820: Sacred Tears by Fred Kaplan

by Gerard


820.9: Kaplan, Fred. Sacred Tears: Sentimentality in Victorian Literature. Open Road, 2013. E-book.

Dewey Breakdown:

  • 800: Literature
  • 820: British literature in English
  • +.9: Historical treatment

Anyone who has read any Victorian literature know that there is no shortage of emotion. Women faint, men become apoplectic, and everybody’s feelings are visible on their sleeves. While discussing each other’s works, authors in 19th century England began to put a name to this element—sentiment. There is no single way to define it. Fred Kaplan’s Sacred Tears: Sentimentality in Victorian Literature does, however, try to synthesize all the various arguments surrounding this feature to give us a window into both the literature and the lives of the time.

Kaplan finally settles on a vague-ish definition of sentimentality. It is the “disposition to attribute to emotion undue importance, to be governed by emotion rather than reason, or the tendency to excessive indulgence in or an insincere display of emotion.” Sentimentality gives regular emotional display its viscerality. The truly sentimental will be irrational but still be governed by certain truths. Kaplan examines the works of Charles Dickens, William Makepeace Thackeray, Henry Fielding, and Thomas Carlyle to show how this sentimentality shows the essential goodness of humanity.

Scientific and technological development in the 1800s led to the feeling that the relative importance of humanity was shrinking in the face of the grand rule-set of the universe. Artistic sentimentality, especially that where the sentimental was also equated with the moral and the good, helped to prove that no amount of gears or microscopes could lessen our nature. The sacred tears of the title references those tears that are genuine, those that flow to show the inner feelings of those that shed them.

While it’s been a decade since I earned my degree in English, this brought back the good old days. Kaplan dives into the characters, plots, and nuances of Victorian literature to illuminate a small piece for us. He argues that the sentiment established in the writing of the day was ultimately meant to put forward the better parts of our nature, regardless of the misdeeds and mangled lives of some of the characters. Kaplan does a decent job of writing for the literary enthusiast and not just the academic. One does, however, have to be a little familiar with the works discussed for it to have full effect. A short but decent book.