English fiction -- 18th century -- History and criticism. and Sentimentalism in literature.
This dissertation investigates the properties of sentimentality by analyzing the move in British literature from a fascination with heightened affect to a celebration of Gothic excess during the period 1768--1796. This study develops an account of sentimentality as a model of agency, theorizes the relationship of sentimental ideology to sentimental narrative form, and traces continuities between the sentimental and Gothic modes through an examination of texts that share a preoccupation with the aesthetics and ethics of sentimentalism. By examining representations of sentimental agency in prose fiction narratives by Laurence Sterne, Henry Mackenzie, Ann Radcliffe, and Matthew Lewis, this dissertation argues that sentimentalism was a contradictory cultural discourse rooted in an unstable complex of assumptions about the ontological status and political implications of social identity. Sentimental narrative dramatizes the parodic potential of a code of behavior predicated on the display of a character's virtue in sympathetic response to suffering. Intrinsic to this display is a dynamic tension between the altruistic ideals of the sentimental ethos and the aestheticized, exploitative and self-consciously theatrical mode that often marks its practice. Torn between disinterest and self-interest, between public duty and private desire, the sentimentalist is a conflicted figure whose aggressive aesthetic is increasingly shown to be at once comically bathetic and darkly menacing.