Craig White's Literature Courses

Terms / Themes

Sentiment & Sentimentality

see also "sentimental stereotypes"

example of sentimentality:
cute child & puppy--who can resist or be critical?

Sentiment—"a thought or reflection coloured by or proceeding from emotion" (OED)—can be a valuable aesthetic or dynamic in literature, especially Romantic literature that values human feelings in addition to reason or logic.

Sentimentality—"an appeal to shallow, uncomplicated emotions at the expense of reason" (Wikipedia)—is derided by serious critics for appealing to cheap, easy emotions. Put another way, sentimentality or sentimentalism "pushes our buttons," attempting to stimulate automatic responses instead of productive thought.

People generally like Romantic literature, but if they don't, it's often because Romantic literature can cross the line from honest sentiment into exploitative sentimentality--i.e. push-button reactions for or against familiar types.

On the other hand, overly negative rejections against sentimentality can rob literature of its human warmth or attraction.

Wikipedia page on sentimentality


Examples of sentimentality:


Little House on the Prairie

Rainbow Brite


Sports reports on retiring players: the camera really wants the guy to cry. (Compare news interviews with families of victims.)


Steven Spielberg, E.T., Schindler's List (One good man makes all the difference)

Kevin Costner, Dances with Wolves (American Indians as noble savages, white man earns their respect)

Printed materials:

Advice books by Bill Cosby

Hallmark cards   (Sentimental themes webpage)

Patriotic songs and poetry are usually celebratory rather than critical; e.g. people honor small farms and small businesses but support corporate farming & chain stores; nostalgia vs. complications of modernity or city life


Familiar symbols or characters in sentimental literature:

a child's tears, a child's smile, a child's smile through tears

the faithful servant

an all-forgiving father

kindly old grandpa on the farm

kindly old grandma in the kitchen or at church

aging athletes breaking down at retirement announcements

virtuous, honorable, noble youth


Familiar responses to sentimental literature

"aawww . . . "


stock characters

wise child

kindly grandparent--crusty exterior but heart of gold

individual stands up for right


stereotypical / sentimental characters in contemporary action movies:

  • quiet, decent, humble but heavily-armed American;

  • Mexican men as banditos;

  • Arab men as sniveling or hysterical;

  • black men as noble sacrifice or wise elders / judges ("sentimental stereotypes")

  • European men as cold masterminds;

  • women of various ethnicities involve a whole different range of stereotypes, but if the action guy likes her, she's usually just a kinder gentler version of himself who doesn't pick up her gun until her cubs are threatened. Other possibilities: protective mother, deceitful harlot, angelic maiden. overeducated spinster.


familiar sentimental feelings

warm & cuddly responses—a boxful of puppies!

endangered innocents (threatened by insensitive bullies or authority figures)

peaceful domestic scenes

Sentimenal and domestic literature often overlap or are used as synonyms.

Sentiment may simply be a synonym for feeling, emotion, or attitude. In literary criticism, however, sentimentality usually signifies a facile exploitation of emotions that are unearned or automatic.

Domestic literature expresses affection for the home and family relations and values.


Literary attitudes

In literary criticism, "sentimentality" or "sentiment" may be dismissed as cheap, too-easy emotions. Why?

Everyone loves children, motherhood, old folks at family reunions, faithful dogs, family heirlooms and traditions, and the good old days . . .

So why does Literature habitually diminish these subjects?

  • If everyone already loves the common joys or sorrows of humanity, little is learned or gained by indulging or celebrating them—just confirmation of what you already knew and felt, which can serve a purpose.

  • Sentiment often repeats what has worked before.

  • Social issues: sentimental literature often denounces settled issues like slavery or racial / gender discrimination but avoids current examples like gay marriage, reproductive issues, population control, social inequality--aside from nostalgic regret that "times have changed; people aren't honest like they used to be"--which dehumanizes the past.

  • Sentiment may indulge in affirmation and fulfillment (as in a Hallmark card) instead of more strenuous imaginings like desire, loss, questioning of assumptions.

  • Audiences get their buttons pushed by stock characters and familiar feelings. Literary studies train more sophisticated responses.

However, sentiment may be artfully done so that even skeptical readers may feel desired emotional responses--though usually so subtle that these responses feel fresh and earned rather than stale and sentimental.


Reasons to rethink such attitudes against sentimentality?

Sentiment as common ground for humanity?

Anti-sentimentality as product of men leading literary scholarship and college teaching?



Box Full of Puppies / Kittens

sample of greeting card sentiment: 

This Christmas
We hope this Christmas enriches your life;
May each day be happy and bright,
Overflowing with pleasure and love;
May your Christmas be filled with delight.
By Karl Fuchs


Recent quote on Sentimentality:

Dominic Green, "One-Armed Nazis and Albino Children: The Year's Surprise Bestseller Turns the Holocaust into a Sentimental Mess" The New Republic 14 January 2015.

(Review of Anthony Doerr's popular novel All The Light We Cannot See)

Sentimentality is a potent and cheap smokescreen. It shelters us from the barrage of deeper emotions, and spares us from their ethical implications. It substitutes surfaces for depths, and glamor for complexity. A failure of taste is always an ethical failure, too. . . .

Ethical dilemmas, sadistic violence, technological cruelties, and sexy uniforms are all splendid sources of period style and emotional intensity. But, like rations of ersatz coffee and powdered egg, they are ready-made substitutes for the real thing. Realism brings us closer to the past, and to an understanding of its difference. The aesthetic perspective distances, and flattens difference. Instead of horror or heroism, we see only a lazy reflection of our own preferences and prejudices.