Laurence Sterne World Literature Analysis - Essay

Laurence Sterne World Literature Analysis

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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.

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...

(The entire section is 1748 words.)