Laurence Sterne World Literature Analysis

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1748

Part of Sterne’s allure was his capacity for self-portrayal, and the appellations of Laurence Sterne, Tristram Shandy, and Parson Yorick were, with the arrival of fame and success, interchangeable. Many a writer has produced more starkly autobiographical material, but few have so completely intertwined their real and fictional personas. Thus, while the specific “facts” of Tristram or Yorick’s existence differentiate them from their author, their personalities and tempers are completely those of Sterne. He made no effort to draw distinctions: He attributed his own sermons to Yorick and included one in Tristram Shandy; he listed actual dates of composition or travel in fictional narratives; and he constantly reminded his readers of his role as a storyteller. In some ways, he was, through his writing, creating the gentleman that he wished himself to be.

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This intermixture of real and fictional worlds is a sign less of carelessness than of the assumptions under which Sterne worked. He wrote for a learned audience, many of whom knew him personally. He published serially or by subscription, so his work was responsive to the whims of the market. He composed quickly, and spontaneity is a trademark of his style. During the eighteenth century, the novel as a form was not highly evolved or defined, and calling Tristram Shandy and A Sentimental Journey novels by twentieth century standards is a generous use of the term. With the exception of the sermons, Sterne’s work does not fit established forms but mixes mock and real autobiography, mock and real anthology, travelogue, essay, and political satire. To search for any more recognizable form is to miss the point of Sterne altogether.

Sterne’s roots as a writer are in the parsonage. Grounded in classical rhetoric—the formal art of communication and persuasion—Sterne quickly became a skilled sermonist. The careful construction of argument, use of parable and example, and ability to turn a compelling phrase all carry over into his nonreligious writings. In addition, Sterne was erudite, and his familiarity with Renaissance literature and knowledge from military strategy to obstetrics, the doctrine of “humours,” royal lineages, and archaeology give his writing a learned, if not encyclopedic, quality.

Yet amid the erudition, Sterne never loses his humanity, most remarkably expressed in his wit, sentiment, and bawdiness. Wit was a sign of the learned eighteenth century gentleman. Clever punning was in vogue, and satire was a prime source of both entertainment and social change. The roots of Sterne’s satire were political, but he was not at heart a political being. Rather, as theatrical metaphors throughout his work convey, Sterne was an entertainer: Both on paper and in court, he was a talented jester. Nothing was safe from the reach of his humor, yet it was never baldly malicious. For Sterne, whose life was marked by disappointment and frailty, laughter was a means of transcending the harshness of reality. More than entertaining others, he was, through humor, feeding his own vitality.

His quick and sharp wit, on the other hand, could easily melt into a pool of sentimentality. That, too, ennobled a gentleman, the combination of patience, empathy, earnestness, innocence, long suffering, and extreme sensitivity exemplified best by Uncle Toby’s pain on the death of a fly in Tristram Shandy or the various refined love affairs of the Shandys, Yorick, and Sterne. The Journal to Eliza, which Sterne may or may not have intended to publish, takes romance and melancholy to striking extremes of pathos and humorlessness.

Finally, Sterne is celebrated for his bawdiness. Certainly, eighteenth century English sensibilities were not as prudish as their Victorian successors, but even in a society of loose tongues and swaggering rakes, indecencies were not customary from the clergy. Sterne, however, could not deny the connections between the eyes, the mind, the heart, and the sexual organs. Allusions to anatomy and desire are only thinly veiled, and they come in a characteristic spirit of good humor and honesty. His bawdiness is not gratuitous or pornographic; rather, it is integral to his vision of the world. Sterne has been criticized consistently, beginning in his own time, for lasciviousness and impropriety; at the same time, his candor, and the controversy that it arouses, has brought entertainment to millions of readers.

Tristram Shandy

First published: 1759-1767

Type of work: Novel

An . easily distracted gentleman attempts to narrate the details of his life and the opinions that he has formed along the way.

The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gent. is a long, challenging, and delightful work. Written serially over nine years, it does not exhibit unity of action or tell a single, identifiable story. Rather, it is unified by an overriding purpose—to tell the title character’s life and opinions as honestly and completely as possible—and a unique style, whereby that purpose is thwarted and diverted by digressions and embellishments that grow out of the life and opinions themselves.

“Life and Opinions” was an acceptable autobiographical format for an eighteenth century gentleman. Sterne set out both to use it and to ridicule it through the character of Tristram Shandy. “Old Tristram” was the name given to a statue of a bearded beggar at the Halifax parish church from Sterne’s adolescence. “Shandy” was Yorkshire slang for “odd” or “crazy.” Together they suggest an offbeat character; Sterne added gentility, charm, and an incapacity for direct thought or action. Tristram is the first-person protagonist of the nine volumes of the book, and in his life and opinions he introduces an array of other characters: his pompous father Walter, his gentle Uncle Toby, the Corporal Trim, Parson Yorick, the servant Susannah, his brother Bobby, his beloved Jenny, the Widow Wadman, his friend Eugenius, and a variety of other learned gentlemen.

If Tristram Shandy can be said to have a plot, it has two: Walter Shandy’s attempts to raise the perfect son and Uncle Toby’s courtship of the Widow Wadman. Both prove unsuccessful. Their failures figure the novel’s large structure, for Tristram’s desire to tell his story completely also meets with failure. Underlying all the failures of the Shandy men, however, is a delight in the process of striving, be it Walter’s composition of the “Tristrapaedia,” by which his son will be educated, or Toby’s lawn reenactment of the siege of Namur, where he received the groin wound that would ultimately precipitate his romantic failure.

Moreover, if Tristram’s failure is his inability to tell a story like a straight line, it is also his triumph, for interwoven are comments, opinions, anecdotes, diagrams, and entire documents, real and fictional. Digression is the Shandean way, and the reader can expect a surprise around every corner, be it the anecdote about Corporal Le Fever or the cumbersome “Slawkenbergius’ Tale.” Tristram also uses unorthodox punctuation for effect, liberally litters his text with physical devices—a black page, a marble page, and even missing pages—and spontaneously devotes chapters to a variety of topics, including a “Chapter on Chapters.” He directly addresses the reader, characterizing and then either castigating or pandering to him or her, thus creating an important and dynamic relationship.

Critics have debated how to classify the novel, what Sterne means by it, and whether or not he intended the cryptic last chapter, writing as he did with increasingly ill health, to mark the end of the entire work. Whatever the answers to these questions, in Tristram Shandy Sterne created a unique work that explores the limits of a fledgling form, the novel, and in many ways prefigures literary experiments and forms to come.

A Sentimental Journey

First published: 1768

Type of work: Novel

A British parson recounts his travels and experiences in France and Italy.

Twentieth century British novelist Virginia Woolf, commenting on the style of A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy, wrote:The very punctuation is that of speech, not writing, and brings the sound, the associations, of the speaking voice with it. The order of the ideas, their suddenness and irrelevancy, is more true to life than to literature. There is a privacy in this intercourse which allows things to slip out unreproved that would have been in doubtful taste had they been spoken in public. . . . We are as close to life as we can be.

These comments, which could apply to Tristram Shandy as well, underline Sterne’s relationship to the stream-of-consciousness style that Woolf, Irish novelist James Joyce, and others would develop and perfect a century and a half later. Sterne did not set out to develop a style, but in A Sentimental Journey the combination of urgent delight in the flight from morality and easy familiarity with a specific readership create the immediate and intimate style that Woolf describes.

In volume 7 of Tristram Shandy, Tristram recounts his trip through France to escape illness; A Sentimental Journey, in a similar vein, is Parson Yorick’s account of his travels. Sterne’s book is at once a response to contemporary travel books—Tobias Smollett’s had appeared two years before—that criticize the host culture and a burlesque of the Grand Tour of Europe that was a traditional part of a gentleman’s education. It is also a picaresque narrative in the tradition of the Spanish writer Miguel de Cervantes’s El ingenioso hidalgo don Quixote de la Mancha (1605, 1615; Don Quixote de la Mancha, 1612-1620), which Sterne greatly admired.

Sterne’s Yorick goes to France and Italy seeking understanding, with a heart open to the people and the places that he visits. There are still elements of satire, especially where the upper class and artistic elite are concerned, but Sterne is gentler and mellower, and Yorick’s travelogue comes directly from the heart. While A Sentimental Journey incorporates much material from Sterne’s own travels, it is a work of imagination, dependent on extrapolation and fancification of actual experience. Yorick is a humorous and sentimental man who delights in the lives of common people and finds himself in ridiculous postures under the influence of love, lust, and infatuation. Yorick’s narrative includes descriptions and catalogs of people and places and a wide variety of travel difficulties and accidents that imbue it with humor and pathos. In the end, Yorick is cast as a “man of feeling,” in true eighteenth century tradition. Sterne here brings to life The Sermons of Mr. Yorick, which his audience knew and loved well, and through the all-too-human observations and adventures of a sentimental journeyer, he further educates, edifies, and entertains.

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