Positives and negatives of being sentimental

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While I, personally, enjoy young adult fiction and generally despise those who speak against its value as literature, recently I have noticed in a set of books an abundance of sentimentality. This is not altogether a bad thing. It does not devalue the literature. But what it might do is make the literature less effective. Or it may, in fact, make it more effective. After all, if we don't feel a certain fondness for a situation, do we care when the situation, or the "world," so to speak, is threatened? Or, if the world is a dystopian society, and we have no desire to see a change in this dystopia, what is this literature worth to us? These are perhaps questions too large for the scope of this paper, but the main point worth examining, here, is what effect sentimentality does have on the plot of a novel and whether it works. And why does it matter? How much is too much?

While discussing Lois Lowry's The Giver with a classmate, that classmate said, "I'm really glad Jonas died at the end. I like it when characters die." Clearly, this young woman is not sentimental when it comes to the lives of characters in books. If a character needs to die to forward a cause or to make a point, she is all for it (as a digression, she also wishes the Harry Potter series had ended with rampant character death, rather than the sad epilogue it contains, but that may be neither here nor there). In The Giver, Jonas' death would mean that the Community would receive his memories. As an extreme example of a socialist community that does not value individuality, the community members of The Giver do not experience pain. They are given everything they need: jobs, food, families, therapy in the form of discussion with a family every morning. They are not forced to make any decisions at all, especially tough ones. Literally everything in this community is black and white. They see no color; they hear no music. Jonas, as the Receiver of memory (in his newly appointed job), has received memories from the Giver, an elder of the community who is entitled to these memories in order to prevent the Community from making big mistakes by using knowledge of the past and other communities to help the Community make a decision. Jonas has been chosen to be the new Giver, and therefore must receive all the memories the current Giver has. Upon transfer of these memories to Jonas, the current Giver loses the memories. These memories include pain, hunger, color, happiness, sadness, war, depression and music. The mixture of good and bad that we commonly refer to sentimentally in life, thinking, ahhh, ain't life grand? It's a bittersweet burden that we wish we didn't have to carry, and seeing this portrayed in the Community draws out the sentimentality a reader needs to want Jonas to succeed in making a successful journey to Elsewhere. Not only will the Community receive the memories he has gotten from the Giver, but Jonas will be in another community, hopefully one more like our own to value individualism. Does the plot of The Giver rely too much on a reader's sentimentality for our bittersweet burden, and perhaps human life, to propel itself? Maybe. The fact that people interpret the ending differently tends to make me say: no. But the fact that I don't believe Jonas is dead at the end of the book, because I just want so badly for him to reach Elsewhere tends to make me say: yes. And what a problem we have, here.

Overall, the book does drag along a good bit of sentimental feelings readers are going to be bound to harbor. People of the Community cannot see colors? Terrible! People of the Community don't understand war? Disaster! They have never heard music? Tragic! These things are important to people. Imagining a world without them is bound to create a sense of nostalgia or a desire to see these people experience the same joy we do from these things. That keeps us turning pages. The desire to see the Community experience real lives, with every life having a purpose and every individual having a voice is what keeps us going in the story. The actual events of the story serve to feed our desire, as well as Jonas', to see individuals matter. All the memories Jonas receives, though they are different, serve the same purpose: to remind us that even when things are bad, at least we still feel. We are still people. Individuals. In our world, everyone is capable of knowing the pain of war and the joy of music and color.

The Hunger Games author Suzanne Collins knows this. She knows that working human emotions through plot twists is a way to keep people turning pages. Few people I know who have read The Hunger Games have stopped after the first book. Collins knows her craft. She knows that using Katniss' love for her sister Prim to motivate Katniss to take her Prim's place in the games will make Katniss an instantly loveable and compassion-inducing character. No one with a heart wants to see Katniss die for her sister. We all know she will, should she have to, but no one wants her to have to do so. The first major thing to happen in the book, then, is the catalyst for every action thereafter. Katniss' love for her sister leads her to take Prim's place in the games, to form an alliance with Rue, to watch Rue die, to win the games, to love Peeta and to come home to her family. Everything is motivated by her love for her sister. Katniss' alliance with Rue in particular, stems from Katniss missing her sister, and the fact that Collins describes Rue as looking almost exactly like Prim. Collins uses a character's nostalgia for home and family to propel the story in this instance, and it is fully understood by readers that this alliance is necessary. Not only because the girls have so much in common, but because Katniss could never have killed Rue except in an act of mercy, anyway. It would feel too much to Katniss like killing her own sister. And Collins uses that to draw sympathy from readers. Bad things happen to Katniss and the people Katniss loves so that readers will feel sorry for Katniss, feel her shock, know her love and follow her on this journey. Collins counts on readers feeling sorry for Katniss to continue the journey. Collins counts on readers wanting the same revenge Katniss does and rooting for Katniss to work harder to get it.

Collins does not draw as much on nostalgia as Lowry; she focuses on compassion. As long as readers have compassion for Katniss, they feel sentimental toward her. She is special to them. It's not this girl's fault; she is just trying to protect her family. What an unfortunate situation! This poor girl must be wise and brave beyond her years, and that makes us all think about what a pity it must be to miss out on childhood because you are fighting for your family's lives-their food supply. There is a bit of nostalgia and pity there, as well, but Collins draws a line before Lowry in that, Collins creates these situations for Katniss and her family using hunger, a need of humans, rather than things like color and music, which are desires, or things that make humans happy. Perhaps the difference between these things is what makes one book, The Hunger Games less cheesy and more convincing than the other. Not that The Giver is unconvincing or poorly written; it simply feels less real.

Speaking of cheesy, DuPrau digs deep into cheesy territory with her sentimentality at the end of City of Ember. The book is laced throughout with nostalgia, from the characters' perspectives. Oh, when Grandma wasn't so forgetful. When my parents were alive. When the store rooms were full. And then, at the end, when Lina drops a message down into Ember, it lands next to the one person who would believe her through a note, her neighbor, Mrs. Murdo. Really? Really, Jeanne DuPrau? Deus ex machina, all is resolved, everyone will leave Ember and discover the world with sunlight! Huzzah! In this case, sentimentality for our own Earth with real, as well as artificial, light and food that comes from something other than a can, is what propels the ending. Actually, it may be what propels the whole book. As a reader, you wonder, when is someone going to find the way out of Ember? You are told, in the prologue, that there are instructions for exit, and later you learn that people in Ember are aware that they are running out of supplies. For several chapters, you read background information. How the city is run, how jobs are chosen, who Lina's family is, that Lina and Doon used to be friends and that there are "Believers" and people who would be the equivalent of conspiracy theorists, today, who spread rumors that supplies are running low and that Ember is in deep, deep trouble (they perhaps over-exaggerate these troubles). Things are introduced and underdeveloped, like the Believers and Doon's anger management issues, and DuPrau relies heavily on readers feeling pity for the characters, or, a reader's sentimentality, to keep readers reading. This is definitely the book of the three that relies the heaviest on reader sentimentality, and probably provides the least information, background and reason for sentimental feelings in a reader.

But what does it all mean? That authors can rely on sentimentality to move the plot? Why, yes. But should they? Ay, there's the rub. Relying on a reader's feelings toward pretty things like color and music worked to help propel The Giver, and relying on a reader's needs like hunger worked in The Hunger Games. Sure, relying on people to feel pity toward the people of Ember worked. I kept reading. But I was left feeling bombarded with cheesiness and that I'd spent a lot of time reading about underdeveloped things happening, with no real resolution and no feeling whatsoever, good or bad, about the events. No feeling that made me keep reading, except that I wanted these people to feel sunlight. It worked, but not well.

What it might mean is that authors should be very, very careful with what they choose to make readers feel emotionally attached to in their stories. Hunger worked. Color, music and feelings worked. Sunlight barely worked. Things like hunger that humans need create powerful responses in us, even if we don't admit it or like it. Things that we feel are "causes" to be fought for also create responses in us. Individualism, art and music could all be causes close to a person's heart. These are things worth fighting for, worth getting upset about and worth feeling pity for people who don't have their needs met or feel the joy of these things. Sunlight is cool, but the stakes are not as terribly high for finding sunlight as they are for finding food.

It could also mean that authors should be very careful about what "twists" they decide to use in their plots. Killing off characters the main character loves is a sure fire way to keep readers turning pages, wanting revenge, feeling pity for the main character. "Twists" like having a main character's message fall into the hands of the one person who knew and loved the main character and was also left behind was a little too forced. So, apparently, there is a fine line between allowing pity and fuzzy feelings propel the action of a story and making the story about creating those fuzzy feelings. It works to allow feelings to drive the action, adding in necessary plot twists to provoke feeling and make a reader "care" for the characters. It doesn't work to have already figured everything out for the main character and figuratively speaking, wrap it up neatly in a nice, big, Christmas colored bow.

This makes sense, from a reader's perspective. It's no fun at all to read, "And they all live happily ever after. The end." It's interesting to read, "And the princess thought that maybe she had chosen the wrong prince, just before she realized she had eaten her last cracker." There must be some degree of interesting and some degree of care for a reader to continue reading. Something has to pull you along and while intense action scenes can do that in a movie, in a book, you need emotion. You need feeling. So, in fact, a bit of sentimentality to help move things along isn't where the problem lies, but rather the problem lies in crossing the line between enough to keep reading and too much to accept in a storyline. The key here may be sticking to wants and needs, rather than outside tension. At least, that was the key in these three books.

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