Redefining Sentimentalism in 19th-Century American Literature

March 11, 2019 by Essay Writer

During the 20th century, the work of nineteenth-century female American writers was often described as “sentimental,” “domestic,” “feminine” and “frivolous,” and considered lacking depth and seriousness. However, more recent critics such as Judith Fetterley and Nina Baym have reevaluated this literature from a new prospective, using these same terms as praise and empowerment. In Provisions, Judith Fetterley’s main idea is that these women were self-conscious, but they were also very self-aware. Beneath the seemingly straightforward writing, there was a great deal of important political and social commentary. Similarly, Nina Baym acknowledges the hidden power of women’s literature and the positive association with the term sentimentalism. Instead of associating that term with excessive emotions and lack of discipline, Baym wants us to associate it with having sympathy and kindness towards others. In Woman’s Fiction, Baym says that these women writers were in touch with their “inner life” and expressed this inner life in their works. Both contemporary theorists agree that women writers were not discrediting the domestic realm of motherhood and wifehood, but simply acknowledging that women were able to find fulfillment in other roles as well. In Ruth Hall, Fanny Fern depicts Ruth as a mother and wife whose widowhood and lack of income force her to work outside the home. In “A Wife’s Story,” Rebecca Harding Davis portrays Hester as a newly married wife who does not need to seek outside work, but who has a strong desire to pursue her dreams outside of the home. In “A Poetess,” Mary Wilkins Freeman depicts Betsey Dole, a skilled poetess who enjoys writing verse for her own pleasure. Finally, in The Country of the Pointed Firs, Sarah Orne Jewett illustrates female independence in the character of Mrs. Todd who is financially self-sufficient through her own home business. All of these works support Fetterley and Baym’s observations about how female empowerment is often represented in these sentimental narratives.

Fanny Fern’s Ruth Hall confronts many of the traditional hardships faced by nineteenth-century heroines of sentimental literature: widowhood, poverty, rejection by society, and pressures to adhere to women’s roles. Fern’s novel alters the traditional concept of motherhood by portraying it as an incentive to work. Ruth faces judgment from her family and friends after her husband dies and she has no means of supporting herself or her daughters. When Ruth tries to find employment so that she wont be a burden on others, she is still judged because she is acting outside of expected gender roles. Ruth works at several small jobs that do not provide enough money for her to support herself and her girls. However, she eventually is hired as a newspaper columnist and enjoys great success and popularity for her pieces. This is significant because the usual type of work that women found outside the home involved manual labor such as being a seamstress or governess. This kind of work was often unstimulating and extremely tedious. However, in Ruth’s case she becomes self-sufficient and she does so by using her own wit and intelligence. In no way does Ruth abandon her role as a mother. Evidence of this is seen when her daughter Katy is sent to live with Ruth’s in-laws because Ruth cannot financially support both daughters. Her entire reason for working is to provide for her daughters and give them the best life she can. It is significant to recognize that although circumstances drive Ruth out of the home and into the workplace, her situation is unique because she enjoys the challenge of her work and finds it very fulfilling.

Fetterley describes the popular beliefs of the time that the best women’s writing should be characterized by piety, a subdued tone, and lack of conflict. However, Ruth Hall defies all of these expectations. Baym observes that what makes Ruth Hall unconventional is that at the end of the novel, the heroine is very satisfied with her independence and has no desire to remarry or to form a romantic relationship. This is very different from what we usually see in sentimental literature where the woman needs a man that she can lean on. Ruth does not turn away from motherhood but she makes motherhood part of who she is, instead of all of who she is. Baym asserts that living in a man’s world, Ruth realizes that she can only succeed if she plays the man’s game and Ruth finds that she likes it very much. With her new success, there is no turning back to the life she had before.

Rebecca Harding Davis’s “A Wife’s Story,” is another work about a woman who recognizes the importance of her role as a wife and mother only after she seeks fulfillment outside of the domestic realm. Although she has a comfortable married life, Hester yearns for her younger years before the duties of motherhood tethered her to the home. In those earlier times she was able to travel and participate in conversations that stimulated her intellectually. Hester believes she has more purpose in her life than just being a conventional wife and mother who dutifully conforms with society’s expectations. She believes she is a gifted singer and she enjoys composing musical scores. As the critic Baym discusses, we see Hester’s thought process and “inner-life” here. At one point she accepts an opportunity to compose music and audition for an opera. However, she is not successful and both Hester and her opera are ridiculed. She returns home only to find her husband is near death and her guilt overwhelms her. The twist of the story is that her opera experience and her husband’s serious illness appear to be hallucinations brought on by a brain fever. When she realizes that this has all been a dream, she has an epiphany and feels she has been reborn. Hester believes she has a second chance to make a decision about her future. The decision she makes is that she is going to embrace her roles as mother and wife, rejecting her previous dream of pursuing a musical career. This may seen like a step backwards, but it is actually an empowering moment for Hester because she makes a conscious decision to return to the domestic sphere and no one has forced her to do this. Fetterley’s concept of “self-awareness” is seen when Hester wakes up from her illness and makes a decision that will benefit her family and please society, but not herself. It is interesting that her illness comes upon her when she is dreaming of living an independent life. It is as if her guilt for thinking of leaving her family causes her to become ill. Therefore, when she makes the decision to come back it is her conscience that drives her to do this more than anything else.

The ending of “A Wife’s Story” highlights the plight of 19th-century women who really had very little choice but to be wives and mothers. In her article, Emily Dolan states that Davis uses a narrative technique that Dolan calls “troubled conclusions” in which the reader is left unsure about the outcome of the story. Dolan contends that there is a lack of resolution at the end of the story which forces the reader to continue thinking about the complex issues facing women of the time. In Dolan’s view, the reader is left questioning whether Davis supports or objects to conventional domesticity. Dolan discusses the fact that Davis provides a conclusion to the story but does not provide closure. Dolan notes that Davis’s ending to the story is not a surrender, but just a way to emphasize the disappointing reality of the limitations of options available to women at that time. Furthermore, Dolan posits that Davis was a reformer who intended for her readers to question the conventions that limited women’s options and that her writing is considered by some authors to be the first to really challenge the traditional marriage plot. The narrative in “A Wife’s Story” reflects Fetterley’s contention that women writers focused their attention on what they knew best which was domesticity (home life and family). Fetterly points out that much of the writing by 19th-century women writers was very emotional and appealing, but that is because they could not speak openly about the injustices they suffered. Instead, Fetterley contends they spoke about these issues indirectly. Again, we see this in Davis’s story as Hester’s dream is pushed aside and she returns to her expected role within the family.

In her short story “A Poetess,” Mary Wilkins Freeman presents another example of sentimental and regional women’s literature of the period. Like many of her short stories, “A Poetess” addresses the reality of the threadbare lives of women in small-time New England. The protagonist Betsey Dole is a gifted poetess whose true compassion for others is reflected in her poetry. Rather than just quickly creating lines of verse, Betsey becomes absorbed in her feelings and thoughts as she writes, connecting emotionally with the person or situation she is describing. Although some other critics would have described Betsey’s writing as sentimental and imply that this was a negative attribute, Baym praises it as showing true depth of feeling and compassion for others. In Baym’s view, sentimentalism is a strength in women’s writing. Through the clergyman Mr. Lang, who also writes poetry, Freeman reflects the nineteenth-century societal view of women writers. Mr. Lang belittles Betsey’s writing abilities and effectively destroys her confidence. In this same way, nineteenth-century women writers were disparaged by their contemporary critics. In Betsey’s case, her grief is so intense that she dies at the story’s end, and this could be symbolic of the death of women’s belief in themselves as authors.

In her article, Linda Grasso contends that Betsey still adheres to the traditional role as a woman as a nurturer because her poetry is written to sooth and comfort others. However, Grasso posits that this is a unique outlet for Betsey to care for others as opposed to the more accepted modes such as child care, cleaning, cooking, and working for the church. As in real life, where male writers dominate the literary world, Betsey’s village is dominated by the clergyman who feels threatened by her as a rival poet. As critic Grasso describes it, Betsey is living a meager life and writing gives her a sense of value and a way to connect with others. Critic Jane Tompkins adds to this idea by pointing out that the male-dominated scholarly world would have ridiculed this kind of writing as sentimental and reflecting “womanly inferiority.” Betsey embodies Baym’s concept of the “inner life” because of her natural ability to sympathize and deeply connect with the emotional struggles of others. This gives her poetry authenticity and empowers her as a genuinely compassionate person. Freeman contrasts Betsey’s natural and real sentimental poetry with Mr. Lang’s forced and unfeeling verse.

Lastly, in Sarah Orne Jewett’s The Country of the Pointed Firs, Mrs. Todd is a woman who lives alone and supports herself with her own small home business. Although she does not have children she can be seen as a kind of “mother figure” since the villagers come to her for comfort and the potions and remedies she makes to ease their suffering. In addition, like a mother, she tells stories and is always ready to listen to other people’s troubles. As a nurturer, Mrs. Todd represents a traditional female role. Interestingly, critic Karen Oakes discusses one of Mrs. Todd’s potions made from pennyroyal that was used for centuries to end a pregnancy. This is significant because Mrs. Todd makes no moral judgment of the women who seek this potion. Instead, she is providing a means for women to be in control of their own reproductive choices and destiny, and this is extremely empowering. This is an example of the strong bond between women in the village who lean on each other and do not depend on men for support. It is noteworthy that Mrs. Todd and some other women in the village have chosen to live alone but they do not feel lonely. Instead of committed male companionship, such as husbands, they have each other. Melissa Pennell explains in her article that the bonding together of women in this book, allow them to establish their own identity separate from men and allow them to bond to a common female heritage and tradition.

Mrs. Todd’s relationship with the female narrator is also significant because it reflects two kinds of female empowerment. The narrator travels to Dunnet Landing alone and is under a deadline to produce a writing piece. We immediately recognize her independence and understand that she is self-sufficient. We can compare her to Mrs. Todd who represents independence within a more domestic realm. Jewett seems to be celebrating women’s independence whether it is shown outside or inside the home. The narrator grows more fond of and interested in Mrs. Todd’s life and the lives of other single women in the village. The narrator eventually wants to write about them. This is another way that Jewett presents her idea that all of women’s labor is honorable.

Although many critics did not treat women’s literature with the respect it deserved, modern critics such as Judith Fetterley and Nina Baym have taken the previous negative term of sentimentalism and shown how that trait is a positive and empowering force in women’s writing. In Fanny Fern’s Ruth Hall, Rebecca Harding Davis’s “A Wife’s Story,” Mary Wilkins Freeman’s “A Poetess,” and Sarah Orne Jewett’s The Country of the Pointed Firs, we see women who are bound by traditional roles and expectations, but who seek fulfillment outside of the home. Although each character seeks a different path, each has an inner life and a degree of self-awareness that Fetterley and Baym describe. Modern critics have redefined sentimentalism in a positive way to reflect how women writers celebrated women’s rich potential as productive workers and artists.

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