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Introduction – Howard Sklar

The Electronic Journal of the Department of English
at the University of Helsinki

ISSN 1457-9960

Volume 5, 2009Emotions Issue

 © 2009 Howard Sklar



Howard Sklar 


The late David Foster Wallace once said that he’d noticed a change in the attitudes of the students in his writing classes.  According to Wallace,

These students are far more afraid of coming off as sentimental, than they are of coming off twisted, obscene, gross—any of the things that used to be the really horrible things that you didn’t want to betray about yourself.1

While Wallace attributed this change, this fear of sentimentality, to the crass ways in which emotions are sometimes used in commercial media, there can be little doubt that, for many, the “sentiments” in literature generally have something of a bad name.  Thus, the philosopher Robert Solomon, recognizing that “the very word, ‘sentimentality,’ has been loaded with the connotations of ‘too much’—too much feeling and too little common sense and rationality” writes,

But I take sentimentality to be nothing more nor less than the “appeal to tender feelings,” and though one can manipulate and abuse such feelings (including one’s own), and though they can on occasion be misdirected or excessive, there is nothing wrong with them as such and nothing (in that respect) wrong with literature that provokes us, that “moves” us to abstract affection or weeping.2

While not everyone would accept Solomon’s “defense of sentimentalism,” per se, there are many within the scholarly community today who implicitly or explicitly have taken challenges like his and Wallace’s seriously, and consequently recognize the importance of investigating the role of the emotions in our language and literature.  With this in mind, this special issue of Helsinki English Studies has brought together the work of scholars in literary studies, linguistics, and translation studies with the aim of investigating some of the ways that emotions are represented, evoked, and translated.   If there is one quality that unites the essays brought together for this issue, it is the recognition that, indeed, there is “nothing wrong with literature” – or language – that “moves us,” or aims to convey the emotions of others to readers.

Päivi Kuivalainen begins the discussion by looking at the role of particular linguistic devices in representing character emotions in fiction.  Drawing examples from several stories by Katherine Mansfield, Kuivalainen demonstrates some of the ways that fictional narratives can subtly convey a character’s consciousness and feelings.

Following this essay, Marja-Liisa Helenius examines Leslie Marmon Silko’s treatment in Almanac of the Dead of the emotional consequences of violence within society.  Helenius looks particularly at the representation in the novel of extreme emotions in some characters, and numbness to emotions in others.  Helenius also contends that Silko seeks to heal these forms of emotional pathology through a form of “mediation” – as Helenius puts it, “by making her readers witness the horrors, experience them through emotional engagement, and thereby pass the story forward.”

Next, we turn to Aila Malkki’s consideration of the ways that translations can communicate emotions from works of literature produced in earlier times.  Malkki draws challenging examples from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to show how various translations of this work into Finnish have succeeded or failed in capturing the emotional subtleties and subtexts that seem warranted by a close reading of the text and an examination of the social-historical context out of which Carroll produced Alice.

Elizabeth Peterson next provides a detailed investigation of the feelings that speakers have about their own language, especially when they compare it with another language.  Peterson draws on interviews that she conducted with native Finnish speakers regarding their attitudes towards expressions in Finnish and English, with particular emphasis on forms of linguistic politeness in speech acts.

Verna Heikkilä looks at the influence of emotions in Maria Campbell’s autobiography, Halfbreed, the story of her coming-of-age as a Métis (half-breed or non-status Native) woman.   Heikkilä shows how Campbell’s anger over the humiliation that accompanies her status within society eventually enables her to overcome her sense of shame and, ultimately, to embrace her identity.  In this sense, anger and shame serve as transformative emotions for the author.

Heli Tissari’s analysis of the ways that preposition-noun expressions convey emotional meaning takes the discussion of language and emotions in a somewhat different direction from the essays of the other contributors.  She looks particularly at the extent to which some expressions function as metaphors, while other expressions have taken on more conventionalized meanings.  She also emphasizes that, in order to understand the metaphoricity of such preposition-noun expressions, it is sometimes useful to give attention to the nouns independent of the prepositions to which they have been tied.

I conclude the selection of articles for this issue with my own foray into the long-standing debate within aesthetic philosophy on the nature of readers’ emotional responses to fictional characters.  In that essay, I elaborate my view that we bring many of the same intuitions and forms of evaluation to our encounters with fictional characters that we use with real people in our everyday lives.  With this in mind, I attempt to show that our emotional responses to fictional characters more greatly resemble real-life emotions than some aesthetic theorists would like to concede.

In the book review section of this issue, Merja Polvinen evaluates Lisa Zunshine’s much-discussed Why We Read Fiction: Theory of Mind and the Novel.  She focuses particularly on the significance of Zunshine’s theoretical approach for the study of the relationship between narratives and the emotions.

This special issue concludes with three previously unpublished lectio praecursoria originally presented during doctoral defenses in 2008.  Included in this issue are the lectios of Juuso Aarnio, Merja Polvinen and Howard Sklar.

I would like to extend my heartfelt thanks to Prof. Ritva Leppihalme and Dr. Heli Tissari, who kindly served as advisors on this project.  Both provided insightful comments on submissions within their respective fields, translation studies and linguistics.  Equally importantly, they provided much-needed encouragement throughout the editorial process.

I also would like to gratefully acknowledge the assistance of Niina Koskipää and Dina Jalkanen.  Their work in converting the journal’s format to comply with the layout of the new homepage for the Department of English, along with their advice on countless technical matters, was invaluable.

Finally, I would like to warmly thank all of the writers who have contributed to this special issue for their hard work and interest in this project.  It is my sincere wish that this issue will motivate others to explore the role of the emotions in language and literature.


Howard Sklar 

University of Helsinki

November 2009



1 David Foster Wallace interviewed by Michael Silverblatt on “Bookworm,” KCRW radio, Los Angeles.  The quoted text was rebroadcast posthumously, on September 16, 2008, as part of a retrospective broadcast on the life and work of Wallace, “Considering David Foster Wallace.”

2 Robert C. Solomon (1997) “In Defense of ‘Sentimentality.’”  In Mette Hjort and Sue Laver, eds. Emotion and the Arts. New York: Oxford University Press.