War and Sentimentalism: Irony in Voltaire's Candide, Sterne's Tristram Shandy, and Lessing's Minna von Barnhelm

Andrea Speltz


"The period from the mid-1750s to the mid-1760s was marked by the Seven Years’ War, a proto-nationalistic military conflict that saw a death toll of over a million, as well as the rise of sentimentalism, an intellectual movement based on the principles of sympathy, benevolence, and humanity. The clash of these two historical phenomena finds expression in some of the century’s most canonical works of fiction, including Voltaire’s Candide, ou l’optimisme (1759), Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759-67), and Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s Minna von Barnhelm, oder das Soldatenglück (1767). All three of these texts use various forms of irony (verbal, situational, structural, and historical) to explore the tensions and affinities between the inhumanity of the Seven Years’ War and the affective ethics of sentimentalism. In all three cases, it is not a satiric irony that destroys its target, but a productive irony that probes truth through a dialogic interaction of said and unsaid. Ultimately, the ironic treatment of the relationship between war and sentimentalism emerges as a backdrop for a discussion of the nationalist and cosmopolitan paradigms."

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