Laurence Sterne 1713-1768
English novelist, satirist, and essayist.
Sterne's fame as an author rests largely on two works, the novel Tristram Shandy, Gentleman and the travel essay A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy. During his lifetime, he was subject to intense praise as well as bitter criticism, regarded by some readers and commentators as a satirist comparable with François Rabelais and Miguel de Cervantes, and condemned by others as utterly immoral. Increasingly, his work has been appreciated by modern critics tracing the gensesis of fictional experiments with realism, psychology, and metanarrative.
Sterne was born in Ireland to poor parents. In 1723 he began attending a school in Halifax, Yorkshire; however, when his father died penniless in 1731, Sterne was forced to discontinue his education. Two years later a cousin arranged for him to enter Jesus College, Cambridge, as a sizar, which allowed Sterne to defray university expenses by working as a servant to other students. At Cambridge he met John Hall-Stevenson, a rich and reckless young man whose home—Skelton Castle, renamed "Crazy Castle"—figures prominently in accounts of Sterne's life as the site of drinking parties, a library of erotic literature, and episodes of debauchery. After receiving a bachelor's degree from Cambridge Sterne became a clergyman, He was ordained a deacon in 1736, a priest in 1738, and afterward received various appointments in Yorkshire. In 1741 Sterne married Elizabeth Lumley. The couple had a daughter and eventually separated. Until the publication of Tristram Shandy, Sterne's only written works were his sermon, periodical essays on politics, and A Political Romance (1759), a satirical allegory concerned with local church politics. This last work displays some of the humor and narrative flair of Sterne's major fiction. Sterne's masterwork, Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, received mixed reviews, but a wide contemporary readership elevated both the book and its author to celebrity status. A visit to Europe in 1765 provided Sterne with the material for A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy (1768), an essay on his travels in which heightened subjectivity, emotionalism, and narrative verve serves as a striking contrast to the conventional literary travelogue. A few weeks after the publication of A Sentimental Journey, Sterne died in London of tuberculosis.
Sterne's Tristram Shandy is an unusual work by the literary standards of any period, but it stands out particularly in the century that saw the birth and early development of the realistic novel. While such novels as Daniel Defoe's Moll Flanders, Samuel Richardson's Pamela, and Henry Fielding's Tom Jones display their authors' attempts to make prose fiction a means for depicting contemporary life, Tristram Shandy demonstrated aspirations of an entirely different kind. Its characters, although profoundly human, are also profoundly odd and do not have the significant connections with their society held by characters in the great realistic novels of the time. Tristram Shandy's style is one of cultivated spontaneity and unpredictability, a series of digressions rather than the progressive movement of events common in the works of Steme's contemporaries. Perhaps most conspicuously, its narrator is concerned with relating his "Life and Opinions" instead of the more typical "Life and Adventures" of the eighteenth-century Bildungsroman, making the novel a largely plotless discourse on an encyclopedic array of subjects. The opinions expounded in the novel, aside from the manic commentary of Tristram himself, are those of the principal characters, especially the narrator's father, Walter Shandy. In the world of Tristram Shandy, human life is marked by the obsessive pursuit of some dominant preoccupation, which the narrator terms a "hobby horse." For Walter Shandy, his obsession in the constant weaving of elaborate and absurd theories, the random development of which reflect Sterne's interest in John Locke's writings on the association of ideas. For the narrator's uncle Toby, whom critics have often viewed as one of the most vivid and admirable characters in literature, the imaginary reliving of his battle experiences is his hobby horse. The narrator's own mania consists most obviously of the comic spirit that he introduces into his description of even the most depressing aspects of his world, such as the death of the character Le Fever. Sterne's other major work, A Sentimental Journey, is important as a nonfictional memoir that conveys much the same sensibility as the fictional Tristram Shandy. An account of Steme's travels in France and Italy, this memoir has as its central concern the subjective side of the author's experiences rather than the traditional objective rendering of people and places. In fact, in A Sentimental Journey, Sterne pays minute and self-conscious attention to his own feelings, and frequently shows himself as a manipulator of situations purely for the sake of experiencing the resulting emotion. In one of the more famous instances of this behavior, Sterne resists his lust for a chambermaid and thereby discovers the pleasures of passion restrained. Another episode, "The Dead Ass," has frequently been singled out for the intensity of emotion Sterne exhibits for the death of an animal. Steme's preoccupation with feelings, especially those of tender pathos, led to his establishing the word "sentiment" as it is understood today, imbuing the word with heightened, somewhat artificial emotion when it previously had denoted "thought" and "moral reflection."
Eighteenth and nineteenth century commentary on Sterne tended to be biographical in nature: in particular, Sterne was assumed to share or at least approve the opinions and behavior of his character Tristram Shandy. Thus, an appraisal of Sterne's works became inseparable from an appraisal of his life, either to demonstrate a reprehensible similarity between the two or to discover a paradoxical contrast. By contrast, twentieth-century critics have emphasized the remarkable likeness between Steme's narrative techniques and the formal experimentation of modem literature. These critics focus particularly on Sterne's unorthodox punctuation, his use of nonverbal devices like drawings, his disregard for sequence, and his self-conscious focus on his own method of composition. Despite the evidence presented by several scholars that Tristram Shandy borrows heavily and blatantly from a number of sources, including Robert Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy and Rabelais's Gargantua and Pantagruel, few twentieth-century critics have questioned the success with which Steme adapted these borrowings to his own purposes, and transformed old material into an original work of literature.
Painstaking examination and description of his own inner feelings and reactions characterizes A Sentimental Journey as well as Stern's personal letters. This fact provoked a major controversy in nineteenth-century criticism with regard to the sincerity of everything Stem wrote. Modem critics, however, credit Sterne with an unusual facility for taking an ironic view of his most intense feelings. Alternatively, they find in his work a satirical mockery of sentiment. Perhaps the most important factor contributing to the ambiguities in Sterne's work as well as to the controversies surrounding it is his provocative humor. Some critics have seen this quality of Sterne's writing as an end in itself. Others, including the English Romantics, perceive more profound motives underlying these works. For example, a number of studies contend that Sterne's humor derives from an acute awareness of the ultimate evil and suffering of human existence and that each farcical antic is an allusion to grim truth. Whether or not it is justified to place Sterne in the philosophical company of modernists who blend comedy and despair in their works, late-twentieth-century commentators are largely in agreement that Steme is an exceptional case of an eighteenth-century writer whose works are particularly sympathetic with the concerns and temperament of twentieth-century readers.