I was recently re-reading one of my favorite books published this year. In order to avoid spoiling it for anyone, I’ll omit the title, but one of the plot lines hinges on a rather large coincidence: two characters who weren’t previously acquainted meet and form a connection in a town where neither is supposed to be, thus setting the rest of the plot in motion.
There’s a time when this would have annoyed me. When I was in high school and first read Dickens, I turned into a rant-y, whiny beast as only a fifteen-year-old can. “What,” I seethed, “are the odds that Darnay and Carton would be doppelgängers! Not to mention that Lucie’s father unknowingly condemned the family of her intended! What are the flipping odds!”
Obviously, A Tale of Two Cities was the source of my initial ire with Dickens. We won’t even acknowledge the time I read Oliver Twist, though certainly the people I complained to loudly and longly have not forgotten it.
It took until graduate school for me to understand that Dickens wasn’t just commenting on the presence of coincidence in real life (the Sacagawea meeting her brother coincidence still astonishes me; talk about long odds) or indulging in some sloppy plotting. No, in placing coincidence at the center of his books, Dickens was using the sentimental to comment on the interrelated state of humanity.
When we hear the literary term “sentimental,” it generally refers to a series of aesthetic conventions: hyper-inflated, flowery language; excessive or manipulative appeals to emotion; and nostalgia. It’s a tone and a way of writing in the parlance.
However, I think it is most useful to think about the sentimental is as a narrative trajectory: a structure of storytelling that dominated popular writing the nineteenth century and which remains important today. As Joanne Dobson explains in her essay “Reclaiming Sentimental Literature,” sentimental discourse “envisions the self-in-relation;” it is a “valorization of affectional connection and commitment” that dramatizes and then heals a variety of social rents and breaches (267). By focusing on scenes that are “conventional and familiar,” Dobson argues that sentimental writing “render[s] its objects affectively available to a wide readership” (272). The situations in that reoccur in sentimental narratives – orphanhood, abandonment, and death are but three of her examples – “represent an essential reality and must be treated with heightened feeling” (273). The so-called emotional excesses are thus perfectly reasonable reactions to the most grievous and intimate of human pains.
Because the nuclear family is the core unit of sentimental society, the family becomes a metaphor for broader humanity. And what’s family without dispossessed, long-lost members who need to be reintegrated into the structure (ala the Prodigal Son)!
Thus coincidence plays into this structure. Of course all the characters are connected in (seemingly) mysterious ways — all human beings are! The sooner we learn more about and love one another, the sooner we can heal the breaches.
There is a dark side to the sentimental, of course, particularly insofar as it is normalizing, hegemonic, and prescriptive, but it’s also pretty darn hopeful.
In thinking about the reputation of romance novels, one of the problems seems to be that romance is neo-sentimental, meaning that it is about taking two dispossessed people and watching them form a new family. Any gap can be overcome if everyone will just love hard enough. Also, coincidence.
I’m not sure what the solution is. I never learned to love Dickens. Instead, I learned to understand what he was doing politically (that word again!) and to appreciate him. Romance is far from the only example of the neo-sentimental in popular culture, but perhaps if critics learned to frame their criticism of the genre in terms of sentimental/anti-sentimental rather than bad/good, we’d learn to have a productive conversation.