Laurence Sterne Essay - Critical Essays

Laurence Sterne Long Fiction Analysis

Readers may be tempted to see Laurence Sterne’s works either as sui generis or as eighteenth century sports that had no mate until Marcel Proust and James Joyce. In fact, Sterne was very much a product of his age. His humor owes much to such earlier writers as François Rabelais, Miguel de Cervantes, Michel Eyquem de Montaigne, Sir Thomas Browne, and Jonathan Swift, all of whom influenced his experimentation with the form of the newly emerged novel. Even this experimentation is typical of the age. Thomas Amory’s The Life and Opinions of John Buncle Esquire (1756-1766) may have suggested to Sterne his complete title The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gent. Like Tristram Shandy, Amory’s book is full of digressions, and its narrator is conceited.

Sterne’s experimentation did go beyond the traditional; one need look no farther than the typography, the varying length of the chapters in Tristram Shandy—from four lines to sixty pages—or the unusual location of certain conventional elements—for example, the placing of Tristram Shandy’s preface after the twentieth chapter of book 3 or Yorick’s writing the preface to A Sentimental Journey after chapter 6. At the same time, Sterne relied on theconventions of the novel. He is meticulous in his descriptions of clothing, furniture, and gesture. His characters are fully developed: They walk, sometimes with a limp, they cough, they bleed, they dance. From Swift, Daniel Defoe, and Samuel Richardson, Sterne took the first-person narrator. From Richardson, he adopted the technique of writing to the moment; from Henry Fielding, he got the idea of the novel as a comic epic in prose. From numerous sources—Rabelais, Cervantes, and Swift, to name but three—he learned of the satiric potential of the genre.

A Political Romance reveals Sterne’s powerful satiric abilities, but this work has little in common with the novels. True, the personal satire of the pamphlet does persist in the novels. Sterne lampoons Dr. Burton (Dr. Slop), Dr. Richard Meade (Dr. Kunastrokius), and Francis Topham (Phutatorius, Didius) in Tristram Shandy; Tobias Smollett (Smeldungus) and Samuel Sharp (Mundungus) in A Sentimental Journey. For the most part, however, Sterne is after bigger game. As he wrote to Robert Dodsley, the satire is general; and, as he wrote to Robert Foley some years later, it is “a laughing good tempered Satyr,” another distinction between the novels and the pamphlet.

The objects of this general satire are several: system-makers of all types, pedants, lawyers, doctors, conceited authors, prudes, and self-deceivers. A common thread uniting all these satiric butts is folly, the folly of believing that life should conform to some preconceived notion, of trying to force facts to fit theories rather than the other way around.

Sterne’s insistence on common sense and reason is consistent with the Augustan tradition, which itself is rooted in Anglican beliefs that Sterne emphasized in his sermons as well as in his fiction. Although Sterne’s satire is good-tempered, it attacks people’s tendency to evil, a tendency noted in Article IX of the Thirty-nine Articles of the Anglican Church. Like his fellow Augustans, Sterne saw this tendency to evil in many spheres. Like them, therefore, he attacked these deviations from the norm as established by religion and reason (which for Sterne are the same), by nature, by tradition, and by authority. The characters in Tristram Shandy and Yorick in A Sentimental Journey (who is the only sustained character in that work) are laughable because they deviate from the norm and because they refuse to accept their limitations.

Sterne repeatedly reminds the reader of people’s finiteness. Thus, death haunts the novels: In Tristram Shandy, Toby, Walter, Mrs. Shandy, Yorick, Trim, and Bobby are all dead, and Tristram is dying. In A Sentimental Journey, a resurrected Yorick sees death all around him—a dead monk, dead children, a dead ass, dead lovers. Another, less dramatic symbol of the characters’ limitation is their inability to complete what they begin. Tristram Shandy and A Sentimental Journey remain fragments. Trim never finishes his tale of the King of Bohemia and his seven castles. Walter never finishes the Tristrapaedia. Obadiah never goes for yeast. Yorick never finishes the story of the notary. Nor can characters communicate effectively with one another: Walter’s wife never appreciates his theories, Toby’s hobbyhorse causes him to understand all words in a military sense, Dr. Slop falls asleep in the middle of Trim’s reading, and Yorick in A Sentimental Journey never pauses long enough to develop a lasting friendship.

Death, the prison of the self, the petty and great disappointments of life—these are the stuff of tragedy, yet in Sterne’s novels they form the basis of comedy, for the emphasis in these novels is not on the tragic event itself but rather on the cause or the reaction. Bobby’s death, for example, is nothing to the reader, not only because one never meets Bobby alive but also because one quickly becomes involved in Walter’s oration and Trim’s hat. In A Sentimental Journey, Sterne focuses on Yorick’s reaction to Maria rather than on her poignant tale: Consequently, one laughs at Yorick instead of crying with Maria. The prison of words that traps the characters is not the result of people’s inherent isolation but rather of a comic perversity in refusing to accept the plain meaning of a statement. The tragic is further mitigated by its remoteness. Though Tristram writes to the moment, that moment is long past; Tristram’s account is being composed some fifty years after the events he describes, and Yorick, too, is recollecting emotions in tranquillity. The curious order of Tristram Shandy and the rapid pace of A Sentimental Journey further dilute the tragic. Yorick dies in book 1 but cracks the last joke in book 9. Yorick has barely begun a sentimental attachment with a fille de chambre, or lady’s maid, in Paris when he must set off for Versailles to seek a passport. Though the disappointments, interruptions, failures, and deaths recur, individually they quickly vanish from view. What remains are the characters, who are comic because they refuse to learn from their failures.

Sterne’s world is therefore not tragic; neither is it absurd. In the world of the absurd, helpless characters confront a meaningless and chaotic world. For Sterne, the world is reasonable; he shares the Augustan worldview expressed so well by Alexander Pope: “All Nature is but Art, unknown to thee,/ All Chance Direction which thou canst not see.” The reasonableness of the world is not, however, to be found in the systematizing of Walter Shandy or the sentimentalism of Yorick. People can live in harmony with the world, Sterne says, only if they use common sense. The comedy of these novels derives in large part from people’s failure or laziness to be sensible.

Tristram Shandy

In Aspects of the Novel (1927), E. M. Forster writes: “Obviously a god is hidden in Tristram Shandy and his name is Muddle.” There is no question that the muddle is present in the novel. Chapters 18 and 19 of book 9 appear as part of chapter 25. The preface does not appear until the third volume. There are black, marbled, and white pages. In book 4, a chapter is torn out and ten pages dropped. Uncle Toby begins knocking the ashes out of his pipe in book 1, chapter 21, and finishes this simple action in book 2, chapter 6. The novel begins in 1718 and ends, if it may be said to end, in 1713. Although called The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gent., the novel recounts the life of Uncle Toby and the opinions of Walter Shandy.

One must distinguish, however, between the muddle that the narrator, Tristram, creates and the ordered universe that Sterne offers. Theodore Baird has demonstrated that one can construct an orderly sequence of events from the information in Tristram Shandy, beginning with the reign of Henry VIII (III, xxxiii) through the wounding of Trim in 1693 (VIII, xix; II, v), the siege of Namur at which Toby is wounded in 1695 (I, xxv), the conception and birth of Tristram Shandy in 1718 (I-III), the death of Bobby (1719; IV, xxxii, and v, ii), the episode of Toby and the fly (1728; II, xii), the death of Yorick (1748; I, xii), and the composition of the novel (1759-1766). Tristram does attempt to impose some order on these events; the first five and a half books trace his life from his conception to his accident with the window sash and his being put into breeches. He then breaks off to recount the amours of Uncle Toby, which again appear essentially in sequence, with the major exception of book 7, Tristram’s flight into France.

Although Tristram attempts to order these events, he fails. He fails not because life is inherently random or absurd, but because he is a bad artist. He pointedly rejects the advice of Horace, whose The Art of Poetry (c. 17 b.c.e.) was highly respected among eighteenth century writers. He will not pause to check facts and even refuses to look back in his own book to see whether he has already mentioned something; this is writing to the moment with a vengeance. He refuses to impose any order at all on his material, allowing his pen to govern him instead of acting the part of the good writer who governs his pen.

In governing his pen, the good writer carefully selects his material. Many a person has told a plain, unvarnished tale in less space than Tristram, but Tristram cannot decide what is important. Must one know what Mrs. Shandy said to Walter on the night of Tristram’s begetting, which, incidentally, may not be the night of Tristram’s begetting at all, since the night described is only eight months before Tristram’s birth rather than nine—does Tristram realize this fact? Does one need so vivid an account of how Walter falls across the bed upon learning of Tristram’s crushed nose? Is it true that one cannot understand Toby’s statement, “I think it would not be amiss brother, if we rung the bell,” without being dragged halfway across Europe and twenty-three years back in time? Such details serve the purpose of Tristram’s creator by highlighting the follies of a bad writer, but they hardly help Tristram proceed with his story.

Tristram’s failure to select his material derives in part from laziness. “I have a strong propensity in me to begin this chapter very nonsensically, and I will not balk my fancy,” he writes (I, xxiii), for it requires intellectual effort to balk a fancy. In part, too, this failure to select reflects Tristram’s belief that everything concerning himself is important. His is a solipsistic rendering of the humanist’s credo, “Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto”—I am a man, and nothing that relates to man can be foreign to me. He is confident that the more the reader associates with him, the fonder he (the reader) will become. Hence, the reader will want to know about his failure with Jenny, about his aunt Dinah’s affair with the coachman, about his attire as he writes, about his casting a fair instead of a foul copy of his manuscript into the fire. Tristram sets out to write a traditional biography, beginning with a genealogy and proceeding to birth, education, youthful deeds that foreshadow later achievements, marriage, children,...

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