Defining the Cultural Work of Sentimentality

Beth Kowaleski Wallace
Boston College

Lynn Festa’s Sentimental Figures of Empire in Eighteenth-century Britain and France (Johns Hopkins, 2006) shifts the debate over the definition of sentimentality and produces the most important book on the topic to appear in the last twenty-five years.   For Festa, the question becomes ” what kind of work did the sentimental do in an age of empire” (14, italics added).   Situating the popularity of sentimental texts in the moment when western Europeans were consolidating their colonial holdings, Festa argues that “sentimental texts helped create the terms for thinking about agency and intent across the geographic expanse of the globe by giving shape and local habitation to the perpetrators, victims, and casual forces of empire” (2).   In this ambitious, invigorating, and illuminating book, Festa provides convincing evidence for this assertion.   Along the way, she asks her reader to consider texts from an array of British and French writers, from David Hume and Adam Smith to Laurence Sterne, William Cowper, and Anna Laetitia Barbauld.   She presents for our consideration sentimental objects like Yorick’s snuffbox from Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey and Wedgwood’s famous abolition medallion.   Demonstrating a powerful understanding of how literary tropes participate in a sentimental agenda, Festa also offers an original and insightful reading of the role of things in sentimental discourse.

Festa is especially clear on how, against the backdrop of major colonial expansion, sentimentality helped to mold concepts of humanity, creating real, imagined, and fictive communities in the process.   Colonialism put people into contact with others across the globe, necessitating both the recognition of likeness and the maintenance of difference (4).   In a world of expanding capital and the uncontrolled passions it released, sentimentality helped to train and socialize human emotions, harnessing them to the marketplace.   Yet sentimentality was a double-edged force.   For example, on the one hand, the sentimental experience of reading Henry Mackenzie’s Man of Feeling [1771] united readers under the banner of “heightened morality” without reference to class, ethnicity, region, race, or even contradictory political positions.   On the other hand, this parity occurred “without the risks of political equality” (65). Paradoxically–and Festa will return to this crucial point often–sentimentality offered the semblance of likeness while upholding difference: it aligned “the felt perception of who is a person with emerging historical categories that delimit[ed] the human” (7).

Equally central to Festa’s discussion of sentimentality is her analysis of its most troubling and problematic effects.   In a nutshell, Festa demonstrates how “sentimentality does not authorize feeling for all, but rather claim[ed] it for the happy few” (187).   This point is well illustrated in a discussion of Janet Schaw’s journal.   Festa describes how, on a transatlantic journey from Scotland to the Caribbean in the 1770s, Schaw unevenly advances toward a sentimental recognition of the humanity of her fellow passengers, impoverished crofters displaced from their native land.   Yet later Schaw resolutely refuses to perceive the humanity of the sorely abused enslaved Africans on an Antiguan plantation.   This example is an important reminder that “acute sensibility and proslavery sentiment may go hand and hand; abolitionists did not possess a monopoly on sentimental feeling” (178).   The problem is that sentimental tropes, when not used as directed, have the potential to block emotion as well as channel it (154).

Festa also undoes the easy assumption that sentimentality precipitated identification between reader and suffering victims.   In a careful close reading of one sentimental object in particular–the often-discussed Wedgwood slave medallion–she offers novel insights into the imagistic content of the medallion, suggesting, for instance, how the flexed foot of the slave both holds him in place and possibly intimates that he is poised to rise.   But once again, it is the cultural work of the object that concerns her. Exploring the dynamic of user and object, she queries the rhetorical force of the famous question inscribed on the medallion, “Am I not a man and a brother?”   While conceding that the question invites the reader to identify with the slave, she also argues that the slogan “implicitly negates the slave’s humanity by inviting the reader to restore that humanity” (167).   In short, the question suggests “that the slave’s humanity is not an attribute possessed by particular individuals, but a relation that can only be known and expressed in relation to others” (168).

At stake here is not only a new reading of the Wedgwood medallion, but also a larger and more important point about how sentimentality is mediated: sentimental objects like the medallion facilitate some kinds of connections yet contribute to–and even sustain–social imbalance.   As Festa explains, “Sentimental readers do not melt into ecstatic identification with the sentimental object [like the medallion]; they bond with each other through the medium of the sentimental object object .   The precipitation of the self into the role of the other is thus not a reciprocal and balanced exchange that produces a community of equals, of men and brothers together” (170-71, emphasis added).   Rather, those who buy the medallion share a relationship to an object that is seen as different.

Festa’s consideration of the sentimental object leads to a deeper, more precise understanding of the location of affect–and in particular the enjoyments–associated with sentimentality.   She argues that sentimental pleasure issues from the spectator’s identification with each other , not the suffering individual.   Moreover, as participants in a sentimental moment, we enjoy the image of ourselves enjoying the image of the suffering object (175).   This intelligent and nuanced reading of the emotional dynamics of sentimentality deepens previous work on the topic.   Where Marcus Wood, in Blind Memory and Slavery, Empathy, and Pornography, casts a skeptical eye on the texts and objects that advanced an abolitionist cause, Festa goes farther to query the readerly identification created by abolitionist politics.[1]

Like Wood, Festa considers the infamous “Plan of the Slave Ship, the Brookes” [1789], taken from Thomas Clarkson’s history of the abolition movement.   In a close rhetorical reading of the testimony given by the ship’s surgeon, she explains how the reader is drawn into a scientific purview that creates “a sinister kinship between scientific scrutiny and sadistic experimentation”–a kinship she also finds in a painting like Joseph Wright of Derby’s Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump [1768] (182).   Festa’s point is not to question abolitionist motive or to cast doubt on the sincerity of the abolitionist feeling, but rather to show how key rhetorical moves in sentimental abolitionist discourse inherently limited the recognition of shared humanity.   In an address that William Wilberforce made to Parliament, for example, she finds him arguing that “so overwhelming is the suffering inflicted upon the enslaved that they may not even apprehend it” (193).   In Wilberforce’s speech, this perceived lack consciousness “becomes the engine of humanitarian intervention”: “the more disempowered the slave, the broader the scope of the abolitionist’s intervention on his or her behalf, Sentimental representation potentially usurps the place of the enslaved person. . . .   Feeling for others (having empathetic emotions) easily become feeling in their stead” (193).

If this were only a book exploring the dynamics of sentimental identification, it would already be a major work that irrevocably alters the field.   But Sentimental Figures is also a brilliant contribution to “thing theory,” an emerging body of critical theory whose precepts were announced in a 1998 special issue of Critical Theory edited by Bill Brown.   Festa provides a clear account of how objects function as touchstones for emotions.   Indeed, several chapters in this book ought to be designated as crucial reading in any bibliography of “thing theory.”

Expanding on the work of Annette Weiner, Festa begins by asking what the exchange of sentimental objects accomplishes. The answer is no less than personal and social identity (76): in a world of rapidly expanding consumerism, individuals rely on their things to be who they are.[2]   Festa explains that “Sentimentality palliates appropriation by making property truly personal” (68).   That is, the idea that objects are not interchangeable “secures personal and collective identities in the face of commercial and personal expansion” (68-69).   The sentimental object is important for its “inalienability,” which Festa explains in this way: “what is loved in the sentimental object is not . . . the object’s use value . . . but something closer to its sensuous capacity to store up the human’s living being” (73).   Sentimental texts enhance the effect of sentimental objects by endeavoring to “uphold the singularity of the self through the particularity of its possessions” (76).

Here Yorick’s snuffbox, tendered to him by an impoverished monk in Laurence Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey [1768], provides the example, as the reader is meant to recognize “the structure of the exchange transforms the individual engaged in it” (71).   Festa then turns to the curious history of this imaginary object.   Shortly after the publication of the novel, a German poet named Georg Jacobi sent a fellow poet a snuffbox manufactured to imitate Yorick’s.   Then, at least 100 more such snuffboxes were made and circulated, much to Jacobi’s chagrin.   Festa dissects the entire incident, including Jacobi’s response, to analyze how the commodification of the sentimental object “blurs the distinction between what is inalienable in humans and what is alienable in things” (78).   That sentimental value returns in the copycat snuffboxes, she writes, “seems like something of a cheat” (78).

In one especially delightful chapter, Festa explores one of the more curious genres of eighteenth-century literature–the talking object story that employs a thing as narrator, the most famous of which was Charles Johnstone’s Chrysal or the Adventures of a Guinea [1760].   Here Festa draws on Marx’s theory of the fetishized commodity to expose the engaging paradoxes that lie at the heart of these narratives: while Marx animates commodities to have them proclaim their relations to other commodities, object narratives animate their objects to have them describe their relations to people (118).   It is the people who become object-like and dispossessed by what they own.   This engaging discussion brilliantly sets up Festa’s later discussion of the most famous example of a “talking thing”–the slave narrative.   As “talking objects,” enslaved Africans precipitated a crisis by forcing the question of whether human beings have the right to subjugate things.   As Festa explains, “The simple bestowal of voice upon a coin and the waving of an authorial wand that stirs a watch to life are thrown into grotesque relief by the slave’s laborious attainment of literacy ” (132).

In one of the richest sections in the book, Festa illuminates the dialectical relationship between objectivity and subjectivity that lies at the heart of the slave narrative: in order to be subjects, we must have some kind of material world on which to act, and subjects must also be objects (143).   The problem in slavery, then, is not the slave’s object status.   Rather it is that slavery renders human beings as nothing but objects , interrupting the necessary dialectic between subject and object.   In the famous case of Olaudah Equiano, his autobiographical writing reflects a complicated process of naming what makes a person human (145).   Within the dialectical context of thing theory, Festa argues that Equiano makes God into a “thing” and appropriates him as the object of his own narrative because Equiano needs to fashion a self that can make a God–who in turn makes a self of his own objectified status.

As this brief example suggests, one of the extraordinary strengths of this book is its close attention to all the uses of rhetoric.   Indeed rhetoric is a most powerful agent in this book.   Festa discusses how a series of rhetorical tropes–including catachresis, apostrophe, prosopopoeia, litotes, and anthropomorphism–circulate in eighteenth-century discourse to accomplish important ends not only in the world of objects, but also in the world of people.   For instance, personification facilitates the process through which the enslaved makes himself into a person (134), while in slave narratives, apostrophe raises the dead and describes “the author’s reanimation from the special death of slavery and the moral death of sin” (133).   Moreover, Equiano’s use of litotes exemplifies his “inability to express what he has gained through manumission” and indicates his difficulty of naming what makes a person human (145).   What is ultimately revealed here is how rhetoric is crucial to the promotion of those categories that establish the human.

Given the extraordinary range of this book, its meticulous close readings, its subtle and nuanced treatment of rhetoric, and its vital contributions to a larger cultural discussion, it may be churlish to complain that sometimes the book seems to contain too much.   Some of the stronger threads of Festa’s argument are occasionally in danger of being overwhelmed by the proliferation of smaller arguments, each taking us in another (albeit interesting) direction.   In some ways, readers might have wished for a tighter and more focused volume, especially since the discussion of sentimentality in France is not always easily assimilated into the discussion of the British contexts.

Nonetheless, the overall achievement of this book is quite remarkable, as Festa writes an eighteenth-century study whose relevance continues into our own time.   In Chapter Three, for instance, she cites a series of television commercials for the now-defunct investment banking firm E. F. Hutton from the 1980s.   Reminding us of how the commercial used personification to render a corporation as an individual subject, Festa explains how the deployment of the rhetorical trope obliterated not only E. F. Hutton, but all those who worked to produce the firm’s wealth.   “In an era in which global reach increasingly outstrips intellectual and imaginative grasp, personifications give shape and local habitation to abstract and immaterial forces,” she writes (152). Moreover,

personifications carry out deeds performed by abstractions, collectivities, or inanimate things, stealing from the riches of subjectivity to give a relatively impoverished understanding of who is doing what and why.   In endeavoring to “think globally”–either about the eighteenth century or now–it is good to ask what we think with. (152)

Festa’s final comments to chapter three remind us why the study of rhetoric ought to hold a central place in any literature classroom.   They establish as well the humanistic benefits to be found in eighteenth-century object lessons.


  See Marcus Wood, Blind Memory: Visual Representations of Slavery in England and America, 1780-1865 (New York, 2000), and Slavery , Empathy, and Pornography (Oxford, 2002).

[2]   See Annette Weiner, Inalien able Possessions: The Paradox of Keeping while Giving (Berkeley, 1992).