Sentimentality, Hardness of Heart, and Emotional Health
Consider these poems and stories, and Alexie’s novel, your own experiences, my questions, and questions of your own. Then find one focused issue, one difficult question that compels you, and that deals with sentimentality or hardness of heart and emotional balance, and compose an essay of three or four pages (1.5-spaced, 12-pt. Times New Roman with one-inch margins) that offers a response to that difficult question. Support your claim, your thesis, with material from the sources, quoting from at least one of them, and also with your own considered experiences. Quote accurately and in context, and make sure that any quotes fit well into your sentences, your paragraphs, your essay. But don’t write as if you own the truth; remember that some very likeable and clever people disagree with your position. Concede valid opposing points, and then try to refute the concessions as well as you can. Remember also that your readers are unfamiliar with the sources, and with your assignment.
The final draft of this essay is one of our four graded assignments this term. The final draft will receive points based on the 4.0 gpa scale: points for Coherence, for Development, and for Language Use (see the Criteria list in the Second Week module and the Student Resources module. Below is the rubric:
tight/moderate/loose fit to the assignment
clear/somewhat clear/unclear focus on complex, debatable issue
clear/somewhat clear/unclear main point
sharply/somewhat sharply/vaguely detailed support
fair/somewhat fair/unbalanced tone toward complexity of issue
smooth/awkward/no use of required source
cleanly/somewhat cleanly/messily edited sentences
“Everyday Use,” Alice Walker
”The Story of an Hour,” Kate Chopin
”Frost at Midnight,” Samuel Taylor Coleridge
“The Use of Force,” William Carlos Williams
“Good Country People,” Flannery O’Connor
“Cripple: The Meaning of a Word,” Lucia Perillo
“On Natural Death,” Lewis Thomas
“When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer,” Walt Whitman
“No Man Is an Island,” John Donne
“Because I could not stop for Death,” Emily Dickinson
“I heard a Fly buzz—when I died,” Emily Dickinson
“Dulce et Decorum Est,” Wilfred Owen
“Facing It,” Yusef Komunyakaa
“Loveliest of trees, the cherry now,” A.E. Housman
“Not Waving But Drowning,” Stevie Smith
“Sonnet 73,” William Shakespeare
“Sonnet 18,” William Shakespeare
“Sonnet 130,” William Shakespeare
Sentimentality, Hardness of Heart, and Emotional Health
Reading, Discussion, and Writing Questions
Consider Dee in Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use,” and her attitudes toward her home and her family traditions. How much sentimentality is at work in her reactions?
In Kate Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour,” which we might label as early feminist fiction, we see a woman’s response to the news of her husband’s death, and then to the fact of his continued existence. We should like to think that news of the deaths of loved ones would always bring people grief, that learning of their loved ones’ safety would always bring them joy. The doctors give the cause of Mrs. Mallard’s death as “joy that kills.” They are obviously very wrong, their diagnosis clouded by their sentimentality. No doubt a good many wives, and a healthy number of husbands, would understand Mrs. Mallard’s feelings all too well. Have our views toward marriage, a century after Chopin wrote her story, become more jaded than sentimental? Or do many young people rushing into marriage even today have rather sentimental views of the institution?
In Coleridge’s “Frost at Midnight,” the speaker describes to us a folk custom of 18th-century rural England, wherein a film of soot that fluttered on the fireplace grate meant that an absent friend or relative would soon be visiting. The speaker says how such a film’s motions made it seem almost alive, “a companionable form.” He goes on to say that “the idling Spirit / By its own moods interprets” the motions of such inanimate objects, that the spirit “everywhere / Echo or mirror seek[s] of itself.” Such sentiments have been called the “pathetic fallacy,” an error of thought by which we think that the natural world somehow sympathizes with humans. Is there any harm in such an idea?
In William Carlos Williams’ “The Use of Force,” a doctor confesses an instance of his physically overpowering a young patient who is resisting his attempts to help her. Must we sometimes hurt people for their own good? Is it sentimental to think otherwise? If it is sometimes necessary to do so, what moral ambiguities do such acts raise?
Are there times when losing one’s temper is justifiable? Even with a child?
In Flannery O’Connor’s “Good Country People,” we meet a woman named Joy who has legally changed her name, apparently just to spite her mother, to “Hulga.” We later meet a young man who introduces himself as Manley Pointer, though he later reveals that it isn’t his real name; in his case, his aliases help him cover his criminal tracks. What’s in a name? Does it really matter what we’re called? Or should people consider whether the name their parents foisted upon them is really the best name for them?
Mrs. Hopewell is a vapid, annoying person, whose mind is trapped in clichés. Nevertheless, does she have a point when she says to her daughter that “people who [look] on the bright side of things [are] beautiful even if they [are] not” (216)? Could Joy-Hulga have a happier life if she just decided to have a happier life?
Whose fault is it that Joy-Hulga and her mother cannot communicate? Is there anything that either of them could do to improve their relationship? Are some family members just doomed to be related to each other, even though they clearly shouldn’t be in the same family?
Joy-Hulga and her daughter both take great pride in their intelligence, their shrewdness—we might say, in what they believe is their utter lack of sentimentality. Each believes she is a hard-nosed realist. In what ways is each one fooling herself? Are many people who believe themselves to be practical-minded realists in fact fooling themselves, and actually suffering from sentimental thinking?
Lucia Perillo’s essay “Cripple: The Meaning of a Word” talks about her multiple sclerosis and her ethnicity, and how language interacts with each of those. Should we use what are often called “politically correct” labels? Or are such terms euphemisms that distort our thoughts, that lie, by getting between us and reality?
Perillo also writes about the practice of adopting an insult, as when her friend calls herself a “gimp.” By adopting insults, do we take control of the language and neutralize it? Or do we just reinforce the oppressor’s negative image?
Consider Lewis Thomas’ essay “On Natural Death.” With all our focus today on the grieving process, the stages of grief, grief therapy, grief counseling, and books and books on death and dying, is Thomas right to say that one gets the impression that “proper dying has become . . . something only the specially trained get to do”? Do dying and grieving really require so much expertise?
What’s the right attitude for a person to have toward the death of a tree? A mouse? A family pet? When are we being sentimental? When are we being callous? What’s the right balance?
Dr. Thomas, a professional biologist, tells us that if he could “turn off the endorphins” in a dying mouse “and observe the restoration of pain” in order to prove that a mouse being chewed to death by a cat feels no pain, he would not do it, nor watch it. Is this a soft-hearted attitude for a scientist? Don’t scientists need to be tough?
Thomas quotes Michel de Montaigne, the 16th-century French writer credited with inventing the personal essay, as saying that we pity the dying “without cause.” Montaigne had a near-death experience and found the sensation peaceful—in other words, he found that we do “go gentle.” Should we pity the dying or the dead? Compare Ben Jonson’s “On My First Son”: “why / Will man lament the state he should envy, / To have so soon ‘scaped world’s and flesh’s rage, / And, if no other misery, yet age?” Isn’t death, as Hamlet thought it, a blessing?
In Walt Whitman’s “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer,” the speaker attends a scientific lecture, only to find that it seems to make him “tired and sick.” He goes outside to get some fresh air, and stands looking up “in perfect silence at the stars.” Does science have a shortcoming in that it can’t ever shut up, but always has to have some kind of answer for everything? Is science incapable of “perfect silence” because it always has to measure and interpret? Does science have a built-in callousness? Biologist Lewis Thomas, in his essay “On Natural Death,” mentions experiments he could conduct with lab mice, but prefers not to. Many biologists, however, wouldn’t let a mouse’s suffering stop them from the pursuit of science.
John Donne’s “No Man Is an Island,” perhaps the most famous sermon in the English language, exhorts its listeners to think, regularly, upon their own deaths. Is it morbid to think about one’s death? Or is avoiding such thoughts simply cowardice?
Consider the fate of the speaker in Emily Dickinson’s “Because I could not stop for Death.” The speaker is apparently a busy person, who doesn’t even have time to die. “Because I could not stop for Death— / He kindly stopped for me.” Death is shown as being only too happy to make time for us, no matter how busy we are.
It’s nice to think that a person’s final awareness before death would be the look of a loved one’s face, the sound of a loved one’s voice, the touch of a loved one’s hand. In “I heard a Fly buzz—when I died,” Emily Dickinson offers a different example of a dying person’s last awareness: the buzz of a fly. Is it better to be a sentimentalist, an optimist, and think that the best will happen? Or is it better to be a realist and accept whatever chance deals us?
The title of Wilfred Owen’s poem “Dulce et Decorum Est” refers to a famous line from an ode by the Roman poet Horace (65-8 BCE), “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori,” which is often translated “It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.” The poem describes a grisly battlefield death during World War I, and Owen’s speaker, a soldier who has witnessed the death, calls the line from Horace “The old Lie.” The line is also used as an inscription at Arlington National Cemetery. Where do you stand on this one? Is it a fine thing to die for one’s country, or does it depend on the situation?
Does Yusef Komunyakaa’s poem “Facing It” successfully avoid sentimentality? Why or why not?
The speaker in A.E. Housman’s “Loveliest of trees, the cherry now” is 20 years old and, touched by the beauty of the spring cherry blossoms, is strolling about to get his fill of looking at them, reckoning that the 50 years or so he can expect to have before him just isn’t that long a time. Is this a morbid lad we have here? Should a young person like this be thinking about his faraway death? What’s so special about cherry blossoms, anyhow?
Stevie Smith’s “Not Waving But Drowning” considers how people sometimes give signals, cries for help, that go ignored. The speaker in the poem had a reputation for joking around, “larking,” and this apparently contributed to his cries for help not being taken seriously. Many dangers—alcoholism and drug addiction, suicide, mental illness, all the forms of domestic and child abuse, and more—lurk about us, and take down any number of people every year. Should we keep a close watch on our friends and loved ones? Or does such zealous concern drain much of the joy out of life? How seriously should we live?
The speaker in William Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73, “That time of year thou mayst in me behold,” is an older person addressing a younger friend or lover. He knows the friend can see that he’s getting older, and he believes his younger friend (or lover) will before too long leave him. Yet he’s not hurt or angry: “This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong, / To love that well which thou must leave ere long.” Is this strength and appreciativeness? Self-pity? Foolishness? Cynicism? How do we take this ending?
Love is certainly a topic that attracts sentimental thought. Through the Renaissance in Europe, poets were outdoing each other writing flowery poems exaggerating the physical charms of the women the poems were dedicated to—these guys were the forerunners of the modern greeting card industry. In Sonnet 18, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” Shakespeare may be trying to beat the flowery poets at their own game. But the poem also contains a boastfulness, a quality like Muhammad Ali’s declaring himself “the greatest.” Sonnet 130, “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun” is Shakespeare’s unsentimental response to the sentimental tradition. Would you rather have sugary, flowery lies told to you, or would you rather hear candid, honest opinions? (By the way, in Shakespeare’s day “reek” meant “emit” rather than “stink.”)
In Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, as Mr. P is advising Arnold to leave the reservation, he says “All these kids have given up. All your friends. All the bullies. All their mothers and fathers have given up, too. And their grandparents gave up and their grandparents before them. And me and every other teacher here. We’re all defeated” (42). We like to say that anything can happen and that people can accomplish miracles, but consider the poverty on reservations, in inner cities and in much of rural America, and consider how much homelessness we have (many of those homeless are veterans, but we also now have over a million homeless public school students). Is it hard-hearted or realistic to say that many of us are defeated?
When his dad drives him to his first day of school in Reardan, he tells Arnold, “You’re so brave. You’re a warrior” (55). Would you say that this kind of exaggerating is sentimental and harmful, or is it helpful, more like mythology?
After one of his talks with Gordy, Arnold has a “sudden urge to hug” his friend. Gordy senses something, and says “Don’t get sentimental.” Arnold observes that “even the weird boys are afraid of their emotions” (132). Does that seem to you to be true?
In Arnold’s hospital room, he and his coach spend the night exchanging stories (149). Arnold never repeats the stories—“That night belongs to just me and my coach.” Does this strike you as sentimental, or as a good thing, even sacred?
After the wealthy white collector leaves Grandmother Spirit’s funeral, the mourners begin laughing (166). Arnold says, “When it comes to death, we know that laughter and tears are pretty much the same thing.” Do you agree?
When Arnold is being interviewed by a local news show, and asked how playing against his old school feels, he tells the interviewer, off-camera, that “it makes me feel like I’ve had to grow up really fast, too fast . . . that every single moment of my life is important. And that every choice I make is important. And that a basketball game . . . can be the difference between being happy and being miserable for the rest of my life” (184). On the one hand, Arnold is obviously just messing with the sports guy’s mind. But does Arnold also mean what he says? Is his teasing the sports guy rather cruel and heartless? Is his sense of the importance of this basketball game rather melodramatic and sentimental? Or do you think that Arnold has things balanced pretty well here?
Describing the big game, Arnold says of the players, “We were all boys desperate to be men” (187). Does that over-dramatize high school sports, or can a game be that important?
Before the big game, Arnold and Rowdy send “some serious hate signals across the gym” to each other. Arnold explains that “you have to love somebody that much to also hate them that much” (190-1). Does that over-dramatize our emotions? Or are love and hate really so closely entwined?
Describing the locker room after Reardan’s victory, Arnold says that sports provide “the only time that men and boys get to cry and not get punched in the face” (196). Do we sentimentalize sports, invest too much emotion in something that is, after all, only a game? Or does sports provide us a healthy outlet for intense emotion? Can something that may at its best be a healthy outlet sometimes be taken too far? Should men be able to show emotions about things other than sports?
After learning of his sister’s death, Arnold worries for his father’s safety in the snowstorm. When his father arrives unharmed to pick him up, Arnold breaks into uncontrollable laughter, laughter that returns when he encounters Rowdy in the woods after the burial (204-10). Is Arnold’s laughter understandable? Are there right and wrong ways to react to death?
“You can’t make out in a graveyard,” Arnold tells his parents, who are hugging and kissing on a picnic at the reservation cemetery some weeks after his sister’s death (215). “Love and death,” his father responds. “It’s all love and death.” Are Arnold’s parents showing disrespect? Are they insensitive? Morbid? Or is their attitude perfectly healthy?
Sentimentality, Hardness of Heart, and Emotional Health