Laurence Sterne Long Fiction Analysis

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4751

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,...

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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, accomplishments, death, and burial. He becomes so bogged down in details, however, that he cannot get beyond his fifth year. The episode of Toby and the fly must substitute for a volume on education, and the setting up of his top replaces an account of his youthful deeds.

Although Tristram refuses to impose any system on his writing, he is a true son of Walter Shandy in his willingness to impose systems on other aspects of his world. He devises a scale for measuring pleasure and pain, so that if the death of Bobby rates a five and Walter’s pleasure at delivering an oration on the occasion rates a ten, Walter proves the gainer by this catastrophe. Tristram has another scale for measuring his own writing; he awards himself a nineteen out of twenty for the design of the novel. Tristram attaches much significance to the way he is conceived, believing that one’s conception determines his entire life. His declared method of describing character is similarly reductive, focusing strictly on the individual’s hobbyhorse. He has a theory on knots, on window sashes, and on the effect of diet on writing. Tristram thus serves as a satire on systematizers as well as on bad writers.

The more obvious butt of Sterne’s satire on system-makers is Walter Shandy. The Augustan Age has also been called the Age of Reason, and Sterne recognizes the importance of reason. At the same time, the Augustans recognized that a person’s reason alone is often an insufficient guide because it can be corrupted by a ruling passion, as Yorick’s sermon in Tristram Shandy reveals. Tristram fails as an author because he trusts exclusively to his own logic instead of following conventional guidelines. Walter Shandy is another example of one who becomes foolish because of his reliance on his own reason. Like Pope’s dunces, Walter is well read, and like Pope’s dunces, he fails to benefit from his learning because he does not use common sense. He will look in the Institutes of Justinian instead of the more obvious, and more reliable, catechism—part of Sterne’s joke here is that the source Walter cites does not contain what he wants. Walter will consult Rubenius rather than a tailor to determine of what cloth Tristram’s breeches should be made. From his reading and reasoning he develops a host of theories: that cesarean birth is the best way of bringing a child into the world, that Christian names determine one’s life, that auxiliary verbs provide a key to knowledge. Each of these theories rests on a certain logic. Walter is correct that no one would name his child Judas. From this true observation, however, he erects a most absurd theory, proving Tristram’s statement that “when a man gives himself up to the government of a ruling passion,—or, in other words, when his Hobby-Horse grows headstrong,—farewell cool reason and fair discretion” (II, v). Neither Walter nor his son will rein in his hobbyhorse, and, as a result, they become ridiculous.

They may also become dangerous. While Walter is busily engaged in composing his Tristrapaedia that will codify his theories of child rearing, Tristram grows up without any guidance at all. Walter is willing, indeed eager, to have his wife undergo a cesarean operation because he believes that such an operation will be less harmful to the infant than natural childbirth. That such an operation will cause the death of Mrs. Shandy is a fact that apparently escapes him.

Even the benign and lovable Uncle Toby makes himself ridiculous by yielding to his hobbyhorse. Not only does this hobbyhorse lead him into excessive expense and so deprive him of money he might put to better use, but also it keeps his mind from more worthwhile occupations. Repeatedly, Sterne, through Tristram, likens Toby’s garden battlefield to a mistress with whom Toby dallies; the Elizabethan sense of hobbyhorse is precisely this—a woman of easy virtue. As Tristram notes early in the novel, when “onewhose principles and conduct are as generous and noble as his blood” is carried off by his hobbyhorse, it is better that “the Hobby-Horse, with all his fraternity, (were) at the Devil” (I, viii). Deluding himself that he is somehow contributing to the defense of England, Toby blinds himself to the real horrors of war. Wrapped up in his military jargon, he isolates himself verbally from those around him; a bridge or a train has only one meaning for him. No less than Tristram, he is betrayed by words, but in his case as in Tristram’s the fault lies not with the words but with the individual betrayed.

Nor is Toby’s hobbyhorse dangerous to himself alone. It keeps him away from the Widow Wadman and so prevents his fulfilling his legitimate social responsibilities of marrying and begetting children; his hobbyhorse renders him sterile even if his wound has not. This hobbyhorse also comes close to rendering Tristram sterile, for Trim removes the weights from the window sash to make cannon for Toby’s campaigns.

Each of the major characters is trapped in a cell of his own making. Tristram can never finish his book because his theory of composition raises insurmountable obstacles. The more he writes, the more he has to write. Walter’s and Toby’s hobbyhorses blind them to reality and prevent their communicating with each other or anyone else. The Shandy family is well named; “shandy” in Yorkshire means crackbrained. Significantly, the novel begins with an interrupted act of procreation and ends with sterility. As in Pope’s The Dunciad (1728-1743), the uncreating word triumphs because of human folly.

Sterne’s vision is not quite as dark as Pope’s, however; the novel ends not with universal darkness but with a joke. Yorick, the voice of reason and moderation, remains to pull the reader back to reality. Yorick is a jester, and the role of the jester is to remind his audience of the just proportion of things as well as to make them laugh. Yorick does not put a fancy saddle on a horse that does not deserve one. He will destroy a sermon because it is too bad (unlike Tristram, who destroys a chapter because it is too good). He makes only modest claims for his sermons and is embarrassed even by these (unlike Tristram, who repeatedly proclaims himself a genius). Yorick thus offers in word and deed an example of living reasonably and happily.

Sterne offers a second consolation as well. Even though characters isolate themselves with their hobbyhorses, even though they cannot or will not understand one another’s words, they can and do appreciate one another’s feelings. These emotional unions are short-lived, but they are intense and sincere. Walter will continue to make fun of Toby even after promising not to, but at the moment the promise is made, the two are united spiritually and physically. Tristram and Jenny quarrel, but they also have their tender moments. Trim looks for a carriage in a book by shaking the leaves, and he mistakes fiction for reality in a sermon, but he allows his parents three halfpence a day out of his pay when they grow old. The benevolence that Sterne urged in his sermons is capable of bridging self-imposed isolation. Although one laughs at the characters in Tristram Shandy, one therefore sympathizes with them as well, seeing their weaknesses but also their underlying virtue. Though they have corrupted that virtue by yielding to a natural tendency to evil, they redeem themselves through their equally natural tendency to kindness.

Tristram Shandy offended many contemporary readers because of its bawdy tales; reviewers much preferred such seemingly sentimental episodes as the death of Le Fever and urged Sterne to refine his humor. A Sentimental Journey superficially appears to have been written to satisfy these demands. It is full of touching scenes, of tears, of charity, of little acts of kindness. Moreover, in a letter to Mrs. William James in November, 1767, Sterne describes the novel as dealing with “the gentle passions and affections” and says his intention is “to teach us to love the world and our fellow creatures better than we do.” Sterne’s letters, and especially his Journal to Eliza, reveal him as a man of feeling, and Tristram Shandy satirizes all aspects of human life except for benevolence. Sterne’s sermons reinforce his image as a believer in the importance of charity. As a Latitudinarian, he believed that the Golden Rule constitutes the essence of religion, that ritual and church doctrine, while important, are less significant than kindness. Because Yorick in Tristram Shandy is Sterne’s spokesman, it is tempting to see Yorick in A Sentimental Journey as having the same normative function. Though the narrator of Tristram Shandy is a dunce and a satiric butt, can one not still trust the narrator of A Sentimental Journey?

No. In a famous letter to Dr. John Eustace, Sterne thanks Eustace for the gift of a curious walking stick: “Your walking stick is in no sense more shandaic than in that of its having more handles than one.” Readers could regard Tristram Shandy as total nonsense, as a collection of bawdy stories, as a realistic novel, as a satire on the realistic novel, or as a satire on the follies of humankind. Sterne’s second novel, too, is “shandaic.” The reader can see it as a tribute to the popular spirit of sentimentality or can view it as a satire of that spirit, yet a careful reading of the book will demonstrate why Sterne wrote to the mysterious “Hannah” that this novel “shall make you cry as much as ever it made me laugh.” In other words, Sterne is sporting with rather than adopting the sentimental mode.

A Sentimental Journey

The object of Sterne’s laughter is Yorick. The Yorick who recounts his travels is not the same normative parson as appears in Tristram Shandy. He is by now twice dead—dead in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet (pr. c. 1600-1601) and dead again in Tristram Shandy some fifteen years prior to the events of A Sentimental Journey. This second resurrection may itself be a joke on the reader, who should recall Yorick’s death in book 1 of the earlier novel.

This revived Yorick bears a great similarity to Tristram. He is, for one thing, a systematizer. He establishes three degrees of curses; he discovers “three epochas in the empire of a French woman” (“Paris”), he is able to create dialogues out of silence, and he derives national character not from “important matters of state” but rather from “nonsensical minutiae” (“The Wig—Paris”). Like Tristram, too, Yorick is vain. He gives a sou to a beggar who calls him “My Lord Anglois” and another sou for “Mon cher et très charitable Monsieur.” He does not worry about being unkind to a monk but is concerned that as a result a pretty woman will think ill of him.

Even his style, though less difficult to follow than Tristram’s, bears some similarities to that of Sterne’s earlier narrator. In the midst of the account of his adventures in Versailles, Yorick introduces the irrelevant anecdote of Bevoriskius and the mating sparrows, thus combining Tristram’s habit of digressing with Walter’s love of abstruse learning. Yorick later interpolates an account of the Marquis d’E****, and while telling about Paris he presents a “Fragment” that does nothing to advance the story. Like Tristram, too, Yorick cannot finish his account, breaking off in midsentence. Apparently, he is more governed by his pen than governing.

Yorick also reminds the reader of the narrator in Swift’s A Tale of a Tub, who believes that happiness is the state of being well deceived. Yorick is disappointed to learn that his small present to Le Fleur has been sufficient only to allow his servant to buy used clothes: “I would rather have imposed upon my fancy with thinking I had bought them new for the fellow, than that they had come out of the Rue de friperie” (“Le Dimanche—Paris”). Instead of inquiring about the history of the lady at Calais, he invents a pleasant account of her until he gets “ground enough for the situation which pleased me” (“In the Street—Calais”). He deceives himself into believing that he is accompanying a pretty fille de chambre as far as possible to protect her when actually he wants her company. Even his benevolence is self-deception. He conjures up images to weep over—a swain with a dying lamb, a man in the Bastille, an imaginary recipient of charity. When in this last instance he confronts the reality, his behavior is hardly benevolent, though.

Sterne is not satirizing benevolence as such. In his sermons “The Vindication of Human Nature” and “Philanthropy Recommended” he rejects the notion that people are inherently selfish and stresses his belief in humankind’s natural benevolence, yet he had to look no farther than his own nose to discover that benevolence can become a hobbyhorse that can carry a person away from the path of reason. Yorick’s hobbyhorse of benevolence is no less dangerous than Uncle Toby’s or Walter Shandy’s. Yorick will weep over a carriage, over a dead ass, or over a caged starling. He admits that he does not even need an object for his sympathy: “Was I in a desert, I would find out wherewith in it to call forth my affection” (“In the Street—Calais”). Real human misery, however, he cannot understand. He can weep over his imagined prisoner in the Bastille, but he cannot imagine the real suffering there. He can be callous to the poor, but never to a pretty young woman.

Yorick’s benevolence is thus a compound of self-deception and lust. He will give no money to the poor monk until he wants to impress a pretty woman. He gives a sou to a beggar with a dislocated hip, but he gives an unsolicited crown to a pretty fille de chambre, and he gives three louis d’or to a pretty grisette. He imagines that in offering to share his chaise with another pretty young lady, he is fighting off “every dirty passion” such as avarice, pride, meanness, and hypocrisy. Actually, he is yielding to desire.

True benevolence is guided by reason, and it is not a thing of the moment only, as Sterne points out in his sermon on the Good Samaritan. Yorick’s benevolence is impulsive and short-lived. The cry of a caged starling moves him greatly: “I never had my affections more tenderly awakened,” he says (“The Passport—The Hotel at Paris”). The hyperbole of the language is itself a warning of Yorick’s inability to temper emotion with reason. After such a reaction, his attitude changes abruptly; Yorick buys the starling but never frees it. After tiring of it, he gives it away to another as callous as himself. At Namport, he mourns for a dead ass and praises its owner for his kindness, adding, “Shame on the world!Did we love each other, as this poor soul but loved his ass—’twould be something” (“Namport—The Dead Ass”). By the next page, Yorick is sending his postilion to the devil. Yorick goes out of his way to find the mad Maria, whom Sterne had introduced in book 7 of Tristram Shandy. He weeps with Maria at Moulines; she makes such an impression on him that her image follows him almost to Lyon—an entire chapter.

Yorick is humorous because, like Tristram, Walter, and Toby, he is the victim of his hobbyhorse. He gallops away from reason, failing to examine his motivation or to temper his sudden fanciful flights. In “Temporal Advantages of Religion,” Sterne provides a picture of the ideal Christian traveler. “We may surely be allowed to amuse ourselves with the natural or artificial beauties of the country we are passing through,” Sterne notes, but he warns against being drawn aside, as Yorick is, “by the variety of prospects, edifices, and ruins which solicit us.” More important, Yorick forgets the chief end of people’s earthly sojourn: “Various as our excursions are—that we have still set our faces towards Jerusalemand that the way to get there is not so much to please our hearts, as to improve them in virtue.” Yorick has come to France for knowledge, but he learns nothing. His benevolence is much closer to wantonness than to virtue; it is fitting that he ends his account in the dark.

In A Sentimental Journey, as in Tristram Shandy, Sterne mocks excess. He shows the folly that results from the abdication of reason. Though he introduces norms such as Yorick in Tristram Shandy or the old soldier in A Sentimental Journey, the ideal emerges most clearly from a depiction of its opposite—perverted learning, bad writing, and unexamined motives. When Sterne arrived in London in 1760, Lord Bathurst embraced him as the heir to the Augustan satirists.

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Laurence Sterne World Literature Analysis