Sentiment represents an appeal to emotions with an assumption that life and literature are linked. Not through a depiction of reality but an interactive experience that involves the reader’s imagination and immersion in literary emotions, to bring forth active physical ones. The writer would use both reflection and rational opinion, head and heart, knowledge and imagination to immerse the reader in the fictional world. Communication of sentiment would then be expressed in the novel through tears, sighs, blushes, and hesitation. Taken in isolation these are just expressions, whether the emotion continues depends on the context and what preceded this reaction. Emotions are therefore part of a sequence that begins with a stimulus, an effect on the character and a result. For a reader, gauging and responding to a character’s emotions are important for understanding the plot of a novel, which is often driven by the conflicting desires of the characters.
There are various types of emotions relating to reader responses according to Vera Nunning. Narrative emotions involve the readers’ direct response to the characters and story, this includes empathy, sympathy and pity. The reader needs to put themselves in the place of the character using the thoughts, beliefs, feelings and opinions stated in the internal monologue, indirect discussion or as a narrator directly involved in the action. Biographical emotions are relived emotions experienced by the reader and can be therapeutic, improving coping methods for dealing with emotions. By making the reader interpret and supply their own emotional experiences, the story becomes more convincing and real. Aesthetic emotions are a cognitive response to the style, rhythm and language of the story. This can take the form of nonconventional metaphors and the choice of words used by the author.
Sterne begins his tale with Yorick meeting a monk at Calais and at first sight determining not to give him anything. He attributes the humours, or bodily fluids that were thought to govern the emotions, to nothing more than the ebb and flow of the moon which governs the tides, as if he had no conscious control over his actions. Using the moon’s cycle as a metaphor for his moods, or humours, it is unusual but it does align his feelings with nature and natural instinct. Hobbes suggests our natural instinct is not to do anything that would not benefit us (self-interest) and as he is just starting out on his journey Yorick’s instinct is to hold onto his money.
When Yorick meets the monk there is a narrative pause in his journey, to emphasize the emotion and allow the reader to consider and respond. He gives a description of the figure of the monk, his dress and his demeanour. The request for money he states in only a few words, before returning to the character of the monk, his grace and humility. This sets up the conflict between the two characters inviting the reader to judge whether Yorick is being unreasonable in refusing to give any money. It is not the monk’s physical appearance that is the stimulus for the emotion but the act of requesting money. However, it does form part of the story as it will help the reader determine if he deserves the gift.
Yorick explains that if the monk had been of the order of mercy and not St Francis then he would have given him money. As the Franciscans are a Catholic order this may hint at an anti-Catholic bias which will become more prominent at the end of the century. He also explains the monk showed no resentment, even when Yorick distinguished between those who earned their bread and those who ate the bread of other people. The suggestion is that he is a beggar and does not deserve the money. When the monk has left, Yorick feels guilty about his ungracious words. He relives the incident in his memory and determines that even though he has behaved badly he will learn from his mistakes and by extension so will the reader.
When Yorick meets the monk again he gives him his snuff box by way of a peace offering for using him unkindly. The monk blushes as red as scarlet and graciously replied that he did not use him unkindly. When the lady defends Yorick, he blushes and suggests the reason for this he leaves other people to analyse. Descriptions of bodily reactions from which the reader deduces the feelings being expressed were common in sentimental novels. As readers we assume Yorick is embarrassed and ashamed of his conduct, he acknowledges that he has been unkind and with no provocation. The monk suggests it was his indiscretion, due to his zeal in raising money for a worthy cause. The lady and Yorick argue that he was not to blame. Yorick describes the contention as sweet and pleasurable as they all profess humility and deference in this situation. They exchange snuff boxes and the monk leaves.
The snuff box then becomes a prize possession and something to reflect on, a reminder to regulate his own behaviour and be courteous. When he returns to Calais he finds that the monk has died and is buried in a small cemetery belonging to the convent. When he visits the grave, he finds nettles growing at its head and plucks them out. He describes them as all striking together forcefully on his affections causing him to burst into a flood of tears. This outpouring of emotions he refers to as the weakness of a woman and begs the world to pity him not smile at his sensitive feelings.
Janet Todd has suggested the sentimental novel moralizes more than it analyses with no emphasis on any one emotion but looking at the common feelings shared by the reader and the protagonist. The Sentimental Journey meanders through the country with Yorick meeting different people, expressing empathy and sorrow ending with the fille de chambre. Unfortunately, Sterne did not get to write about his travels in Italy as he died before the novel was finished.