“One of the striking features of nineteenth century American literature is the number of women who turned to writing for income and self-expression. In the process, they established a tradition of writing that is more grounded in domestic than is men’s writing, a tradition that focuses on community and family and which uses sentiment and/or emotion to explore fundamental truths and moral issues”. Discuss.

Jane Tompkins writes on how nineteenth century domestic novels characterise ‘a monumental effort to reorganize culture from the woman’s point of view…in certain cases, it offers a critique of American society far more devastating than any delivered by better-known critics such as Hawthorne and Melville’[1]. Indeed, both Uncle Tom’s Cabin and The Awakening seem to adhere to this tradition, though on differing tangents of realism and sentimentalism. I will be scrutinizing these texts as branches of the domestic tradition, and will be assessing their respective effectiveness in terms of social discourse. I will be investigating how affect theory applies to the use of emotion in female writing, and how that provided a new dimension to social criticism in American literature through its acknowledgment that emotions are vital to moral judgment.


Due to its mass popularity and emotive style there have ever been connotations of domestic female writing with non-literary, indulgent, passive consumption. Tompkins corroborates this, speaking of how popularity is often equated with degradation, emotion with ineptitude and domesticity with insignificance[2]. These female writers are thought to have used ‘false stereotypes, dishing out weak-minded pap to nourish the prejudices of an ill-educated and underemployed female readership’[3]. The idea of stereotyping is certainly true of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, yet such a claim is problematized with the example of the more elliptical writing style in The Awakening. This is where the tradition divides into realism and sentimentalism; though using different styles both use emotion and include the theme of the primacy of human connection and emotion in moral judgment, valorising the concept of affectional experience.

Certainly, the Deleuzian concept of affect distinguishes how such a tradition offers a new dimension to social criticism. Affects are states of mind and body related to feelings and emotions, made up of pleasure or joy, pain or sorrow and desire or appetite[4]. This non-cognitive reaction arguably determines a certain moral coding. Thus, art that has this effect can discover new truths otherwise lost in rigid logic. Undeniably, social issues including slavery and female oppression can only truly be dealt with in relation to moral judgments determined by emotional experience. Shaun Nichols writes about emotivism, the idea of expressing rather than reporting one’s feelings[5]. He claims that ‘sentimental accounts are supposed to give a more accurate rendering of moral judgment on the ground, as opposed to the disconnected, emaciated characterization of moral judgment promoted by some in the rationalist tradition’[6]. Indeed, this emotive reflection on human morals seems to bring additional degrees of empathy and therefore affect for the reader.

This affect is exploited in varied ways in the realist and sentimentalist traditions, being affecting to different readerships and effective in different ways. Uncle Tom’s Cabin deals with the ways in which women can be political actors through their capacity for expression and compassion; in fact, the writing of the book was a political act in itself. Meanwhile, The Awakening is about the self-expression and liberation of women on a personal level. To this extent, they are respectively apt for realism/sentimentalism as they act on different scales.


Contemporary reaction to The Awakening saw much critical hostility. Certainly, at a time when one could not openly express such deviances from the patriarchal structure and sexual inclinations, this naturalistic representation resonated deeply with its readers. Moreover, there is evidence to suggest that much of Edna’s story stems from Chopin’s own thoughts on female liberation and independence, as she read much feminist writing and wrote in her diaries of her resentment towards various social obligations she held as a woman[7]. This is portrayed when Edna gets up in the middle of the night and ‘she could not have told why she was crying’[8]. The unembellished depiction of a woman’s unarticulated and unheard strife provides significant potential for affect in the reader, speaking to the supressed voice of women and giving them agency to express themselves by depicting how they are not alone, that Edna too ‘had all her life long been accustomed to harbour thoughts and emotions which never voiced themselves.’[9]

Lawrence Thornton refers to the novel as a ‘political romance’[10]. Indeed, Chopin chapters Edna’s liberation not just socio-politically, on a literal level, but emotionally, on a sentimental level. In other words, the hybridity of realism and sentimentality creates a new category of social commentary; there is a move from observational realism to the realism of embodied desire. Being influenced by Darwinist thinking, Chopin uses The Awakening to portray the dominance of humans’ natural instincts, and thus providing a study of the fundamental truth that humans cannot repress their sexual desires, despite social constrictions. In the process, critiques of the institution of marriage, motherhood and Christianity are implicitly explored with this view of emotional liberation. 

Sandra Gilbert writes that ‘Edna’s ‘awakenings’ become increasingly fantastic and poetic, stirrings of the imagination’s desire for ‘amplitude and awe’ rather than protests of the reason against unreasonable constraint’[11]. It is evident that such an emotive category of expression was needed during this period of oppression. She goes on to says that the passage in which Edna learns to swim is symbolic not just of her move towards liberation and independence, but of the novel itself from a realist text into ‘a distinctively female fantasy of paradisal fulfilment’[12]. Certainly, it is evident that the observational, literal and descriptive style of the novel changes to one of philosophical pondering, metaphorical imagery and erotic implications, marking Chopin’s rejection of the male-dominated style of realism and ultimately the male-dominated society. Notwithstanding the novel retains its naturalistic plot, thus preserving credibility and resonance.

The sentimental aspects, for instance when she refers to the night of her first ‘awakening’ as ‘like a night in a dream’ and goes on to remark that ‘there must be spirits abroad tonight’[13], despite being dramatized, draws on realistic sentiment, making it therefore more naturalistic in its affect. The fantastical imagery provided of Edna’s dinner party and her feeling like a ‘regal woman, the one who rules’ seems adverse to the realistic tone of the novel, yet it touches on realistic emotion and the real fantasy of empowerment. Furthermore, when she asks how many years she slept in Madame Antoine’s bed, it provides almost a fairy tale image, but reflects feelings of passion that are the reality of female existence. Finally, the symbolism and ceremony of her martyrdom may seem theatricalised, but it is not unthinkable to consider such a situation to be true, and such suicidal sentiments are tangible to a subordinated audience.


Sentimental novels are often seen as being inherently false in sentiment, or as James Baldwin puts it, ‘fantasies, connecting nowhere with reality, sentimental’[14]. Yet this may be contested, as Beecher Stowe does draw on own experience of the loss of a child and personal feelings of attachment and empathy. She seems to appropriate such emotions to the large-scale issue of slavery; indeed, separation and loss were true factors of the slave trade, meaning the novel does not consist of ‘fantasies connecting nowhere with reality’, but with actual emotional ramifications of the industry.

Incidents and injustices in Uncle Tom’s Cabin are not exaggerated in themselves, but the superficial stock characters and situations are dramatised, which could be seen as inauthentic and potentially less sympathetic. Certainly, Baldwin remarks that sentimentalism adheres to ‘the formula created by the necessity to find a lie more palatable than the truth’[15]. The unnaturalistic portrayal does makes the story more palatable, yet it may also be viewed as more sympathetic to those who had not considered the humanity of the black characters, meaning exaggeration is needed in order to explicitly subvert dominant prejudices. In other words, it needs to be made palatable to a wide audience that would be adverse to such claims as the humanity of slaves; these theatrical clichés provide an accessible comprehension, universality and plausibility for mass readership. Dobson corroborates this, noting ‘an emphasis on accessible language, a clear prose style, and familiar lyric and narrative patterns defines an aesthetic whose primary quality of transparency is generated by a valorisation of connection, an impulse toward communication with as wide an audience as possible’[16]. For example the lack of subtlety that describes Eva’s death, and the clichéd gesture of the Senator and his wife giving away their dead child’s clothes easily and simply conveys the theme of empathy, denoting the striving for affect in the reader. This differs in The Awakening in which metaphors are more commonly used than direct narrative guidance.

Furthermore, the episode with the Senator and his wife depicts the effectiveness and resonance of sentimentalism. Mr. Bird’s decision to help is completely understandable to the reader as they have already established sympathy with Eliza and her child. Mrs. Bird unequivocally sums up the moral of this passage: ‘”Your heart is better than your head, in this case, John.”’[17] Thus, she draws attention to the significance of emotion in political judgment. George Orwell corroborates the effects of this cliché/truth dichotomy, claiming that ‘it is an unintentionally ludicrous book, full of preposterous melodramatic incidents; it is also deeply moving and essentially true’[18]. Ultimately, because of the sub-human status of African-Americans during this time, it could be seen that such hyper-sentimentality and guided narrative is needed in order to forcibly provoke a new perspective.


Together these subgenres make up the domestic tradition, with Beecher Stowe looking at the institution of slavery from the domestic and emotional point of view, while Chopin explores female public standing from the private and psychological point of view. Indeed, contemporary women were placed in the domestic sphere by society, meaning domestic references and familial, emotional ties represent all they held in their agency to explore moral and social issues. These features were nonetheless poignant and effective in their own right. The use of domestic scenes, for instance the family home and dinner parties, are used as signifiers for the common, making such instances accessible to a wide audience (inclusive of male and female) and more personally affecting than institutional settings. Yet, communal issues have an effect on these domestic issues (for example, family separation in slavery and the oppression of women in marriage and society), thus this presentation of the domestic sheds light on the effects of the communal, depicting how this tradition brought a new way of critiquing society.

This new form of social criticism was met with fierce denunciation, with Willa Cather writing about such authors as ‘women of strong and fine intuitions, but without the faculty of observation, comparison, reasoning about things’[19]. This condemnation of the use of emotions rather than rationale to explore fundamental truths and moral issues may be contested with the argument that with realism in The Awakening Chopin observes, compares and reasons with female emotion as Edna begins to recognise ‘her position in the universe as a human being, and…her relation as an individual to the world within and about her’[20], while Uncle Tom’s Cabin draws on true sentiment and judgment, although presented in a hyper-emotive style. Furthermore, Dobson claims that sentimental texts ‘do not wallow in excessive emotionality; rather, they represent an essential reality and must be treated with heightened feeling’[21]. Although true of both texts, Uncle Tom’s Cabin may be seen to ‘wallow’ in its emotion, but this merely denotes a need for even more heightened feeling, as it is dealing with an industrial issue rather than a personal one.


Ultimately, the use of domesticity and emotion shed a new light on the state of American society, being able to affect readers in a different way. As Dobson writes: ‘in a world of mortality, of absolute and certain loss…a body of literature giving primacy to affectional connections and responsibilities still reflects the dilemmas, anxieties, and tragedies of individual lives’[22]. To this extent, this tradition was able to appropriate such sentiments to national social issues, suggesting an adoption of emotional investment in the formation of moral judgment. Their respective positions in the canon of American literature proves their worth in terms of the development of the nation using the domestic style.


Word Count: 2018



[1] Jane Tompkins, “Sentimental Power: Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Politics of Literary History” in Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction, 1790-1860, (New York: Oxford U P, 1985), p. 83.

[2] Ibid, p. 82.

[3] Ibid, p. 83.

[4] Gilles Deleuze, ‘Part III, Proposition 56: Spinoza, Benedictus de’, Ethics. Trans. by W.H. White and A.H. Stirling, (London: Wordsworth, 2001 [1677]). 

[5] Shaun Nichols, ‘Sentimentalism Naturalised’ in The Psychology and Biology of Morality ed. W. Sinnott-Armstrong, (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004), p. 1.

[6] Ibid, p. 4.

[7] Sandra M. Gilbert, ‘Introduction: The Second Coming of Aphrodite’ in The Awakening and Selected Stories, ed. Sandra M. Gilbert, (New York and London: Penguin, 2003), p. 11.

[8] Kate Chopin, The Awakening and Selected Stories, (New York and London: Penguin, 2003), p. 49.

[9] Chopin, p. 96-7.

[10] Lawrence Thornton, ‘The Awakening: A Political Romance’ in American Literature, (Montana: Duke University Press, 1980), p. 1.

[11] Gilbert, p. 25.

[12] Gilbert, p. 17.

[13] Chopin, p. 74.

[14] James Baldwin, ‘Everybody’s Protest Novel’ in Collected Essays, (The Library of America, 1998), p. 16.

[15] Baldwin, p. 13.

[16] Joanne Dobson, ‘Reclaiming Sentimental Literature’ in American Literature, volume 69, Number 2, (Duke University Press, June 1997), p. 286.

[17] Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, (London: Wordsworth Classics, 1999), p. 76.

[18] George Orwell: ‘Good Bad Books’ First published: Tribune. — GB, London. — November 1945.

[19] Willa Cather, Pittsburgh Leader, 8 July 1899, Margo Culley, ed., The Awakening, (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1994 [1899]), p. 170.

[20] Chopin, p. 57.

[21] Dobson, p. 272-3.

[22] Ibid, p. 280.


Bakhtin, Mikhail, Mikhail Bakhtin: Creations of a Prosaics, ed.s Gary Saul Morson, Emerson, Cary, (California: Stanford University Press, 1990).

Baldwin, James, ‘Everybody’s Protest Novel’ in Collected Essays, (The Library of America, 1998).

Beecher Stowe, Harriet, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, (London: Wordsworth Classics, 1999).


Cather, Willa, Pittsburgh Leader, 8 July 1899, Margo Culley, ed., The Awakening, (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1994 [1899]), p. 170.

Chopin, Kate, The Awakening and Selected Stories, (New York and London: Penguin, 2003).

Deleuze, Gilles, ‘Part III, Proposition 56: Spinoza, Benedictus de’, Ethics. Trans. by W.H. White and A.H. Stirling, (London: Wordsworth, 2001 [1677]). 

Dobson, Joanne, ‘Reclaiming Sentimental Literature’ in American Literature, volume 69, Number 2, (Duke University Press, June 1997).

Gilbert, Sandra M., ‘Introduction: The Second Coming of Aphrodite’ in The Awakening and Selected Stories, ed. Sandra M. Gilbert, (New York and London: Penguin, 2003).

Nichols, Shaun, ‘Sentimentalism Naturalised’ in The Psychology and Biology of Morality ed. W. Sinnott-Armstrong, (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004).

Orwell, George, ‘Good Bad Books’ in Tribune, (London, November 1945).

Thornton, Lawrence, ‘The Awakening: A Political Romance’ in American Literature, (Montana: Duke University Press, 1980).

Tompkins, Jane, “Sentimental Power: Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Politics of Literary History” in Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction, 1790-1860, (New York: Oxford U P, 1985).


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