Compassion/Pity


Introduction:

Feelings of compassion are easily excited in the sensibilious person, typically at the sight of another's emotional or pecuniary distress (that is, tears and poverty). In novels of sensibility, we find compassion extended to extremes, with pity given to grubs crushed during a walk and tears spilt over the envisioned distress of imaginary prisoners. Although compassion often indicates a character's capacity for selflessness, many passages imply that the emotion provides its own reward by inspiring a gratifying sense of one's own goodness--the narcissistic underside of sensibility.

Until the mid-seventeenth century, "compassion" denoted fellow-feeling, meaning "to suffer together with," and suggested suffering shared by equals. By the eighteenth century, however, that meaning had faded into the contemporary one, "to be moved by the suffering or distress of another, and by the desire to relieve it," with the compassionate person implicitly a superior to the sufferer (OED).

It seems vital to consider the change when tracking the meaning of "compassion" in works of sensibility, noting that when sensibilious characters feel compassion, the emotion travels one way in a hierarchical relationship.

a dictionary of sensibility
term list
source bibliography
critical bibliography