, during my pilgrimage of two and twenty years, easily inflamed with new objects […]
Sentimental Novels and Gothic Novels
These two literary genres were popular around the same period— the late 18th century. Both genres prioritized emotion over rationalism, order, or reason. Gothic literature refers to poetry and prose that deals with themes of death, the supernatural, sorrow, fear, loss, and more. It features darker themes more often than sentimental novels do. But, both genres utilize distressing situations, such as the kidnapping of the vicar’s daughter in Vicar of Wakefield, in order to evoke an emotional response in the reader.
In literature, a writer might use sentimentalism to evoke readers’ emotions. For example, they might include a particularly distressing passage in order to make readers feel pity and sympathy for a likable character. It is a literary device that has been used throughout literature.
Related Literary Terms
- Antinovel: any novel that disregards traditional conventions of novel-writing. These books push the limits of what a novel can be.
- Chronicle Novel: a long novel, or one in a series of novels, that follows at least two generations of a family or group.
- Coming-of-Age Novel: a book that tells the story of a character growing up and going through a series of important life-defining changes.
- Dime Novel: a form of short, cheap fiction popular during the 19th and early 20th centuries in the United States.
- Epistolary: a book made up of a series of documents, usually letters, diary entires, or newspaper clippings.
- Picaresque Novel: a genre of prose fiction that depicts a roughish hero who experiences episodic adventures.
- Sensation Novel: a genre of literature that took advantage of outrageous and sensational topics to entertain readers.
- Read: The Sorrows of Young Werther by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
- Read: The Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmith
- Watch: 18th Century Literature