Is Sterne's Yorick a man of benevolence or of solipsistic, self-gratifying feeling? Can we leave Clarissa feeling benevolence for James Harlowe? Benevolence is often the quintessential attribute, the cardinal virtue, that the literature of sensibility posits for its characters and its readers. The efficacy of benevolence emanates from its public dimension; more so than sympathy or empathy, benevolence radiates outward, touching and transforming. For this reason it animates a central, inescapable conflict in this literature between public and private, active and passive sensibility. If sensibility isn't public, if it doesn't make possible a benevolent community, how worthwhile an ethic is it? With this in mind, we must ask -- and the novels and the theorists of the day themselves often ask -- questions about the success of benevolence and sensibility: Mustn't we and the novel's characters forgive James Harlowe if we feel the glow of Clarissa's sensibility? Is the private, virtuous sensibility we often see in the poetry self-absorbed and perverted because it isn't linked to a public realm?

Around the issue of benevolence orbit a number of other questions that the passages below begin to explore. Is benevolence intuitive and innate or a learned competency? If intuitive, what are the problems of this innateness? If taught, how do readers learn from this literature? Where does reason and the rational rest in relation to a benevolence founded primarily in the sensibilious? Is this virtue gendered in the works of sensibility, and what might this mean? And finally, in the late eighteenth century, how is this literature of benevolence similar to and different from the Christian ethics of benevolence it so often calls upon?

a dictionary of sensibility
term list
source bibliography
critical bibliography