As Good As It Gets? Some Feelings on the History of Emotions

I’ve been trying to think about the history of emotions recently, so I’ve read a lot of the standard books.

There’s Norbert Elias and his now unfashionable “civilising process” (well, unfashionable in Anglophone academia, France is another case). Elias suggests that the story of the emergence of modern European culture is essentially the story of the suppression and “civilising” of our “natural” but rowdy emotions.

Of course, this has seemed hopelessly essentialist to more recent historians, who have tended to take a cultural constructionist view. Rather than seeing emotions as something “natural” and their history as being mere cultural repression, the constructionists argue that emotions themselves are, in quite profound ways, created by cultures. William Reddy, for instance, coined the term “emotives” to describe how talking about feelings actively shapes the feelings that people have.

This is dynamic research, which is opening up new questions about how we define groups and social relations in the past, about how we understand social change and politics. Yet I find that a lot of it leaves me cold (and not just Reddy’s book). Is it me, or is the subjective importance of emotion drained from some of these studies, as if emotion matters more for what it tells us about other things than what it tells us in itself?

I think this is also related to a failure to engage with the relations of domination that structure emotions in any society. In work like Reddy’s (or indeed Barbara Rosenwein’s, to name only the most famous) I feel we learn a lot about elites, those sections of populations in the past that were not only able to write down their feelings, but felt culturally secure doing so. We learn less about those who could not write, and those who were not encouraged to articulate their emotions in written form. In fact, what I think is missing from these accounts is one of the greatest advances of twentieth-century historiography: sensitivity to the voices of women, workers, sexual and racial minorities.

Because Reddy’s argument is a dangerous one in some senses. It says that the most important things for historians to study are the most common emotions, the avalanche of writings about sentimentalism in the eighteenth century, for instance. If emotions are hidden, either because they went unwritten at the time, or because they were even unspeakable at the time, they no longer matter. They are not emotives, they do not shape emotional cultures.

I think this has a serious flaw. Absence from the historical record, and even absence from public life does not mean emotions were not felt. Or perhaps it would be better to say that the clues to the emotional lives of the dominated are more subtle than the weepy sentimentalism of European aristocrats.

This problem makes me think of James C. Scott’s Weapons of the Weak, an account of how anger seethes under the surface of deference in hierarchical societies. And it has also taken me to a book explicitly about domination and emotions: Arlie Russell Hothschild’s The Managed Heart.

Hothschild’s book is about alienation. When Marx wrote about alienation, he was describing the ways that manual labour could cause workers to become disconnected from their bodies. Turned into machines, they no longer felt like selves. Hothschild’s book is about the same point, but instead of manual work, she discusses what she calls “emotional labour.” It is the job of airline-stewardesses (most of her subjects are women) to be happy, to project good feelings into the cabins where they work. And just like manual labours, these emotional labourers can become alienated from the self that does this work. They suffer emotionally because they have to choose between being bad actors, and therefore bad at their jobs, or feeling like they are good at their jobs, but therefore fakes, phonies, insincere.

I think that this idea has a lot of implications for how we study emotions in the past. It encourages us to be sensitive to the clues suggesting that subordinates (women, children, workers, sexual minorities, ethnic Others) are putting on emotional shows, and it encourages us to look for the places where they crack. I’m thinking of the horrendous language of popular protest, anonymous letters to local elites during the nineteenth century which threaten disembowelment, fire, and slaughter.

But I’m also thinking of a film I watched recently which I loathed: As Good As It Gets.


This is a story about a misanthropic writer (Melvin) played by Jack Nicholson. Although he writes very popular romance novels, this author is rude in person, homophobic, and sexist. Every day, he goes to the same cafe in town, and orders the same thing. Most of the staff in the cafe refuse to put up with him, but one waitress (Carol, played by Helen Hunt) is remarkably good-natured with this curmudgeon (I wanted to use a different c- word, but I think I’ll keep it clean). Hunt’s character is like a summary of Hothschild’s book about emotional labour. She spends the whole film battling to keep her happy act at work together, while her son suffers from some awful illness.

You can see where this is all going. Melvin’s failings will be redeemed by Carol and he will end up being a better guy?

Not really.

In fact, what happens is that he uses his vast wealth to pay for her son’s treatment. For the rest of the film, he continues to act like a jerk, but he still manages to get the girl. Are we meant to believe he has a mental health problem? I don’t think so. I think what we are meant to accept is a certain emotional order where some people’s feelings matter more than others. Jack Nicholson’s character is the hero of the film, and he ends the film happy, so that’s fine. Sure, Helen Hunt’s character ends the film fairly happy as well, if you measure her happiness by her devotion to her son, but she is forced to subject herself to nothing less than emotional violence in exchange for the money necessary to help her son. She does not exist for herself, but only for Melvin (or indeed her son).

All of this makes me very angry. It’s a stupid, sexist film, and I hate the message it sends. But I think that anger matters. It has to do with the empathy I think historians are meant to feel for the people they study, even when those people are very different. Emotions like the emotions I feel thinking about Carol’s predicament help historians to give dimensions to those historical actors who are sometimes treated as passive…

And finally I guess I just think there should be more history about the Carols than the Melvins. After all, there have always been more waitresses than novelists.*

*I should point out that there are already some people doing great stuff in this area. I’m thinking of Julie-Marie Strange, Lyndal Roper, or Michael Roper who have all worked on more “popular” emotions…. But if anyone knows of other people doing research on emotions and domination, I’d be glad to hear of it!


7 thoughts on “As Good As It Gets? Some Feelings on the History of Emotions

  1. Sorry for the dreadful self-promotion, but I wrote a book on this: Love, Intimacy and Power: Marriage and Patriarchy in Scotland, 1650-1850 (Manchester UP, 2011). And, I’m currently working on how to access the emotional world of those who don’t leave narrative sources, notably the 18thC poor.


  2. My book on parenting tries to tackle the period where it is ‘easier’ to do so – 1750-1830 and I struggled to get at poor parents due to the types of sources I was using. However I did find that pauper correspondence was a good source, as we’re autobiographies for those who’d come from humble origins.

    As far as writing about emotions, I could probably have made the issue of power a bit more explicit. I tackle it in an article on fathering more directly. But I agree that it is very important and should be a conscious framework.

    It is a difficult subject to tackle, particularly if it is only one element of a study. I wonder if is simpler to write the history of one emotion like anger or fear? Good to see it being thought about!


    1. Thanks for the comment, Joanne. Whether to concentrate on one emotion is an interesting question. I’ve read a few books that do that (Joanna Bourke on fear, the Stearnses on Anger, Rosenwein’s edited collection also on anger). What strikes me is that then it is easier to lose the people from the account: the thread is a discourse (or perhaps a practice) of a given emotion, and not the emotional lives of people in the round. How does anger relate to fear and jealousy in a lived biography, etc… I’m going to check out your article on fathering and the piece on pauper’s letters you have on


    1. Cheers, Rachel. I very much enjoyed your thoughts at the Gender, Women and Culture Seminar on Tuesday and this post was partly stimulated by thinking about some of the issues raised during that roundtable.


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