Thinking about feeling

Madhvi Zutshi
The literary phenomenon of sensibility in the eighteenth-century novel denoted an ethical responsiveness in a character to the distress of others. Sensibility enabled a form of sociability that forged relationships of an individual to other individuals, and helped to imaginatively produce a larger community of strangers connected by affective bonds. It was described in terms of an unpremeditated and non-volitional immediacy. Yet especially since Mandeville's writings that read self-interest in
more » ... ven the most admirable virtues of pity and compassion, many writings on man's natural humanity had to defend against an inherent self-interest. This study examines four texts each of moral philosophy and novels to understand this dynamic. Eighteenth-century moral philosophy speculated on how benevolence and sympathy might serve as a counter-force to the troubling but influential account of self-interest in the period. These debates on the relationship between the affective response to the distress of others, and a more self-consciously ethical stance towards public good, get re-configured in the formal pressures of the novel form which specifically attempts to navigate the gap between the felt intensity of particular affective responses and a generically-mandated drive towards a self-consciousness in the novel. Two characteristics in the representation of sensibility are of particular interest in my project – firstly, the emphasis on unsullied virtue in the characters of sensibility who were to be explicitly depicted as devoid of any self-interest, and secondly, sensibility in these characters enabling particular affective bonds with strangers outside their circle of familiars. This project explores the tension between spontaneity and reflection in the novel of sensibility that has important repercussions for the idea of character as well as that of narrative emplotment. The resolution to the problem of protecting the purity of sensibility from skepticism is, in my account, one of the primary engines that drives the novels [...]
doi:10.7282/t30r9r8s fatcat:qjbmv747tbg45hgsfditveildu