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The Sentimental Self

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 January 2020

Joseph Kupfer*
Iowa State University, Ames, IA50011-1306, USA


Sentimentality is usually thought of as a mild vice. Unlike such vices as cruelty, dishonesty, or contemptuousness, sentimentality appears to affect only the individuals who have it, and then, not very adversely. So what if we indulge our taste for prematurely dying heroines or stoic, sweet-natured children? Shedding a tear or feeling a diffuse affection does not seem to hurt anyone, not even ourselves. But because of its impact on the self, sentimentality is a more serious vice than might be suspected.

Regardless of the immediate object of our sentimental gaze, the self is also sentimentalized. The self is not only the subject engaged in sentimentalizing activity, but also its mediated object. A sentimentalized sense of self discourages activity and keeps us from dealing with the world directly. The distortion of and absorption in the self is dangerous for sentimental individuals and those with whom they interact. To see why, we must examine the structuring of perception, thought, and emotion which makes up sentimentality. Our inquiry will be sharpened by reference to literary depictions which reflect or encourage sentimental response. Versing us in the ways of sentimentality, some literature may generate our everyday patterns of sentimentalized thought and feeling.

Research Article
Copyright © The Authors 1996

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