Literary historians have long debated the problems posed by a central plank in sentimentalism: that weakness, especially in feminine forms, confers ethical superiority. In this work, Barnes argues that critics have focused on the wrong player; we’ve been looking at the abused or the weak, when instead we should have focused on the aggressor. In this new model, violence becomes a site of redemptive possibility because salvation is gained when the powerful protagonist identifies with the person he harms. It is the very act of inflicting pain on others—not the weakness or any exemplary character of the one who is harmed—that undoes the powerful. To see how violence gets folded in to sentimentalism's egalitarian goals, she suggests, is to recognize the deep entrenchment of aggression into the empathetic structures of liberal, Christian U.S. culture. Barnes uses major 19th-c. works by Melville, Charles Brogden Brown, Douglass, and Alcott, among others, to show how violence and sensibility operate in tandem to generate the identifications that perpetuate, somewhat paradoxically, a notion of American character as exceptionally empathetic.