Essay topic: American Sense and Sensibility: Let's Be Realist

Author: Ms. Annmicha Blugh

In Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility (1811), the two female protagonists, Elinor and Marianne, epitomize these respective principles – sense and sensibility. American Realism spans 1865-1910. During this time period, realist writers synchronize in views, objecting to sentimentality and protesting for more texts exemplifying realism. American realist novels, such as House Behind the Cedars (1900), Washington Square (1880), The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885), and Ethan Frome (1911) satirize sentimentality, as represented in sentimental fiction, and applaud sensible characters with a firm grip on reality. In American realist literature, the characters who live on the basis of sense comprehend their circumstances and follow good judgment; whereas the characters who live on the basis of sensibility resort to emotionalism and impassioned decision-making. In the realist novel, characters demonstrating sentimentality are incongruous because they apply elements of the sentimental novel in everyday life. They are guided by imagination, impulse, and overpowering emotion. As one explores American local colorist and realist literature, one observes objection against sentimentality, through satire, imitation, and open criticism; thus, confirming contempt for traditional feminine sentimentality.
The reason why these realist works are so stridently against sentimentality is because the realist focus appreciates the representation of the truth in life and everyday existence. The realist style of writing, called verisimilitude, preserves accuracy in the narrative account for sentiments and the romantic often eclipse clarity. Realism offers no embellishment, therefore realist authors oppose the views of sentimental sensibilities. In the sentimental fiction era, "ladies poisoned their minds with novels and the amorous follies of romances" (Brown 5). Thus, a negative construction is placed on sentimentality, gendered feminine, in American realist novels.

In sentimental fiction, sentimental female protagonists typically act irrationally. The pairing of sentimentality and the woman dates back to Greco-roman times, where hysteria is a once common medical condition peculiar to women. Women would demonstrate emotive symptoms such as fainting, irritability, spasms, high excitability, and nervousness. In the Victorian Era, hysteria was a popular diagnosis. Indeed, the etymology of hysteria is self explanatory since it derives from the Latin hystericus which means "of the womb" (Encyclopaedia Brittanica). Realism satirizes hysteria because both hysterical characters because hysteria clouds judgment and incapacitates calculated action. Hysteria also shifts the character flaw from the individual and imputes it to a sickness, rather than a consequence springing from sentimental folly. "Humans control their destinies; characters act on their environment rather than simply reacting to it" (Penrose). The human agent is responsible for making informed decisions; therefore in the realist world, sentimental hysterics are caricatured and satirized.

Realism's discord with sentimentality is evidenced in Washington Square, where the sentimental female protagonist is caricatured in Mrs. Penniman. She is so sentimental that reason is most times completely eclipsed. Mrs. Penniman suggests that her niece, Catherine, "should stay in bed for three days" (James 144) after a bitter argument with her father about her love relationship with Mr. Townsend, her beau. Catherine finds her suggestion ridiculous and does not follow her advice. Her ideas are usually unreasonable and no one respects her judgment. Mr. Townsend finds in Mrs. Penniman a ready agent to do his bidding. As a consequence, enraptured by his charm, and deluded by romantic accounts of the sentimental fiction texts she reads, Mrs. Penniman endangers Catherine, by her emotional excesses and romantic imagination. After a while, penetrating into her true sentimental nature, even Mr. Townsend begins to despise Mrs. Penniman. Catherine rebuffs most of her advice. She is "romantic,..sentimental…and had secrets as unpractical as addled eggs" (James 11). Mrs. Penniman's sentimentality causes her to resort to fixed images in her mind which spring from the sentimental novels she reads. Worse than a passionate adolescent, Mrs. Penniman intervenes in Catherine's love affair with Mr. Townsend and imagines herself as the central character in a web of love. In the end, she is unsuccessful in promoting the love relationship and by her heavy sentimentality only manages to ruin her credibility. According to Dr. Sloper, her brother, Mrs. Penniman is totally "unfamiliar with the alphabet of common sense" (James 90). This derisive, acoustic judgment proceeds from his realistic sense. Dr. Sloper's pointed disharmony with Mrs. Penniman reveals the disparity between realism and sentimentality. "Dr. Sloper speaks to his sentimental sister, Mrs. Penniman, assaulting her with his sarcasm" (Habegger 43). Dr. Sloper's realist view and his intolerance for sentimentality, cause the reader to classify Mrs. Penniman as a character worthy of ridicule. As Mrs. Penniman ages toward the end of the novel, her clothes are gaudier, brighter, and more flamboyant. Mrs. Penniman's risible exterior appearance underscores incongruity with her realist setting, thus confirming the satiric realist view of her female sentimentality.

In The Rise of Silas Lapham, William Dean Howells' realist view objects to sentimental fiction employing satire. At a dinner where the characters discuss literature, Miss Kingsbury condemns "the (sentimental) novel that was making such a sensation ... perfectly heart-breaking; (with) a dear old-fashioned hero and heroine in it, who keep dying for each other all the way through" (Howells 197). As rightly expressed by Ms. Kingbury, mawkish sentimentality carry out no purpose, and her opinion emphasizes the realist's scorn for overwrought sensibilities. In reality, "Tears, Idle Tears" is a sentimental poem written by Alfred Lord Tennyson, a British Romantic poet. In Tennyson's era, most sentimental poets center on sentimentalism as a means of ennobling the soul and evoking human compassion. Moreover, realism's antagonism against sentimentality is evidenced in Nanny's reaction to "Tears, Idle Tears". Nanny mocks sentimental work, asserting that "it should have been called Silly Silly Slop" (Howells 197). This derogatory title further satirizes sentimentality and gives the realist view on the sentimental fiction. She calls the sentimental novel a silly, mindless, and nonsensical text, while slop describes its maudlin content.

Although The Rise of Silas Lapham is a realist novel, there is a sentimental plot enshrined, where William Dean Howells uses character flaws and irony to express objection to the sentimental novel. Using the plot of "Tears, Idle Tears," a sentimental novel, Howells imitates the sentimental female protagonist, through Penelope, who surrenders her lover to the lady who loved him first, betraying her own feelings, and hurting her lover as a consequence. At first, Penelope condemns the protagonist's action as "silly, wicked, and unreasonable" (Howells 217), yet in the love triangle involving herself, Mr. Corey, and Irene, she gives up Mr. Corey (the man she truly loves) for Irene's sake. Howells speaks through realistic characters to criticize Penelope's sentimental actions. Mr. Corey reproves Penelope's actions, calling them "foolish and wicked" (Howells 257). Also, the minister, Mr. Sewell criticizes Penelope's decision which is founded upon a "false ideal (coming from) the novels that befool and debauch almost every intelligence" (Howells 196). From the mouths of these men proceed rebukes against sentimental novels and sentimentality. Sentimentality is considered feminine and men help in disabusing the public's mind from sentimental illusion, especially since the prevailing school of thought holds that men have greater sense of reason between the sexes. The sentimental novel is blamed for wreaking havoc on relationships, where idealist concepts are transferred from the unreal, literary world to reality.

In House Behind the Cedars, Charles Chesnutt projects his realist view, affecting his characters with emotional excesses, that sentimentality works only to the detriment of sentimental characters. Although House Behind the Cedars is a local color fiction, the realist and local-colorist schools concur on the accurate representation of reality. Rena, the protagonist, passes for white in a local village and for some time, the deception is successful. However, when the truth is revealed and Mr. Tryon, her white suitor, uncovers her racial background, Rena swoons on the pavement, afflicted with illness for days. Mr. Tryon too has a fixed mental image of what a sentimental jilted woman ought to be: "a pale girl, with sorrowful, tear-stained eyes, pining away … for love of him, dying, perhaps, of a broken heart" (Chesnutt 190). Both these sentimental examples are inherent in the consummate damsel in distress. Because of these emotional excesses, the realist despises the sentimental individual because she does not demonstrate real life representation. The sentimental protagonist is either the object of love or the victim of betrayal. "The heroine of sensibility, then, only plays out the instinctual nature of her sex, fostering the cult of female victimization" (Dobson 507). These sentimental female personas cannot survive when faced with adversity because they wallow in anguish. On one hand, in the sentimental novel, the romantic's goal is to touch a chord of commiseration for the tragic character's plight and awaken humanity; on the other hand, the realist mocks such unrealistic behavior. Mr. Tryon's sentimental imagination closely reflects Mrs. Penniman's mental ability to evoke and live out sentimental dreams. Passionate love to the point of sickness is a typical trait of sentimentality. For such illusions, some sentimental characters in the realist novels almost pay with their lives.

In Ethan Frome, another realist text, the reader catches another glimpse of female sensibility, where the lovers almost literally die for love. Mattie, Ethan's illicit paramour, proposes that she and Ethan commit suicide by crashing the carriage into an elm tree. The couple has endured sexual tension, and seeing that their desires can never be legitimately fulfilled, Mattie suggests suicide (crashing their sled into an elm tree) as the only solution. Mattie's sentimental spontaneity is damaging. The elm tree signifies death, seeing that it traditionally served as raw material to construct coffins and gravestones. Consequently, the death metaphor here is confirmed as the main objective. Mattie complains that she has no one to love, that no one loves her, and that she is homeless – for her life is barren. Dying for love is an action which a sentimental, romantic protagonist would perform. Wharton makes Shakespearean parallel to Ethan's and Mattie's attempted suicide and punishes their passionate sentimentality, allowing them to live and suffer. Mattie's sentimental spontaneity is featured in characters who long for love such that they cannot live without it, imitating Romeo and Juliet. In Shakespeare's tragedy, Romeo and Juliet, sentimentality has mortal consequences, where both lovers die because of sentimental illusions and misunderstandings. "There is nothing at all probable in the events which culminate in the deaths of Romeo and Juliet; indeed, improbability – 'misadventured piteous overthrows' is exactly what Shakespeare invites us to consider" (Doody 200). Love induces death in this tragicomedy, where lovers choose to die instead of living apart. Illusion and realism war against each other within realist characters, where sentimentality sometimes beclouds and influences their judgments. Without contemplating bodily ravages, the sentimental characters uncontrollably pour out their feelings and seal their own mortal fate.

Often, sentimental characters unrealistically live in the world of the books they read. As previously established, sentimentality is a weak feminine trait. In House Behind the Cedars, Judge Straight condemns his own sentimentality when he confesses that "in a moment of sentimental weakness and of quixotic loyalty" (Chesnutt 79), he helps John, his friend's son, pass for white. The reason why Judge Straight criticizes himself is because he sees that it is unrealistic to try to change an individual's nature in a prejudiced land, where laws discriminate between Blacks and Whites. The real truth has to be revealed sooner or later, however, Judge Straight feels himself bound to friendship with a deceased man, playing a game of illusion. The harsh reality is that Judge Straight's friend is a dissolute man who neglected his family. The woman is often referred to as the "weaker sex"; therefore, one sees the connections between sentimentality, weakness and the female sex. Moreover, Judge Straight genders sentimentality as feminine in placing a label of weakness. He parallels sentimental weakness with Don Quixote, an absurd, chivalrous knight who has illusions which make him comical and bizarre. The knightly novels which Don Quixote reads absorb and influence him to such a degree, that he fantasizes doing heroic exploits, visualizes non-existent objects, and romanticizes events. "Don Quixote labors under illusions and enchantments … which he cannot rationalize" (Wilkie 206). Don Quixote is the paragon of illusion. He represents the ridiculous because of he is unable to perceive and live in reality. In the same way, the sentimental novel compares sentimentality as quixotic. It glosses events and gilds characters. This example further ridicules sentimentality, casting aspersions on the sentimental novel.

In sum, realism opposes sentimentality in all its forms: published in novels and applied in daily life. Realism advocates an unexaggerated, ungilded portrait of characters and events because of the tendency to go to extremes. The realist era reacts against romanticism which sentimentally idealizes life. Absurd characters, imitation, proverbial wisdom, and caustic reprimands work to undermining sentimentality. Realism and sentimentality are irreconcilable because the characters "of sensibility, energetically courted emotions that then took over, got out of control, and were therefore attributable to the workings of destiny" (Tanner 134). Realism advocates man's ability to rise above his feelings and circumstances and choose, change, and progress.

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