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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...

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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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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."

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

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The Case of Elijah and the Widow of Zerephath (sermon) 1747

The Abuses of Conscience (sermon) 1750

A Political Romance, Addressed toEsq. Of York (satire) 1759

The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. 9 vols. (novel) 1760-67

The Sermons of Mr. Yorick. 7 vols. (sermons) 1760-69

A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy, by Mr. Yorick 2 vols. (travel essay) 1768

Letters from Yorick to Eliza (letters) 1773

A. A. Mendilow (essay date 1952)

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SOURCE: "The Revolt of Sterne," in Laurence Sterne: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by John Traugott, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1968, pp. 90-107. Reprinted from A. A. Mendilow's Time and the Novel, Peter Nevill, Ltd., 1952. "Notes have been shortened or dropped without notice."

[In the following essay, Mendilow asserts that with Tristram Shandy, Sterne modernized the novel format through his use of "time-shifts," or digressions, that more accurately approximate the way in which people think than does more usual linear narrative.]

It was clearly high time to do again for the English novel what Furetiere and the other realists had done so effectively for the French: to flout the conventions of plotting, with its special and arbitrary requirements of the beginning, middle, and end; of the chronological sequence of action which denied artistic form altogether, of the principle of causality, which involved rigid selection and economy of incident in the interests of an artificial patterning of the action. Steme was very deeply interested in the problems these conventions raise, namely the relationship between reality and fictional illusion. Above all, he wished to arouse his readers to the realization that these are conventions, that they should not be taken for reality, not even for valid symbols, let alone transcripts of reality, that, as Thomas Warton wrote of the early romances, "reality is disguised by the misrepresentations of invention."1 At the very outset he had determined not to confine himself "to any man's rules that ever lived," and more truly than Fielding he could claim the right to say:

I shall not look on myself as accountable to any court of jurisdiction whatever; for as I am, in reality, the founder of a new province of writing, so I am at liberty to make what laws I please therein.2

The great aim of Sterne was to give as true a picture as possible of real human beings as they are in themselves, not as they imagine themselves to be, nor as others judge them to be by their actions and outward behavior alone. This meant the shifting of emphasis from the external to the internal event, from the patterned plot artificially conceived and imposed on the characters, to the free evocation of the fluid, ever-changing process of being. It also brought him face to face with the problem of the limitations of language to convey all this; he had to investigate the ways by which a sequential medium could be manipulated to express simultaneity and the flow of human consciousness.

Though the idea of trying to indicate the inner as distinct from the outer man reached the fullest expression in Sterne, it was of course far from new in fiction, as, in their way, the "romans de longue haleine" and the novels of Richardson had shown. The claims of the two diametrically opposed schools of writing were put very clearly and forcefully, both in practice and theory. The followers of the French anti-Romance realists sided with the view of Fielding that:

The only ways by which we can come at any knowledge of what passes in the Minds of others, are their words and Actions; the latter of which hath by the wiser Part of Mankind been chiefly depended on, as the surer and more infallible Guide.3

His sister, on the other hand, discussing Virgil's use of plot, declared that

when we stop at those outward Circumstances, and perceive not the further Intention, we read as children see Tragedies, who place their chief Delight in the Noise of the Kettle-drums and Trumpets;4

and again in another of her critical prefaces:

The motives to actions, and the inward turns of the mind, seem in our opinion more necessary to be known than the actions themselves; and much rather would we chuse that our readers should clearly understand what our principal actors think, than what they do.5

Mary Mitford was even more explicit:

With regard to novels, I should like to see one undertaken without any plot at all … without any preconceived design further than one or two incidents and dialogues, which would naturally suggest fresh matter, and so proceed in this way, throwing in incident and characters profusely, but avoiding all stage tricks and strong situations.…6

Sterne's awareness of the degree to which the accepted conventions limited the expression of this greater inwardness in fiction, and of the discrepancy between reality and fictional illusion is what makes him so strikingly akin to modern novelists.

The excellencies of Sterne [said Coleridge] consist in bringing forward into distinct consciousness those minutiae of thought and feeling which appear trifles, yet have an importance for the moment, and which almost every man feels in one way or other.7

When an author is trying to give an impression of a character, not in terms of a melodic progression of actions or descriptions, but as "a system of harmonic vibrations," to use a phrase of Steme himself;8 when he becomes involved in those levels of the mind that lie below the rationalizing, conscious plane of being, he is drawn into many new linguistic and literary problems. He must try to devise novel techniques and conventions to convey the illusion of simultaneity in spite of a consecutive medium, and to find some way of equating the mind's flickerings backward and forward in time with the forward movement of language. He must somehow overcome the effect of discreteness made by words which chop up into separate units the indivisible flow of experience. He must consider whether he should not substitute a loose rhythm for the tight metre of the close plot which tries to force into a pattern that which is not amenable to any such conventions of structure and time.

Life does not … present that combined plot, (the object of every skillful novelist), in which all the more interesting individuals of the dramatis personae have their appropriate share in the action and in bringing about the catastrophe. Here, even more than in its various and violent changes of fortune, rests the improbability of the novel.9

The innovations by virtue of which Sterne merits in a double sense the title of "first of the modems" were not the outcome of mere chance; they were not struck out by the author in ignorance of what he was about. It is only on a cursory reading that Tristram Shandy gives the impression of being haphazardly constructed. In fact it is built to a very deliberate plan worked out in detail by a writer who was aware of the technical possibilities of the novel and was consciously experimenting in new principles and conventions. The validity of his approach is shown by the fact that the modem novel has followed the path he blazed rather than in the footsteps of his sedater contemporaries. Like Sterne, the writer of today is preoccupied with the problems of time in fiction; what the associationist psychology of Locke with its corollary of the "time-shift" technique was to the one, Bergson's duree and theory of intuition is to the other. Alike, they have been led to challenge the formal principles of narration based on the sequential relating of successive events. Alike, they have abandoned the close and closed pattern of the plot imposed on the novel by the principle of limited selection, a principle determined by tradition rather than by the desire to get closer to the truth of life. Alike, they have tried to develop a less arbitrary kind of selection on a qualitative rather than quantitative basis, chosen for its power to convey an illusion of reality, rather than for artistic shapeliness or adequacy to prove or illustrate some thesis. In particular, they are concerned with psychological time and duration rather than with chronological time and separated moments. They aim at conveying the effect of an all-pervading present of which past and future are part, in preference to an orderly progression in time of separated discontinuous events.

Although Sterne flouts the principle of chronological succession in fiction so flagrantly, he astonishes us by the accuracy with which the dates, scattered as they are in scores of so-called "digressions," are nevertheless made to cohere. In the usual single-thread and parallel plots moving forward in a straight line, this would not be remarkable. The adherence to the rule of sequential narration is sufficient to place events in their relative temporal positions, and any calendar dating that may be required is comparatively simple. Even where an expository passage is intercalated, the difficulties are not great, for such exposition is presented in a single block which is in direct temporal relation to the main forward-moving issue. Where however the principle of time-shift based on the free association of ideas is followed, the relative positions in time of events is not easy to determine; and where, as in Tristram Shandy, the "digressions" are so numerous and so short and are themselves so often broken up by yet further digressions, and furthermore where the fictional time of the novel covers so long a period (on the shortest reckoning three quarters of a century), and where the scope of action is so elastic and the characters and incidents so varied, to maintain and control the chronology consistently is a feat reminiscent of a juggler keeping a large number of balls in the air at the same time. Not the smallest incident but its date is given or can be deduced or, at the very least, can be fitted into its chronological order: Aunt Dinah's lapse with the coachman (1699), the imprisonment of Trim's brother by the Inquisition (1704), the death of Le Fever (1706), the cow breaking into my Uncle Toby's fortifications (1718), the marriage of Obadiah (1712) and the birth of his first child (1713), the death of Yorick (1749). There is scarcely an incident, no matter how slight, no matter where it occurs in the book, no matter how often it is interrupted and taken up again, but falls into its correct place in time in relation to every other incident. Slips in dating are very rare, one or two at most. Many of these incidents, especially those relating to Uncle Toby, can be checked against historical events. Every piece in the jigsaw puzzle is found to fit into its place. This is itself evidence against unplanned writing, demanding as it must have done an intricate system of cross-references. We know that Steme was a careful and deliberate writer who constantly worked over his manuscripts time and again until they finally satisfied his fastidious taste and judgment.

Noteworthy, too, is the naturalness with which this chronological dating is worked into the substance of the novel. The times are not paraded but are slipped in quite casually in the course of other matters. They are often revealed, not by the specific mention of a date, but as taking place at some certain time before or after some other event the date of which can perhaps be deduced from a chance reference to some historical event. The remarkable thing is that all these times and dates fall in their correct places when checked against each other. They do so because, instead of being presented, as it were, outside the characters, as a background against which these characters are plotted, they form part of their consciousness and emotional experience, and are in consequence readily called to mind, naturally and without effort, through the working of association.

What interests Steme much more than chronological dating however is the discrepancy between duration in terms of chronological and psychological time. His main interest lies in the states of mind and the character of the protagonists rather than in their actions, in what they are and think and feel, not so much in what they do. The true duration therefore is subjective, measured by values, not by the clock; it consequently varies in length with each individual, having regard to the circumstances and frame of mind in which he happens to be. The external, objective, unvarying duration as measured by the pendulum has little place in the novel, except as presenting a contrast to psychological duration, for it has in itself no validity in the sphere of feeling and thinking. This is the principle which Sterne owed as he told Suard,

a l'etude de Locke, qu'il avait faite au sortir de l'enfance, et qu'il refit toute sa vie.… '10

This principle he was the first to apply deliberately to fiction:

It is about an hour and a half s tolerable good reading since my Uncle Toby rang the bell, when Obadiah was ordered to saddle a horse, and go for Dr. Slop, the man-midwife;—so that no one can say, with reason, that I have not allowed Obadiah time enough, poetically speaking, and considering the emergency too, both to go and come:—though, morally and truly speaking, the man perhaps has scarce had time to get on his boots. If the hypercritic will go upon this; and is resolved after all to take a pendulum, and measure the true distance betwixt the ringing of the bell, and the rap at the door;—and, after finding it to be no more than two minutes, thirteen seconds, and three fifths,—should take upon himself to insult over me for such a breach in the unity, or rather probability of time;—I would remind him, that the idea of duration, and of its simple modes, is got merely from the train and succession of our ideas,—and is the true scholastic pendulum,—and by which, as a scholar, I will be tried in this matter—abjuring and detesting the jurisdiction of all other pendulums whatever.

I would therefore desire him to consider that it is but a poor eight miles from Shandy Hall to Dr. Slop, the man-midwife's house;—and that whilst Obadiah has been going those said miles and back, I have brought my Uncle Toby from Namur, quite across all Flanders, into England:—That I have had him ill upon my hands near four years:—and have since travelled him and Corporal Trim in a chariot-and-four, a journey of near two hundred miles down into Yorkshire—-all which put together, must have prepared the reader's imagination for the entrance of Dr. Slop upon the stage,—as much, at least (I hope) as a dance, a song, or a concerto between the acts. (11, 8)

In this passage, Sterne is, as elsewhere in Tristram Shandy, playing on the several different kinds of time that operate in the novel. Firstly, he jocularly correlates the time taken by the reader to read, with the time that the events related in the novel take to happen. This chronological measurement of the act of reading is furthermore effectively contrasted with the reader's sense of the passage of time; that is, his psychological time as judged by values as distinct from the other measured by scales outside him. These questions naturally involve the technique of narration which to be effective must reduce any sense of discrepancy between the different kinds of time and so give an illusion of reality and truth.

But Sterne is concerned with the distinction between chronological and psychological duration not only as it affects the reader. He is equally interested in the relationship between the two as experienced by the characters themselves, and as it affects their sense of the passage of time.

It is two hours and ten minutes—and no more—cried my father looking at his watch, since Dr. Slop and Obadiah arrived,—and I know not how it happens, brother Toby—but to my imagination it seems almost an age.… Though my father said, "he knew not how it happened,"—yet he knew very well how it happened;—and at the instance he spoke it, was pre-determined in his mind to give my Uncle Toby a clear account of the matter by a metaphysical dissertation upon the subject of duration and its simple modes, in order to show my Uncle Toby by what mechanism and mensurations in the brain it came to pass, that the rapid succession of their ideas, and the eternal scampering of the discourse from one thing to another, since Dr. Slop had come into the room, had lengthened out so short a period to so inconceivable an extent.—"I know not how it happens—cried my father,—but it seems an age."—'Tis owing entirely, quoth my Uncle Toby, to the succession of our ideas. [Walter Shandy continues a little later]: To understand what time is aright, without which we never can comprehend infinity, insomuch as one is a portion of the other—we ought seriously to sit down and consider what idea it is we have of duration, so as to give a satisfactory account how we came by it.—What is that to anybody? quoth my Uncle Toby. For if you will turn your eyes inwards upon your mind, continued my father, and observe attentively, you will perceive, brother, that whilst you and I are talking together, and thinking, and smoking our pipes, or whilst we receive successively ideas in our minds; we know that we do exist, and so estimate the existence, or the continuation of the existence of ourselves, or anything else, commensurate to the succession of any ideas in our minds, or any such other thing coexisting with our thinking—and so according to that preconceived—You puzzle me to death, cried my Uncle Toby.—'Tis owing to this, replied my father, that in our computations of time, we are so used to minutes, hours, weeks, and months—and of clocks (I wish there was not a clock in the kingdom) to measure out their several portions to us, and to those who belong to us—that 'twill be well, if in time to come, the succession of our ideas will be of any use or service to us at all. Now, whether we observe it or no, continued my father, in every sound man's head there is a regular succession of ideas of one sort or other, which follow each other in train.… (III, 18)

This exploitation of the principle of psychological duration allows Sterne to vary his tempo by expanding or telescoping the time by the clock to accord with the artistic effect he is concerned with producing. In an early fragment Steme wrote

Glasses can make an inch seem a mile. I leave it to future ages to invent a method for making a minute seem a year.

In Tristram Shandy he was to invent the method himself. By playing the different values of psychological and chronological time against each other, and by emphasizing the difference between them, he can at will convey a sense of urgency and hurry, or of relaxation, waiting and suspense.

Judged chronologically, Tristram Shandy has neither beginning, middle, nor end.

The novel starts in the year 1718 and ends in the year 1713, and in the interim goes as far forward as 1766 and backward to the time of Henry VIII. It is built up of a large number of interwoven and interrelated episodes, of "digressions" as critics commonly call them. The term is inapt. "Digression" implies a minor divagation from what is discernible in the novel as the strict line of forward moving narration. Where a book begins with some "constituted scene" or "discriminated occasion"11 which forms the first of a consecutive series leading to some fixed timepoint, strictly speaking, any chronological departure from the series, such as retrospective or anticipatory flashes or inserted exposition, constitutes a digression. Such a novel is to be distinguished from that where more than one thread of action is followed; there the alternated transfer of interest from one to another of a parallel series is inevitable, and provides the chief means of arousing suspense. In pattern-plots based on causality, any departure from the main issue by the introduction of episodes such as do not contribute to the catastrophe may likewise be held to be digressive. Richardson proudly claimed in his preface to Sir Charles Grandison that

There is not one episode in the whole … but what tends to illustrate the principal design.

The ideal for this kind of plot had been concisely put by Addison who said of the epic:

… nothing should go before it, be intermix'd with it, or follow after it, that is not related to it.12

In the thesis novel, elements irrelevant to the central idea or not contributing to the general view of life which it is the author's intention to expound, constitute digressions. In every case, digressions must digress—whether from some clearly defined pattern, purpose, or line of action. They could be dispensed with and leave no vital break or flaw in the main structure. A novel cannot consist of nothing but digressions. But in Tristram Shandy there is no forward-moving line or architechtonic plot from which to digress. There is no point of departure from which the line could start, for Sterne realizes that, as Mme. de Stael observed:

Human life exhibits but a series of commencements, in which no precise line or limit is discernible.13

Like the school of writers hit off by Butler, Sterne can therefore

Make former times shake hands with latter, And that which was before come after.

He moves at will backward and forward in time without regard for chronological logic, and whatever temporal point he deals with, he treats as a constituted scene in its own right, that is, as a dramatic present', and not as past or future relative to some major event in the story.

In his description of his method as working forward and backward along the line of his story,14 Sterne is misled into using the word "line" by the common practice of limiting the narration to one or more main characters followed chronologically along single or parallel lines from one period to another. An apter description of his method might be to say that he worked in stipple on a broad canvas. Proust adopted what is essentially the same method, save that he expanded the episodes or "discriminated occasions" into large time-blocks to which he devoted—it might be a whole section or even an entire volume. His scenes, like those of Steme, are presented in temporal sequence but are linked by the association of ideas and lengthened or shortened (usually lengthened) by being conceived in terms of psychological duration. Nor are any of his episodes digressive. In both, the picture grows, not part by part but as a whole, into an indivisible unity out of the multitude of scattered strokes of the brush distributed in no fixed order; these strokes finally are seen to cohere and blend into a single, wider whole. This whole can only be guessed at in Tristram Shandy, which is incomplete and therefore appears fragmentary; had Sterne lived to finish his book, and as he carefully proves to himself with the aid of mathematics it could never be finished (IV, 13), it might theoretically be possible at the end to piece out a full picture of the Shandy menage, possibly even including the hero himself.

By breaking up the story and every little episode and scene in it into small disjointed fragments presented, chronologically speaking, in pell-mell disorder, Sterne has evolved a technique that allows of several different effects at once. He can trace the fleeting impressions and associations that float in the minds of characters, including Tristram himself as a quasi-autobiographer during the act of writing. He can bring an effect into high relief by artfully relating it to some other contrasting effect. He can build up a climax by an accumulation of several incidents, or create a single emotional impression by bringing together elements selected from many stages in the life-story of the various characters. He can give rein to his fancy for the ludicrous, or create suspense by breaking off at some crucial moment and switching over to some other incident. He can also give the equivalent of empty spaces, intervals of waiting and longueurs by his "digressions."

Sterne shows himself an adept at expanding the moment and contracting the years at his pleasure. Especially, he can create an impression of all the parts of the story proceeding simultaneously, each at its own pace and in its own direction.

When a man is telling a story in the strange way I do mine, he is obliged continually to be going backwards and forwards to keep all tight together in the reader's fancy. (VI, 33)

Removal or transposition of the episodes in Tristram Shandy would leave gaps in the picture or snap the delicate links which bind part to part, for every episode has its right context from which it cannot be wrenched. Not only does he achieve effects of simultaneity when dealing with events that are going on at the same time, but he even telescopes together the two journeys Tristram made to Auxerre, one as a young man with his father and uncle, the other in search of health some twenty years later, bringing himself up with the rueful comment:

I have been getting forward in two different journeys together, and with the same dash of the pen—for I have got entirely out of Auxerre in this journey which I am writing now, and am got halfway out of Auxerre in that which I shall write hereafter—There is but a certain degree of perfection in every thing; and by pushing at something beyond that, I have brought myself into such a situation, as no traveller ever stood before me; for I am this moment walking across the market-place of Auxerre with my father and my uncle Toby, in our way back to dinner—and I am this moment also entering Lyons with my post-chaise broke into a thousand pieces—and I am moreover this moment in a handsome pavilion built by Pringello, upon the banks of the Garonne, which Mons. Sligniac has lent me, and where I now sit rhapsodizing all these affairs. (VII, 28)

Sterne is, in this passage, hinting at the fundamental limitation of language as a symbolic medium for expressing experience; the inevitable conflict that must arise when a consecutive "horizontal" time-form is used to express simultaneity of impression and the "vertical" sense of the process of living. In this and similar passages, he can give cross-sections of life at one moment at different places and with different people, or open up long temporal perspectives of one character, or telescope the temporal perspectives of several characters into one overwhelming present in which all of them are, at the same time and for each of their individual times, whether past, present, or future, in relation to one another, simultaneously involved. Every part is a dramatic present. As he puts it, this technique saves him dramatically, even if it damns him biographically (II, 8).

Not only is the novel as a whole constructed without regard for chronological beginning, middle, and end. Even the digressions, or more truly, the episodes related by the device of the time-shift, share the same characteristic, and jump back and forth and interweave in the most surprising fashion. Thus Walter Shandy's prostration on learning of the mishap to the bridge of his newly born's nose is interrupted by the contretemps over the jointure between Tristram's great-grandfather and his wife. This in turn is broken into by Tristram's defeat of Eusebius's intention to define the word "crevice," and so goes back naturally to his grandparents and his father and their feelings in the matter of paying the same jointure to the long-lived great-grandmother, with a short discussion on heredity. Into all this enters the dispute between Tristram, Didius, and Tribonius on the question of proprietary rights in the opinions of others, and so by way of Slawkenbergius on noses back to Walter Shandy's prostration (III, 29 to IV, 2).

Sterne was fully conscious of what he was about. He goes out of his way to meet objections to the technique he has evolved, and insists that there is a method in his seeming madness, and that definite principles of composition underlie his apparent vagaries. He commends himself on "a master-stroke of digressive skill," namely that

tho' my digressions are all fair, as you observe—and that I fly off from what I am about, as far, and as often too, as any writer in Great-Britain; yet I constantly take care to order affairs so that my main business does not stand still in my absence.

I was just going, for example, to have given you the great outlines of my uncle Toby's most whimsical character;—when my aunt Dinah and the coachman came across us, and led us a vagary some millions of miles into the very heart of the planetary system: Notwithstanding all this, you perceive that the drawing of my uncle Toby's character went on gently all the time;—not the great contours of it,—that was impossible,—but some familiar strokes and faint designations of it, were here and there touched on, as we went along, so that you are much better acquainted with my uncle Toby now than you was before.

By this contrivance, the machinery of my work is of a species by itself; the two contrary motions are introduced into it, and reconciled, which were thought to be at variance with each other. In a word, my work is digressive, and it is progressive too,—and at the same time.…

Digressions, incontestably, are the sunshine;—they are the life, the soul of reading!—take them out of this book, for instance,—you might as well take the book along with them.…

All the dexterity is in the good cookery and management of them, so as to be not only for advantage of the reader, but also of the author, whose distress, in the matter, is truly pitiable: For, if he begins a digression,—from that moment, I observe, his whole work stands stock still:—and if he goes on with his main work,—then there is an end of his digression.

This is vile work.—For which reason, from the beginning of this, you see, I have constructed the main work and the adventitious parts of it with such intersections, and have so complicated and involved the digressive and progressive movements, one wheel within another, that the whole machine, in general, has been kept a-going. (1, 22)

The difficulty lies in understanding what Sterne means by his "main work." He is paying lip-service to his title: The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. It has been pointed out that the life is largely that of Uncle Toby, and the opinions those of Walter Shandy; and Tristram is no gentleman in the modern sense of the word. Were his book what the title proclaims it to be, Uncle Toby's character would itself constitute a digression. Fortunately it is not a life of Tristram Shandy, and Uncle Toby and Aunt Dinah are not digressions, but take their place in the book in their own right. The greatness of Sterne lies precisely in this, that the different characters in it are not incidental to any hero. He gives roundness to every figure, implying that each one is, for himself the center of his own little world, and that each little world is relevant to the whole book. All these spheres, we feel, whether they are fully treated or no, exist. They intersect, forming segments of varying sizes common to each other. The main characters do not, as in many novels, live in a vacuum, isolated from everyone and everything that does not directly contribute to their progression toward some crucial point in their lives. Many apparently pointless digressions will be found to strengthen this effect of everyone living in himself at the same time and following his own path, irrespective of the part he may be playing in any major episode. Modern novelists aim at the same effect in their use of "breadthwise cutting"—temporal cross-sections of a group of people or even of a whole section of society. Sterne's method is the forerunner of the polyphonic technique, as contrasted with the melodic and harmonic techniques of his contemporaries, a system further elaborated in the contrapuntal experiments of de Quincey, Conrad, Joyce, Gide, Huxley, and others.

The episodes in Tristram Shandy fall into two main categories. Those linked to one another by the association of ideas in the minds of the characters, and those linked in the mind of the quasi-autobiographer himself. These so-called digressions contribute to the use by Sterne of the device of time-shift a century and a half before Conrad and Madox Ford adopted it as a principle of composition under the name of impressionism.

We agree [writes Ford] that the general effect of a novel must be the general effect that life makes on mankind. A novel must therefore not be a narration, a report. Life does not say to you: In 1914, my next door neighbour, Mr. Slack, erected a greenhouse and painted it with Cox's green aluminum paint …

Here follows a short series of incidents in strict chronological sequence.

If you think about the matter you will remember, in various unordered pictures, how one day Mr. Slack appeared in his garden and contemplated the wall of his house. You will then try to remember the year of that occurrence and you will fix it as August 1914 because having had the foresight to bear the municipal stock of the city of Liege you were able to afford a 1st class season ticket for the first time in your life. You will remember Mr. Slack—then much thinner because it was before he found out … etc.

He continues in this strain, bringing in a large part of his life in the process of describing Mr. Slack's greenhouse. He maintains therefore that the interrupted method of the time-shift is invaluable for giving a sense of the complexity that is life.

In the pre-war period the English novel began at the beginning of a hero's life and went straight on to his marriage without pausing to look aside … such a story was too confined to its characters and too self-centeredly went on, in vacuo. If you are so set on the affair of your daughter Millicent with the young actor that you forget that there are flower shows and town halls with nude statuary your intellect will appear a thing much more circumscribed than it should be.15

He claims elsewhere that

that technique is identical with that of all modern novelists, or of myself … or Proust.16

He might have added—or of Steme.

One essential feature of the time-shift technique is that the author does not describe or summarize for the reader events occurring in the intervals between constituted scenes. Knowledge of the relative position in time of the scenes is pieced together from internal evidence within them. No matter how interrupted or broken up an episode may be by inserted or intervening events, between the breaks there must be no author's links such as summaries, temporal explanations, or expositions. This is the method used by Sterne in Tristram Shandy. With rare exceptions, every full action is presented directly as happening; nothing is reported as having happened. The impression is of direct as opposed to reported action and speech, and the extensive use of dialogue strengthens this effect of dramatic present. The book consists almost exclusively of constituted scenes and discriminated occasions, presented without introduction or reference to their calendar relation to preceding or succeeding scenes. This is the true time-shift, and it emphasizes the effect of every part as a present, not as relatively past or future.

The result is that there are no fixed time-points to which episodes bear reference, no beginning from which everything proceeds sequentially and to which events are relative in time. The nearest approach to such a time-point is the birth of Tristram, given as the fifth day of November, 1718 (I, 5).

It is from this point [the death of my brother Bobby that occurred actually a few weeks later] properly that, the story of my Life and my Opinions sets out,

he says at the end of the fourth volume. But the bulk of the book deals with events that took place long before this date, events that are not presented in the form of exposition but on their own merits as deserving a place equal to any others. On one other occasion, while dealing with Uncle Toby's amours, he writes that the armistice between Uncle Toby and the merry widow lasted till

about six or seven weeks before the time I'm speaking of. (I, 32)

This refers likewise to Tristram's birth, the date of which was given about 180 pages earlier. On the next occasion when he mentions the date of the hero's birth, from which, in the regular novel, the fictional time of the action might be conceived to start, it is to mock at the whole convention of sequential narration:

A cow broke in (tomorrow morning) to my uncle Toby's fortifications.… Trim insists on being tried by a court-martial. (III, 38)

Where every episode is presented as in a dramatic present, there can, strictly speaking, be no anticipatory passages or passages of exposition, for there is no fixed line from which to divagate. Such passages when they occur are retrospective or anticipatory only in relation to the time of one incident, and the events the author looks forward to may have been narrated already. Future and past are not future and past in time but before and after in order of narration, which is a very different matter. Thus, when in the course of recounting the circumstances surrounding the birth of the hero in 1718, Sterne promises an account of the love affairs of Uncle Toby, it is a promise to tell of something that occurred in 1713.

It is noteworthy that Sterne frequently gives the exact dates on which he is engaged in narrating various episodes, that is, his own real time or, if you will, the real time of the pseudo-autobiographer at the time of writing. Attendant details relating to that real time are added—Jenny's purchases, his cough, his surroundings, and so on. Sterne makes great play with the contrast between the real time and the fictional time of the events he is recording. The act of writing is chronologically consecutive, whereas the fictional time shifts constantly as he focuses his attention onto some or other point in the whole of his past spread out at once before him. This past grows as his real present moves forward, and this presents him with the following dilemma:

I am this month one whole year older than I was this time twelve-month; and having got, as you perceive, almost into the middle of my fourth volume—and no farther than to my first day's life—'tis demonstrative that I have three hundred and sixty-four days more life to write just now, than when I first set out; so that instead of advancing, as a common writer, in my work with what I have been doing at it—on the contrary, I am just thrown so many volumes back—was every day of my life to be so busy a day as this—And why not?—and the transactions and opinions of it to take up as much description—And for what reason should they be cut short? as at this rate I should just live 364 times faster than I should write—It must follow, an' please your worships, that the more I write the more I shall have to write … was it not that my Opinions will be the death of me, I perceive I shall lead a fine life of it out of this selfsame life of mine; or, in other words, shall lead a couple of fine lives together. (IV, 13)

A similar quandary confronts Walter Shandy as he writes his system of education for his son:

This is the best account I am determined to give of the slow progress my father made in his Tristapaedia; at which (as I said) he was three years, and something more, indefatigably at work, and, at last, had scarce completed, by his own reckoning, one half of his undertaking: the misfortune was, that I was all the time totally neglected and abandoned to my mother; and what was almost as bad, the very delay, the first part of the work, upon which my father had spent the most of his pains, was rendered entirely useless,—every day a page or two became of no consequence. (V, 16)

Fictional and real time are continually brought into the closest relation, and the shifting points of reference in the narration are further complicated by the shifting points of reference in the real time of the narrator. The real and fictive presents are thus amusingly contrasted.

The frequent references in Tristram Shandy to the real time of the narrator are not evidence of the intrusive author such as leads to a division of interest between the author in his own person and his characters.

… perhaps there is not a better Criterion of the merit of a book, than our losing sight of the author.

Such references to the writer's present are justifiable in a first-person novel, for the autobiographer is himself within the framework. What is fully permissible in Henry Esmond constitutes a blemish in Vanity Fair where it jars the reader out of the fictional time in which he is immersed back into the real time in which he is engaged in the act of reading. In Tristram Shandy the interpretations of events and the analyses of the character of Walter Shandy, Uncle Toby, Trim, and the rest come, not as from outside the novel, but to illustrate the character and opinions of Tristram who, as autobiographer, is himself a character in the novel. Tristram Shandy, it is true, is more biography than autobiography, but that may in a large part be attributed to its being a fragment and not a complete whole. The observations of Tristram are as much in place as those of Captain Marlowe and the other observers in Conrad's novels, where the device of refraction through intervening minds forms the basis of a highly complex technique.

It must be admitted, however, that Sterne, unlike Conrad, does stretch the truth considerably in making Tristram describe what he did not witness and could not possibly have learned from other sources. In spite of his protests, it

render[s] my book from this very moment, a professed Romance, which, before, was a book apocryphal. (11, 8)

At first Sterne did try to give some degree of verisimilitude to his cognizance of such events as the contretemps between Walter Shandy and his wife at the begetting of Tristram

in the night, betwixt the first Sunday and the first Monday in the month of March, in the year of our Lord 1718. (1, 4)

In this case, he gives his source of information:

To my uncle Mr. Toby Shandy do I stand indebted for the preceding anecdote, to whom my father … had oft, and heavily complained of the injury. (1, 3)

Later, however, he abandons all pretence of coming by his information as limiting his powers too seriously, and with unclipped wings he soars into the convention of the omniscient author, a convention artificial in itself and accepted as compatible only with the third-person novel. Sterne might have learned from his predecessor Richardson how punctilious the autobiographical novel could and perhaps should be in such matters, but Tristram Shandy would have been fatally circumscribed and fettered by the lesson.

Just as the comments of Tristram are not extraneous to the book and are not therefore to be taken as from an intrusive author, the short stories inset into the novel are not of the excrescent kind such as mar, technically speaking, the form of so many earlier and later novels. The tale of Le Fever or Trim's unfinished story of the King of Bohemia are part of the fabric of the main narrative into which they are inserted. Their removal would leave an irreplaceable gap in the structure. They throw light, and are indeed the best comment on the character of Trim and Uncle Toby; even Slawkenbergius's tale of the noses has the effect of strengthening the impression of Walter Shandy's intellectual foibles, and confirming a central double entendre.

These tales offer interesting examples of the technique of "Chinese boxes." Sterne writes a book about Tristram Shandy writing his life in which he, in the year 1760, relates how Trim in 1723 tells the story of Le Fever's death in 1706; or how Walter Shandy translated for the benefit of his brother the work of Slawkenbergius on noses in the course of which there is given the story of Julia and Diego. One is reminded of Gide writing a novel, Les Faux-Monnayeurs, about a novelist, Edouard, who is writing a novel called Les Faux-Monnayeurs about a novelist who is writing a novel the title of which, mercifully, we are not given, but which perhaps we can guess.

Sterne was one of the earliest writers to realize that literature is one of the time arts, and is therefore limited by the very nature of its medium, language. The writing of a novel involves, in consequence, a number of temporal factors and conventions which can be exploited in various ways. Little wonder that Diderot, whose article on "Composition" for the Encyclopedie furnished many of the ideas of Lessing's "Laocoön," was so deeply impressed and influenced by Sterne; little wonder that Lessing himself, the critic who first adequately analyzed the essential differences between the space and time arts, proclaimed that he would have given ten years of his own life to prolong Steme's by one. Mrs. Montague wrote that Sterne "really believes his book to be the finest thing the age has produced." He was perhaps not so far out in his belief. Not till modern times do we find so intelligent an attempt to consider the aesthetic and philosophic implications of the novel. Not till Gide and Proust and James and Joyce and Virginia Woolf is there any comparable picture in fiction of the process of living, of life caught in the very act of being. Sterne, moreover, paralleled this with his picture of himself in the process of creating his book. There is in Tristram Shandy a threefold development: the characters as they evolve; the author as he works out his conception; and the reader whom Sterne is educating to understand fiction aright.

"A mighty maze! but not without a plan."

One of Coleridge's many unwritten masterpieces was to be an essay

on one who lived not in time at all, past, present, or future,—but beside or collaterally.17

He forgot that Sterne had anticipated his idea in Tristram Shandy.


1History of English Poetry, 1774-81, Sect. III.

2Tom Jones, II, 1.

3Champion, December 11, 1739.

4 Preface to History of the Countess of Dellwyn, 1759.

5 Preface to The Cry, 1754, written in collaboration with Miss J. Collier.

6 Letter to Sir William Elford, May 13, 1815. Letters of Mary Russell Mitford, ed. Brimley Johnson.

7 Lecture on The Nature and Constituents of Humour, etc. Literary Remains (1836), 1, 142.

8 Letter to Mrs. Vesey, June 1761.

9 Review of Jane Austen's Emma, published December 1815, in the Quarterly Review, October 1815.

10Memoires Historiques sur le XVIII siecle, et sur M. Suard, par Dominique-Joseph Garat, 2nd ed. (1821), II, 149.

11 Henry James's terms for a scene presented dramatically as "present."

12Spectator, January 5, 1712. The theory, deriving from Le Bossu, is expounded more fully by Blackmore: Preface to Prince Arthur, 1695.

31Essay on Fictions, prefaced to Zulma, English trans. 1813, Vol. I, p. 9.

14 "Provided he keeps along the line of his story,—he may go backwards and forwards as he will,—'tis still held to be no digression" (V, 25).

15 Ford Madox Ford, Joseph Conrad, a Personal Remembrance (1924), pp. 191-92.

16 Ford Madox Ford, It was the Nightingale (1934), p. 194.

17Table-Talk, August 4, 1833.

Melvyn New (essay date 1969)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8776

SOURCE: "Sterne and the Anglican Church," in his Laurence Sterne as Satirist: A Reading of "Tristram Shandy," University of Florida Press, 1969, pp. 5-28.

[In the following excerpt, New argues that Sterne's Sermons reveal his belief in "right reason," a rational morality which is possible only when supported by religion. New maintains that Sterne's religious beliefs can be seen in Tristram Shandy, a satire on human appetite and excesses.]

That sterne was a clergyman of the Anglican church has proved, more often than not, a source of embarrassment to his critics. If the modern critic is not as apt as the Victorian critic to wax indignant over the imposture, he is, nonetheless, unwilling to give the forty-five sermons which survive a meaningful place in the Sterne canon.1 John Traugott, for example, refuses to treat them as religious documents; they are rhetorical exercises. He concludes a cursory examination of them with a dismissal of their religious significance: "At any rate it is clear that while Sterne was not perfectly suited for the ministry he nevertheless owed the Church a great debt: it first permitted … him to express himself."2 Traugott argues that the sermons are not to be taken seriously—either as religious doctrine or even as serious attempts at moral persuasion. They present instead, he says, "kittenish mocking of affections … ever on the verge of comedy," and his entire discussion is designed to show them in a Shandean light.3

Lansing V. D. H. Hammond's account of the sermons is basically a source study, but its findings have far-reaching consequences for a proper understanding of Steme's Christianity. In the first place, if we accept his well-argued conjecture that most, perhaps all, of the sermons were written prior to 1750, indeed, "in rudimentary form" between 1737 and 1745, we are faced with the interesting proposition that the sermons belong, at least in date, to the Augustan period.4 Even more significant is Hammond's belief that "with the single exception of Swift's Sermons, apparently first published in 1744, Sterne made no use in his own discourses of any writing which had not already appeared in print before 1733."5 Without discounting the incentives of fame and fortune, it can be inferred that Sterne's willingness to publish his sermons in 1760, and again in 1766, indicates a continued commitment to the religious principles he had worked out twenty years before.6

The sources of Sterne's religion are Latitudinarian, Tillotson and Clarke being, according to Hammond, the major sources of the sermons.7 For Hammond, Sterne's Latitudinarian tendencies suggest the unorthodox cast of his religion, but he is cautious in his final statement of Sterne's position. He is aware, in the first place, of the common rationalistic heritage of Latitudinarianism and deism, citing in evidence Robert Kilburn Root's comment that "except in the heat of controversy, it is not easy to distinguish between the religion of an orthodox divine such as Swift and the free-thinking deists whom he despised."8 Hammond is also aware, however, of the several attacks on deism in the sermons. Moreover, Sterne's attitudes toward miracles and mysteries "indicate an acceptance of certain fundamental Christian principles to which no advocate of a purely 'natural' religion would be willing to subscribe."9

Unfortunately, Hammond saves Sterne from heresy only to condemn him for superficiality. He notes the indifference to "doctrinal Christianity" and the concern with doctrines not necessarily "peculiar to or distinctive of the Christian religion; his precepts tend to make of Christianity a moral philosophy rather than a religion.… "Sterne's failure to marshal authorities and copious quotations and his amazing freedom from the "'contemporary language of polemics" are also seen, by Hammond, as indications of Sterne's unorthodox and lukewarm Christian commitment.10 Hammond, like Traugott, ultimately leaves us with a picture of Sterne as a nominal, Shandean Christian, much like the erstwhile projector of "An Argument Against Abolishing Christianity in England." It is, I believe, a false picture.

A true picture of Sterne's Christianity depends on an understanding of the Latitudinarianism at its roots. The label, it will be recalled, was originally a term of contempt for the Cambridge Platonists, pointing primarily at their advocacy of religious toleration. Insofar as Latitudinarianism implies tolerance, the label is apropos. When, however, it is used to suggest an indifferent sort of Christianity, one at an opposite end from Anglican orthodoxy, then it needs careful qualification. The purpose of the Cambridge Platonists and of their followers, the Latitudinarians, was not the repudiation of orthodoxy but rather its re-establishment after the Interregnum. It was a normalizing and moderating purpose, and its primary instrument was reason. Between the Calvinistic extremism of the Puritans and the politic extremism of Laud, the Cambridge Platonists sought a compromise in the reasonableness of Christianity and of Christian men, hoping to throttle forever the spirit of faction that had dominated seventeenth-century life in England. "The appeal to reason," writes G. R. Cragg, "is the most conspicuous characteristic of the Cambridge school."11

The reasonableness of the Cambridge Platonists sought to unite all Christians "on the common ground of the great essentials of religion," while, at the same time, it de-emphasized the finer points of dogma and doctrine which had so disturbed contemporary English Christianity. But it was not the facile reasonableness which would later produce Christianity Not Mysterious, not the rationalism which repudiates mysteries simply because they are mysteries.12 Seeking the middle ground, the Cambridge Platonists worked out the compromise between reason, faith, and revelation that served throughout the eighteenth century to unite varying degrees of Christian orthodoxy within the Anglican church. Debates over doctrinal issues would continue and at times would grow vituperative; but the fierce, disruptive struggles of the seventeenth century yielded to the essential governance of one Church, catholic in nature and flexible in doctrine.

On the question of moral conduct, compromise was again the primary concern of the Cambridge Platonists. Moral laws were divinely revealed, but they were also reasonable; and right conduct was based neither on the inexorable authority of the Calvinistic God nor, as in Hobbes, on obedience to a civil ruler, but rather on one's personal response to the right reason within. Eventually this restoration of free will and moral responsibility became the foundation for religious toleration and, in fact, for both deist and Methodist dissent. The essential intent of the Cambridge Platonists, however, was the re-establishment of a Christian's moral responsibility in the face of Calvinist and Hobbist authorities—and the reaffirmation of right reason, hedged by the authority of revelation, as the cornerstone of morality.

In many ways the Latitudinarians are second-generation Cambridge Platonists, although they inherit far more of the rationalism than the mysticism of their teachers. Against the two enemies of the established Church, Catholicism and Puritanism, reason proved the more effective weapon. At times the emphasis on reason was bound to suggest deism, the religion that reason could discover for itself; but the Latitudinarians had a more orthodox view of man's rational capacity: "… reason, by recognizing the limitations latent in our knowledge, is the true corrective to dogmatism. So far from making us overconfident, reason encourages diffidence and humility.… We are surrounded by such unfathomable mysteries that any form of dogmatism is intolerable arrogance."13 The continued respect for mystery and the desire to prove reason in accord with revealed Christianity place the Latitudinarians in the center of eighteenth-century Anglicanism.

The Latitudinarian emphasis on reason had far-reaching effects on sermon-writing throughout the eighteenth century. The rejection of "endless debate about theological niceties" freed the sermon from the interminable citation of authorities and extensive quotations of seventeenth-century discourses. The reaction against Calvinism and predestination put renewed emphasis on the Gospel and the Church as guides for moral conduct. The darkness and anger of the Calvinistic God was displaced by a God of light, a God of love and benevolence. This reaction against Calvinism made Latitudinarianism seem more unorthodox than it ever intended to be. Its true direction, however, is conservative: It aims for a reconciliation of reason and revelation, morality and religion. The sermons of the Latitudinarians are moral rather than polemical, temperate rather than fiery, simple rather than intricate. Their aim is not to "liberalize" Anglicanism, but to return it to the center of English religious life after a century of near disaster.14

It is of no slight significance to the study of Steme's Christianity that Locke agrees with the Latitudinarian divines on many major issues. Locke's The Reasonableness of Christianity must be considered a document of the Latitudinarian movement, and his Essay Concerning Human Understanding, an explanation of the nature of the rationalism which made the movement possible. The rationalistic revolt against dogma, however, is carried further by Locke than by the Latitudinarians; they turned from authority only in reaction to the dogmatism of the seventeenth century, while Locke's revolt was part of his larger struggle against the entire scholastic method. In fact, Locke's revolt against authority and his insistence on an intellectual, almost mathematical, concept of God provide a good illustration of the distance between Latitudinarianism and deism, for Locke is able to find a comfortable middle ground between the two.15 Similarly Locke's reduction of Christianity to a belief in Jesus as the Messiah is more simplistic than the Latitudinarians would have wished. However, when pressed on the issue, Locke explained that a belief in Christ included a belief in all the doctrines known to come from Christ, thus returning to a fundamentally orthodox position.16

Locke also reinforced the Latitudinarian claim that morality was the subject of Christianity, maintaining both theologically and epistemologically that moral conduct is the proper study of mankind. It is on this vital issue that Locke, like the Latitudinarians, shows the essentially orthodox position of his religious views. He had already demonstrated in the Essay that reason is a limited faculty; in The Reasonableness of Christianity he stresses the weakness of men and the need, except for the relatively few, of a system of rewards and punishments to ensure moral conduct. At times this system is one of calculating prudence; at times it is the promise of immortality; and at yet other times it is a return to the authority of the Bible and tradition. Locke's insistence on the incapacity of men to follow right reason is a view he shares with the Latitudinarians. It contrasts sharply with the deistic and moralsense schools which brought morality within everyone's capacity.

One of the most significant studies of Swift in recent years, Phillip Harth, Swift and Anglican Rationalism, convincingly places the admittedly orthodox Swift within the Latitudinarian tradition. Harth attempts to dull the initial shock of this assertion by using the term "Anglican rationalists" to emphasize "the characteristic which distinguishes them as apologists of the Church of England."17 Noting first that the older view of Swift as a skeptic in religion has now been replaced by Ricardo Quintana's illustration of his orthodoxy, Harth suggests that this orthodoxy needs a more accurate definition than the fideism now being associated with Swift.18 The cause of this associationis the false dichotomy we have seen in connection with Sterne between "orthodoxy" and "rationalism," which, Harth writes, "misinterprets the religious situation in Restoration England."

I have, to some extent, already indicated that situation. The crucial struggle of Anglicanism was against Puritan and Catholic dissent; deism or freethinking was also an enemy, of course, but the dangers were less immediate. In this struggle the most important single issue was the role of reason and revelation in religion; according to Harth's simplified but valid schematization, it became a question of mediating between "revelation, no reason" dissenters and "reason, no revelation" deists. The fideist position was, of course, common to many Orthodox Anglicans, but, as the century drew to its close, exclusive revelation became more and more associated with the Puritans. The identification of the Catholics as fideists is in part polemical, but the rationalism of the Latitudinarians could well insist that scholastic logic and transubstantiation were unreasonable. At any rate, the linking of dissenters with Catholics on the supposition that they are possessed by essentially the same "unreason" persists even to Steme's sermons, for example, "On Enthusiasm."19 The Cambridge Platonists, the Latitudinarians, and Locke all joined to maintain that, in Harth's words, "reason and revelation are not incompatible in religion. On the contrary, reason and revelation together provide the grounds for religion, so that each plays its proper role in the religious sphere and neither can be ignored." Swift, according to Harth, also maintained this position, "historically … the mainstream of tradition in the Catholic and Anglican churches."20

For Harth, Swift's place in the Latitudinarian tradition is of significance primarily because of the proof it offers that A Tale of a Tub makes use of a traditional set of polemical devices. Sterne, too, in his satire against Catholics may possibly be echoing rather faintly these Restoration polemics. My own primary concern, however, is with the set of norms an orthodox position in the Anglican church makes available to the satirist. Apart from its classical and traditional Christian (Catholic) sources, the moral outlook of Augustan satire (the normative values against which man was measured) was provided in large measure by the orthodox stance of Anglicanism on the nature of man and the possibilities and potentialities of his achieving a moral life. At the same time deviations from the orthodox norm provided many of the targets of Augustan satire. It is no accident, as Louis Landa points out in his introduction to Swift's sermons, that "however brief the treatment, his ideas are present extensively [in the sermons]; and we can assess the nature of his mind and define his position in the eighteenth century from the sermons as clearly as we can from his other works."21

The relationship between satire and orthodoxy can be seen in the sermon "On the Trinity," Swift's "most elaborate statement on Christian doctrine" and one which "exhibits clearly the orthodoxy and conventionality of his religious views."22 The subject is the role of mystery in the Christian scheme; Swift explains why it has a rightful place:

It would be well, if People would not lay so much Weight on their own Reason in Matters of Religion, as to think every thing impossible and absurd which they cannot conceive. How often do we contradict the right Rules of Reason in the whole Course of our Lives? Reason itself is true and just, but the Reason of every particular Man is weak and wavering, perpetually swayed and turned by his Interests, his Passions, and his Vices. Let any Man but consider … how blinded he is by the Love of himself, to believe that Right is Wrong, and Wrong is Right, when it maketh for his own Advantage. Where is then the right Use of his Reason, which he so much boasteth of, and which he would blasphemously set up to controul the Commands of the Almighty?23

That these beliefs in the limits of reason, the power of the passions and self-interest, and the inordinate pride of man operate at the core of Swift's satire is common knowledge. Moreover, Swift makes certain in this sermon on the Trinity that we understand the limits even of right reason: "But because I cannot conceive the Nature of this Union and Distinction in the Divine Nature, am I therefore to reject them as absurd and impossible; as I would, if any one told me that three Men are one, and one Man is three? … But the Apostle telleth us, We see but in part, and we know but in part; and yet we would comprehend all the secret Ways and Workings of God."24 Significantly, Landa associates this skepticism with the limitations of reason demonstrated in the Essay Concerning Human Understanding. And just as Locke brings skepticism to bear on the systematizing of scholastic philosophers, so Swift uses it to free his sermons from the abstruse speculations of scholastic theologians and those Anglican clergymen who had allowed the spirit of contention to lead them into complex and futile controversies.

Swift's purpose in his sermons is rather bluntly stated at the opening of "On the Trinity": "This Day being set apart to acknowledge our Belief in the Eternal TRINITY, I thought it might be proper to employ my present Discourse entirely upon that Subject; and, I hope, to handle it in such a Manner, that the most Ignorant among you may return home better informed of your Duty in this great Point, than probably you are at present."25 The refusal to enter into doctrinal disputes, evident in both Swift's and Steme's sermons, has its roots in the insistence that the function of the clergy is to explain, as simply as possible, the Christian duties of their communicants. The interest in simplicity dominates the advice Swift gives in "A Letter to a Young Gentleman, Lately entered into Holy Orders";26 the interest in duty is explained in "On the Trinity": "So, that the great Excellency of Faith, consisteth in the Consequence it hath upon our Actions.… Therefore, let no Man think that he can lead as good a moral Life without Faith, as with it; for this Reason, Because he who hath no Faith, cannot, by the Strength of his own Reason or Endeavours, so easily resist Temptations, as the other who depends upon God's Assistance in the overcoming his Frailties.… "27 This fast union of morality and religion is one of the marks of Latitudinarian Anglicanism which distinguishes it from the deistic assumption of moral conduct as a possibility quite distinct from religion. Steme, I shall demonstrate, also takes this orthodox approach.

Swift's sermon "Upon the Excellence of Christianity" is also of significance to the present discussion, for here Swift defends the Christian system of rewards and punishments against the moral systems of the Greek and Roman philosophers. His discourse returns him to the limits of man as a moral creature and to the necessity of the union between religion and morality: "Now, human nature is so constituted, that we can never pursue any thing heartily but upon hopes of a reward … But some of the philosophers gave all this quite another turn, and pretended to refine so far, as to call virtue its own reward, and worthy to be followed only for itself: Whereas, if there be any thing in this more than the sound of the words, it is at least too abstracted to become an universal influencing principle in the world, and therefore could not be of general use."28 Of this attack on the classical philosophers (and modern deists) Landa writes: "Swift follows the traditional line of argument in contending that for the generality of mankind, only Christianity has provided a really effective incentive to reject vice in favour of virtue—the doctrine of future rewards and punishments; effective because it is sensibly attuned to selfish human nature, its appeal being to man's higher self-interest—his eternal welfare."29 In Augustan satire this union of morality and religion becomes the demand for a recognition of individual insufficiency and the need for acknowledging external controls as a curb to pride and folly. For the rational Christian as for the rational satirist, right reason informs him, above all, of the inadequacy of the very reason he seeks to re-establish.

A third sermon, "On the Testimony of Conscience," explores these problems further and is of particular interest because of Sterne's discourse on the same subject, "The Abuses of Conscience Considered."30 Swift's sermon is an attack, once again, on a moral system independent of religion, and more particularly, according to Landa, on Shaftesbury's theory of the moral sense. The view that conscience functions independently of the laws of God, that man possesses a "natural sense of right and wrong which exists prior to and independently of the idea of God" was, for Swift, a false and dangerous heresy. Once again, Landa links Swift to Locke, citing Locke's statement from the Essay that "the true ground of moraliiy … can only be the will and law of a God, who sees men in the dark, has in his hand rewards and punishments, and power enough to call to account the proudest offender."31 The position, Landa notes, is an orthodox one.

The crux of both Swift's and Sterne's sermons is that the testimony of conscience cannot be trusted; that the conscience is abused by our other interests. Swift writes: "… whenever our Conscience accuseth us, we are certainly guilty; but we are not always innocent when it doth not accuse us: For very often, through the Hardness of our Hearts, or the Fondness and Favour we bear to our selves, or through Ignorance, or Neglect, we do not suffer our Conscience to take any Cognizance of several Sins we commit."32 Sterne's views clearly coincide:

I own … whenever a man's Conscience does accuse him … that he is guilty.…

But, the converse of the proposition will not hold true,—namely, That wherever there is guilt, the Conscience must accuse; and, if it does not, that a man is therefore innocent.… did no such thing ever happen, as that the conscience of a man, by long habits of sin, might … insensibly become hard …—Did this never happen:—or was it certain that self-love could never hang the least bias upon the judgment … could no such thing as favour and affection enter this sacred court… were we assured that INTEREST stood always unconcern'd … and that PASSION never got into the judgment seat, and pronounced sentence in the stead of reason, which is supposed always to preside and deter-mine upon the case … then, the religious and moral state of a man would be exactly what he himself esteemed it … (IV, 12[27]; Sermons, 11, 68-69).

It has long been noted that the comment in Tristram Shandy "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!" is an echo of Swift's famous remark in A Tale of a Tub: "But when a Man's Fancy gets astride on his Reason, when Imagination is at Cuffs with the Senses … the first Proselyte he makes, is Himself.…" That the same idea appears in the "Abuses of Conscience Considered," with its roots in Swift's "On the Testimony of Conscience," speaks to those critics who slight the echo of Tale of a Tub, insisting that Sterne's view of irrational behavior was far different from Swift's, indeed, far more "Christian" than Swift's. On the contrary, it seems evident that both men drew their views from the same source—the orthodox position of the Anglican church on the question of man's ability to find a moral life by himself. Of this morality without religion, Swift says: "… those Men who set up for Morality without regard to Religion, are generally but virtuous in part; they will be just in their Dealings between Man and Man; but if they find themselves disposed to Pride, Lust, Intemperance, or Avarice, they do not think their Morality concerned.…33 Sterne reaches the same conclusion:

[The duties of religion and morality] are so inseparably connected together, that you cannot divide these two Tables, even in imagination (tho' the attempt is often made in practice) without breaking and mutually destroying them both.

I said the attempt is often made; and so it is;——there being nothing more common than to see a man, who has no sense at all of religion … who would yet take it as the bitterest affront, should you but hint at a suspicion of his moral character.…

Let him declaim as pompously as he can … it will be found at last to rest upon … either his interest, his pride, his ease … (Sermons, 11, 75-76).

Herbert Read was the first critic to notice that this view of the conscience is essentially a "classical doctrine"; his opinion has been further defended in Arthur H. Cash's article "The Sermon in Tristram Shandy."34 Working primarily from Lockean psychology, rather than from Latitudinarian theology (whose influence he slights), Cash's conclusions are nevertheless much the same as my own: (1) Sterne's sermons consistently suggest the inability or reluctance of men to judge their own behavior because their passions interfere with their reason; (2) the ethic which results from this view of man is "at bottom … conservative," because it reaffirms the orthodox union of religion and morality; and (3) "no one who ever looked into the sermons could doubt Sterne's orthodox view of divine commands." The only serious difference of opinion between Cash and me arises from his distinction between the parson who sees the failure of self-governance as "deplorable," and the novelist who sees it as "laughable."35 Cash raises the question of Sterne's apparent faith, revealed here and there in the sermons, in what seems to be a "moral sense," but he is unable to reconcile such faith with a conservative ethic. Nevertheless, he insists that the "soft view" of man is predominant in the "novels" which are free from Swiftian satire and written in "the liberal spirit"—thus questioning the significance of his whole study.36 I shall suggest below that this "soft view" is part of Sterne's Latitudinarian heritage, the survival of polemical arguments against the Puritan view of man, but by no means unorthodox itself.

Cash illustrates very effectively the importance of recognizing Sterne's ethics as conservative. Stressing first Sterne's rationalism, he uses it as an argument against those who regard Sterne as a sentimentalist. He demonstrates, for example, that the famous line from Tristram Shandy, "REASON is, half of it, SENSE," is in context not at all an affirmation of sensibility, but rather "that rare instance when Tristram reveals his moral values by telling us that he and his family have been the dupes of their appetites and senses—the very point Sterne makes in The Abuses of Conscience Considered.…"37 At the same time, he emphasizes Steme's allegiance to religion, noting particularly his insistence on the union of religion and morality: "By his admission that moral practice can be effected only through a fear of God's retribution, Sterne acknowledges a fundamental self-concern in man. The concession sets him apart from the more sophisticated rationalists of his own generation, who argued that true morality had to be practiced for its own sake."38 In short, Steme's rationalism saves him from sensibility, while his religion saves him from "sophisticated" rationalism, that is, from deism. The intimate relationship between deism and sensibility suggests that, polemically, Sterne's position is an orthodox one, diametrically opposed to the liberalizing tendencies in eighteenth-century thought.

This orthodoxy is revealed again and again in the sermons of Steme; there can be little doubt that Sterne in his sermons not only shares with Swift an orthodox Christianity, but that this conservative position is what provides the moral background of Augustan satire. For example, the very first sermon in Volume I, "Inquiry after Happiness," is a "vanity of human wishes" discourse—a traditional meeting place of sermon and satire.39 It is surely not fortuitous that the first sermon written under the nom de plume, Yorick, should take man through the stages of life, proving at each stage that all is vanity; Steme could hardly have been unaware that the serious import of Hamlet's Yorick was precisely this. Nor is it fortuitous that this first sermon should contain the following description of a young man's quest for happiness:

The moment he is got loose from tutors and governors, and is left to judge for himself, and pursue this scheme his own way—his first thoughts are generally full of the mighty happiness which he is going to enter upon.…

In consequence of this—take notice, how his imagination is caught by every glittering appearance that flatters this expectation.—Observe what impressions are made upon his senses, by diversions, music, dress and beauty—and how his spirits are upon the wing, flying in pursuit of them … (1, 1; Sermons, 1, 8).40

The uncontrolled and uncontrollable range of Tristram's interests, which the modern critic praises as the desire to capture the diversity of life, assumes in this sermon the far different implications of vanity and naivete. Sterne's answer to hedonism in general is the traditional answer of Ecclesiastes: fear God and keep His commandments.41 The union of religion and morality, so fundamental to the meaning of this first discourse, is the most persistent message of Sterne's sermons.42

As with Swift, the source of this message is Sterne's view of the limits of man. We have already seen the outlines of this view in the "Abuses of Conscience Considered"; it receives a similar statement in "Self-Knowledge," where Sterne tells us that "we are deceived in judging of ourselves, just as we are in judging of other things, when our passions and inclinations are called in as counsellors, and we suffer ourselves to see and reason just so far and no farther than they give us leave" (I, 4; Sermons, I, 38).43 Most interesting in this sermon is Sterne's analysis of the possibilities of moral teaching in the face of self-interest; he suggests the moral fable: "… as they [moral instructors] had not strength to remove this flattering passion which stood in their way and blocked up all the passages to the heart, they endeavoured by stratagem to get beyond it, and by a skilful address, if possible, to deceive it. This gave rise to the early manner of conveying their instructions in parables, fables, and such sort of indirect applications, which, tho' they could not conquer this principle of self-love, yet often laid it asleep … till a just judgment could be procured" (Sermons, I, 40). Much has been made by Hammond and others of Sterne's tendency to dramatize his sermons, the implication being that Steme was more interested in the story he told than in the doctrine he preached. Nothing could be further from the truth, for Sterne's addition of a narrative dimension to several of his sermons is a quite traditional practice in pulpit oratory. Sterne learned much about narrative in writing his sermons; but, above all else, he learned the value of a story as an agreeable vehicle for the often unpleasant task of telling men what they really are. Yorick's comment on preaching, "For my own part … I had rather direct five words point blank to the heart," has also been viewed as indicative of Steme's religious laxity, his "happy-go-lucky disposition."44 It is clear, however, that Yorick is opposing in this passage the heart to the head as respective seats of truth and hypocrisy. That the heart for Steme is more closely connected with right reason than with moral sensibility is suggested by the phrase "till a just judgment could be procured" from "Self-Knowledge." When self-deceit is pierced by a story, the heart does not reveal the glory of the naturally moral man, but the truth of the limited man whose reason tells him he must fear God and keep the commandments.45

The strongest attacks on self-deception, however, occur in "Pharisee and Publican in the Temple" and "Pride."46 In the first, Sterne analyzes the character of the Pharisee as an example of the "worst of human passions;—pride—spiritual pride, the worst of all pride—hypocrisy, self-love…" His dramatization of the Pharisee's prayer in the temple is brilliantly ironic:

GOD! I thank thee that thou hast formed me of different materials from the rest of my species, whom thou hast created frail and vain by nature, but by choice and disposition utterly corrupt and wicked.

Me, thou hast fashioned in a different mould.… I am raised above the temptations and desires to which flesh and blood are subject—I thank thee that thou hast made me thus—not a frail vessel of clay, like that of other men … (1, 6; Sermons, 1, 73).

Apparent through the irony is Sterne's view of man, "frail and vain by nature." Those critics who expect from an eighteenth-century Anglican clergyman a Calvinistic commitment to unrelieved depravity will, of course, find Sterne quite liberal; but those who understand that eighteenth-century orthodoxy was molded during the Restoration, in reaction to Puritan theology, will see that Sterne's view of man is essentially conservative—man, not irrevocably corrupt, but yet "frail and vain by nature … by choice and disposition utterly corrupt and wicked." Sterne's several suggestions of the existence of the innate moral sense must be reconciled with this view and not simply accepted as a deistic glorification of man's moral capability.47

The sermon "Pride" offers a more systemnatic attack on this vice of "little and contracted souls." On the one hand, Sterne argues with those "satyrical pens" that write "all mankind at the bottom were proud alike," for, he says, there are thousands of men of the most unaffected humility (IV, 9 [24]; Sermons, II, 33-34). On the other hand, Sterne supports these same "satyrical pens" insofar as "Pride is a vice which grows up in society so insensibly … that upon the whole, there is no one weakness into which the heart of man is more easily betray'd, or which requires greater helps of good sense and good principles to guard against" (Sermons, II, 34). Moreover, in explaining that the origin of pride is in meanness of heart, the vice of "little and contracted souls," Sterne can do no better than to quote "one of our poets … in that admirable stroke he has given of this affinity, in his description of a Pride which licks the dust." Sterne's attack on satire in this sermon is often taken out of context as indicative of his negative attitude toward the genre; no recognition is shown that in the same paragraph he gives a qualified assent to the satirists, and in the next quotes Pope's Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot to support his view.48 The use of satire to attack pride is suggested again in "Job's Account of the Shortness and Troubles of Life Considered" (II, 10). Sterne raises the question at the end of this survey of human misery of what purpose it serves to expose the dark side of human life, and finds it of great importance, since "the holding up this glass to shew him his defects …" cures man's pride and gives him humility—"which is a dress that best becomes a short-lived and a wretched creature" (Sermons, I, 124). When Sterne criticizes satirists, as he does in "Vindication of Human Nature" (I, 7) where he takes exception to those satirists who have "desperately fallen foul upon the whole species" (Sermons, I, 83), he is not necessarily aligning himself with the general attack on satire prevalent in the middle of the century.49 His obvious taste for the Augustans and our own understanding of them make it at least as possible that he was drawing a distinction between invective and satire; Dryden, Pope, and Swift would do no less.50

For Steme, as for Locke, the Latitudinarians, and the Augustans, excessive pride is inextricably linked to enthusiasm and dissent. The sermon "Humility," for example, becomes strongly polemical, reminding us of the strength of Methodism among the lower classes during the 1740's.51 Sterne again turns to irony:

However backwards the world has been in former ages in the discovery of such points as GOD never meant us to know, we have been more successful in our own days: thousands can trace out now the impressions of this divine intercourse in themselves.…

It must be owned, that the present age has not altogether the honour of this discovery;—there were too many grounds given to improve on in the religious cant of the last century; … when, as they do now, the most illiterate mechanicks, who as a witty divine said of them, were much fitter to make a pulpit, than get into one,—were yet able so to frame their nonsense to the nonsense of the times, as to beget an opinion in their followers … that the most common actions of their lives were set about in the Spirit of the LORD (IV, 10 [25]; Sermons, 11, 49-50).

The witty divine is obviously Swift, and Sterne begins to sound more like him with every stroke: "When a poor disconsolated drooping creature is terrified from all enjoyment,—prays without ceasing 'till his imagination is heated, fasts and mortifies and mopes, till his body is in as bad a plight as his mind; is it a wonder, that the mechanical disturbances and conflicts of an empty belly, interpreted by an empty head, should be mistook for workings of a different kind from what they are …" (Sermons, II, 51).

It is the sermon "On Enthusiasm," however, which most clearly reveals Sterne's use of Latitudinarian arguments to reject the pride of deism and dissent. Noting the deist's tendency to ignore revelation and the dissenter's contrary tendency to "destroy the reason of the gospel itself,—and render the christian religion, which consists of sober and consistent doctrines,—the most intoxicated,—the most wild and unintelligible institution that ever was …," he defines his purpose to "reduce both the extremes … to reason [and] … to mark the safe and true doctrine of our church …" (VI, 11 [38]; Sermons, II, 187). Above all, his theme is to prove the wisdom of "our sufficiency being of God"; his text is John 15:5: "For without me, ye can do nothing." Sterne's arguments for the necessity of revelation are traditional; his arguments against enthusiasm are also traditional, including an interesting linking of enthusiasm with Catholicism: "Already it [enthusiasm] has taught us as much blasphemous language;—and … will fill us with as many legendary accounts of visions and revelations, as we have formerly had from the church of Rome.… When time shall serve, it may as effectually convert the professors of it, even into popery itself,—consistent with their own principles …" (Sermons, II, 197). Throughout his attack on the extremes, Sterne persists in arguing the rational middle way, ending with a benediction which defines, exactly and emphatically, his orthodox religious position: "… I have little left to add, but to beg of GOD by the assistance of his holy spirit, to preserve us equally from both extremes, and enable us to form such right and worthy apprehensions of our holy religion,—that it may never suffer, through the coolness of our conceptions of it, on one hand,—or the immoderate heat of them, on the other;—but that we may at all times see it, as it is … the most rational, sober and consistent institution that could have been given to the sons of men" (Sermons, II, 198).

Article IX of the Thirty-Nine Articles, "Of Original or Birth-Sin," reads in part: "Original Sin standeth not in the following of Adam (as the Pelagians do vainly talk), but it is the fault and corruption of the Nature of every man, that naturally is engendered of the offspring of Adam; whereby man is very far gone from original righteousness, and is of his own nature inclined to evil, so that the flesh lusteth always contrary to the spirit.… "As Anglicans, both Swift and Sterne accepted this view of man's nature; it molded their vision of the life they wrote about and the form that that vision took. Article IX, to be sure, rejects the Calvinistic extreme of total depravity, and we search in vain for this view in either Sterne or Swift. Article IX does, however, make absolutely clear that man is not only susceptible, but indeed inclined, to sin; that he possesses, as Ernest Tuveson comments, "a positive tendency to do evil, a mysterious dynamic spirit of perversity for which there is explanation in Genesis and remedy in the Gospel"52 Such contrariness makes the teachings of the Christian church absolutely vital to man's ethical life; thus, for Sterne and Swift, morality is never to be separated from religion, wisdom never to be divorced from revelation. The faculty of reason is, of course, essential to man, but right reason is never contradictory to revelation. Reason is our most reliable faculty, but it too is rendered imperfect by the perverse tendency to evil which makes revelation our only certain means of salvation.

It is here in the Anglican view of willful and insistent perversity that the Augustan vision of man takes its literary foothold, for in the abuse of reason can be found the root of all religious, social, political, and literary aberrations, all the targets of Augustan satire. If in the religious life the doctrines of the Anglican church provided the norms against which deviations could be measured, the ordered universe suggested that in every other sphere of human endeavor, analogous deviations could be measured by analogous standards. Man's tendency to evil operated in literature as well as in religion, in polite society as well as in the state. It is not at all fortuitous that Swift uses a literary hack to satirize religious enthusiasm, or that the epic action of Pope's Dunciad should bring "The Smithfield Muses to the Ear of Kings."53 For the Augustan satirist, bad writing is a natural symbol for the moral corruption that demands and supplies it, and thus he has, ready at hand, the metaphorical and symbolic patterns which contribute so greatly to the tensions and complexities of his writings. As Geoffrey Tillotson notes, "for Pope, a bad author was to literature what a fool or a knave was to life."54

Finally, the relation of the Augustan vision to the Anglican sense of man's perverse inclination to evil suggests the norm by which, ultimately at least, its satire operated. As in religion an acknowledgment of the limitations of man necessarily implies a dependence on the authority of the Church, so in all other realms of conduct authority of some kind is indicated. A rigid codification of that authority—whether it be ecclesiastical, critical, or political—is rarely attempted, the authority more often than not revealing itself by its expressed sensitivity to deviations from its spirit rather than by a crystalization of its law. This may, in fact, prove the ultimate virtue of Augustan authority, at its best—that it refuses to be categorical, that it resists the systematic fallacy, to which Puritans and projectors alike were so prone. Augustan authority rather tends to invite man to look for the operation of reason or common sense or nature; to look for generality, moderation, and compromise; and to acknowledge his inherent weakness, limitation, and need for discipline, tradition, and control. The authority or norm, in other words, is not so much abstractly defined as it is pragmatically revealed or exposed: In each sphere of human activity it emerges, characteristically, from the satiric consideration of deviations. In short, more important to an understanding of the moral world of Augustan satire than any precise measure of its norm is the simple fact of the norm itself. The ultimate field of that norm is Anglicanism; not, however, some specific doctrine of Anglicanism violated, say, by Puritan enthusiasm, but the acceptance by the satirist (and his audience) of an orthodox Christian position, catholic enough to include Pope, as normative.

Similarly, I would suggest that deviations from the norm, while as various as man's contrary imagination, all spring essentially from the same source: man's prideful rebellion against his own limited nature and the authority placed over him to discipline his waywardness. I have already shown how Swift and Sterne agree in finding excessive pride at the root of both deism and dissent. If we turn to Gulliver's Travels, we note that pride is still the central concern. Edward Rosenheim, for example, writes: "I do not think the crucial concepts in Gulliver's Travels are 'man' or 'animal' or 'rational,' for all the obvious importance of these terms. In the Travels, as in the Tale, Swift's most profound intellectual commitments hinge, I believe, upon his conception of knowledge and of pride.…55 Kathleen M. Williams recognizes the same problem: "Swift frequently comments on man's strange inability, shared with no other animal, to know his own capacities, and the form which this inability most often takes … is a refusal to realise how narrowly we are bounded by our bodies, by senses and passions and by all the accidents of our physical presence in a material world."56 And we need not agree completely with Tuveson's reading of Book IV, to accept the validity of this view of Gulliver among the Houyhnhnms: "The dilemma and despair … [of Gulliver], in his inevitable failure to be able to emulate the patterns of perfection, in his failure to understand the whole situation, would be those of anyone who attempts to account for human nature without original sin."57 The refusal to recognize, because of pride, one's own limited nature; the refusal to accept, because of pride, the authority of what has been: These are the essential vices of Augustan satire. And conversely, the use of the reason to control pride and acknowledge one's limitations; the use of the reason to argue against pride the necessity for authority: These are the essential virtues by which these vices are measured and condemned. In the tense interplay of authority, pride, and reason, the Augustans defined their satiric vision; it is as well, I believe, the vision Sterne accepted and upheld in his satire, Tristram Shandy.


1 For the texts of the sermons I have used The Sermon of Mr Yorick, vols. I and II (Shakespeare Head ed., 1927), hereafter cited within the text as Sermons. I have also adopted Hammond's system of enumeration: Roman numerals indicate the volume; Arabic numerals, the number originally given to a sermon within that volume; and Arabic numerals within parentheses, the cumulative number of the sermon in the complete collection.

2Tristram Shandy's World: Sterne's Philosophical Rhetoric (Berkeley, 1954), p. 106.

3Ibid., p. 101.

4Laurence Sterne's Sermons of Mr. Yorick (New Haven, 1948), pp. 56-57. For a criticism of this view, see M. R. B. Shaw, Laurence Sterne: The Making of a Humorist, 1713-1762 (London, 1957), pp. 103-4.

5 Hammond, p. 56.

6 Cf. Arthur Hill Cash's similar defense for his use of the sermons in Sterne's Comedy of Moral Sentiments: The Ethical Dimension of the Journey (Pittsburgh, 1966), pp. 25-29.

7 Hammond, pp. 78-81.

8Ibid., p. 91; Hammond is quoting from Root, The Poetical Career of Alexander Pope (Princeton, 1938), p. 181. Cf. G. N. Clark, The Later Stuarts: 1660-1714 (Oxford, 1934), pp. 30-31: "This insistence on reason was characteristic of English theology from the time of Locke to that of Joseph Butler … of the orthodox as well as of the deists, and it was developed by the … latitudinarians…" That this is so only increases the importance of distinguishing between the orthodox position and the deistic heresy; cf. Sir Leslie Stephen, History of English Thought in the Eighteenth Century, 3rd ed. (New York, 1902), I, 74 ff.

9 Hammond, p. 92. Cf. S. L. Bethell, The Cultural Revolution of the Seventeenth Century (London, 1951), p. 17. Bethell corrects Clark's yiew that the Latitudinarians rejected revelation for reason.

10 Hammond, p. 92.

11From Puritanism to the Age of Reason (Cambridge, 1950), p. 42.

12Ibid., pp. 42 ff. That the Cambridge Platonists had a strong mystical strain need not concern us here; as forerunners of the Latitudinarians their fundamental contribution was their belief that reason could not contradict faith; that faith would only support reason; and that reason and revelation were one.

13Ibid., p. 67.

14 Cf. Bethell, pp. 17-18. Bethell's essay convincingly demonstrates the orthodoxy of the Latitudinarian position on reason and revelation.

15 See, especially, the discussion of revelation in Essay Concerning Human Understanding, IV, xviii-xix. Cf. Cragg, pp. 122-24.

16 Cf Stephen, pp. 95-97.

17 Chicago, 1961, p. 20.

18Ibid., pp. 20-21. See Quintana, The Mind and Art of Jonathan Swift (New York, 1936) and Swift: An Introduction (London, 1955). For Swift as a fideist see Kathleen Williams, Jonathan Swift and the Age of Compromise (Lawrence, Kan., 1958).

19 Harth, pp. 21-23. Of course, in the heat of polemics, it was just as easy to link Catholicism to deism, as Swift does in "An Argument Against Abolishing Christianity in England."

20 Harth, p. 23.

21The Prose Works, ed. Herbert Davis (Oxford, 1948), IX, 101.

22Ibid., p. 107.

23Ibid., p. 166.

24Ibid., pp. 161-62.

25Ibid., p. 159.

26Ibid., pp. 63-81. See especially his remarks on the proper language for a sermon, pp. 65-66; on the quoting of learned authorities, pp. 75-76; on the need to explore the mysteries of the Church, p. 77. Nothing in this advice is significantly different from Latitudinarian reforms in sermon-writing.

27Ibid., p. 164.

28Ibid., p. 244.

29Ibid., p. 113.

30 Hammond lists the parallel passages (pp. 151-52), but considers them insignificant (p. 83). Another of Sterne's sermons, "Self-Knowledge" (I, 4), borrows extensively from "The Difficulty of Knowing One's Self," published with Swift's sermons in 1744 or 1745, although considered today of questionable authorship. See Swift, The Prose Works, IX, 103-6, 349-62.

31The Prose Works, IX, 115. Landa is quoting from Essay Concerning Human Understanding, I, ii, 6.

32The Prose Works, IX, 150.

33Ibid., pp. 152-53.

34The Sense of Glory (Cambridge, 1929), pp. 144-45; ELH, XXXI (1964), 395-417.

35 Cash, pp. 400-404.

36Ibid., pp. 414-17.

37Ibid., p. 410.

38Ibid., p. 411.

39 In searching for a metaphor for the vanities of dignity, honor, and title, Sterne suggests the "Satyrist's comparison of the chariot wheels,—haste as they will, they must for ever keep the same distance" (I, 1; Sermons, I, 10). The satirist is Persius (V, 71-72).

40 Cf. "Pride" (IV, 9[24]; Sermons, II, 36); Sterne, in discussing the effects of pride on a weak brain, seems again to describe Tristram: The weak mind filled with pride is sure "to become the very fool of the comedy."

41 Five of the fifteen sermons of Volumes I and II deal in a central way with the vanity of this world: in addition to I, 1, see I, 2; II, 8; II, 10; II, 15.

42 See, for example, the strong statements in III, 6 (21); IV, 11 (26); V, 2 (29); V, 3 (30); V, 5 (32); V, 6 (33); VI, 7 (34); VII, 16 (43). V, 5 (32) is of especial interest in that it is a "30th of January" sermon, long an index of political views. Steme's attack on both "the guilt of our forefathers in staining their hands in blood," and the rebellion of 1745, suggests an essentially conservative position.

43 Cf. "The Character of Herod" (II, 9), where Steme suggests that although we are made in God's image, innocent and upright, we are creatures all too easily swayed by our passions, particularly our ruling passion (Sermons, I, 101-11).

44 Hammond, pp. 99-101.

45 Cf. "The Prodigal Son" (III, 5 [20]; Sermons, I, 227): "I know not whether the remark is to our honour or otherwise, that lessons of wisdom have never such power over us, as when they are wrought into the heart, through … a story which engages the passions.… Is the heart so in love with deceit, that where a true report will not reach it, we must cheat it with a fable, in order to come at truth?"

46 I, 6, and IV, 9 (24). See also, "Self-Examination" (II, 14; Sermons, I, 160-68).

47 Cf. "Vindication of Human Nature" (I, 7). This sermon, often cited as an example of Sterne's "soft view" of man, is no more than an orthodox argument against Hobbes' doctrine of universal selfishness. Sterne argues that although the brightness of God's image has been "sullied greatly" by the fall, and by our "own depraved appetites," yet it is a "laudable pride … to cherish a belief, that there is so much of that glorious image still left upon it, as shall restrain him from base and disgraceful actions …" (Sermons, I, 82-83). The orthodoxy of this "divine residue" and its distance from any sort of deistic or Shaftesburian moral sense should be apparent.

48 "Beauty that shocks you, Parts that none will trust,! Wit that can creep, and Pride that licks the dust." An Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot, 11. 332-33; the lines describe Sporus.

49 See Bertrand A. Goldgar, "Satires on Man and 'The Dignity of Human Nature,"' PMLA, LXXX (1965), 535-41.

50 Cf. "Evil-Speaking" (II, 11), and "The Levite and his Concubine" (III, 3 [18]). In the latter the attack on satire is actually an attack on the false wits of the age who set up as libelers.

51 The satiric reaction to Methodism is surveyed in Albert M. Lyles, Methodism Mocked (London, 1960). The Jacobite scare in 1745 suggests one reason for the anti-Catholicism of the sermons; in short, Sterne's Anglicanism was facing essentially the same challenges Swift's faced a quarter century before.

52 "Swift: The Dean as Satirist," UTQ [University of Toronto Quarterly], XXII (1952-53), 370. See also, Donald Greene, "Augustinianism and Empiricism: A Note on Eighteenth-Century English Intellectual History," ECS [Eighteenth Century Studies], 1 (1967), 39-51.

53 See Aubrey L. Williams, Pope's Dunciad: A Study of Its Meaning (Baton Rouge, 1955). Of this "analogy," Williams writes: "The inundation of England by purveyors of bad art, and the untutored or degenerate taste which hailed their literary efforts, was a 'conjuncture' of events suggesting a general slackening in the moral and social fibre of the nation." Artistic deterioration, he adds, is the "metaphor by which bigger deteriorations are revealed" (p. 14).

54On the Poetry of Pope (Oxford, 1938), p. 35.

55Swift and the Satirist's Art (Chicago, 1963), p. 220.

56 "'Animal Rationis Capax.' A Study of Certain Aspects of Swift's Imagery," ELH, XXI (1954), 196.

57 Tuveson, p. 369. See also Samuel H. Monk, "The Pride of Lemuel Gulliver," Sewanee Review, LXIII (1955), 48-71; Edward Wasiolek, "Relativity in Gulliver's Travels," PQ [Philological Quarterly], XXXVII (1958), 110-16; James Brown, "Swift as Moralist," PQ, XXXIII (1954), 368-87. Brown comments at one point: "… the fault is that of pride, the condition ignored is Original Sin, the final result is vicious action—moral chaos" (p. 381).

Richard A. Lanham (essay date 1973)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 13041

SOURCE: "The Self-Serving Narrator," in his Tristram Shandy: The Games of Pleasure, University of California Press, 1973, pp. 93-130.

[In the following essay, Lanham contends that seemingly random interruptions of the main narrative by the protagonist/narrator of Tristram Shandy derive from classical examples of digression.]


Tristram's fondness for philosophically justified digression has bemused his admirers into overlooking the older narrative pattern from which the digressions depart. For all his joking about Locke's history-book, Tristram was writing one himself, an intellectual autobiography. His proceedings will be those of a classic chronicler, he declares early in Book I:

He will have views and prospects to himself perpetually solliciting his eye, which he can no more help standing still to look at than he cari fly; he will moreover have various

Accounts to reconcile:
Anecdotes to pick up:
Inscriptions to make out:
Stories to weave in:
Traditions to sift:
Personages to call upon:
Panegyricks to paste up at this door …

To sum up all; there are archives at every stage to be look'd into, and rolls, records, documents, and endless genealogies, which justice ever and anon calls him back to stay the reading of:—In short, there is no end of it;—for my own part, I declare I have been at it these six weeks, making all the speed I possibly could,—and am not yet born:—I have just been able, and that's all, to tell you when it happen'd, but not how;—so that you see the thing is yet far from being accomplished. [1, xv, 37]

However jocular this declaration of purpose, and however much he later departed from it, it shows Tristram looking back to [a] kind of Herodotean narrative.… The classical historians had shown him a very different kind of pattern, one where narrative gave way at regular intervals to rhetorical occasion. Whether fictionalized public debate, oracle, formal character, apostrophic moral reflection, or narrative digression in the high style, these interruptions all offered opportunity for indirect, ironical commentary on the chronicle they interrupted. Such an interruption—Thucydides' Pericles praising the Athenians, Livy's Hannibal rallying his troops, or Sallust's Cato exhibiting his antique yet sterile virtue—hardly digresses in the usual sense of the word. It stands as part of the narrative rather than ornament to it. Tristram puts this narrative lesson to two uses. He borrows the integral digression for himself; he borrows the narrative-digression-narrative-digression pattern for his Father and Uncle Toby. The chronicles of both proceed by narrative descriptions, comment plus generalization, alternating with the highly dramatic set pieces that make Tristram Shandy so easily excerptable. Tristram, introducing Toby, will tell us of his great modesty, then later show it in action, show it transmuting, for example, Le Fever's embarrassing manner of death into a tableau incapable of making a young person blush. Or he will let his father develop one of his "thousand little sceptical notions of the comick kind," in an apostrophe, then contrast notion and subsequent behavior. The reader, much as with Thucydides, Livy, or Sallust, must keep on his toes, continually compare telling and showing. The comparison often aims for irony. As with the historians (and with Shakespeare the historian) we become self-conscious about the rhetorical occasion, develop a feeling for the backstage. In this narrative tradition, context is crucial and excerpting the primal curse. So with 7m-tram Shandy. The sentimental bouquet-gatherer, like Gielgud reciting posies from Shakespeare, is bound to misunderstand and distort. Such bouquet-picking leads to curiously parallel misconceptions, too: Coleridge praising Shakespeare's language of natural description in Venus and Adonis but missing its bawdily comic context, and Bagehot praising Sterne's fidelity to plain scenery and plain feeling but repudiating its context. Watkins calls Sterne "the first real impressionist among English novelists," and others have pointed to a connection with Richardson's mastery of immediate detail which might make him the second. But all these estimations,1 to be useful, ought never to lose sight of the narrative context in which such a Wordsworthian eye for the daisies of feeling recur. In Tristram Shandy, the public occasion always has a private frame.

Tristram makes his game from this classical method of narrative. Two changes signal a shift to the game sphere. He juggles two or three of these narrative-speech progressions at the same time. He digresses for pleasure, not from narrative need. If we were to try, impossibly, to disentangle the narrative threads of Tristram Shandy, we might find a narrative-speech-narrative-speech pattern for Walter Shandy, one for Toby, perhaps one for Yorick. Tristram's game, or part of it, is to juggle them, to let them fall finally into a meaningful superposition, one atop the other. Yorick must dive for a chestnut when we expect Walter to dive for the mysteries of name-giving; Tristram must kiss the critic's hand when the context leads us to expect him to kiss another part of the body; Toby, amidst the birth pangs that produce Tristram headfirst, must discourse on not hurting a hair on a fly's head. This alternation creates a Thucydidean pattern raised to the third power. Tristram controls the interweaving. He is no jocular Joyce, however, only pretending to trust God for the second sentence. Behind the pretense of chaos may lie careful chronology, but not always a master intelligence. Process literature this novel is, vaguely realizing itself toward a termination coincident with the author's conscious intention. Sterne's preconscious voice, Tristram, confesses throughout the novel both that he really is helter-skelter and that he only seems so, that the digressions interrupt the main story, are the main story. Confessions aside, he does not proceed at random. But his consistent principle in digression and juggled narrative hardly satisfies critical expectation. Tristram does as he pleases. Yet if, as is generally recognized, his game is the novel itself, should it surprise that his playing seeks play's characteristic reward? He is not a Shandy for nothing.


Tristram thinks literary genre a kind of game. Inventing a new type, the song of himself, he can invent the rules for it. None others apply: "In writing what I have set about, I shall confine myself neither to his rules, nor to any man's rules that ever lived" (I, v, 8). What more natural than his choosing the rules under which he would rest most easy? He thus stipulates at the outset a relationship with his hobby different from that his Father and Uncle use. Their responses are mechanized by their obsessions. He intends that his shall be liberated. Questions arise. Who is Tristram's opponent? In what kind of game does one player make up such rules as he pleases, and seemingly as he goes along? His opponents can be only two: Circumstance and Us. Tristram has trouble telling his story but the trouble forms part of the story he wants to tell. "One would think," he tells us himself, "I took pleasure in running into difficulties of this kind, merely to make fresh experiments of getting out of 'em—"(VIII, vii, 545). It is so. Circumstance proves an obstruction, more often than not, of his own contriving. He represents himself as involved in a Herculean effort to comply with standards, to preserve above all narrative and thematic continuty. A few lines before those just quoted:

I declare, I do not recollect any one opinion or passage of my life, where my understanding was more at a loss to make ends meet, and torture the chapter I had been writing, to the service of the chapter following it, than in the present case.

But the struggle really dramatized is not his compliance with the regular rules of any one genre. He does not manfully wrestle with Art. Instead, he dramatizes Ease warping Art to its own particular purposes. Stedmond comes close to Tristram's real business.

Tristram as clown-author draws attention to the very real obstacles which lie in the path of artistic accomplishment, emphasizes the human frailties of even the greatest authors, and creates a critical awareness in the reader of some of the goals which authors have sought; in the process of all this he is perhaps calling into question the attainability of these goals, or even the desirability of attaining them.2

But this makes Tristram Shandy into a more ambitious critical treatise than it is. Tristram deposes only that conventional artistic purpose is not his, that he lives not for Art but for Pleasure. In its pursuit he scorns his second possible opponent, Us, as much as the recalcitrant Circumstance so much supposed to intimidate him. Self-conscious as he is, poseur to his fingertips, still he makes us play his game. It is a new one. We try to figure out what the rules are. He remains to us cavalier. Follow me if you can. His particular pleasure lies elsewhere—in himself. In this sense the novel is not (pace Traugott) rhetorical at all. It turns in on itself. Tristram pleases himself. His game is an ilinx, a self-imposed dizziness. At this game one can play. No audience needed. The implication of this stands central to our interpretation of Tristram Shandy. Both Tristram and his novel are autoerotic not rhetorical. They aim not to persuade but to please themselves. We may admire their world, but we are not asked to join it. In a limited but very real sense neither novel nor narrator cares what we think.

When Tristram seems solicitous about his reader, he has more often than not his own designs in mind. He is a man of many morals. Part of his game with the reader is to offer a constant farrago of philosophic reflection and moralizing, challenging him to take his ironic or serious pick. We are told that mirth is at the center of the universe and mocked for our grave faces. At the same time, within the unprepossessing Silenus box of jesting lurks real philosophic wisdom. We seek it out. And are mocked for that. We are damned if we do and damned if we don't. This strategy denies us a single point of view in the novel, a philosophic control as it were, and then continually alerts us to the need for one. Thus we must constantly search for a key, a basis for interpretation, and feel silly for doing so. As Burckhardt prefaces his try, "To look for the 'law' of Tristram Shandy is one of the least promising enterprises in criticism."3 The strategy tells the critical history of the novel. We accept one or the other of the various morals offered—sentimentality (the Victorians), stoical humor (Stedmond, Piper), the vanity of learning (Jefferson), the artificiality of literary convention (Lehman), the vanity of words and need for fellow-feeling (Traugott), the dependability of moral sentiment and orthodox religion (Cash)—and interpret the rest of the novel as supplementary if it agrees, ironic if it does not. The sentiment was for a long time seen as pure and unalloyed but that day, I take it, is now over. When Le Fever is killed off, we weep as self-conscious, ironical weepers should. Sentiment may still be, in Toby, the book's center, but Traugott's penetrating analysis of its rhetoric calls that and all—since it calls words—in doubt. A radical skepticism seems now the only general position and a dependence on the goodness of feeling the only path out of a vast perplexity.

The reader, then, is deliberately made uneasy, and his unease backlights Tristram's perfect ease. Tristram knows his way around in his own world perfectly. He should. He has made it to please himself. The reader's search for a key to the novel is really a search for a way to enjoy a pleasure—living in a world one has made, one has (Kenneth Burke's term) earned by a full understanding—similar to Tristram's. We may put this search into two frames of reference. We may say that the reader is offered a critical and rhetorical problem (understanding the novel) whose solution will lead to a moral awareness (the moral wisdom inside the Silenus box), a final point of view. Or we may say that the reader is offered a posture of puzzlement and discomfort. He does not know whether to laugh or cry. He must always analyze first. A point of view will make him again easy because he will once more be able to respond spontaneously. His naïveté will have been restored. If we think of Tristram's deliberate puzzlement of the reader (that is, think of Tristram Shandy) as Tristram's game, and of ourselves as invited to play it in order to gain the freedom and pleasure of the novel's world, do we not have an analogy with Toby's character, with the movement from absorption in game to a liberation of the feelings, a true spontaneity? We are, that is, invited to follow Toby's example. We too will be laughed at, but we will gain, in a hopefully more sophisticated way, what Toby has gained, a universe where our feelings are reliable, can be depended upon.

Thus it is a mistake, I think, to entertain the idea of fellow-feeling, social sympathy, as an external point of view brought into the novel—or even found there, internal—which will lead us out of the maze Sterne's radical discounting of language creates. It seems rather something you earn by finding your way out of the maze, penetrating the novel's rhetoric. We must understand before we can feel. What we must understand, as we see it in Yorick and the Shandy brothers, is that pleasure, satisfaction, is the necessary precondition to the kind of selfless feeling for others on which a true society—rather than merely a collection of individuals—must be based. Toby has undergone this training unaware. For us it will be self-conscious. Thus that the novel is sentimental, rather than full of sentiment, is to be expected. One of the lessons Tristram teaches us is that when we feel for others, we do so largely for the pleasure of the feeling. The Victorian objection that none of Sterne's sentiment is sincere must be very much to the point. It is in the nature of feeling, we are thus told, to be self-serving. When we are invited to observe ourselves feeling, and enjoying feeling, for other people, we are not to conclude that this is a satirical reflection on our hypocrisy. There is nothing hypocritical about taking pleasure. Furthermore, it is the necessary precondition to spontaneous feeling. Sentimentality must precede sentiment. We will feel for others only when we have felt enough for ourselves.

A great deal has been made of Tristram Shandy as a deliberate attempt to point out the inadequate narrative method Sterne saw in the eighteenth-century novel and to remedy it. Thus Fluchere argues:

La digression est plus qu'une exaltante affirmation de liberté, elle devient le docile instrument de capture d'un réel malévole et fuyant, elle explore les domaines secrets de l'espace et du temps, de la connaissance et du mystere.4

Is it impertinent to ask what are these secrets of time and space? What are the victories of Sterne's narrative method? Apart from the penetralia of free association, how much do the digressions expand our ideas of time and space? Very little. To make Sterne a prophet of fictional technique seems equally uncalled for. If conventional form had a symbolic value for him it must have been a general one—the Censor, the Public Life's discipline. Plot equals Duty. The novel's response is Tristram's. Too coy, too concerned with dramatizing his breaking the rules, he avoids ceremoniously the discipline of form. He does it, we might add, not to philosophize about communication, though he invites us to do this, but because he enjoys it. Sir Walter Scott, we remember, had called Tristram Shandy "no narrative but a collection of scenes, dialogues, and portraits, humorous or affecting, intermixed with much wit, and with much learning, original or borrowed." And a modern historian of Sterne's commentators says flatly: "No one can argue sensibly that the novel is of a piece."5 Are we not now at a point where we can admit the soundless of this view (lasting after all as it has almost from Sterne's day to this) and still see a single pattern, a unifying force and psyche, in Tristram and the kind of hobbyhorse he rides? Might we not see the struggle between philosophical self and rhetorical self allegorized by the struggle between conventional and "easy" narrative?


We might begin our discussion of Tristram's vertigo with the famous Shandean dash. It has come to represent Steme's allegiance to a reality greater than ordinary chronological and syntactical narrative can provide. One of a graduated series of interruptions the novel offers, does it not incarnate the pleasure-principle much rather? The breakings-off, often on a scale larger than the Shandean dash comprehends, can, from Tristram's point of view, hardly be called a principle of interruption at all. They keep us off balance; this, positively stated, they do for him too. He, as he says himself, continually rushes about. Not to fetch a metaphor from too far, we might call him a juggler. Centered in his poise, in his search for it, stands a fondness for keeping several things going at once. We must know him as a literary borrower, see his sources as sources, so as to relish their orchestration into his theme. (We recall Steme's fondness for vertiginous sources, Rabelais for example.) Tristram does not make over a novel's regular components into a new vehicle for new space and time. He but juggles them. A misplaced preface, two chapters left empty to be filled later make a virtuoso point. Watch! Tristram pulls it off. He drops nothing. And a gamesman, too, we see him checking rein on the novel's other hobbies, insuring none runs away. So, too, with the vertinginous flight from Death which parades his bleeding lungs across Europe; how else does it fit the Yorkshire Epic of Shandy Hall than as part of Tristram's virtuoso display? So also Tristram's (probably we should say Sterne's) continual sensitivity to the motions of his own body—blood flowing, heart pounding. To the ilinx we can also refer his interest in gesture and in physical balance and (reaching for the left-hand pocket handkerchief with the right hand) imbalance. Finally might we not think the periodic-two-volume appearance of the novel as Tristram's attempts to regain inner balance, as an act (in both senses) which symbolized poise regained? From this viewpoint, all Tristram's obstacles make sense as self-induced. Such are the rules, the artificial barriers of any ludus with a single player. Tristram plays solitaire in a real sense, a game by himself with his life and what he thinks of it which, for his own purposes, he lets us share. We should not press Tristram's self-sufficient isolation too far. Yet, so generally received is his character as complacent stooge for his audience, the point should be made.

Tristram tells us that he will continue his regular installments until he dies. And, with perhaps an interruption,6 it seems really to have been Sterne's design. He poses his fictional self a permanent challenge to continue, to keep up the improvising forever. Each will have his opinion on how well the later volumes answer the challenge, but the challenge itself galvanizes the book as hobby. Its failure to present a theme—for the Life and Opinions conception expands to gas before our eyes—challenges the improvisational power increasingly. Will he be able to go on? If you have no theme, no subject, you will end up like Lyly, like Nash, like Tristram, talking about yourself. Will your personality be adequate to sustain it? To control it? Again the game is an effort at balance, control. To intensify the game, Tristram not only puts the regular parts of the novel in confused motion,7 he holds our attention on the verbal surface of the novel,8 even on the physical components of the book, putting all these at odds to deny us a firm point of view.

Steme's wit constituted, Traugott tells us, "a description of experience in terms of unlikely relations."9 Surely as one such description, Tristram plays his wit on the interfaces between the prose styles he not only juggles but parodies. Without going out of bounds we might remark in passing the configuration into which Tristram's game here falls. At the center of his utterance ranges the sermo cottidianus, the colloquial style that is Sterne's great glory. It is, as Glaesener shrewdly observed in his 1927 TLS essay, a de-Latinized prose. One surrounded, we might add, by Latinized ones. It functions as stylistic control, the symbol of Tristram talking—and writing—as fast as he can—but always in imaginative control. His agility in moving from style to style, from curse to mock-heroic invocation to Tristrapaedia, to travelbook, to high pathos, always with his own style running through and informing the others, displays yet again his virtuoso, self-pleasing balance. In this effort to preserve its balance and complementarily destroy ours, Tristram Shandy much resembles some Elizabethan prose fictions, Euphues for example in one way, The Unfortunate Traveller in another.

According to Howes, Coleridge was "the first critic to recognize so clearly the sharp distinction between the humor to be found in Sterne's characters, who display a thorough knowledge of human nature, and the more questionable humor to be found in Sterne's style and manner."10 This effort to split off Tristram from his novel came partly from misunderstanding the kind of game he plays with the reader, and more importantly with himself, but more from misapprehending Tristram the bawdy joker. To this much misunderstood role, our consideration of Tristram must now turn.

Part of the philosophizing that Sterne's comedy has undergone in recent years has been a conception of the bawdry as Shakespearean, reductive. It aims to puncture man's inflated sense of motive and self, remind him of his body. "In his use of the equivoque he is close kin to Shakespeare, most of whose jollier puns—lucky for him—are no longer understood."11 So too, Fluchere: "Elle est donc un instrument docile entre les mains de l'auteur comique et du satiriste, qui en usent liberalement pour rabaisser par le rire l'orgueil de l'homme a des proportions raisonnables."12 And when it is not pointing to the limitations of nature, its affair is a still more serious marking out the boundary conditions of language. "Puns and double meanings emphasize the unstable nature of language, its dynamic qualities which are so difficult to control. One can never really be sure of saying what one means."13 (In a world so Jung and easily Freudened as that of Tristram Shandy, though, might it not be the other way around? You say what you. really mean no matter what you say.) Instead of shocking for cheap effect, leering at the reader to make sure he gets the joke (Thackeray's old complaint), Steme is cultivating with his reader the carefully controlled self-conscious relationship Traugott finds at the heart of Tristram Shandy's rhetoric. The reader is made to expose his own false pudicity, and, moving it aside, to grasp Tristram's principal topic, his sexual misfortunes. Thus the social hypocrisy surrounding sexuality is exposed and a new, more healthy decorum opened out. The method by which this is done is a broad range of equivocation, from scholarly equivalents that sterilize what they describe (os pubis, argumentum ad rem) to general words (nose, hornworks) bearing a particular and well-known innuendo, to very general words (thing, it) which can bear any amount of innuendo.14

Persuasive as this argument is, and restorative of Steme to his proper place in the first rank of comic writers, it may mistake if not Steme's seriousness, his kind of seriousness. What seems to separate Sterne's bawdry from its Shakespearean counterpart is its fleshlessness, its manifest disinclination to arouse. As C.E. Vaughan remarks shrewdly of the bawdry in Tristram Shandy: "It works, as it were, in a void which he has created specially for the purpose and of which he alone, of all writers, holds the secret. In this dry handling of the matter, the affections of the reader are left unenlisted and unmoved."15 By "void" I take him to mean context. Two of the bluest in the novel, Phutatorius with his chestnut and the Abbess of Andouillet with her novice, are also among the most revealing of Steme's unique kind of bawdy joking.

The incident of the hot chestnut is, rather like the chestnut itself, dropped into a seemingly irrelevant parenthesis. (It begins in IV, xxiii, 302 ff.) At the beginning, Walter Shandy wonders to Yorick if Tristram's disastrously mistaken christening can be reversed; at the end, Kysarcius delivers his after-the-Visitation-Dinner paper on the subject. And in between Sterne does his best to obscure the relevance of his frame. The brothers Shandy go to the Visitation dinner in a chapter of ten pages (IV, xxiv) which Tristram has torn out of the book. Walter tells us that he hates great dinners (IV, xxiii, 302) before we know to which dinner he refers. Yorick tears up his Visitation Sermon to light pipes with before we know that he has preached it. We are in the midst of Didius's discussion of Tristram's naming blunder (IV, xxix, 326) without that previous managing of the conversation (IV, xxiii, 302) which Yorick desiderates. And when the dinner is over, Walter is "hugely tickled" with the subtleties of the disputation but, so far as we can see, no wiser than when he set out. We are invited to reassemble the scattered bones of the fruitless errand around the dramatic interlude that "Zounds!" introduces, the only part of the parenthesis narrated in ordinary chronological time.

The loose strands are manifestly there to reweave, of course. The indecorum in Phutatorius's breech breaches the social decorum of the whole company. Indecorum of another sort has been on Tristram's mind. It was why he left out Chapter XXIV:

-—But the painting of this journey, upon reviewing it, appears to be so much above the stile and manner of any thing else I have been able to paint in this book, that it could not have remained in it, without depreciating every other scene; and destroying at the same time that necessary equipoise and balance, (whether of good or bad) betwixt chapter and chapter, from whence the just proportions and harmony of the whole work results. [IV, xxv, 315]

We are thus to add to our sense of the chestnut's social, a sense of its literary, indecorum. And, as is often the case with Sterne, his insistence on its being out of place invites us to redefine the scene until it has a place. To this theme of indecorum we are thus made aware of, we must add another, the uses of eloquence. Yorick puts his sermon to use by tearing it up into tapers. And after the interruption, Phutatorius is counseled to put a sheet or two of his own recently reprinted de Concubinis retinendis to use as a fomentive dressing for his scorched membrum virile. Sandwiched between these two illustrative incidents we have an example of true eloquence, one that does indeed mock both Yorick's eloquence which has preceded and Kysarcius's which is to follow. "Zounds!" It interrupts Yorick's depreciation of his own candied utterance:

I have undergone such unspeakable torments, in bringing forth this sermon, quoth Yorick, upon this occasion,—that I declare, Didius, I would suffer martyrdom—and if it was possible my horse with me, a thousand times over, before I would sit down and make such another: I was delivered of it at the wrong end of me—it came from my head instead of my heart—and it is for the pain it gave me, both in the writing and preaching of it, that I revenge myself of it, in this manner.—To preach, to shew the extent of our reading, or the subtleties of our wit—to parade it in the eyes of the vulgar with the beggarly accounts of a little learning, tinseled over with a few words which glitter, but convey little light and less warmth—is a dishonest use of the poor single half hour in a week which is put into our hands—'Tis not preaching the gospel—but ourselves—For my own part, continued Yorick, I had rather direct five words point blank to the heart—. [IV, xxvi, 317]

It also deflates it. Not even five words are needed. When unspeakable torment really fathers eloquence, one will do. Tristram interrupts this interruption to quash Toby, brought to his feet by "point blank," and to alert us to still another kind of indecorum, this time religious.

—when a single word, and no more, uttered from the opposite side of the table, drew every one's ears towards it—a word of all others in the dictionary the last in that place to be expected—a word I am ashamed to write—yet must be written—must be read;—illegal—uncanonical—guess ten thousand guesses, multiplied into themselves—rack—torture your invention for ever, you're where you was—In short, I'll tell it in the next chapter. [IV, xxvi, 317-318]

Tristram protests too much, of course. Zounds was not precisely God's Wounds, even on such an occasion. But the rhetorical climax is thus properly and fully built. Indecorum and Eloquence come together in a word. The explosion occurs on carefully prepared thematic ground.

Sterne has remforced this thematic structure with some resolute punning that yokes together decorous and indecorous scene, true and false eloquence. Amid the canonical transactions and the port, for example, Phutatorius's "whole thoughts and attention were taken up with a transaction which was going forwards at that very instant within the precincts of his own Galligaskins, and in a part of them, where of all others he stood most interested to watch accidents" (IV, xxvii, 319). Within the Cathedral precinct, then, we have another kind of precinct altogether, and in place of an accident of the logical sort (something inessential to the conception of an object—a good many float around this dinner table) quite another kind. When the deplorable accident happens, the metaphor chosen to describe it puns on the physical manner of the accident: "it so fell out, however, that one was actually sent rolling off the table" (IV, xxvii, 320). Tristram begins a pun on "door" when he describes what the chestnut fell into: "—let it suffice to say—it was that particular aperture, which in all good societies, the laws of decorum do strictly require, like the temple of Janus (in peace at least) to be universally shut up."

Whether or not it was, like the temple of Janus, far more open than shut, we are not told. It seems likely, however, that we are to extend the comparison in a bawdy way. Phutatorius's breeches, like the temple doors, are closed in peace but opened for war. "The neglect of this punctilio," a cliche we are invited to literalize tells us, "had opened a door to this accident." From accident as sudden misfortune, Tristram turns to philosophic accident, uncaused occurrence. It may have a meaning, after all, and one related to Phutatorius's treatise de Concubinis retinendis. We are meant to keep this in mind until, when Yorick owns to a sin he did not commit, the episode's discussion of accident becomes fully clear. Meanwhile, Tristram's use of the accidents of language continues. The gap in Phutatorius's breeches, to Tristram—as a historian determined not to dip his pen in the controversy—resembles a gap in a manuscript account, a "hiatus." A literally apt cliche once again tells us that "Phutatorius was not able to dive into the secret of what was going forwards below." And when Yorick picks up the chestnut Phutatorius has flung down, the injured party takes so irrevocable a conviction that he looks on his injurer "that Euclid's demonstrations, could they be brought to batter it in breach [the exclamation, we should recall Tristram telling us, was definitely not canonical], should not all have power to overthrow it." And the soul of the jest is explained when we see the literal "chucking the chestnut hot into Phutatorius's "become "a sarcastical fling at his book." A book, we are again reminded with a pun, which "had inflamed many an honest man in the same place." Thus the "master-stroke of arch-wit" becomes literally as well as figuratively a stroke. Yorick, however, was not guilty of it, we are almost-assuredly told. His sense of humor was too "tempered" to make it hot for an enemy in this way. But he will not stoop to explain why he stooped for the chestnut ("he could not stoop to tell his story to them"). He thus takes the rap for casting the chestnut into the aperture: "This heroic cast produced him inconveniences in many respects." Cast of mind and cast of hand become one. The mental and the physical thus word-playfully conflated come together most heroically when Phutatorius's injury is treated by the sanative particles floating on a page from his own book, hot, or rather cool, off the press from round the corner. The scene reminds one of the Wife of Bath, tearing from Janekyn's book the leaves that describe her own literary ancestry, the leaves from which she has been created. Literal and imaginative reality are, for comic effect, brought to the same level. Just as Yorick's sermon fires his listeners by lighting their pipes, Phutatorius finds his book "best to take out the fire" of the chestnut.

The reader ought not fear, in such a universe of bawdy convertibility, that he will read in sensu obscaeno what was innocently meant. A calculated synergism of innuendo, in fact, invites him to look for—and find—bawdry everywhere. It is tempting to see in this surface pattern of wordplay a manifestation of that ineluctable human physicality that the chestnut's genial warmth asserts with more drama. Low and high come yoked together only, and Sterne can pivot on a pun from one to the other; the bawdry makes an essentially philosophical statement. Tempting but, I think, finally wrong. For the presiding deity of Sterne's wordplay is not Truth but Ease. The butt of the joke, after all, is Phutatorius. No one has accused him of neglecting the flesh. He needs no Mercutio in his garden. Nor does Walter Shandy, whose philosophy includes the Ass Kicking. Nor Tristram, who tells us in a pun (IV, xxv, 314) that the sinister turn of his own and all the Shandys' lives, has come from that bend sinister on the coach. Nor does any Petrarchan gush need ventilation. The pattern of punning, like the wordplay of other sorts, leads nowhere outside the context of the scene itself. It aims only to make us comfortable within it. It caters to a mind on vacation from philosophy, a mind at play. The innuendo doubtless must be classed as false wit, fancy rather than judgment, scheme rather than trope. Yet few can have wondered, with a bawdy pun, "by what perverseness of industry" it was ever found. The sense of endless connection may be a device of low wit but it is infinitely reassuring. Once used to it, we follow Steme's transitions with ease, cease to worry over the narrative discontinuities. We are no longer in a world we never made and no longer, therefore, worry about that world's unfathomability. Rather than probing the infinite undependability of language from a philosophical point of view, Sterne is demonstrating how it can become a dependable, pleasure-giving thing to man—from an imaginative point of view. Sterne finds it, in fact, one of man's great weapons against chance as well as being expressive of it. Undependable, not to trust, language certainly is. But in this passage Tristram turns the proposition around. Language helps us get something back from the deceiving universe. It goes far, in this episode, toward creating a comic fitness that counterstates the social and literary indecorum. By this means, Sterne offers, not a grin-and-bear-it comic stoicism but an assertive, free-swinging comic world where justice works with joyful gusto. A new kind of eloquence (traditional, though, in its combining of word and gesture into convincing ethos) and a new kind of decorum emerge from the scene, from the careful structure leading up to, and surrounding, "Zounds!"

The principal actor in the scene is not Phutatorius but Yorick. He both creates the scene's comedy and defines it. In the epigram from Encheiridion V which stood on the title page of Volumes I and I,16 Sterne gives fair warning of a concentration on attitude rather than event. And when the event stands out as really crucial, it tends to disappear altogether. So it is here. We are led to believe, but not all the way to belief, that Yorick did not drop the hot chestnut into Phutatorius's breeches. It seems that he did not, but it would have been very like him to do so. Why not let him father the joke? Would it be any the less funny if he had nudged the chestnut? It seems so. What Yorick does, finally, is capitalize on chance. If we follow Sterne's lead that the falling-in was accidental, we should not follow it that the picking-up was innocent. If Yorick does not pull the prank, at least he does not deny it. And by refusing to deny it, he really allows the joke to take place. The burn is false wit, Hazlitt's second level of the three levels of the laughable.17 It is Freud's lower level, the harmless rather than the tendentious joke.18 By taking credit for the event, lending chance a human (and aggressive) motive, connecting Phutatorius's sins with, and philosophizing about, the member receiving the injury, Yorick performs his role as jester. By stooping to pick up the chestnut, he gives sense to chance, domesticates it, makes use of it to restore an ethical balance, both for Phutatorius individually and for the whole company and its exalted speculations. He performs, that is, on the narrative level the role the wordplay performs on the literal—or imagistic—level. He takes a chance event (a hot chestnut falls where it ought to; two words share a same, comically appropriate—with, hence, its degree of "ought-to-"—sense) and capitalizes on its accidental humor to make wit. Yorick, then, teaches us what to do with chance. Capitalize on it for purposes of jest. The incident through which he does it thus becomes clearly related to this context. The brothers Shandy go to the dinner to find out what they can do about the terrible name chance has given Tristram. They are not the wiser for it, but Tristram clearly is. For his name stands for the peculiar fate life has given him and capitalizing on this fate for comic purposes is precisely what he is doing in this episode and throughout Tristram Shandy.19 From a knight of sadness he must, through his book, become a knight of joy. He must renounce his name. Thus the narrative level of the episode becomes an allegory of the relation between true and false wit. Real accident causes the one; true wit is created when accident becomes, is made to become, expressive of man's purpose.

There is, then, a lesson of wit to be learned here as well as one in—as Sterne lets us know in plain words—"How finely we argue upon mistaken facts" (IV, xxvii, 319). This second has been often pointed out. Walter Shandy again philosophizes in excess of the stimulus. But, if we may for a moment play the simpleminded reader of satire, what would we have him reason? "Merciful Heavens! There goes another one of those hot chestnuts! Will Phutatorius never learn?" Walter is set up here to be put down so that we do not notice Tristram using essentially the same device, a high style for a low subject, an apparatus and nomenclature of learning to describe a scene for which, also, "there is no chaste word throughout all Johnson's dictionary." The tradition of learned wit has for a long time been recognized in Sterne,20 but Walter's function as lightning rod for it seems less familiar. The juxtaposition is one between an unaware comic disproportion of style and subject (Walter Shandy's) and an aware one (Tristram's, and ours). Here, too, the structure of the bawdry seems to suggest a difference between true wit and false. Sterne does not seem to be saying that "Zounds" and the mistaken responses it provokes show, really, how finely we argue on mistaken facts. For we see the company arguing really finely on a mistaken fact when they hold Yorick guilty for tipping in the chestnut. Both judgments, so far as we know (alas, Poor Locke), are factually mistaken, but one is much truer than the other. One makes beautiful comic sense, the other poor serious sense. We are asked to choose to look at life comically and, so far as things have meaning for men, meaningfully, or to look at life seriously and mistakenly. Sterne aims to point, that is, a difference not only between true wit and false but between wit and judgment, between seeing differences and seeing resemblances.

Why, one might ask, this particular chance? Sterne seems to suggest an explanation when he makes Yorick's stooping for the chestnut echo Othello's familiar falling for the handkerchief.

It is curious to observe the triumph of slight incidents over the mind:—What incredible weight they have in forming and governing our opinions, both of men and things,—that trifles light as air, shall waft a belief into the soul, and plant it so immoveably within it. [IV, xxvii, 322]

Iago says of his trap for Othello:

I will in Cassio's lodging lose this napkin,
And let him find it. Trifles light as air
Are to the jealous confirmations strong
As proofs of holy writ.
[111, iii]

This is the particular chance which character has prepared for, which we can turn to our own purposes. No good at reasoning, we are better at opportunism. The contrast here (comedy makes sense of one accident—Zounds—while serious philosophy fails with another—Tristram instead of Trismegistus) looks very like that between the Knight's Tale and the Miller's Tale. The moral would seem to be the same. Sharp-eyed living will do more for you—Dr. Johnson kicking the stone to refute Berkeley—than formal ratiocination. Chance and character are likely to lend to a meaningless world a meaningful pattern. If we do not know what to ask for, still we get what we deserve. This trusting to chance fits nicely with Tristram's professed method of composition, which trusts to a higher but nearly as inscrutable power.21

The incident of the chestnut, then, itself provides the answer to the question of the narrative parenthesis that encloses it: What do you do if by chance you have been named, as it were, sadly? You establish a comic decorum, a comic justice. You make a joke because a joke makes sense of the world. Yet all this does not add up to a philosophical bawdry. For the bawdry is there, like the rest of the highly conceited rhetorical structure, to educate the reader only in how to get pleasure. If we must call it philosophical, it is Hedonistic, not comically Stoic. Steme gets down in the bawdy ditch not to philosophize on what a piece of mixed work is man but because that is where the jokes are. It is Steme's dirty joking that has kept alive his much discussed learned wit. If we come to the day when sexuality is as public as eating, Tristram Shandy will be as dead as Euphues. So will Rabelais, who pinned his learned comedy to the same star.

If, with the chestnut, Sterne dramatized the role of the jester, in the affair of the Abbess of Andouillets and her novice he illustrates the role of the jest. The narrative parenthesis is wedged into a context of swift coach travel. It begins with Tristram going on at a tearing rate toward Fontainebleau:

Still—still I must away—the roads are paved—the posts are short—the days are long—'tis no more than noon—I shall be at Fontainbleau before the king. [VII, xix, 502]

And when it ends shortly after, he is still on the way:

What a tract of country have I run![VII, xxvi, 510]

And, in the next sentence and chapter, he has arrived at Andouillets and is describing it. The episode thus sandwiched is appropriately enough about getting on. It is a blue one indeed. The Abbess comes on stage in a syntactical confusion that renders her part of the geography of Burgundy and Savoy as well as part of the history of European muscular therapy, all in a single sentence:

The abbess of Andouillets, which if you look into the large set of provincial maps now publishing at Paris, you will find situated amongst the hills which divide Burgundy from Savoy, being in danger of an Anchylosis or stiff joint (the sinovia of her knee becoming hard by long matins) and having tried every remedy first, prayers and thanksgiving; then invocations to all the saints in heaven promiscuously—then particularly to every saint who had ever had a stiff leg before her—then touching it with all the reliques of the convent, principally with the thigh-bone of the man of Lystra, who had been impotent from his youth—then wrapping it up in her veil when she went to bed—then cross-wise her rosary—then bringing in to her aid the secular arm, and anointing it with oils and hot fat of animals—then treating it with emollient and resolving fomentations then with poultices of marsh-mallows, mallows, bonus Henricus, white lillies and fenugreek—then taking the woods, I mean the smoak of 'em, holding her scapulary across her lap—then decoctions of wild chicory, water cresses, chervil, sweet cecily and cochlearia—and nothing all this while answering, was prevailed on at last to try the hot baths of Bourbon—so having first obtain'd leave of the visitor-general to take care of her existence—she ordered all to be got ready for her journey: a novice of the convent of about seventeen, who had been troubled with a whitloe in her middle finger, by sticking it constantly into the abbess's cast poultices, &c.—had gained such an interest, that overlooking a sciatical old nun, who might have been set up for ever by the hot baths of Bourbon, Margarita, the little novice, was elected as the companion of the journey. [VII, xxi, 504-505]

Everything in the passage arouses our suspicion—stiff joints, hard knee, long matins, remedy, prayers, invocations, the thigh-bone of the man of Lystra, the secular arm, all the healing nostrums (Heaven knows the key to them), the poor novice's middle finger. And it may be that we get the general outline of the relationship involved. If so, it is hard to see how its bawdiness can be philosophized. Part of man's necessary awareness of his physical self? Not exactly. Part of a satire on the hypocrisy of society in insisting that such a natural relationship be hidden? This does not seem quite what Tristram has in mind. A satire on the Church? Again, nothing in the passage indicates it. To what end, then does the bawdry tend? Perhaps the very surplus of innuendo indicates what the narrator is about. For much of the innuendo really points in vain to a bawdy equivalent. It really makes no sense that the Abbess has the stiff leg, or has a name that puns on little sausages. And all the funny-enough treatments for this irrelevantly suggested male member lead nowhere. If a stiff joint represents what she wants, why is the whole elaborate catachresis organized around the healing of the stiff joint? Unless, very perhaps, the healing represents an act of intercourse, the particular cure for a stiff joint which the Abbess seems most to desire. But, one might reply, this is not a metaphysical poem. The innuendo was not meant to withstand this kind of analysis. This is precisely the point. It is infinitely, but very vaguely, suggestive. One cannot build upon it a philosophical justification of the life of the flesh. The language does not yoke spirit and flesh together in a resigned yet hopeful Stoic vision. It yokes them together merely for the fun of playing with words. Look, for example, at the opening three and a half lines, where, by a mistaken pronoun reference, the Abbess is confused with the territory in which she resides. Shakespeare does much the same thing in Venus and Adonis when Venus compares herself to a richly landscaped park and Adonis to a deer invited to sport therein.

"Fondling," she saith, "since I have hemmed thee here
Within the circuit of this ivory pale,
I'll be a park, and thou shalt be my deer:
Feed where thou wilt, on mountain or in dale;
  Graze on my lips; and if those hills be dry,
  Stray lower, where the pleasant fountains lie.
"Within this limit is relief enough,
Sweet bottom-grass, and high delightful plain,
Round rising hillocks, brakes obscure and rough,
To shelter thee from tempest and from rain.
  Then be my deer, since I am such a park.
  No dog shall rouse thee, though a thousand bark."
[lines 229-240]

The same thing but not at all the same kind of thing. The wit, for Shakespeare, comes from the, as who should say, extensive firmness of his comparison. The earthy effictio is spelled out—and relevant—to the last detail. Sterne's comparison, so far as I can see, is relevant to nothing at all. Its basis is not intellectual correspondence but the ease of irrational comparison. If the pronoun reference is a plain mistake, so much the better. For the whole passage appeals to a deliberately unintellectual easiness of bawdy convertibility. Once one sets up an environment of bawdy equivalency like this, anything goes. Surely this is precisely why Tristram sets it up. Sexual word play is more pleasurable than any other kind because it releases the rational censor on the meaning of words more fully than any other kind. They are free, in this kind of context, truly to mean whatever we want them to mean. The sexuality is not so important as freedom from the censor. Thus we see, I think, the reason for the curious fleshlessness of Tristram's innuendo. His aim is not sexual titillation but primal, childlike verbal pleasure, and the first is primarily the means to the second. In the freedom that such an indefinitely encouraged punning engenders, we can see the peculiar nature of Tristram's context, of the void in which his bawdy joking takes place.

The passage aims initially then at giving us pleasure, not equipping us with a Stoic resignation. It is true that Tristram invites an indirect moral response by directing our attention to what Piper calls his trial by prudery: he must tell us what two words will make a French post-horse go and these two words are unmentionable in polite company. He makes a great fuss about this, telling us first that:

Now as these words cost nothing, I long from my soul to tell the reader what they are; but here is the question—they must be told him plainly, and with the most distinct articulation, or it will answer no end—and yet to do it in that plain way—though their reverences may laugh at it in the bedchamber—full well I wot, they will abuse it in the parlour: for which cause, I have been volving and revolving in my fancy some time, but to no purpose, by what clean device or facete contrivance, I might so modulate them, that whilst I satisfy that ear which the reader chuses to lend me—I might not dissatisfy the other which he keeps to himself. [VII, xx, 503]

His fingers bum to try, he tells us. And later, in the high style, just before the verbal consummation: "—and how to tell them—Ye, who can speak of every thing existing, with unpolluted lips—instruct me—guide me—" (VII, xxiv, 509). No one makes so much of contravening convention if he really wants to preserve it, and if he is making an ironic gain at the reader's expense in destroying it, I fail to see what that gain is. What he is really doing is setting up a series of artificial obstacles to the saying of the two words, so that our pleasure, when we hear them, will be that much the greater. Far from mocking the reader's false modesty (his two artificially separated ears) Tristram takes pains to erect precisely this false modesty where none stood before. And, again, his pleasure is not in decorum per se but in the pleasure to be gained from wittily destroying it.

The destruction comes in solving the Abbess's problem. Her mules will not get on. The prospect generates a brief passage of innuendo in which the wish fathers the thought.

We are ruin'd and undone, my child, said the abbess to Margarita—we shall be here all night—we shall be plunder'd—we shall be ravish'd—

—We shall be ravish'd, said Margarita, as sure as a gun.

Sancta Maria! cried the abbess (forgetting the 0!)—why was I govern'd by this wicked stiff joint? why did I leave the convent of Andouillets? and why didst thou not suffer thy servant to go unpolluted to her tomb?

O my finger! my finger! cried the novice, catching fire at the word servant—why was I not content to put it here, or there, any where rather than be in this strait?

—Strait! said the abbess.

Strait—said the novice; for terrour had struck their understandings—the one knew not what she said—the other what she answer'd.

O my virginity! virginity; cried the abbess.

—inity!—inity! said the novice, sobbing. [VII, xxii, 508]

The intercourse thus promisingly begun is interrupted by the need to get the mules moving and then resumed in a verbal model for sexual intercourse which solves the nun's problems—how to say these two words politely, get going, and satisfy their sexual frustrations—and Tristram's as well:

All sins whatever, quoth the abbess, turning casuist in the distress they were under, are held by the confessor of our convent to be either mortal or venial: there is no further division. Now a venial sin being the slightest and least of all sins,—being halved—by taking, either only the half of it, and leaving the rest—or, by taking it all, and amicably halving it betwixt yourself and another person—in course becomes diluted into no sin at all.

Now I see no sin in saying, bou, bou, bou, bou, bou, a hundred times together; nor is there any turpitude in pronouncing the syllable ger, ger, ger, ger, ger, were it from our matins to our vespers: Therefore, my dear daughter, continued the abbess of Andouillets—I will say bou, and thou shalt say ger; and then alternately, as there is no more sin in fou than in bou—Thou shalt say fou—and I will come in (like fa, sol, la, re, mi, ut, at our complines) with ter. And accordingly the abbess, giving the pitch note, set off thus:

Abbess, Bou—bou—bou


Margarita, Fou—fou—fou


The two mules acknowledged the notes by a mutual lash of their tails; but it went no further.—'Twill answer by an' by, said the novice.

Abbess, Bou-bou-bou-bou-bou-bou

Margarita,—ger, ger, ger, ger, ger, ger.

Quicker still, cried Margarita.

Fou, fou, fou, fou, fou, fou, fou, fou, fou.

Quicker still, cried Margarita.

Bou, bou, bou, bou, bou, bou, bou, bou, bou.

Quicker still—God preserve me! said the abbess—They do not understand us, cried Margarita—But the Devil does, said the abbess of Andouillets.

The function of the jest here lies in its sudden and simultaneous solving of all these problems by a verbal device. The formula of verbal complementation devised can stand, I think, as a model for the function of the jest. It gets us out of uncomfortable and otherwise unsolvable situations in a pleasurable way. Embarrassment orchestrates into duet. That Tristram has made up most of the barriers over which the joke triumphs says no more than that he has authored the joke. That we cooperate in thus consenting to put on stage a false modesty few of us (it is part of the novelist's relation with the reader's private self) really possess, is simply to say that we are the willing audience all jokes require. Here again we should stress not the undependability of words but quite the reverse. They are infinitely serviceable, the indispensable buffer between man's insatiable desire and unyielding circumstance. They help us get on and enjoy getting on. It is no accident that the episode is preceded by a "chance" allusion to the word "gay" and "spleen" and is followed by puns on slow-rising (VII, xxvii, 514), Saint Optat, and finally the famous reference to what, garters in hand, he did not do with Jenny, and the rubric VEXATION upon VEXATION (VII, xxx, 518-519). Tristram is determined to preserve his gust for joy midst the anguish of his sexual frustrations, and his chief mechanism for so doing is precisely a joke like this, in which language, rather than sublimating, substitutes for sexual satisfaction.

It is a mistake, I think, to apply to a passage like this the canons of Augustan wit. It is false wit that reigns, no doubt, one made up of superficial schemes. Yet the intellectual criteria that Johnson applies to Cowley, for example, precisely misfit this occasion. Tristram is not trying to satisfy the standards of intellectual connection and consistency but to evade them. Logically, there is no solution to any of the problems. Tristram does not clarify a problem, as a metaphysical poet would do. He dodges it. Watkins compares Sterne to the metaphysicals: "Undoubtedly Steme frequently indulges in equivocation for its own sake, like the metaphysicals in their conceits."22 In their elaboration, Steme's conceits may resemble those of the metaphysicals, but the force of his wit seems to move in an opposite direction. Sterne aims, or at least Tristram aims, not at coherence but at pleasure. "That wit is the most refined and effectual," Hazlitt tells us, "which is founded on the detection of unexpected likeness or distinction in things, rather than in words."23 But what if, as here, words make the mules go better than corn? What if, as with Tristram, words are things? In a sense, then, the Victorians were right about Tristram's sexual innuendo. It is for its own sake. It does come more from the head than the heart. High seriousness cannot redeem it. Once again the Victorian objection isolates the central issue, Tristram's final loyalty to pleasure. The infinitely manipulatable world of punning exists not to teach us a lesson but to put Tristram, with all his deficiencies, at ease.

In the "Poetic Categories" chapter of Attitudes Toward History, Kenneth Burke draws a pertinent distinction between burlesque and satire.

The writer of burlesque makes no attempt to get inside the psyche of his victim. Instead, he is content to select the extemals of behavior, driving them to a "logical conclusion" that becomes their "reduction to absurdity." By program, he obliterates his victim's discriminations. He is "heartless." He converts every "perhaps" into a "positively." He deliberately suppresses any consideration of the "mitigating circumstances" that would put his subject in a better light.… Hilariously, he converts a manner into a mannerism. The method of-burlesque (polemic, caricature) is partial not only in the sense of partisan, but also in the sense of incompleteness. As such, it does not contain a well-rounded frame within itself; we can use it for the ends of wisdom only insofar as we ourselves provide the ways of making allowances for it; we must not be merely equal to it, we must be enough greater than it to be able to "discount" what it says. [pp. 54-55]

Though often using the methods of burlesque, Sterne ranks in these terms a satirist. But, we frequently learn, his satire is peculiarly gentle. We can now see why. Tristram supplies a central frame of reference, the games of pleasure; we can see, if he takes a swipe at Locke, just why he does it. But the satire, because of its game matrix, can never toughen: the object is not to attack the victim but to amuse Tristram. Tristram, if a satirist, is a self-serving one. To such an attacker, every victim is an additional source, not of rage and exasperation, but of pleasure. When someone lurks, immune to such use, just outside the game sphere, as with Mrs. Shandy (with, Tristram tells us, all the other Shandy women), no pleasure comes from the attack and it turns dull and flaccid. Such people, and only such, cannot bask in the novel's genial tolerance of private amusement. They seem scarcely alive. The standards for life, those that supply satiric point of view, are the standards of game. The only character who really meets them (alone in his self-consciousness about motive) acknowledges to himself that his motive is pleasure. We readers class ourselves as equals or victims, depending on our willingness to recognize this essential motive in him, the tale he tells, and ourselves.

We have perhaps ignored ourselves, ignored Tristram's audience. Of course he is an actor, harrows his resources of feeling to benefit the audience.24 And he keeps his eye continually on it. But its demands, like all others, he just as continually tries to avoid, dramatizes his trying to avoid. His relation to us is like his relation to everything else. What fun can be gotten from us? Critics find Tristram's, and the novel's, relation to audience a pretty metaphysical matter. Fluchére, for example:

C'est un aveu implicite que le livre n'existe pas en soi, dans l'impersonnalite indifferente de l'oeuvre d'art, mais qu'il recevra son sens et pourra remplir sa fonction d'apres l'accueil qui lui sera fait.25

In this view, we function as audience by restoring to narrative and spiritual coherence Tristram's skillful chaos. He digs the hole; we fill it up. But this spoils the game! Misapprehends what Tristram is doing! He invites us to search for the center of the Silenus box but, as with Rabelais, from this center emerges, not the stern voice of coherence, but the Abbey of Theleme. Fay ce que vouldras. To try putting the pieces together, is to become audience for the Sermons, not Tristram Shandy, become one of the satirized. Surely our role points rather to admiring Tristram's performance than to weeping for a world where such desperate enactments need to take place. We should admire him not for his success in reenacting the blooming and buzzing confusion of an absurd world but for his success, as a precocious child in the garden of Western culture, in pleasing himself. The narrative structure of Tristram Shandy imitates his play: the pleasure-principle at work on the principles of narrative itself.

How shall we criticize, appraise such a structure? The standards of "process literature" Northrop Frye has pointed out 26 as very different from those for the finished, balanced, classical creation. How does this difference apply to Tristram Shandy?

The question of structure in Tristram Shandy may be discussed, I think, without reference to the question of whether the novel is a finished whole, for what we need to know is not whether the book might have been continued, or even whether it reaches a stable point of rest, but what principle, if any, controls its seemingly erratic and aimless progression.27

If we can agree that Tristram's ilinx, his dizzying pursuit of pleasure, provides such a center, where do we stand? How can such an artifact be criticized? The easy answer simply asks, "Did you enjoy it?" In other words, Tristram Shandy's critical reputation answers our question. It worked. Tristram won. Sterne won. The book sold. No negligible reply this. Tristram's concern for sales is in the book. Sterne's concern for fame is in the Letters, in everything he ever wrote. Tristram Shandy is improvisational, one of those seminal books about nothing in particular, a rhetorical gesture for fame. The reader's central role in the novel is to buy it. The book's major function is to sell. These categories, crass and simpleminded, fit the novel well. There has been a great fuss about the genre of Tristram Shandy.28 Surely part of its ludus is farce, a great expandable skin stuffed (enfarced) with a mishmash that pleased Sterne and Sterne thought would please. The book is full of topical appeals.29 "Of course the sentimental setpieces are there to be enjoyed," we might surprise the old joker in saying. "What else are they for, Pray?" No small part of the book's power—and critical reputation—comes from palming off these period-piece rehearsals so well. After all, we know what self-conscious sentiment, what sentimentality is because of Sterne.

But a document does not join the immortals by incidental appeal, however well honed. If, like the Victorians, we find little else, then let "historical interest" describe it. The modern view sees the novel philosophizing about communication, about language. Tristram is a loser, an antihero, doomed to failure but bracing up. Reading the novel as we have we must emphasize instead Tristram's success. He pleases us. He pleases himself. And he can do the first because he has done the second. His interest for us will lie precisely in the revelation his game makes about the nature of all games and, more largely, of all human motive. They return, finally, to pleasure. They cherish no theme beyond it. They are ends in themselves. "True play," as Huizinga says, "knows no propaganda; its aim is in itself, and its familiar spirit is happy inspiration."

One perennial perplexity remains to plague us. When do we say Tristram and when do we say Sterne? Laurence Sterne left tracks in his books as perhaps no other novelist ever has. Walter, Toby, Tristram, Yorick, may all be manifestations of their Creator,30 but they are certainly manifestations of their creator, and he was a role-player to the last well-dramatized, long-foreseen breath. "The world has imagined," the man tells us, "because I wrote Tristram Shandy, that I was myself more Shandean than I really ever was."31 But there is simply no telling how Shandean he really was. "Really was" simply slides off an old actor like Sterne whose essence remained pure potential, the power to be anyone. Even the context of the letter whence the just-cited passage discounts it. It is a formal letter, to a nobleman. Sterne is his polite self, the self of the last letters to the Jameses, very much on his p's and q's. As a working distinction, we talk of Tristram when we mean the narrator of Tristram Shandy or confine our discussion to the novel. Speaking of the novel as written in a certain time and place, we may use Sterne. And so too of what Tristram does not see, his character as satirized.

From among Sterne's perpetual roles, it is useful to precipitate out two at this point, jester and clergyman. Sterne, like Samuel Clemens, found the mask essential, essentially liberating. And it is tempting to see, in Tristram, a discrete mask. To analyze such a mask in Freudian terms, for example, comes so naturally we feel uneasy. The sublimated impotence, the castration complex on every page, now the theme of bastardy Professor Rader has suggested, which would allow Tristram to kill off his father in the story (if Yorick is his father), the importance of infancy and prenatal experience—all come to mind as naturally as breathing. I am not competent to pursue this line of investigation. But it is a miracle someone has not done it a bit better than de Froe. Such an analysis would tell us much of Sterne and perhaps even of the novel.32 I wish to suggest a different train of reasoning, grouping Tristram with the other jester's mask, Yorick, to contrast it with the authentic clergyman's mask. Had we been Sterne's contemporary, we could have seen more clearly the nature of his dual statement about mankind. For the Sermons appeared along with Tristram Shandy and were, through the figure of Parson Yorick, confusingly tied to the novel. In the Sermons Parson Yorick allows his auditors a conventional moral identity. Whatever motive may be, none doubts, in that world, what it should be. Man has a discrete self for which he is totally responsible. The purpose there is frankly rhetorical, to move the will by playing upon the heart. This, precisely, the Tristram mask does not do. Tristram Shandy does not teach a conventional ethical lesson, or an absurdist one either. It explicitly denies us a conventional moral identity, makes actors of us all. It makes no statement finally about what we ought to do, but makes a final one about why we do it. It reduces motive to pleasure. It denies us the final moral responsibility high seriousness requires, denies us the tragic self. Tristram is the mask created to scoff at this self. It laughs at our perpetual need to clothe our pleasures with moralizing. It counterstates the Sermons. It constitutes Sterne's secular statement. It stands for the self and its needs as the Sermons stand for the other. The resemblances between the literary techniques of the two statements are incidental; the difference is fundamental. Sterne the man may well have denied that Tristram Shandy works this way. And the commentators seeking high seriousness of whatever kind will certainly do so. But the logic of the narrative structure Tristram creates seems inescapable. In a game world, the only thing you cannot deny is game, and its only yield and motive is pleasure.

Tristram-Sterne thus takes his place in a distinguished group of narrative masks: The Ovid of the Ars Amatoria; Chaucer the Canterbury Pilgrim and the narrator of Troilus and Criseyde; Rabelais; the Cervantes of Don Quixote if not of the Novelas Ejemplares. Like all these nonlovers he is a commentator and observer, a student of ritual, interested more in the physical structures built on feeling and ideas than in either by itself. And like all, he finally finds the dramatic metaphor for society to prevail, and the role metaphor for individual identity. Whether the attitude toward the play and the roles is loving or savage, whether the observer is amused or horrified, the same reductive attack on the nobility of our motives gets underway. We start shrinking. We begin to feel that particular paralysis creeping over us which perhaps Tristram's game of frenetic activity exists to combat, the paralysis of motive-seeking. Why, if we only play games, bother to play them? What is worth doing? And what framework creates worth? These are Hamlet's questions and Hamlet's paralysis. Tristram Shandy's close and yet puzzling relation to that character and that play suggest some answers.


1 They began early. Alan B. Howes cites a Mary Rerry's praise of Sterne's minute painting of detail—like a Dutch genre-painting—in 1789. (Yorick and the Critics: Sterne's Reputation in England, 1760-1868 [New Haven, 1958], p. 108.

2 John M. Stedmond. The Comic Art of Laurence Sterne (Toronto, 1967), p. 68.

3 Sigurd Burckhardt, "Tristram Shandy's Law of Gravity," ELH, XXVIII (1961).

4 Henri Fluchere, Laurence Sterne, de l'homme a l'oeuvre (Paris, 1961), p. 248.

5 Sir Walter Scott, Sir Walter Scott: On Novelists and Fiction, ed. loan Williams (London, 1968), p. 74; Lodwick Hartley, Laurence Sterne in the Twentieth Century (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1966), p. 67.

6 Sterne wrote in 1766 (to Edward Stanley?) that he meant to stop Tristram Shandy after the ninth volume and "begin a new work of four volumes, which when finish'd, I shall continue Tristram with fresh spirit." (Laurence Sterne, Letters of Laurence Sterne, ed. Lewis P. Curtis [Oxford, 1935], p. 284.)

7 Look, for example, at the motion implied in Alan D. McKillop's description of Bobby's death: "Thus we have in the space of a few chapters concurrent actions which taken together give the impression of depth or extension, interruption and frustration, futile rhetoric, -imperfect communication, surprising cause-effect sequences, unpredictable transitions and associations of ideas, trivial physical symbols for great things, and the basic idea of the machine." (The Early Masters of English Fiction [Lawrence, Kan., 1956], p. 200.)

8 See Robert A. Donovan, The Shaping Vision: Imagination in the English Novel from Defoe to Dickens (Ithaca, N.Y., 1966), p. 90.

9 John M. Traugott, Tristram Shandy's World: Sterne's Philosophic Rhetoric (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1954), p. 28.

10 Howes, Yorick and the Critics, p. 116.

11 Ernest N. Dilworth, The Unsentimental Journey of Laurence Sterne (New York, 1948), p. 109.

12 Fluchère, Laurence Sterne, de l'homme à l'oeuvre, p. 433.

13 Stedmond, Comic Art, p. 44.

14 I am paraphrasing here William Bowman Piper's excellent discussion of "Tristram's Trial by Prudery," Laurence Sterne (New York, 1965), pp. 66 ff.

15 C. E. Vaughan, "Sterne and the Novel of His Times," Cambridge History of English Literature, X (Cambridge, 1913), 51-74.

16 "It is not actions, but opinions concerning actions, which disturb men."

17 "The essence of the laughable then is the incongruous, the disconnecting one idea from another, or the jostling of one feeling against another.… The accidental contradiction between our expectations and the event can hardly be said, however, to amount to the ludicrous: it is merely laughable. The ludicrous is where there is the same contradiction between the object and our expectations, heightened by some deformity or inconvenience, that is, by its being contrary to what is customary or desirable.… The third sort, or the ridiculous arising out of absurdity as well as improbability, that is, where the defect or weakness is of a man's own seeking, is the most refined of all, but not always so pleasant as the last, because the same contempt and disapprobation which sharpens and subtilises our sense of the impropriety, adds a severity to it inconsistent with perfect ease and enjoyment. This last species is properly the province of satire." (William Hazlitt, Lectures on the Comic Writers, I—"On Wit and Humour," The Collected Works of William Hazlitt, ed. A. R. Waller and Arnold Glover [London, 1903], VIII, 7-8.)

18 The whole passage, in a way, rehearses the development of the joke as Freud describes it in Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious (trans. James Strachey, 2d ed., [New York, 1960], pp. 137-138): "We are now able to state the formula for the mode of operation of tendentious jokes. They put themselves at the service of purposes in order that, by means of using the pleasure from jokes as a fore-pleasure, they may produce new pleasure by lifting suppressions and repressions.… The joke … from its beginning to its perfecting … remains true to its essential nature. It begins as play, in order to derive pleasure from the free use of words and thoughts. As soon as the strengthening of reasoning puts an end to this play with words as being senseless, and with thoughts as being nonsensical, it changes into a jest, in order that it may retain these sources of pleasure and be able to achieve fresh pleasure from the liberation of nonsense. Next, as a joke proper, but still a non-tendentious one, it gives its assistance to thoughts and strengthens them against the challenge of critical judgement, a process in which the 'principle of confusion of sources of pleasure' is of use to it. And finally it comes to the help of major purposes which are combating suppression, in order to lift their internal inhibitions by the 'principle of fore-pleasure.' Reason, critical judgement, suppression—these are the forces against which it fights in succession; it holds fast to the original sources of verbal pleasure and, from the stage of the jest onwards, opens new sources of pleasure for itself by lifting inhibitions. The pleasure that it produces, whether it is pleasure in play or pleasure in lifting inhibitions, can invariably be traced back to economy in psychical expenditure, provided that this view does not contradict the essential nature of pleasure and that it proves itself fruitful in other directions."

19 See, in this connection, Piper's discussion of the role of chance in the novel, Laurence Sterne, pp. 49-51.

20 D. W. Jefferson, "Tristram Shandy and the tradition of Learned Wit," Essays in Criticism, I (1951), 225-248.

21 It fits, too, and nicely indeed the play whence Yorick fetches his name. For Hamlet has a plan no more than Tristram, plays a desperate opportunism (what else can he mean by "Let be?") and, like Yorick, gets credit for a revenge chance puts in his way.

22 W. B. C. Watkins, Perilous Balance (Princeton, 1939), p. 124.

23 Hazlitt, Lectures on the Comic Writers: I—"On Wit and Humour," p. 22.

24 See Martin Price, To the Palace of Wisdom (New York, 1964), p. 337, for a fine statement of this case.

25 Fluchere, Laurence Sterne, de I'homme a l'oeuvre, p. 235.

26 Northrop Frye, "Toward Defining an Age of Sensibility," in Eighteenth Century English Literature, ed. James L. Clifford (New York, 1959).

27 Donovan, The Shaping Vision, pp. 113-114.

28 See Hartley's amusing collection of conjectures (Laurence Sterne in the Twentieth Century, p. 22).

29 Not in the narrow sense. Sterne rightfully boasted to Dodsley that he had gotten all the local detail out of the book.

30 Stedmond, Comic Art, p. 53.

31 Sterne, Letters, pp. 402-403.

32Tristram Shandy seems, in fact, almost a book about sublimation and the whole Freudian theory of literature.

Works Cited

Burke, Kenneth. Attitudes Toward History. Rev. ed. Boston: Beacon Press (Beacon Paperback), 1961.

——. Counter-Statement. 2d. ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press (Phoenix Paperback), 1957.…

Cash, Arthur J. Sterne's Comedy of Moral Sentiments: The Ethical Dimension of the "Journey." Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1966.

——. "The Sermon in Tristram Shandy." ELH, vol. XXXI (1964).…

Glaesner, H. "Laurence Sterne," TLS (1927) pp. 361-362.…

Lehman, B. H. "Of Time, Personality and the Author, A Study of Tristram Shandy: Comedy." Studies in the Comic, University of California Publications in English, vol. III, no. 2 (1941).…

Traugott, John, ed. Laurence Sterne: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall (Spectrum Paperback), 1968.

——. Tristram Shandy's World: Sterne's Philosophic Rhetoric. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1954.…

Susan G. Auty (essay date 1975)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 12677

SOURCE: "Smollett and Sterne and Animal Spirits: Tristram Shandy," in her The Comic Spirit of Eighteenth:Century Novels, Kennikat Press Corp., 1975, pp. 119-47.

[In the following essay, Auty observes that in Tristram Shandy, Sterne poked fun at the foolishness of human nature even as he acknowledged the pathos of the human condition.]

The tenacious resistance of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gent., to the stroke of Posterity's hatchet-man, Oblivion, is striking testimony to the special strength and resilience of this great comic work. Ever since Johnson made his famous pronouncement on its fate, "Nothing odd will do long. Tristram Shandy did not last," distrust and amazement have been voiced by critics who begrudge the presence of Sterne's work alongside the other great productions of the eighteenth century. Praise for the many handles that Sterne so obligingly offered the critics "to suit their passions, their ignorance or sensibility"—the satire, the sentiment, the wit—is tempered with astonishing frequency by a suggestion that the walking stick itself is rather slight, a frail object incapable of supporting the wonderful variety of shapes and styles that it has apparently been designed to do. That is, the comedy that informs the whole work has been duly recognized and noted in passing, and Sterne has been given credit as a humorist, but the comedy has rarely been appreciated as the source of its endurance and special character.

Until recently, much of Tristram Shandy's uniqueness, and Sterne's comic freedom, has been mistaken for mere eccentricity and accordingly judged as trivial. The value of everything that Sterne found "Laugh-at-able" in his own way has been found wanting in exact proportion to the heartiness of Sterne's laugh. Even Ernest Dilworth, in attempting to counter Sterne's reputation as an eminent sentimentalist, comes to the unfortunate conclusion that he is a great, if typically shallow, jester: "It was part of the genius and limitation of Sterne that he saw best what was within a few feet of his nose; if he knew no dimensions in depth, he was master of the subtleties of the facade; his only interior was a hearthside one, and the. firelight made a merry place, miles from the dark corners of the room.… The difference between Steme and other shallow men is that he made comic art of what is called a disability."10 If Mr. Dilworth did not aspire to being somewhat of a jester himself, one could only gasp incredulously at his final distinction. A comic genius simply may not, like the Tale Teller's "wise" man, be content with the "films and images that fly off one's senses from the superficies of things," one cannot be Swift's gullible fool and be alive to the irony of man's inherent absurdity and nobility, as the great jester is. Dilworth did not appreciate Sterne's comedy any more than did his predecessors.

The more recent critical trend, however, has been to disparage comedy that is not rooted in a satirical criticism of life. Thus, admirers of Sterne's novel have been defending his reputation with evidence of his corrective intentions and corrosive. wit. John Stedmond was among the first to put forward the suggestion that Tristram's Life and Opinions might be a satiric appeal to the audience for discrimination and taste, similar to Swift's Tale. In such an assessment, the comic appeal for tolerance and amusement of Tristram's self-made mess is apparently judged to have insufficient significance. In a later work, however, Stedmond indicates his disapproval of "apologists for comic works [who] often cite their satiric elements, their 'thoughtful' laughter."11 Yet the critical attitude that colored Stedmond's early views is no less in evidence today. A powerful temptation to see Tristram Shandy as a satire of the same order and potency as Tale of a Tub has led Melvyn New to misunderstand the essential comedy of the work, to reject Sterne's humorously oriented intellect. He sees Tristram as Sterne's attack "against human pride, which creates out of its own barrenness magnificient edifices to its own passions and follies and complex systems bearing no relationship to reason and reality."12 By not allowing himself to feel the force of Sterne's delight in man's passions, follies, and systems, which are some of the ways open to man to fight against the natural shocks of life, New fails to see that Sterne's portrayal of the Shandy family is not at all bitter or corrective in intent. While mocking the hopeless attempts, either through reason or sentiment, to triumph over illness, impotence, death, and all the other hazards of life, Sterne is also positively admiring the perseverance of mankind in the face of all-too-certain failure. It is this admiration that New fails to set against his interpretation of Sterne's mockery. In Tristram Shandy, Sterne looks at the world critically and yet tenderly, and while making the nature of life's perplexities painfully clear, he is, above all, concerned with endorsing man's struggle with those perplexities: therein lies the richness of the comedy and the novel.

The strange mixture of satire and admiration that gives rise to comedy in Tristram Shandy is imaged in the character of Yorick, whose own outlook is partly satirical, partly sentimental, and who is described by Tristram with an indulgence that is both ironic and loving. In this attempt to describe him, Tristram repeats the self-mocking words of Yorick with affection:

At different times he would give fifty humourous and opposite reasons for riding a meek-spirited jade of a broken-winded horse, preferably to one of mettle;… in all other exercitations, he could spend his time, as he rode along slowly,—to as much account as in his study;—that he could draw up an argument in his sermon,—or a hole in his breeches, as steadily on the one as in the other;—that brisk trotting and slow argumentation, like wit and judgment, were two incompatible movements.—But that upon his steed,—he could unite and reconcile every thing,—he could compose his sermon,—he could compose his cough,—and in case nature gave a call that way, he could likewise compose himself to sleep. (20)

Yorick's lighthearted yoking of the hole in his breeches with the argument in his sermon, or the composition of his sermon with the composure of his cough serves as verification of Tristram's earlier observation that the parson "loved a jest in his heart—and as he saw himself in the true point of ridicule, he would say, he could not be angry with others for seeing him in a light, in which he so strongly saw himself (19). We are made to feel very kindly towards this country parson, and yet to see him as a ludicrous figure. Knowing that Yorick is meant to embody Sterne's account of himself, and that Tristram acts simply as Sterne's puppet in publishing the characterization, increases our sense of the self-mockery and self-adulation in Sterne's joke on himself. Also evident is Sterne's ability to see himself with the same comic eye out of which he sees the rest of the world and, in turn, his ability to regard the world with the same tenderness as he regards himself. His image of himself is the image he has of man in general; like Eliot's Prufrock, his Yorick is both an ironic self-portrait and a more universal composite of a pitiful, comic, helplessly self-conscious human being, whose irony is his greatest charm.

Sterne's Yorick is at all times the Fool, and was purposely and aptly named for him. As a Fool, both laughable and lovable, he lets himself get involved in such hopeless situations as the one concerning his horse. Yorick loved a fine horse; his neighbors loved riding his horse; Yorick loved his neighbors and therefore hardly ever rode his own horse, "the upshot of which was generally this, that his horse was either clapp'd, or spavin'd, or greaz'd;—or he was twitter bon'd, or broken-winded, or something, in short, or other had befallen him which would let him carry no flesh;—so that he had every nine or ten months a bad horse to get rid of,—and a good horse to purchase in his stead" (21). Yorick's solution to this problem is none other than the comic solution to life as a whole; rather than worrying about a new horse all the time, or fretting about the worsening condition of the old, he was "content to ride the last poor devil, such as they had made him, with all his aches and infirmities, to the very end of the chapter" (21). If things are so bad that they cannot get worse, one may as well laugh at them and enjoy them. That Tristram confirms the value of this philosophy is apparent not only in his approval of Yorick's behavior, but in the very act of writing his own history, which is at once a hopeless task and very entertaining. Moreover, we may deduce that Sterne concurs with these views from our own affection for the two characters, an affection which is grounded equally in derision and delight.

Yorick's death scene is one of the most complex entanglements of jest and earnest, satire and sentiment, mockery and sympathy in the book. On the one hand, Yorick dies, and is a stark reminder of the moral borne by his namesake, that of inevitable mutability: "Where be your gibes now, your gambols, your songs, your flashes of merriment, that were wont to set the table on a roar." On the other, Sterne makes us do what Hamlet knows the Queen is unable to do, "Laugh at that."13 Grief multiplied to proportions far more grand than its cause, as Sterne shows figuratively in the countless plaintive voices reciting "Alas, poor Yorick," is comic; the overwhelming blackness of the page inserted as a symbol for death, a giant sob caught within the pages of a book, is by its tangible presence comic as well. It is as if a clown walks across the stage at this moment with a placard that reads, "Weep." That the death is Yorick's, and that Yorick is a representation of Sterne, and that the page thus represents self-pity for an event which has not happened—as if the clown were mourning his own death as he walked across—is comically ironic: here is grief without any cause at all, the grief at one's own eventual death that is most comically and pitifully felt by all human beings.

Sterne's humor and eccentricity are deliberate and carry within their deliberateness a perception of the world which gives Tristram Shandy its meaning. The implications of this consciously comic vision have only rarely been considered, first by Nietzsche and more recently by critics who have begun to explore the nature of Sterne's comicality.14 Nietzsche expanded Goethe's praise of Sterne's liberating effects in a paragraph subtitled, "The Freest Writer," and paid tribute to his remarkable nobility of spirit, his ability to "be right and wrong at the same time, to interweave profundity and farce":

May he be satisfied with the honour of being called the freest writer of all times, in comparison with whom all others appear still, square-toed, intolerant and downright boorish! … He was—if language does not revolt from such a combination—of a hardhearted kindness, and in the midst of the joys of a grotesque and even corrupt imagination he showed the bashful grace of innocence. Such a carnal and spiritual hermaphroditism, such untrammelled wit penetrating into every vein and muscle, was perhaps never possessed by any other man.15

Nietzsche's extravagance is matched only by Steme's own, and his language is only fitting to describe an author who playfully writes "SPLEEN" after mentioning the word "gay" in order "to keep up a good understanding amongst words … not knowing how near [one] may be under a necessity of placing them to each other" (502).

Fluchere considers the importance of accident in Steme's style and explains his casual freedom in terms of his sense of the unfettered nature of the world: "The incoherent, the rhapsodic, the baroque—everything that is included in the word eccentricity and all that in traditional criticism calls forth the word disorder, arises in Sterne … from the recognition of the fact that the world is an immense field of experience, and man a being curiously determined by countless contingencies each of which exists in a very personal relation to him."16 The structure of the book Fluchere traces to Sterne's desire "to translate the processes of the mind, operating on a given human situation, into a verbal representation that will completely render both its substance and its potentialities."17

These intricate and incomprehensible processes also account for much of the comedy of the work. The wit that is a by-product of the mind's strange activities joins forces with the pathos that arises from our sense of the helplessness of the mind to control its own process, its inability to make sense of the world with the material provided, and produces comedy: the wit and the pathos help us to accept and appreciate the puzzles that continually trouble the intellect by making the effort seem worthwhile in itself and the accomplishment, however incomplete in the face of the facts, splendid in the face of the obstacles. Steme makes us see that the eccentric is really the normal, or as B.L. Reid incisively observes: "Tristram Shandy is the absurd made comically programmatic. The formalizing of the artifice conduces both to comedy and to philosophical statement. By so intricately manipulating the anarchy of experience, Sterne asserts a tyrannizing control that at once renders the absurd laughable and declares it representative, philosophically normative."18 To bring alive his own comic vision of the real world, to show that the absurd is the normal—both comically and pathetically so—and to dramatize the need for tolerance and courage and lighteartedness in dealing with such absurdity, Steme created the world of Tristram Shandy, a world in which evidence of grotesque incompatibility—of people with other people, of people with the world—is everywhere.

The curious inclusiveness of this world, which is really quite exclusive—consisting of a very limited number of characters who meet in an even more limited number of places—may be traced to the haphazard occurrence of events and thoughts which give, as Smollett required, a "large, diffus'd picture of life." Whereas writers of the "new species" usually designated certain events and then looked at the portion of life attached to those events, Steme chose rather to designate Shandy Hall and look at the portion attached to that small enclosure, which becomes a microcosm in the process, not a microcosm of people but of life, with all its illogical, unexpected events and contingencies.

The comedy one senses in a world where the unexpected is the everyday occurrence is intertwined with a sense of tragedy as well, as both Reid and Rufus Putney have perceptively discussed.19 There is a fatality in the absurdity that is inescapable and frightening, a fatality which is responsible for crushed noses, dissolved arguments, irrelevant digressions, and other misfortunes which are for the most part comic to the outsider and tragic to the human being involved. Sterne intimates the presence of terrors that lurk in the backgrounds of destiny, waiting to ambush us, but he does so not to frighten but to prepare and protect: the preparation and protection he offers is comedy, a comic vision strong enough not to ward off impending evils but to allow one to live with them when they turn up. Thus, the deliberate eccentricity, the deliberately anarchic view of a world in which individuals must manage, each in their own way, to overcome private adversities. Laurence Steme offered the world his comic work avowedly in the hope that he could arm his readers with his own consciousness of the need for laughter: "I humbly beg, Sir [he wrote in his Dedication to Pitt] that you will honour this book by taking it … into the country with you; where, if I am ever told, it has made you smile, or can conceive it has beguiled you of one moment's pain—I shall think myself as happy as a minister of state" (3).

It would seem that Sterne "paints his face" and puts on "his ruff and motley clothes" to higher purpose than Thackeray was able to comprehend; beguilement is the business of the jester and underlying his display of merriment is the need for such beguilement and the need for the display to end in laughter. Steme shows his genius in being able to plead the necessity and carry off the jest at the same time:

But mark, madam, we live amongst riddles and mysteries—the most obvious things, which come in our way, have dark sides, which the quickest sight cannot penetrate into; and even the clearest and most exalted understandings amongst us find ourselves puzzled and at a loss in almost every cranny of nature's work; so that this, like a thousand other things, falls out for us in a way, which tho' we cannot reason upon it,—yet we find the good of it, may it please your reverences and your worships—and that's enough for us. (293)

Tristram's deference to "madam" and his formal address to the various dignitaries give this passage an ironic tone that leads one to assume at first that he means not one jot of what he says. Yet if one bears Tristram's history in mind, and remembers specifically that Tristram, not Sterne, is speaking, the source of the irony becomes clear; it is not that Tristram is saying a thing which is not, it is rather that he is acutely aware of the truth of his assertion—that life is an insoluble puzzle—having had so much occasion to escape from the riddles and mysteries of life; it is irony directed at himself for being in such an unfortunately excellent position to offer his opinion. We are not meant to reject Tristram's observations, but rather to see how ludicrously true they are, how pitiable a thing man would be if he did not escape our pity by the wonderfully irrational contrivance of finding the "good of it." The irony does not detract from the real cheerfulness with which Tristram notes that Nature, the "dear Goddess," provides us with the necessary impulses and gestures to overcome provoking shocks.

Sterne, too, in real life called upon irrational spirits to make his escape. In the later volumes of Tristram Shandy we may consider Sterne himself to be speaking when Tristram describes his encounters with Death:

Now as for my spirits … I have much—much to thank 'em for: cheerily have ye made me tread the path of life with all the burdens of it (except its cares) upon my back; in no one moment of my existence, that I remember, have ye once deserted me, or tinged the objects which came in my way, either with sable, or with a sickly green; in dangers ye gilded my horizon with hope, and when DEATH himself knocked at my door—ye bad him come again; and in so gay a tone of careless indifference, did ye do it, that he doubted of his commission—

"—There must certainly be some mistake in this matter," quoth he. (479)

This description is such a thinly disguised account of Sterne's own struggles to stay alive that one feels the pathos of it acutely. But Sterne's "careless indifference" or rather his determination to be carelessly indifferent does not allow us to pity him; we may admire his courage and laugh at his self-characterization, but we must recognize fully that he is alive to make fun and therefore not deserving of pity.

That Sterne places life over death, the present over the past, comes out especially in the supposedly sentimental passages, especially LeFever's death scene. Over the years he has infuriated readers with his inability to refrain from the last spoiling word (if one sees him as a helplessly shallow jester) or disturbed them with his demand that they not give in to the comfortable pathos he has aroused (if one sees him as a writer with a comic purpose). Sterne does not "go on," in reply to his own question, but chooses to start another chapter both for the stated reason that he is "impatient to return to [his] own story" (426), and for the more important reason that sorrow for the dead is too easy and satisfying a feeling, too much like self-pity, and the time could be better spent in actively living. Thus Tristram continues his rhapsodical work, having inserted the black page following Yorick's death as a symbol of his genuine grief and his determination to mock it. Take advantage of the moment, greet life with an open-house reception, such are the real lessons of his "sentimental" passages. Feed an ass for curiosity, measure Janatone right now:

[H]e who measures thee, Janatone, must do it now—thou carriest the principles of change within thy frame; and considering the chances of a transitory life, I would not answer for thee a moment; e'er twice twelve months are pass'd and gone, thou mayst grow out like a pumkin, and lose thy shapes—or, thou mayst go off like a flower, and lose thy beauty—nay thou mayst go off like a hussy—and lose thyself. (490)

Despite the lighthearted references to "shapes" and to aunt Dinah who went off like a hussy, Sterne feels deeply the sad inevitable changes that occur to living things in the course of living. But his response is not to mourn but to appreciate what there is at the moment; his flippancy does not deny the essential pathos of mutability, it insists on it and consequently on the need to act while one has the opportunity.

Because Sterne sees an individual lifetime as a "fragment," spleen and anger, the bilious and saturnine passions, both of which clog up the channels of the blood that make "the wheel of life run long and chearfully round," are crimes against nature. Thus Sterne takes on the vital job of jester and shows, in the book that is his jest, the effectiveness of deliberate mirth in ridding the system of its wasteful passions. Tristram's personal fight against disillusionment with life is the impetus behind his writing; and in turn, his writing is his salvation, or as Fluchere sees it, Tristram's efforts are an answer to the challenge that the facts of his life present him with: "Autobiography thus becomes a sort of revenge for a wasted life, an absurd and farcical revenge it is true, but one which can restore the balance."20 Tristram himself asserts the probable success of such a plan: "I will answer for it the book shall make its way in the world, much better than its master has done before it—Oh Tristram! Tristram! can this but be once brought about—the credit, which will attend thee as an author, shall counterbalance the many evils which have befallen thee as a man" (337).

The whole character of Tristram, the misdirected Homunculus grown into the image of a man, is dedicated to demonstrating the value of his battles against his unfortunate past, against despair or, on the petty everyday level, the spleen. The careless tone in which he informs us that he has been "the continual sport of what the world calls fortune" evinces the comic view of the world that lies behind it:

[T]hough I will not wrong her by saying, She has ever made me feel the weight of any great or signal evil;—yet with all the good temper in the world, I affirm it of her, that in every stage of my life, and at every turn and corner where she could get fairly at me, the ungracious Duchess has pelted me with a set of as pitiful misadventures and cross accidents as ever small HERO sustained. (10)

Fortune is here transformed into a big bully, tormenting the small figure of Tristram with the likes of pebbles and a few stones; Tristram forgives her with the slight grudge that a helpless young boy bears towards his more powerful companion who has on the whole amused him but who has hurt him somewhat in doing so. The knowledge that he has lived through the experience unscathed and has thus perhaps earned a bit of respect from the rough-playing Duchess helps him with his forgiveness and prepares him to accept the next attack with relative equanimity.

Critics, the everyday counterparts of the ungracious Duchess, get the same good-natured reaction from Tristram: "If any one of you should gnash his teeth, and storm and rage at me, as some of you did last MAY … don't be exasperated, if I pass it by again with good temper,—being determined as long as I live or write (which in my case means the same thing) never to give the honest gentleman a worse word or a worse wish, than my uncle Toby gave the fly" (162). Spleen might prevent Tristram from writing, which would be tantamount to dying, so he has his little joke in equating the "honest" critics with Uncle Toby's fly and then continues merrily on his way.

Faith, not resolve, may provide the necessary defense against life's sudden shocks. Walter and Toby Shandy are Sterne's representatives of this equally effective means of bearing the burdens of existence as well as possible. A conversation between them, or rather a discourse by Walter on the occasion of his son's unfortunate delivery, shows the differing nature of their faiths:

Though man is of all others the most curious vehicle, said my father, yet at the same time 'tis of so slight a frame and so totteringly put together, that the sudden jerks and hard jostlings it unavoidably meets with in this rugged journey, would overset and tear it to pieces a dozen times a day—was it not, brother Toby, that there is a secret spring within us—Which spring, said my uncle Toby, I take to be Religion.—Will that set my child's nose on? cried my father … the spring I am speaking of, is that great and elastic power within us of counterbalancing evil, which like a secret spring in a well-ordered machine, though it can't prevent the shock—at least imposes upon our sense of it. (277-78)

Walter's secret spring in this case turn out mirthfully to be the all-powerful name, Trismegistus, an unparalleled product of his hobby-horse-dominated mind. The contrast between Walter's concept of a "great and elastic power" and the absurd generation of that power is comic, and the comedy in turn reinforces the notion of man's great resilience. Any little thing will do to counterbalance evil provided one believes in its power to do so. Uncle Toby's simple faith in Religion is not any more practical, as his brother is quick to point out, than choosing a high-sounding name. What is important, for the characters and the readers, is the conviction that all is not lost, that the family will survive this crisis and that one may laugh at the whole event.

One might fairly suppose that Sterne is advocating a world of fools in the happy state of being well deceived. Being in a perpetual state of deception however is not to be confused with the conscious decision to disavow evil, misery and death. The one is based on the Panglossian error that this is the best of all possible worlds, the other is closer to the Spinozistic idea that it is best to "keep one's pecker up," no matter what is coming. If one refuses to grant recognition, to give cruelty and death their due, however much one knows they are a part of life, then one is in a stronger position to appreciate the kindness and goodness in life and get on with the business of living. Gulliver, most would agree, could have managed life much better without his voyage to the land of the Houyhnhnms and his sudden apprehension of human weakness. If Gulliver changes from a fool to a knave in the course of his travels, from an innocent and alert observer of humanity to an embittered flayer of mankind, one can see that Swift clearly hopes that he will find his way to the sane and reasonable state that lies between them, the one in which observation leads to useful correction, not outrage. Though Steme is not as concerned with the correction of society as is Swift, both would grant that the achievement of individual generosity and gentility, both dependent on personal happiness, is a contribution towards a corrected society that every person should be able to make. Because Swift's emphasis is more on the necessity for the contribution than on the personal achievement alone, his plea is the more impassioned for having the more to accomplish, and at the same time the more embittered for the unlikelihood of its being heard. Sterne would be satisfied with a more fanciful result, a "kingdom of hearty laughing subjects," being convinced that "disorders in the blood and humours, have as bad an influence … upon the body politick as body natural" (338). The implication is that if each one takes care of his own spiritual health, that of the country will come naturally.

Not everyone is able to laugh, especially not, like Laurence Steme, in the "same tender moment" as they cry. Hobby-horses may substitute for outright laughter; indeed, they are but different, personalized forms of the comic vision. A man is characterized as much by his hobby-horse as his head, Steme asserted, for it delineates the special path along which he chooses to make his way in the world. Their value to the characters of Tristram Shandy is that of all comedy: they make the world navigable if not quite conquerable. Uncle Toby's allows him, as Stanley Eskin observes, to organize and understand the chaos at Namur and to make sense of the rest of life by connecting it with his military experience.21 Walter is able to categorize and intellectualize all the troublesome stray bits of emotion or chance that might interfere with his previously laidout plans.

The frustration and anguish felt by Toby as a result of his complete puzzlement by words, and in turn his inability to express the exact nature of his wound to other people or himself, is relieved to. a great extent by Trim's happy suggestion of a tangible replacement for mere words—the bowling green. Not only do the models remove the ambiguity from his military vocabulary, they also scale the events which gave rise to the original confusion down to an unfrightening size. It is this combination of tangibility and smallness that makes the fortifications comic, or rather Uncle Toby comic, just as any gentleman who acclimatized himself to riding on trains by playing with electric models would be. The bowling green is essentially a giant playground, and Uncle Toby, guilty by association, is no more than an overgrown child. But the suggestion that Toby's guilt is forced upon him by the baffling nature of real life and the overwhelming size of the world outside the bowling green gives the comedy a serious heart and makes Uncle Toby as noble as he is comic. The bravery of his attempt to make sense of an apparently nonsensical situation—that is, life—redeems any failure in his attempt. There is a real need to bring life down to size and to clarify with objects the ideas that govern it; the fulfilment of this need is therefore natural and commendable, even though the fulfilment is only a substitution, a makeshift apparatus rather than an actual achievement. The achievement consists, of course, in accepting the substitution and going on with life.

Toby's brother Walter is not really very different from himself. Whereas the one uses models to understand the facts of reality, the other uses words, uses them indeed as if they were models, to make the facts of reality fit a neat and pleasant pattern, which they do not naturally do. Both Uncle Toby and Walter Shandy are rather dignified characters, and believe implicitly in the dignity of man; they both depend upon their hobby-horses to keep them neatly mounted and to keep the road they follow free from possible pitfalls. To Toby, no military maneuver is too complex for comprehension once it has been imitated exactly and no fact of life is too incomprehensible if it can be related to its military counterpart. Just so, to Walter, no fact is unbearable if one can express it in words, which are not themselves inimical, but rather reasonable and orderly. One can work with words as one cannot with emotions, which are apt to change suddenly or be illogical. Words serve as well as models for reducing events down to a manageable size, and have the advantage over Toby's toys of being reasonable, and even—if necessary—generously ambiguous. Walter uses his theories to uphold his view of the order of reality and the nobility of man, and need only reject as arrant nonsense any expressions that do not affirm his assumptions:

As for that certain, very pale, subtle, and very fragrant juice [affirmed] to be the principal seat of the reasonable soul … my father could never subscribe to it by any means; the very idea of so noble, so refined, so immaterial, and so exalted a being as the Anima, or even the Animus, taking up her residence, and sitting dabbling, like a tad-pole, all day long, both summer and winter, in a puddle,—or in a liquid of any kind, how thick or thin soever, he would say, shock'd his imagination; he would scarce give the doctrine a hearing. (148-49)

His dismissal is as ridiculous and magnificent as Uncle Toby's bowling green activities are. His narrow-mindedness is absurd, especially in a philosopher, and yet his protection of man's dignity from unworthy explanations, from ignominious hypotheses, is touching and says more for the frailty but also the reality of that dignity than any noble explanation could. Man's determination to make the best of himself and of life takes the comical form of a hobby-horse, and Steme in his dramatized dissertation on hobby-horses demonstrates both the comedy and the nobility of man, who is no more than a homunculus with props, but who manages nevertheless.

The value to Tristram of a hobby-horse is perhaps greatest of all, for his enables him to see comically on his own, to laugh outright; that is, the need in Tristram for a prop, a mount with which to overcome hurdles is replaced by a readiness to laugh that is derived from his rides on his hobby-horse. His sitting down to write represents a conscious search for an explanation, a justification for his life, and by mounting his hobbyhorse, by attempting to order his life into the neat and logical pattern of My Life and Opinions, he succeeds in overcoming the need for justification and logic by laughing at it and himself, by stumbling on the road and enjoying it. Tristram becomes a true comic hero, whose heart is as "determined as the phoenix." The image is Christopher Fry's and rests on his notion of the unswerving concentration of the mythical bird to bring about his own rebirth: "What burns must also light and renew, not by a vulnerable optimism but by a hard-won maturity of delight, by the intuition of comedy, and active patience declaring the solvency of good."22 That Tristram does not chase away his hobbyhorse, but continues writing his book after the first few exhilaratingly muddled pages, is because he does not choose to, for the little filly turns out to be amusing for itself:

What a rate have I gone on at, curvetting and frisking it away, two up and two down for four vplumes together, without looking once behind, or even on one side of me, to see whom I trod upon!—I'll tread upon no one,—quoth I to myself when I mounted—I'll take a good rattling gallop; but I'll not hurt the poorest jack-ass upon the road.…

Now ride at this rate with what good intention and resolution you may,—'tis a million to one you'll do some one a mischief, if not yourself—He's flung—he's off—he's lost his seat—he's down—he'll break his neck—see!—if he has not galloped full amongst the scaffolding of the undertaking critics! (298)

Tristram's frisky rides. are as exhilarating to us as to him. Our feeling of pleasure is similar to that aroused by Smollett's energetic sentences: in both cases the author's zest for experience is contained within the writing.

Norman Holland sees the hobby-horse as central to the comedy of the work, and explains its double-value: "On the one side of the paradox, Steme pokes fun at his characters by making silly (but real) things suddenly pop onto this personal road and topple over both hobby-horse and rider. On the other side of the paradox, Steme pokes fun at the serious obstacles of reality by having the characters jump his hobby-horse triumphantly over them."23 One must see, though, that in writing Tristram Shandy Sterne surely concentrates on the latter virtue of the hobby-horse, for the silliness of the character almost always goes unnoticed in the light of his triumphs. What Holland refers to as a paradox is simply comedy's normal method of dealing with human beings: characters are created with such ludicrous proportions and shortcomings that one cannot be surprised if they fail to surmount an obstacle or two, and one laughs at their shame (while delighting in their energy); if however, they manage, in spite of their ludicrous make-up, to conquer a hurdle unexpectedly, one laughs all the more at their surprising dexterity. We may note that it is the characters who are not equipped with effective hobby-horses who are most often seen to get splashed by the mud in the road—most notably and literally, Dr. Slop. Because he lacks the ability to laugh at himself, and because he cannot fall and get up again without displaying his lack of resiliency—physical and mental—we laugh at his silliness and shame much more than if he did it for us and we feel no sense of his having triumphed over his short, squat, human body. But comedy never entirely deprecates its subject, for he is invariably a member of the human race, which is comedy's true subject and darling. Our laughter is not entirely at the shame of Slop; a good deal of it may be attributed to our pleasure in the exaggeration, the vitality of the scene. Moreover, our laughter at the farcical elements of the incident makes us feel more kindly towards the foolish figure, for as Sydney Smith rightly pointed out after Steme's time, but in a passage especially applicable to his kind of humor, "contempt accompanied by laughter, is always mitigated by laughter, which seems to diminish hatred, as perspiration diminishes heat."24 Our laughter makes us remember his humanity, man's proneness to stumble, and we forgive his silliness as much as we delight in it.

Steme has indicated in a more straightforward manner than the pages of his novel permit that affectionate comedy is the only acceptable kind. Setting up for a man of wit "on the broken stock of other people's failings" is, according to his sermon, what "has helped to give wit a bad name, as if the main essence of it was satire." He goes on in "The Levite and His Concubine" to distinguish between nasty and kindly humor:

Certainly there is a difference between Bitterness and Saltness,—that is,—between the malignity and the festivity of wit,—the one is mere quickness of apprehension, void of humanity,—and is a talent of the devil; the other comes down from the Father of Spirits, so pure and abstracted from persons, that willingly it hurts no man; or if it touches upon an indecorum, 'tis with that dexterity of true genius, which enables him rather to give a new colour to the absurdity, and let it pass. (I, 214)

Sterne surely intended Tristram Shandy to be utterly without bitterness, and one may determine his success by using Dr. Slop as a touchstone. The supposedly vicious lampoon of Dr. Burton (apparently a relic of the "Yorkshire epic" that Tristram Shandy originally was) would have no life for us today if it were simply a splenetic creation. So many of the characters in The Dunciad are merely dead names to us because they are based so closely on people who died and were not worth remembering (except perhaps to explain some of the jokes in the poem). The Dunciad triumphs over the bulk of its ghostly subjects mainly because of the incomparably alive creation that Dulness herself is: had Pope written his epic and left out his goddess (an impossible assumption) our interest in it would surely be dulled in proportion to its subject. What saves the caricature of Dr. Burton from being bitter and gives it life today is that Steme's abuse of the overstuffed doctor is, Work rightly notes, "as ludicrous as rancorous" (lxv). If we are to believe Sterne, his portrait is Cervantic rather than satiric, and Slop's fall was not meant maliciously but comically: the humor arises not from the image of the would-be Burton besmirched with mud and "unwiped, unappointed, unanealed" (107), but rather from "describing silly and Trifling Events, with the Circumstantial Pomp of great Ones."25 Of course we laugh actually at a combination of Sterne's jest at the expense of the Roman Catholic doctor and at the enlargement of the trifling event, but it is well to note that other barbs aimed at the Church, such as those in the sermon scene, are not nearly so funny as this, which is supported by the humorous description of the fall. Sterne does not deal in lampoons, though he may incidentally lampoon—the test is whether or not the passage is comic even if we are unaware of an existing original. He is concerned rather with characters who are so uniquely absurd that they may be mistaken for representations of real people, but are more fittingly taken as general representatives of the human race, comic types of a comical species.

These representatives suggest the appropriateness of tolerance and openness in one's relationships with human beings. Sterne sees to it that the relationship with his characters is that of one person to others, not of a reader to fictitious creations. One feels quite certain after reading Tristram Shandy that one has never met anyone quite like either of the Shandy brothers. Yet just as certainly one feels that they serve very well as models of the human race; we would not be surprised if we met a Walter or a Toby in the street tomorrow. Like all great comic characters, especially Falstaff, they are made to seem outlandish and ordinary at once. Just as Falstaff, who manages to sum up every human characteristic ranging from sophistication to naivete, roguery to honesty, churlishness to gentility, is still miraculously life-sized, not larger, so the Shandy brothers—one with an oversized sensibility, the other with an oversized mentality—are loved for their very grotesqueries, which prove them to be ordinary fallible human beings. By emphasizing that the ordinary is made up of separate pieces of the extraordinary, comedy fulfills one of its primary functions, which is paradoxically to make the ordinary seem not especially outlandish, to make us understand that incongruity must be reconciled with our prejudiced notions of the regular and the typical.

Sterne's ability to make his characters' oddities obvious without straining our sense of the possible distinguishes him as a comic artist. Only Walter Shandy would choose to define the right end of a woman—which only Toby Shandy would need to have defined for him—by comparing "all the parts which constitute the whole of that animal" not anatomically, but "analogically" (102). Yet in the context of the discussion, and of Uncle Toby's extreme modesty, Walter's approach is perfectly sensible, if nonetheless unusual and peculiar to himself. Uncle Toby more often than his brother surprises and delights us with his interpretations of the topic under discussion, but one can never faithfully say that his way of looking at things is illogical or unbelievable; on the contrary, his remarks are often remarkably to the point and no more absurd than what has passed for sense from the other speakers:

But what are these, continued my father … to those prodigies of childhood in Grotius, Scioppus, Heinsius … and others—some of which left off their substantial forms at nine years old.… But you forget the great Lipsius, quoth Yorick, who composed a work the day he was born;—They should have wiped it up, said my uncle Toby, and said no more about it. (410-12)

All the naivete and compassion that characterizes Uncle Toby is summed up in this one statement, which is delightfully laughable and yet eminently sensible. The conversation has been bordering on the incredible and Toby's down-to-earth observation is needed to offset the spur that Yorick has given to Walter's hobby-horse. The same is true of Toby's firm intervention in the argument concerning the duchess of Suffolk: "Let the learned say what they will, there must certainly, quoth my uncle Toby, have been some sort of consanguinity betwixt the duchess of Suffolk and her son—" (331). That Toby should need to state such an obvious point is not entirely his fault; the fact has been somewhat obscured by the findings of the learned. Nevertheless, Sterne teases him for his innocent acceptance of nonsense in the line that follows: "The yulgar are of the same opinion, quoth Yorick, to this hour." These little scenes may be admired for their wit, but should be valued for their comedy, for the understanding they show of the way in which sense and nonsense may cohabit happily in the human mind and the way in which odd individuals are indeed unique in their oddities but are typical in being odd.

Tristram's assessment of the wonderfully assorted members of his family accurately accounts for the loving reception bestowed upon them by readers of each successive generation: "I believe in my soul … the hand of the supreme Maker and first Designer of all things, never made or put a family together … where the characters of it were cast or contrasted with so dramatic a felicity as ours was" (236). We are not tempted to look for an ironical undertone, for the statement only confirms what we feel. Separately, but most delightfully together, the Shandy household entertains us with the miracles of oddity to be found among the human race, casually collected under one roof. A brief look at the famous kitchen scene shows the mastery with which Steme sketches in whole characters with a few lines of dialogue. The gatherings in the kitchen are dramatically "parallel" we are told to the ones in the parlor of the family; the servants of Shandy Hall show the same kind of peculiarities, the same sort of individualities in their reactions to a piece of news as the members of the family do. If there is a sameness in this kitchen group not found in the other, it is the selfishness that seems to override all their other passions. All but Trim, who stands above the group with his oratorical authority, accept the news of Bobby's death according to the differences it will make to their lives. Susannah, with the vanity of a maid, instantly envisions the colored dresses of her mistress; she speeds the burial in her imagination so that the period of mourning will begin all the sooner and accordingly passes the news along with a small addition: "Master Bobby is dead and buried." The "fat foolish" scullion adopts a simple attitude toward the death; with a kind of animal sense of self-preservation, "So am not I," she responds to Obadiah's excited, "He is dead! he is certainly dead!" (360). Obadiah's own reaction consists of the thought that the household staff "shall have a terrible piece of work in it in stubbing the ox-moor," now that the alternative of Bobby's trip abroad is ruled out.

Their acute concern with themselves is in no way cause for satirical chastisement in Sterne's eyes. Rather than being corrosive in his wit, he seems to admire the poor dropsical scullion's forthrightness above all: Bobby is dead, as surely as she is alive, and the fact that she was not the one to die cannot help pleasing her, regardless of any affection she might have felt. What succeeds, however, in moving her as well as the rest of the group is Trim's timely reminder of human mortality: "Are we not here now, continued the corporal, (striking the end of his stick perpendicularly upon the floor so as to give an idea of health and stability)—and are we not—(dropping his hat upon the ground) gone! in a moment!" (361). As Tristram wisely notes, none of us are "stocks and stones." Even the fat foolish scullion melts at the thought of her own inevitable weakness. The selfishness does not disturb Sterne because he feels so poignantly the enormity of the knowledge of death that each human being must overcome. Much more than in the carefully set up apostrophe that follows may Sterne's true sentiment be felt at this moment, for the apostrophe turns out to be nothing more than a jest on Trim's old hat. But, in ending with a jest, he also reveals the depth of his own feeling and his need to laugh it away.

To all the strange creatures who people the world of Tristram Shandy Sterne extends honest feelings of affection and pathos; these feelings are deeply grounded in his comic vision, in his unflagging delight with life and his awareness that the delight may be tinged with pain. That he is most effective in conveying the honesty and depth of his feelings when he is most humorous may be verified by a comparison of the two Maria episodes in his novels. If Sterne truly meant us to feel his great sorrow for the hapless Maria in A Sentimental Journey, he does not succeed with such blatant appeals to our refined and elevated feelings: "I sat down close by her; and Maria let me wipe [the tears] away as they fell, with my handkerchief. I then steep'd it in my own, and then in hers, and then in mine, and then I wip'd hers again, and as I did it, I felt such indescribable emotions within me, as I am sure could not be accounted for from any combinations of matter and emotion" (270). He describes the acuteness of Yorick's feelings, but we are left only to doubt the quality of such pathos which we cannot share because he has given us no more cause than a wet handkerchief. Even the self-parodying Shandean remark that follows—"I am positive I have a soul; nor can all the books with which materialists have pestered the world ever convince me to the contrary"—does not convince us of his soul's sympathy with humanity, for Sterne turns our attention to Yorick's soul not to rebuke his or our natural impulses towards too easily felt tenderness, but to celebrate his own such impulses.

Tears are conspicuously missing from the parallel account in Tristram Shandy:

MARIA look'd wistfully for some time at me, and then at her goat—and then at me—and then at her goat again, and so on altemately.

—Well, Maria, said I softly—What resemblance do you find? (631)

By directing the humor at himself, and continuing to do so for the rest of the incident even while protesting that he will refrain from mirth for the rest of his days to honor the "venerable presence of Misery" that Maria represents for him, Sterne reveals much more truly his genuine pity and makes the reader feel his emotion. Here he is not causelessly blubbering at the sight of tears, he is trying to follow the thoughts and feelings of a helpless young girl, he is trying to understand what she feels about life at that moment. All his sympathy is contained in his apparently thoughtless remark, for it shows his awareness at that moment of the absurdity of life and, in turn, his consciousness of the pain to which Maria is therefore exposed.

That his pathos is so unsatisfactory without his humor is not surprising when one traces the source of his refined feelings to his sense of absurdity. The sounds of human dissonance that are everywhere heard in a theoretically harmonious world impress Sterne with the need for a sensitive adjustment to reality, a comic adjustment that takes the discord into account while deriving pleasure from the whole composition. Nothing amuses Sterne more than the unlikely match between Walter Shandy and his wife, though his understanding of the submerged tragedy of their foolish relationship—Walter's consuming vexation, Mrs. Shandy's inconceivable placidity—shows clearly in his depiction of their marriage. There is no satire in his account of Walter's perpetually puzzled despair at having wound up with such an unphilosophical mate, one who is unable to distinguish between "a point of pleasure and a point of convenience." His situation becomes emblematic of the entire human experience: one may be perfectly well-equipped, so one thinks, to get on top of considerations of fate and forture, and still be floored by stray bits of irrationalism, in the form of emotion or chance, that constantly get in the way. One feels, along with Steme, the terrible uncertainty of human relationships, and therefore the terrible uncertainty of each human being about his own life. Mrs. Shandy's ability to floor her husband to the point of making him doubt the soundness of his rational conclusions simply by mindlessly agreeing with him is perfectly shown in the comical "bed of justice" scene, in which the make-up of Tristram's breeches is being discussed:

—They should be of leather, said my father, turning him about again.—

They will last him, said my mother, the longest.

But he can have no linings to 'em, replied my father.—

He cannot, said my mother.

'Twere better to have them of fustian, quoth my father.

Nothing can be better, quoth my mother.—

—Except dimity—replied my father:—'Tis best of all,—replied my mother.


Mrs. Shandy's compliance is matched only by her husband's increasing exasperation at that compliance. Steme catches the placidity of the one and the annoyance of the other in the timing of their lines and the punctuation. Mrs. Shandy speeds up her replies in the same proportion as Mr. Shandy speeds up his suggestions. When he interrupts her with "—Except dimity," she replies in the same paragraph, and her remark is prefaced with a dash and appears as a clause following the colon that concludes his. Steme's observation of speech here is no less perceptive than his attention to gestures, with the same intent: to reveal the struggle involved in carrying on a simple conversation. Mrs. Shandy's automatic responses are no different from Uncle Toby's automatic pipe-smoking or "Lillabullero" whistling. Both of them do not wish to be troubled by ideas or opinions that do not match their own or in any way threaten the serenity (or in Mrs. Shandy's case, vacuity) of their minds. The precisely recorded conversation reveals how dangerous it would be for Mrs. Shandy to consider the matter of the breeches seriously, which would mean having a genuine opinion in opposition to her dogmatic husband's. In the face of opposition, we know, Walter would not have faltered. The humor of the scene lies in the apparent stupidity of the one and the corresponding distress of the other, but the true comedy arises from our realization that neither can truly assert himself—Mrs. Shandy because it would be to no avail, Mr. Shandy because he is foiled by a lack of opposition and thus wavers, which is the true cause of his distress.

A hobby-horse may provide the courage required to meet a world that is too big or too puzzling, as the Shandy characters show, but it may have the unfortunate side-effect of aggravating the ordinary estrangement of people. An enormous amount of affection and bravery is required to overcome the normal jeopardy of misunderstanding that plagues the different forms of human communication, and hobby-horses, so necessary to making one's way in the world, increase the amount of effort that is needed to make one's way with people. If the hazards of human relationships are symptomatic of the world's jest-swollen belly, then Sterne suggests that wit and instruction may be found out from the admirable attempts of the Shandy family to understand each other and make themselves understood. The brothers have each developed their own methods of contending with the misfiring of the other's thoughts. Walter goes into a passion; Uncle Toby smokes his pipe or whistles. Precisely because they are armed against the possibility of spleen and rage in their meetings together, they are not afraid to try once again to communicate and thus they succeed on an emotional if not a literal level. Unlike Gulliver, who changes from a responsive human being into a bitter, reserved madman as a result of his disillusioning attempts to understand his position in relation to other people, the Shandy brothers offer an optimistic resolution to the problem.

The two brothers are endlessly comical and at the same time touchingly admirable because they do not avoid the risks of conversation, no matter how painful the attempt may prove at the time. Walter is decidedly anguished at the renewed proof Toby offers of his unalterable simplicity in their discussion of—or rather Walter's dissertation on—truth and the study of noses:

'Tis a pity, said my father, that truth can only be on one side, brother Toby,—considering what ingenuity these learned men have all shewn in their solutions of noses.—Can noses be dissolved? replied my uncle Toby.

—My father thrust back his chair,—rose up,—put on his hat,—thrust his head halfway out,—shut the door again,—took no notice of the bad hinge,—returned to the table … (239)

Toby meets this performance with his usual good nature:

'Twas all one to my uncle Toby,—he smoaked his pipe on, with unvaried composure,—his heart never intended offence to his brother,—and as his head could seldom find out where the sting of it lay,—he always gave my father the credit of cooling by himself.—He was five minutes and thirty-five seconds about it in the present case. (240)

Superficially the comedy of this scene may be attributed to the ridiculous wit of Toby's answer and to the gestures so analytically and dramatically exposed by Sterne. But neither the wit nor Bergson's mechanistic explanations get at the heart of the scene, which lies in the failure and the ultimate success of the two brothers to share their lives with each other. The success is comic success, that of accepting the fact that they are intractably opposite and must begin again as best they can. The process of acceptance is seen both as disturbing and rewarding. That it is reanimating as well is attested by Walter's relaunching of his deep philosophy into the ever-shallow waters of his brother's mind, and by his brother's ever-patient admission of the vessel:

—Why, by the solutions of noses, of which I was telling you, I meant as you might have known, had you favoured me with one grain of your attention, the various accounts which learned men of different kinds of knowledge have given the world, of the causes of short and long noses.—There is no cause but one, replied my uncle Toby,—why one man's nose is longer than another's, but because God pleases to have it so.—That is Grangousier's solution, said my father. (240)

Despite the apparent consensus, the two are clearly back to where they started in understanding one another verbally, yet the comic point has been made: the attempt is what counts in establishing human relationships.

Toby's ability to make himself understood by Trim is directly related to the absence of words in their most remarkable communications. The memory of shared activity leads to new action, while their common hobby-horse allows them to participate equally. The directness with which they are able to fall into step with one another stems from the essentially childlike faith that each understands the other. Indeed, the only time the possibility of mutual incomprehension arises is when Trim describes his adult passion for the fair Beguin, and tries to do so in adult terms. Toby refuses to admit the facts of Trim's experience, or to allow Trim to admit them in words, the effect of which he knows will not be erased by any amount of whistling. The division between them never really occurs, though, for Trim offers no contradiction to Toby's version of what happened when Trim seized the hand of the fair Beguin. Rather than permit a misunderstanding to arise between them, they resort to their usual faith in the other to understand what is going on, just as Toby does whenever he begins to whistle. This faith is both comic in itself and basic to comedy: Toby and Trim, and Toby and Walter, are funny in their successful attempts to respect the oddities of the other; they are also reassuring in a world where less valiant attempts, less openness and tolerance, can result in coldness and permanent despair.

Tristram, too, it is apparent from his narrative, respects—even more, cherishes—the quirks of the people who are so much a part of his life, and one feels that he equally well loves the entire human race (as Steme would have us believe of himself). To approach Tristram Shandy as satire is to be required to see the story that Tristram tells as "one great anatomy of the fools and knaves who affect him," and his recollections as "a long list of consequences to himself."26 Yet his many apostrophes acclaiming the merits of various people may mock false sentiment, but they do not mock the characters themselves. Even when faced with the ludicrous picture of his uncle decked out in pursuit of the Widow Wadman, Tristram eschews the opportunity to raise a malicious laugh:

Had SPLEEN given a look at [the wig], 'twould have cost her ladyship a smile … he could as soon have raised the dead.

Such it was—or rather such would it have seem'd upon any other brow; but the sweet look of goodness which sat upon my uncle Toby's, assimilated every thing around it so sovereignly to itself, and Nature had moreover wrote GENTLEMAN with so fair a hand in every line of his countenance, that even his tamish'd gold-laced hat and huge cockade of flimsy taffeta became him. (601)

Her ladyship still smiles at the extravagance of the outfit, but not mockingly at Uncle Toby's simple-mindedness. Nor is there any note of resentment mixed with the affection in Tristram's voice when he explains his father's peculiar penchant for theories: "In truth, there was not a stage in the life of man, from the very first act of his begetting,—down to the lean and slipper'd pantaloon of his second childishness, but he had some favourite notion to himself, springing out of it, as sceptical, and as far out of the high-way of thinking, as these two which have been explained" (145). Tristram's fondness is expressed in the Shakespearian description and in the note of admiration for his father's achievement at having ambled along such strange paths so consistently throughout his life.

His concern, for the most part identical with Sterne's own, for his imagined audience's happiness is more than a mere formality, or so we are made to believe by his attentiveness. His command that we laugh at him or do anything, only keep our tempers, shows a wish for our well-being that is related to his announced reason for writing his book—to drive away the spleen. The thing that strikes one above all is that he is trying to make the choicest experiences of his family come alive so that we may receive the same amount of delight from them as he still does. That he enjoys the absurdity of many of the events is obvious from his warm mockery at such great length of the marriage settlement, the visitation dinner, the great curse, and his own continuing efforts to make some order out of his haphazard family history. Indeed, Tristram's readiness to include himself among the odd creatures of his family serves not only to make him truly a part of that family and therefore more than simply an ironic narrator of a mixed-up tale, but also to soften any rough satirical edges.

He bears no grudges, makes no serious accusations, for he is one of them, and they are all members of the same comical human race. The ironic remarks that he makes at the expense of his father or his uncle are gentle and understanding of the anomalies imposed upon them by Nature, some of which have been accidentally passed on to himself. The extravagance of his father's Tristrapoedia is surely equal to that of his uncle's great wig, and Tristram in this case is affected directly by its profound uselessness (whereas the wig harmed no one who did not die from laughing at it). He does not deny the foolishness of his father's wisdom:

[H]e was three years and something more, indefatigably at work, and at last, had scarce compleated, by his own reckoning, one half of his undertaking: the misfortune was, that I was all that time totally neglected and abandoned to my mother; and what was almost as bad, by the very delay, the first part of the work, upon which my father had spent the most of his pains, was rendered entirely useless,—every day a page or two became of no consequence.—(375)

But rather than blaming his father for neglecting him, he generalizes his observation so that Walter seems merely the victim of a common human failing:

—Certainly it was ordained as a scourge upon the pride of human wisdom, That the wisest of us all, should thus outwit ourselves, and eternally forego our purposes in the intemperate act of pursuing them. (375)

Tristram pities his father rather than himself and he pities mankind in general for being susceptible to the tricks of Time and other natural laws, as he is himself both directly and indirectly: his own inability to supply a minute of reading time for a minute of his life is a curiosity of Time that he must accept, and the cause of his having to order his life into reading matter is a result of his father's having been duped by Time into neglecting him.

The law of Chance exercises similar control over his life, so that he finds himself accidentally circumcised at the age of five, having directly encountered the chance effects of a loose window sash. Tristram identifies the culprits who were indirectly responsible for the accidental occurrence, his uncle having directed Trim to find some weights for the battlefield equipment—a request that is in turn related to the chance occurrence at Namur—but he focuses the reader's attention on the wonder of the coincidence, not on the foolishness of his uncle's hobby-horse. He dismisses the whole disaster with a "'Twas nothing."

Tristram's propensity to overlook or rationalize the shortcomings of the people around him has, not surprisingly, a comic effect on "his" work. Like Steme's his comic vision makes a joke of the world and a miracle of the human race that somehow manages to make the world its home. A lament for man that Tristram makes at the beginning of Book Five is subverted by a jest at his own expense, an expense which Sterne himself shares, for the charge concerns the method by which Tristram Shandy is composed:

Who made MAN, with powers which dart him from earth to heaven in a moment—that great, that most excellent, and most noble creature of the world—that miracle of nature, … the image of God … the ray of divinity … the marvel of marvels … to go on at this pitiful—pimping—pettifogging rate? (343)

If one takes the whole statement as ironic, then man is not "the most excellent, and most noble creature" and Tristram does not really go sneaking on at a pitiful rate, that is, one must conclude from previous references that his work is a brilliant and original work of art that will contribute to the "stock" as well as the "bulk" of man's learnings. If once accepts the assertion of man's nobility, then Tristram, and in effect Steme, is indulging in a characteristic bit of conscious and comic self-pity in the hopes of winning our sympathies. Either way, the image of human species does not suffer, for an individual may triumph over his pitiful condition or else humanity is noble in spite of his apparently ignoble ways. One is left with the inevitable conclusion that on the one hand man is ludicrous and paltry, the inhabitant of a world that imposes pettiness upon him, and on the other, man's belief in his own nobility allows him to triumph over his birthright by acting with stature and becoming truly noble.

Unlike Swift, no matter how much Sterne reduces the scale of mankind in order to dramatize the difficulties man has in making his way through life, he maintains his capacity for admiration and amusement. Swift's whole purpose in Book Two of Gulliver's Travels is to demonstrate "how contemptible a thing [is] human grandeur" and he does so by dramatizing with terrifying minuteness the insults that Gulliver is forced to endure. Our admiration for Gulliver's efficiency in dealing with the flies, for instance, is offset by our sense of his false pride: he does not accept the ludicrousness of his position among giants any more than he rejects the value of the honor bestowed upon him by the Lilliputians, the title of "nardac" for his bravery and strength. For all his objectivity, Gulliver is blind to his own absurdity. The objective observer in Tristram Shandy, who like Gulliver is himself an object of observation, is as acutely aware of his own inadequacy to life as Steme and the readers are. One certainly has the sense of man's physical and mental insufficiency in Tristram Shandy—the impotence of both mind and body apparently afflicting the Shandy men has often been noted—but one does not feel as if the magnitude of the soul is diminished by the body's failure to house it properly or the mind's to protect it from the shocks of the world. The bravery of all three—Walter, Toby, and Tristram—in attempting to cope with the demands of the world more than replaces the dignity lost by their homunculean drawbacks and their use of hobby-horsical props. Moreover, their bravery is admirable because, unlike Gulliver's, it is grounded in the knowledge of their own smallness and inefficiency and in a faith in the great and elastic power within them to counterbalance their own absurdity.

The faith, which is expressed in hobby-horsical activities or simply in a self-mocking jest, arms its possessor against the clashes of other absurdities and allows him to act with tolerance and courage. The faith itself becomes the means by which man triumphs over his characteristic puniness. Tristram's book, Fluchere rightly claims, is "a dazzling testimony to his victory over words and things, a proof of his vitality and vigilance."27 Toby would have been basely betrayed into solitude and despair, first by his wound, were it not for his whole-hearted commitment to his bowling green war, and second, by the peace of Utrecht, were it not for the likeness between love and war that Mrs. Wadman happily encourages him to discover. He valiantly forges ahead with a siege at her doorstep, thus maintaining the dignity and orderliness that soldiering gives to his life and that he so painstakingly preserved on his green. Walter's fruitless mental voyages into the realm of auxiliary verbs in search of the North-west passage of the intellect is counterbalanced by the equanimity—that is, the real fruit of his mental voyages, with which he is then able to meet the irrationalities of other people. His puzzlement is no less than Toby's many times, and his idolatry of reason makes puzzlement a difficult thing to bear. Nevertheless, Walter triumphs consistently over his demands for rationality by rationally absolving his helplessly befuddled brother of any intentional crime and acting tenderly and affectionately towards him. Each of the three manages his little stock of understanding and ability with husbandry, and turns the potential cause for ridicule—his life on earth—into a call for celebration.

Whereas Smollett, in Peregrine Pickle, urges the acceptability of Fortune, Chance, and Evil in life by making their dangers seem challenging and stimulating, Steme offers the possibility of triumph over these dangers. Of all Smollett's characters, only Commodore Trunnion would find himself at home in Tristram Shandy, for he alone has a fully developed comic faith in man's ability to live happily and peacefully, which arms him with the necessary power to do so. Steme demonstrates the necessity and value of the comic imagination by showing us that the public outrages of Nature are nothing to the private ravages of despair and the concomitant ills of spleen and aloofness, and by showing us that we may overcome these with determination and affection, with conscious mirth that protects the mirthful against the forces of despair and loneliness.…


10 Dilworth, p. 108.

11 Stedmond's suggestion was first made in "Satire and Tristram Shandy," SEL I (1961), 53. A revised version of this article appears in the later work, The Comic Art of Laurence Sterne. The quotation is from p. 6.

12 New, p. 2.

13 Norman Holland comments on these lines (Hamlet V.i.212-215) in his article, p. 422.

14 See Richard Lanham, 'Tristram Shandy': The Games of Pleasure (Berkeley: University of Califomia Press, 1973), which appeared after the completion of this study. His chapter entitled "Games, Play, Seriousness" is of particular interest.

15 Nietzsche, VII, 60-62.

16 Fluchere, p. 268.

17 Fluchere, p. 77.

18 Reid, pp. 110-11.

19 Reid, pp. 124-27; Putney, "Laurence Steme," pp. 159-70.

20 Fluchere, p. 73.

21 Eskin, p. 274.

22 Fry ["Comedy," in Comedy: Meaning and Form, ed. R. Corrigan], p. 17.

23 Holland, p. 422.

24 Quoted in Tave, p. 86.

25 Sterne, Letters, p. 77; 1 January 1760.

26 Paulson, p. 252.

27 Fluchere, p. 72.…

Works Cited

Primary Sources

Sterne, Laurence. The Letters of Laurence Sterne, edited by L. Curtis. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1935.

——. The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gent., edited by J. Work. New York: Odyssey Press, 1940.

——. A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy by Mr. Yorick, edited by G. Stout, Jr. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967.

——. The Sermons of Mr. Yorick. 2 vols. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1927.…

Secondary Sources

Corrigan, R., ed., Comedy: Meaning and Form. San Francisco: Chandler Publishing, 1965.

Dilworth, Ernest Nevin. The Unsentimental Journey of Laurence Sterne. New York: King's Crown Press, 1948.

Eskin, Stanley. "Tristram Shandy and Oedipus Rex: Reflections on Comedy and Tragedy," College English XXIV (1963), 271-77.

Fluchere, Henri. Laurence Sterne From Tristram to Yorick, translated by B. Bray. London: Oxford University Press, 1965.

Holland, Norman. "The Laughter of Laurence Sterne," Hudson Review IX (1957), 422-30.

New, Melvyn. Laurence Sterne as Satirist: A Reading of "Tristram Shandy." Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1969.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Complete Works of Friedrich Nietzsche. Translated by 0. Levy. Edinburgh, 1911.

Paulson, Ronald, and Lockwood, Thomas, eds. Henry Fielding: The Critical Heritage. London: Routledge, 1969.

Putney, Rufus. "Laurence Sterne, Apostle of Laughter," in The Age of Johnson: Essays Presented to C.B. Tinker. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1949, pp. 159-70.

——. "The Plan of Peregrine Pickle," PMLA LX (1945), 1051-65.…

Reid, B.L. The Long Boy and Others: Eighteenth-Century Studies. Athens, Ga.: University of Georgia Press, 1969.…

Tave, Stuart, M. The Amiable Humorist: A Study in the Comic Theory and Criticism of the Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Centuries.…

Helene Moglen (essay date 1975)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 13105

SOURCE: "The Irony of Character," in The Philosophical Irony of Laurence Sterne, University Presses of Florida, 1975, pp. 65-96.

[Moglen examines the major characters of Tristram Shandy and concludes that, in addition to representing accurate portraits of the human condition, each is delineated via the same "diverse" and "eccentric" ways by which Sterne structured his novel.]

Tristram Shandy is a novel of ideas. Its form is part of the idea, not a background for it, and the characters themselves are aspects of the intellectual quest, all constructed from some pivotal irony, subject to some central paradox, treated with sceptical insight as well as love. That is not to say that Steme's people are two-dimensional representatives of specific positions, spokesmen for the successive stages of a dialectical formula, as Traugott would have it. They inhabit their personalities quite fully, although it is true that their personalities are limited by the uncompromising points of view from which they perceive the world. We watch them interpreting, acting, interacting, responding. Their realities meet, clash, and destroy one another, yet remain curiously intact, for each character has a basic integrity, a core of inflexible ego that keeps him unique and self-sufficient.

The odd way in which Sterne related the particular and the abstract (the irreducible human quality and far-reaching universal propensities) began in his pre-Shandean sermons, for it must be remembered that the man of letters had his birth in the man of God. Sterne's later sermons (the earlier sermons, published last, are primarily exercises in borrowing) reveal the author's persistent attempts to discover the motives of men's actions, the basic elements of personality and character. Lansing Van Der Heyden Hammond points this out in his book Laurence Sterne's "Sermons of Mr. Yorick": "Time and again throughout the Sermons he reverts, obviously with the best of intentions, to the tenet that morality alone is insufficient as a motivating factor in human behavior—but invariably the naturalistic implications, not the teleological, are the ones he lingers over and illustrates" (p. 95). As a minister Sterne had surprisingly little interest in theological matters or traditional questions of doctrine. He was a moral philosopher who was concerned with the social effects of action rather than with their supernatural sanctions. As Hammond wrote, it was Sterne's desire to emphasize "the less striking, homelier virtues which count for so much in everyday living: toleration and kindliness, patience and understanding, thoughtfulness and sympathy, modesty and sincerity" (p. 96). These are also the saving virtues of the otherwise perverse characters of Tristram Shandy.

It is not surprising, therefore, although it is certainly unconventional, that Steme would elaborate upon and even distort the texts upon which his sermons were based. When he could not find what he wanted in his text, he had no difficulty in composing a new one for his use. For example, when he deals with "The Character of Herod," he explains: "With this view, it may not be an unacceptable application of the remaining part of a discourse upon this day, to give you a sketch of the character of Herod, not as drawn from scripture,—for in general it furnishes us with few materials for such descriptions…1 I Similarly, in his sermon "The Levite and His Concubine," Sterne does not make use of the whole Biblical story which ends with the Levite's surrender and subsequent dismemberment of his concubine. He uses only the first half of his source, paradoxically demonstrating with it the importance of courtesy and mercy: "It serves no purpose to pursue the story further; the catastrophe is horrid: and would lead us beyond the particular purpose for which I have enlarged upon this much of it,—and that is, to discredit rash judgement, and illustrate from the manner of conducting this drama, the courtesy which the dramatis personae of every other piece, may have a right to."2 In general, when we compare Sterne's sermons with the sources given us in Hammond's appendix, we find that Sterne tends to concretize the generalization by relating every point of view to a particular personality. Whenever possible, he adopts a dramatic form of narrative, changing his own voice and implicating his audience with an explicit address or direct quotation. As Traugott suggests, the result of his technique is the involvement of the reader in a dialectic which emphasizes the crucial role of interpretation in differentiating the hidden truth from the obvious illusion. This was to be used with great effect in the novel.

In "The Prodigal Son," which is typical of the mature sermons, Sterne muses upon the father's attempts to dissuade his son from undertaking his journey, describes sentimentally the emotional moment of departure, comments liberally upon the youth's impulsive foolishness, elaborates upon his repentant thoughts as he entreats Heaven to help him, and offers with great relish both a detailed account of the boy's lapses into sin and an ironic description of the falsity of the world. Rejecting more conventional discussions of the parable, Sterne concludes with some up-to-date comments of his own about the Grand Tour and its educational values. The sermon seems quite prophetic of Tristram Shandy in that it bears the strong imprint of Sterne's personality with his propensity for the dramatic and digressive, his sharp ear for dialogue, his desire to surprise through jarring eccentricities of style and deft portrayals of emotional states, his basically secular, practical orientation, and his marvelous sense of the absurd and incongruous.

Of course, the didactic purpose of the sermons demanded a relative simplicity of structure and characterization. The concept of a "ruling passion" was particularly useful since it enabled Sterne to draw his moral issues clearly, centering motive and consequence upon a single peculiarity of character to which a definite value could be assigned. Using the "obsessions" of his major figures as the focal points of his sermons, Sterne was able to satisfy simultaneously the dramatic and moral demands of his work. Thus, in analyzing Herod, who is driven by "ambition, an immoderate thirst, as well as jealousy of power," Steme explains his method of illuminating the character of his hero: "The way to which is—in all judgments of this kind, to distinguish and carry in your eye, the principal and ruling passion which leads the character—and separate that, from the other parts of it,—and then take notice, how far his other qualities, good and bad, are brought to serve and support that."3

This view of character, which had its roots in Locke's associationism, required a more sophisticated application in the complex situations and ideas of Tristram Shandy. In the Shandean world Sterne no longer had defined signposts by which to steer. Although his moral, artistic, and intellectual values might have remained fundamentally the same, they now had to function and validate themselves in a universe of constantly changing perspectives. Given free rein in the disorderly world of secular activity, the hobby-horse—a concrete expression of the ruling passion—became a more unruly and complexly defined beast than Tristram himself suggests. "For my hobby-horse, if you recollect a little, is no way a vicious beast; he has scarce one hair or lineament of the ass about him 'Tis the sporting little filly-folly which carries you out for the present hour——a maggot, a butterfly, a picture, a fiddle-stick an uncle Toby's siege, or an any thing, which a man makes a shift to get astride on, to canter it away from the cares and solicitudes of life …" (VIII.xxxi.584). The hobbyhorse is a serious matter—as serious, Sterne reveals with great insight, as a child's game. It is both a function and an implied criticism of the romantic impulse. It is an expression of the urge to create value and an expression of the urge to sublimate or escape the limiting conditions of the actual. It is the illusion that lends importance to life by interpreting and recreating reality. It reflects both the strength and the weakness of its possessor, derived as it is from his abilities and directed toward his aspirations. Thus Tristram does not exaggerate when he says "'Tis as useful a beast as is in the whole creation—nor do I really see how the world could do without it" (VIII.xxxi.584). It is either with less insight or greater irony that he comments earlier that "… so long as a man rides his HOBBY-HORSE peaceably and quietly along the King's highway, and neither compels you or me to get up behind him, pray, Sir, what have either you or I to do with it?" (I.vii.13). Indeed, one of Tristram Shandy's primary themes has to do with the inevitable entanglement of hobbyhorses, with the rider's insistence that everyone should get up behind him. It is the thoroughness of the individual's involvement, the intensity of his commitment, that makes conflict unavoidable. And while the collision among riders disturbs the smoothness of the journey, it also prevents one from venturing too far from the common path.

In Tristram Shandy, then, the hobbyhorse becomes the focal point of the total personality. It connects the world of thought with the world of action and reveals the central irony of each character. The emergent ironic patterns, expressive of the disparity between aspiration and realization, are compared with one another to create a total picture of the perverse and abortive course followed by human relationships.

To consider these patterns in more detail, it is convenient to identify two distinct groups of characters: the first distinguished by its members' rationality, sophistication, and rhetorical finesse, the second by the individual's reliance upon intuition and sensibility. Walter, Tristram, and Yorick will, of course, be found in the first group; Toby, Trim, the Widow Wadman and Mrs. Shandy are in the second.

Walter Shandy.—Of all the Shandys, Walter's commitment to rationalism is the most extreme and explicit. He believes firmly in the mind's capacity for discovering, creating, and verbalizing truths which can lay claim to some objective validity. He is the scholar whose hobbyhorse (the creation of systems, the formalization of knowledge) is born from his attempts at reconciling the pure world of mind with a physical world that is volatile and full of contradiction. Walter's curiosity is endless. His love of the obscure and secret analogy, the unsuspected and surprising unity hidden in the physical object or the suggestive word, is insatiable and indiscriminate: "Then reach me my breeches off the chair, said my father to Susannah There is not a moment's time to dress you, Sir, cried Susannah the child is as black in the face as my As your, what? said my father, for like all orators, he was a dear searcher into comparisons …" (IV.xiv.287). Yorick's opinion of Walter's insights can be defended: "… there was a seasoning of wisdom unaccountably mixed up with his strangest whims, and he had sometimes such illuminations in the darkest of his eclipses, as almost attoned for them: be wary, Sir, when you imitate him" (V.xlii.404). But Tristram's judgment is more generally applicable: "My father … [forced] every event in nature into an hypothesis, by which means never man crucified TRUTH at the rate he did …" (IX.xxxii.644). It is, of course, the irony of Walter's position that his confidence in reason's resources encourages the creation of imaginative illusions and leads him to formulations that are altogether at variance with precepts of commonsense.

Paralleling Walter's paradoxical faith in the absolute power of reason and the eccentric and amateurish way in which he exercises his faculty is the almost magical control he attributes to the word and the affective, rather than analytic, possibilities which he inevitably explores in his own rhetoric. He believed "That there was a strange kind of magick bias, which good or bad names, as he called them, irresistibly impress'd upon our characters and conduct" (I.xix. 50). Here we find one of those problems which Locke had encountered: with what validity can one hypothesize a fixed core of meaning that is somehow separable from the relativity of a word's contextual definition and implication? Walter's suspicion of the name "Tristram" arises partially from ignorance. He considers the name's proper derivation, but he recollects erroneously the nature of the men who had answered to it historically by overlooking the great medieval hero who bore it: "… he says there never was a great or heroic action performed since the world began by one called Tristram nay he will have it, Trim, that a man can neither be learned, or wise, or brave …" (IV.xviii.295).

It is precisely because of Walter's attitude that Tristram's name comes to exert an influence upon the boy's conduct and character. Sterne knew what Locke felt but would not accept: that language, when considered in a psychological context, could assume a frightening life and power of its own. While it held great promise as the tool of social intercourse, the implementation and perhaps basis of man's ability to reason, its rich potentialities concealed many traps. Of these, Walter is frequently a victim. He is presented as a practitioner of language, a rhetorician, an orator: "He was certainly irresistible, both in his orations and disputations; he was born an orator; Theodidaktos. Persuasion hung upon his lips, and the elements of Logick and Rhetorick were so blended up in him,—and, withall, he had so shrewd a guess at the weaknesses and passions of his respondent, that NATURE might have stood up and said, "This man is eloquent" (I.xix.51-2). But Walter's skill is intuitive, not conscious or rational: "… it was a matter of just wonder … that a man who knew not so much as the names of his tools, should be able to work after that fashion with 'em" (I.xix.53). Thus we have the paradox of the scholar or academician whose oratory springs from an intuitive ability and has an emotional appeal, but is no more based upon reason than are his fanciful systems, the children of a fertile and eccentric imagination. For Walter, argument is a game in which substance is made subordinate to method. It involves the assumption and acting out of various roles, as in his disagreement with Mrs. Shandy about the attendance of a midwife at the birth of his second child, "when he had done arguing the matter with her as a Christian, and came to argue it over again with her as a philosopher …" (II.xix.146). Walter's love of language—indeed, his addiction to forms of expression—is carried to its extreme and paradoxical end with his theory of the auxiliary verb, a parody of Aristotle's ten categories. Walter rejects the metaphor, prize of wit and imagination, the sine qua non of his own technique. Instead he suggests: "Now the use of the Auxiliaries is, at once to set the soul a going by herself upon the materials as they are brought her; and by the versability of this great engine, round which they are twisted, to open new tracts of enquiry, and make every idea engender millions" (V.xlii.405). The word, therefore, becomes father to the idea and restricts and determines the form of reality.

This odd impracticality, the ironic result of an attempt to achieve accuracy of thought and expression, is only one example of the conflict between the theoretical and the practical that frustrates and typifies Walter's life. His concoction of grandiose, abstract theories is linked most frequently to an inability to understand and control his own motivations and actions. Thus, his concern for money and reputation, in addition to a more honorable interest in the well-being of his family, motivates his opposition to his wife's confinement in the city. It is not surprising that he would rationalize his motives, but his rationalization is resourceful beyond any reasonable expectation. He attributes his refusal to a fear that the state would eventually collapse as a result of the movement of men and money to the city. And even here his altruism is brought into question as he expresses his concern for the demise of the squirearchy (I.xviii.47). Any matter that piques his intellectual curiosity causes him to sacrifice the concrete requirements of his family to the more abstract delights of the mind. He gleefully plays a practical joke on Dr. Slop, revealing the fit forms of swearing by having Slop read a form of the excommunication of the Roman Church. Meanwhile his wife lies in bed, awaiting the doctor's obstetrical services (III.xi. 171-79). Similarly, Walter becomes immediately and passionately involved in the pedantic foolishness of the visitation dinner and forgets that he has come in order to change Tristram's name, the retention of which, he feels, invites certain doom (IV.xxix.326). He is a man with well-developed opinions about door hinges, but he has never bothered to oil that one which is an eternal problem to him, although "… three drops of oyl with a feather, and a smart stroke of a hammer, had saved his honour for ever" (III.xxi.203). How then can we or Mrs. Shandy be surprised when, hearing from Obadiah the news of his son's circumcision, he returns from a hurried trip upstairs, not with bandages and medicine, but with Spencer de Legibus Hebrceorum Ritualibus and Maimonides (V.xxvii.384).

This unusual conflict between abstract interests and practical concerns frequently expresses itself in a dichotomy of emotion and reason—the most dehumanizing aspect of Walter's character. One is disquieted by Walter's blithe inquiry: "What is the character of a family to an hypothesis? … Nay, if you come to that—What is the life of a family …" (I.xxi.69). Involved as he is in the excitement of his own ideas, he is able to see his wife only as an object, a piece of personal property whose functions, abilities, interests, and life itself are defined as they relate to him. "It is very strange … that my wife should persist … in trusting the life of my child … to the ignorance of an old woman; and not only the life of my child, brother, but her own life, and with it the lives of all the children I might, peradventure, have begot out of her hereafter" (

Walter's responses to incidents which would induce in most people a paroxysm of grief are the deformed offspring of a strangely incongruous and divided spirit. They indicate the extent to which Walter's hobbyhorse is a self-defeating attempt to construct for himself a meaningful reality that bridges isolation and frustration. The funeral oration "My Father's Lamentation" (a compendium of classical mourning literature) in response to Bobby's death, the rhetorical exercise presented on the occasion of Tristram's unexpected circumcision, and his expression of grief by the assumption of a stylized posture when he learns of the crushing of his younger son's nose—all convey Walter's attempts to counter the unexpected and impersonal thrusts of fate with the only controls at his disposal, those of gesture and language. The man seems frequently to disappear behind his contrivance, and it is only rarely that we are allowed to glimpse the emotion that defies formalization. One of these moments is given to us in the image of Walter beside his brother's grave, perceived, presumably, by a more mature Tristram and recalled, therefore, with a fuller degree of consciousness and understanding. "—Where—All my father's systems shall be baffled by his sorrows; and, in spight of his philosophy, I shall behold him, as he inspects the lackered plate, twice taking his spectacles from off his nose, to wipe away the dew which nature has shed upon them—When I see him cast in the rosemary with an air of disconsolation, which cries through my ears,—O Toby! In what corner of the world shall I seek thy fellow?" (VI.xxv.452). Less directly, we are left to detect the strains of emotionality that fairly scream through the intensity of Walter's intellectual attacks and belie the nature of his involvement:

My father had such a skirmishing, cutting kind of a slashing way with him in his disputations, thrusting and ripping, and giving every one a stroke to remember him by in his turn that if there were twenty people in company in less than half an hour he was sure to have every one of 'em against him.

What did not a little contribute to leave him thus without an ally, was, that if there was any one post more untenable than the rest, he would be sure to throw himself into it.… (VIII.xxxiv.588)

Walter is ruled by his fear of spontaneity—a fear that is ironic in a man whose richness of imagination and intensity of spirit do, in fact, militate against the coldness and formality of a purely rational approach. In moments of greatest crisis the numbed philosopher is able to summon expressive forms which give him an illusory sense of controlling the uncontrollable reality. It is before the more ordinary circumstances of his relationships that the defenses crumble and his humanity is exhibited in all of its glorious illogicality and inadequacy.

The consistency of Walter's characterization and the piteousness of his circumstances are most fully revealed through his sexual conflict. It is in the physical functioning of man that Walter finds the most frightening signs of his own vulnerability and the most unhappy possibilities of spontaneous response. Walter's attempts to formalize the spontaneous inevitably end in failure and the attempt changes not only his life, but also the lives of his descendants. Indeed, Tristram's unfortunate fate is largely linked to his father's attitude toward sexuality, which is, one feels, only partially determined by the incapacities of age: "As a small specimen of this extreme exactness of his, to which he was in truth a slave, he had made it a rule for many years of his life, on the first Sunday night of every month throughout the whole year, as certain as ever the Sunday night came,—to wind up a large house-clock which we had standing upon the back-stairs head, with his own hands:—and being somewhere between fifty and sixty years of age … he had likewise gradually brought some other little family concernments to the same period, in order, as he would often say to my uncle Toby, to get them all out of the way at one time, and be no more plagued and pester'd with them the rest of the month" (I.iv.8).

The repressive nature of the Shandys' sexual relationships is the ultimate expression of their inability to relate to one another: "… cursed luck! said he, biting his lip as he shut the door, for a man to be master of one of the finest chains of reasoning in nature, and have a wife at the same time with such a headpiece, that he cannot hang up a single inference within side of it, to save his soul from destruction" (II.xix.147). But, more than this, Walter's final, bitter repudiation of the sexual act reveals its importance to him as an instance of the natural, spontaneous, and emotional elements in man which prove his animality and balance his spiritual and rational aspirations. "—That provision should be made for continuing the race of so great, so exalted and godlike a Being as man I am far from denying—but philosophy speaks freely of every thing; and therefore I still think and do maintain it to be a pity, that it should be done by means of a passion which bends down the faculties, and turns all the wisdom, contemplations, and operations of the soul backwards a passion, my dear, continued my father, addressing himself to my mother, which couples and equals wise men with fools, and makes us come out of caverns and hiding-places more like satyrs and four-footed beasts than men" (IX.xxxiii.644-45).

It is, then, his refusal to recognize the needs of his own nature, and his inability to reconcile the practical demands of a contradictory, obscure, and frequently illogical world with the strivings of his soul and mind, that make of Walter a tragi-comic figure. Tristram's plea is well-founded: "Will not the gentle reader pity my father from his soul? to see an orderly and well-disposed gentleman, who tho' singular, yet inoffensive in his notions, so played upon in them by cross purposes;—to look down upon the stage, and see him baffled and overthrown in all his little systems and wishes; to behold a train of events perpet, ually falling out against him, and in so critical and cruel a way, as if they had purposedly been plann'd and pointed against him, merely to insult his speculations" (I.xix.55-56). But still, while Walter seems doomed to suffer all the agonies of a cruelly impervious fate, his suffering is actually the absurd result of his absurdly limited vision. The unfortunate incidents which fill his life—as slight as the misnaming of one of his sons, as important as the death of the other—are all equally diminished by the nature of the consciousness which defines them. It is rather his isolation that achieves a tragic dimension: an isolation that grows from the disparity (we are reminded again of Locke) between the forms of his aspiration and the materials of the empirical world. The individuality of his experience alienates him both from himself—natural functions divided against vain strivings—and from others, who are also unique and also lonely.

Tristram.—In Tristram, Sterne gives us a new version of the paradox that plagues Walter. The father's fascination with processes of thought becomes in the son a preoccupation with the functioning of wit. Both would control and make meaningful the forms of reality with their particular methods of perception and expression. Both are defeated by the subjective limitations of imagination. On the level of action and communication they are rendered impotent.

Tristram makes it quite clear, at the well-known opening of his story, that his physical and intellectual endowments were thoughtlessly determined at the very moment of his conception: "I wish either my father or my mother, or indeed both of them, as they were in duty both equally bound to it, had minded what they were about when they begot me; had they duly consider'd how much depended upon what they were then doing; that not only the production of a rational Being was concern'd in it, but that possibly the happy formation and temperature of his body, perhaps his genius and the very cast of his mind; and, for aught they knew to the contrary, even the fortunes of his whole house might take their turn from the humours and dispositions which were then uppermost …" (I.i.4). As if the absurdity of his begetting were not a sufficiently negative force in the determination of his life, Tristram goes on to describe himself as a fool of Fortune, whose life has been filled not with great evils but with "pitiful misadventures and cross accidents" (I.v.10). It is with the descriptions of these misfortunes and accidents that the first six volumes are primarily concerned.

It must be noted, however, that Tristram's version of the catastrophic circumstances of his conception rests upon a favored theory of his father. Similarly, the effect on his life of the small misfortunes and accidents which are treated as critical milestones in his development can be largely attributed to passionate attitudes, communicated passionately to him. In short, it is in the subtly created relationship of the father to the son that we find the real roots of Tristram's own development.

Walter's beliefs and aspirations are determining factors, not because they have reference to a validating reality, but because they become in themselves versions of reality, positive causes of action. Nowhere is this clearer or more important than in the influence of Walter's name theory upon Tristram's life: its determination of the limits of Tristram's aspirations and the ironic forms of his failure. Trismegistus is the name that Walter carefully chooses for his son. Tristram is the name the child is mistakenly given. "But, of all the names in the universe, he had the most unconquerable aversion for TRISTRAM;—he had the lowest and most contemptible opinion of it of anything in the world——thinking it could possibly produce nothing in rerum naturd, but what was extreamly mean and pitiful …" (I.xix.55). It is toward Trismegistus, the Egyptian god of fertility, inventor of writing, creator of language, reckoner of time, that the youngest of the Shandy males must eternally strive.4 Like Sisyphus, he will come repeatedly within a hair's breadth of success, only to meet defeat—as Tristram: his life molded by the name chosen but not given, molded by Walter's prenatal expectations and postpartum disappointment. But, as with Sisyphus, the absurdity of his situation will contain within it the seeds of an ironic success that is part, not of the result, but of the effort.

Tristram does recognize, to some extent, the strength of Walter's influence upon him. For example, when he speaks of the muddle into which he has gotten both the reader and himself while trying to unify the diverse parts of his story, he explains: "—But 'tis my father's fault; and whenever my brains come to be dissected, you will perceive, without spectacles, that he has left a large uneven thread, as you sometimes see in an unsaleable piece of cambrick, running along the whole length of the web, and so untowardly, you cannot so much as cut out a ** … or a fillet, or a thumbstall, but it is seen or felt—(VI.xxxiii.462-63). Like Walter, Tristram is not attracted to an idea because of its relevance. The smallest association is sufficient to stimulate him and, once stimulated, he is engrossed by the possibilities for its development. Thus, after he presents Locke's explanation of the failure of the understanding to retain impressions and illustrates it in the little scene involving Dolly and the sealing wax, he acknowledges: "Now you must understand that not one of these was the true cause of the confusion in my uncle Toby's discourse; and it is for that very reason I enlarge upon them so long, after the manner of great physiologists,-—to shew the world what it did not arise from" (II.ii.86). Although Tristram is able to view his father's obsessive love of systematizing with some degree of objectivity and is clearly unwilling to go to the same extremes in his intellectual commitments, he is unable to resist the lure of an original hypothesis. Speaking of his father's views on swearing, he says: "The hypothesis is, like most of my father's, singular and ingenious too; nor have I any objection to it, but that it overturns my own …" (III.xii.183). In the course of the book he does put forth many hypotheses of his own. They are concerned with such diverse matters as the inability of wit or judgment to develop in a northern climate (III.xx. 196), the cyclical movements of history, with special emphasis on epistemological and cultural areas (I.xxi.64-65), and the advisability of using goat's whey as a cure for impotence and milk coffee to treat consumption (

In general, there is a basic difference between the attitudes of father and son toward themselves, which determines the nature of their intellectual postures. The difference is one of perspective and imagination. While Tristram does share his father's eccentric interests, he is drawn always to the element of wit that is involved in the composition of an idea, rather than to the ramifications of the metaphysical exercise. "I am not such a bigot to Slawkenbergius, as my father; there is a fund in him, no doubt; but in my opinion, the best, I don't say the most profitable, but the most amusing part of Hafen Slawkenbergius, is his tales, and considering he was a German, many of them told not without fancy …" (III.xlii.241). Tristram's acute interest in the possibilities of wit grows from his recognition of relativity as a dominant principle in the subjective universe. This recognition prevents him from committing himself absolutely to any statement or judgment. Like Walter, he delights in setting up a proof that will support a particular hypothesis; but, unlike his father, he is able to discover afterward without difficulty or upset that his hypothesis is somehow irrelevant to the proof (I.xxi.65). Further, this recognition of relativity is closely linked to his poetic and sentimental awareness of the transitory nature of work, life, and love: "Time wastes too fast: every letter I trace tells me with what rapidity Life follows my pen; the days and hours of it, more precious, my dear Jenny! than the rubies about thy neck, are flying over our heads like light clouds of a windy day, never to return more every thing presses on whilst thou art twisting that lock,—see! it grows grey; and every time I kiss thy hand to bid adieu, and every absence which follows it, are preludes to that eternal separation which we are shortly to make" (IX.viii.610-11).

If Tristram cannot evade his imprisonment in a world without objective certainties, he is able to penetrate many of the mysteries which characterize the isolated positions of its inhabitants. It is part of Tristram's weakness that he is attracted to Walter's hypotheses at the same time that he is aware of their gratuitous nature. It is also an indication of his strength. His consciousness is more inclusive and critical. For him (here he differs from Locke) wit is the superior faculty. He delights in its exercise, in the discovery of paradox, in the revelation of irony. If he frequently cannot differentiate or order, he can (and always does) enjoy the spectacle of a kaleidoscope world whose component parts are endlessly shifting and recombining to present each individual observer with a uniquely formed totality.

Tristram's hobbyhorse is the book he is writing: "What a rate have I gone on at, curvetting and frisking it away, two up and two down for four volumes together, without looking once behind, or even on one side of me, to see whom I trod upon!—I'll tread upon no one,—quoth I to myself when I mounted—I'll take a good rattling gallop; but I'll not hurt the poorest jack-ass upon the road So off I set up one lane down another, through this turn-pike over that, as if the arch-jockey of jockeys had got behind me" (IV.xx.298). To recount his story and offer his opinions is Tristram's way of communicating the nature of his experience. To present it with immediacy is to experience directly as he creates. The only formalism is the arbitrary order imposed by his mercurial wit. Attempting to translate his mode of perception and expression into the major work of his life. Tristram unknowingly reveals the central irony of his position. He would compensate for the externally imposed failures which he must suffer as a man with the self-generated success that he will achieve as an author. "Oh, Tristrain! Tristram! … the credit, which will attend thee as an author, shall counterbalance the many evils which have befallen thee as a man thou wilt feast upon the one—when thou hast lost all sense and remembrance of the other!" (IV.xxxii.337). He defeats his purpose, however, because his work is a truer reflection of his perverse vision than he is able to appreciate. In accordance with his view of the world as a half-mad system of arbitrary relationships, Tristram obligingly dons a fool's cap in which to face his audience,5 although he does, on occasion, insist upon the real presence, the face behind the fool's grin: … if I should seem now and then to trifle upon the road, or should sometimes put on a fool's cap with a bell to it, for a moment or two as we pass along, don't fly off,—but rather courteously give me credit for a little more wisdom than appears upon my outside …" ( He is so dominated by the cheerful, exaggerated inconsistency of his licentious wit that his art becomes merely another facet of his determination. The control, as we shall see, is Sterne's. The failure is Tristram's. His curious, confusing relationship with the reader, his exuberant enjoyment of baroque rhetoric, his love of paradox, and his indulgence in verbal practical jokes all combine to make a seeming mockery of artistic form.

In a curious way, then, the dichotomies which plague Walter are oddly transmuted in Tristram. Walter's delight in the functioning of mind becomes in the more aware Tristram an enjoyment of the possibilities of wit. Walter's adherence to rationality carries him into an abstract world that has no parallel in reality. Tristram's creation of paradox provides us with linguistic and intellectual patterns that comment upon reality while trapping us in the limitations of his subjective and eccentric awareness. As Walter's obsession with reason causes his denial of spontaneity, Tristram's love of the metaphorical defies the exertion of control and makes a great irony of his central purpose—to know and explain. Both escape into an area in which action and expression are deprived of their effectiveness.

Yorick.—Between Walter and Tristram stands Yorick, the third and most firmly grounded "man of reason," who suggests still another possibility for the functioning of the rational mind, and another ironic example of frustration and disappointment. Since Tristram, as the narrator, functions largely outside of the novel's action, and since the nature of his relationship with the reader prevents him from being completely reliable as a reporter, Yorick is useful in providing a norm against which the other characters can be measured. When Yorick meets the effete or unnatural, his response is pure practicality: "I wish, Yorick, said my father, you had read Plato; for there you would have learnt that there are two LOVES—I know there were two RELIGIONS, replied Yorick, amongst the ancients one——for the vulgar, and another for the learned; but I think ONE LOVE might have served both of them very well" (VIII.xxxiii.587). He meets the abstract with a similar kind of parry: "I wish there was not a polemic divine, said Yorick, in the kingdom; one ounce of practical divinity—is worth a painted ship load of all their reverences have imported these fifty years (V.xxviii.387). In short, Yorick's hatred of the hypocritical, his ability to penetrate and undermine affectation, his commonsense and uncompromised values, and his clearsightedness in a world that seems always to be viewed in distorting mirrors, are all attributes which make him an effective commentator able to introduce a note of reason, although he is unable to effect any change in events or personality.

It is through his identification of both Tristram and Yorick with the figure of the jester that Sterne draws the closest parallel between them. As jesters they share a love of laughter, a sense of the absurd, a verbal dexterity and lively wit, a dislike of all that is not honest, and a recognition of individual eccentricity and social affectation. Further, both are raised to a level of tragi-comic seriousness and given universal reference by their closeness to death: Tristram's omnipresent sense of a fatal illness and, therefore, of the transitory; the association of Yorick with Hamlet's fool, who is himself a symbol of the impermanence of human values. There is an important difference here, however, for Tristram and Yorick are both types of the wise fool whose mockery masks sense. Tristram alone is victimized by his own wit.

As with all the central characters of Tristram Shandy, Yorick's personality is organized around a basic irony, a tension between the abstract and practical levels of behavior. Those qualities which seem most admirable make him vulnerable to the senseless malice of the community: "… it was his misfortune all his life long to bear the imputation of saying and doing a thousand things of which (unless my esteem blinds me) his nature was incapable. All I blame him for or rather, all I blame and alternately like him for, was that singularity of his temper, which would never suffer him to take pains to set a story right with the world, however in his power.… he ever looked upon the inventor, the propagator and believer of an illiberal report alike so injurious to him, he could not stoop to tell his story to them—and so trusted to time and truth to do it for him" (IV.xxvii.324). In his alienation from his congregation he becomes the very antithesis of the successful pastor: full of humanity and good will that cannot be communicated or implemented, the ineffectual and increasingly sceptical shepherd of a rebellious flock.

However, the bulk of responsibility lies not with Yorick himself but with the community, which can neither understand nor appreciate him. What they construe as Yorick's pride is revealed to be rare objectivity and modesty. Rather than disclose a flattering truth about himself, Yorick prefers to appear as a figure of low comedy: "His character was, he loved a jest in his heart—and as he saw himself in the true point of ridicule, he would say, he could not be angry with others for seeing him in a light, in which he so strongly saw himself…" (I.x.19). Similarly, his "wild way of talking" is revealed to be little more than good commonsense, and his chief indiscretion is an honesty that will not be compromised: "In a word, tho' he never sought, yet, at the same time, as he seldom shun'd occasions of saying what came uppermost, and without much ceremony; he had but too many temptations in life, of scattering his wit and his humour, his gibes and his jests about him.—They were not lost for want of gathering" (I.xi.27).

Yorick shares Tristram's critical awareness, his perception of paradox, his psychological acumen. But he is not limited by Tristram's obsessive concern with ambiguity. His associations and his style are controlled and direct. Therefore, he cannot, like the brothers Shandy, be betrayed by the subjectivity within, by a disparity between his aspirations and his means of achieving them. It is for this reason that Yorick has no need of a hobbyhorse; his mount is real, if pathetic. Instead, he is betrayed by the subjectivity without—a victim of the relativity and fallibility of opinion and judgment. Although Yorick can meaningfully organize his own perceptions, these have no effect on the behavior of others. For the majority, appearance (variously perceived) is reality. It is Yorick's comprehension of the values that belie appearance that is the cause of his estrangement from the community which he would serve.

Toby.—Although none of the other characters is idealized in the way that Yorick is, there are others who, with Tristram, share Yorick's corrective function. For Sterne, a simple commonsense perspective is the sine qua non that can cut through illusion and hypocrisy. To the extent that they possess this kind of perspective, both Toby and Trim contain within themselves an antidote to their own eccentricities, a corrective of total obsession. Toby's intuitive responses ground him in the matter at hand. Because he is dominated by his emotions, which are in turn stimulated by the particular event, his attention, once fixed, is tenacious. His mind rejects the more tortuous paths of abstraction which delight the sophisticated intelligence. Thus, when he attends the visitation dinner with his brother, so that they may determine the possibility of changing Tristram's name, he and Yorick are alone in remembering their purpose. His naive directness and modesty contrast sharply with the Scholastics' self-concerned quibbling over problems of legality, church history, and semantics. When Toby learns that the members of the court had ruled unanimously that the Duchess of Suffolk was not of kin to her own child, he asks a question that a concern for human values necessitates, a simple question that indicates with naive curiosity the absurdity of applying abstract reasoning to fundamental human issues: "And what said the duchess of Suffolk to it? said my uncle Toby" (IV.xxix.330). It is essentially the same as his response to Walter's attempts at recounting the various reasons suggested by philosophers to explain short and long noses: "There is no cause but one … why one man's nose is longer than another's, but because that God pleases to have it so" (III.xli.240).

But for all of Toby's directness, he cannot keep himself from becoming involved in one of the most puzzling paradoxes of the Shandy's altogether puzzling universe. Expressed through his hobby-horsical love of military campaigns, this involvement is the most extreme sign of his inability to function in any but a subjective world. He is not tempted by the elaborate, abstract exercises of reason, and is not even able to use logical concepts to explain that kind of experience which does not directly impinge upon his own. For this reason he can only communicate on a limited, primarily intuitive level. The only kind of experience with which he is equipped to deal is that which refers to fundamental human emotions. Thus his wisdom is nurtured on simplicity and develops from an absolute inability to comprehend multiplicity. This differs substantially from the sophisticated, philosophical awareness that is Yorick's.

There is never any question about Toby's humanity. His possession of this quality is established early in the novel when we are allowed to hear him addressing an imprisoned fly: "I'll not hurt a hair of thy head:——Go, says he, lifting up the sash, and opening his hand as he spoke, to let it escape; go poor devil, get thee gone, why should I hurt thee?—This world surely is wide enough to hold thee and me" (II.xii.1 13). The story of Le Fever provides us with indisputable proof of his benevolence, as it does of his loyalty, tenderness, optimism, and total susceptibility. Taken together they explain Hazlitt's observation that "uncle Toby is one of the finest compliments ever paid to human nature."6 Taken together they also underscore the paradox of Toby's hobby: the obsession of a man of love with the forms and procedures of war. Like all of the Shandy obsessions, his contains an element of the universal. Toby himself hints at this in his odd explanation of belief that the ox is a more suitable animal than the bull to stand symbolically with woman as the founder of society: "For when the ground was tilled, said my uncle Toby, and made worth inclosing, then they began to secure it by walls and ditches, which was the origin of fortification" (V.xxxi.391). Toby does recognize that war is a fundamental expression of some basic biological need: "If, when I was a school-boy, I could not hear a drum beat, but my heart beat with it——was it my fault?—Did I plant the propensity there?—did I sound the alarm within, or Nature?" (VI.xxxii.460). But his recognition is marvelously limited: marvelous in its human misunderstanding and in its self-deception, for Toby's justification of his obsession is a brilliant network of truth and falsity, of petty detail and grand concern. It is a sincere and flawed attempt to make intelligible the classically obscure relationship of ends and means. It is a testimony to the thoroughness of the paradox, the intensity of the conflict between the illusion and the reality. Questioned about the way in which man is shaped for the terrors of war, Toby responds: "—But why did you not add, Yorick,—if not by NATURE—that he is so by NECESSITY?—For what is war? what is it, Yorick, when fought as ours has been … upon principles of honour what is it, but the getting together of quiet and harmless people, with their swords in their hands, to keep the ambitious and the turbulent within bounds? And heaven is my witness, brother Shandy, that the pleasure I have taken in these things, and that infinite delight, in particular, which has attended my sieges in my bowling green, has arose within me, and I hope in the corporal too, from that consciousness we both had, that in carrying them on, we were answering the great ends of our creation" (VI.xxxii.462).

The most striking part of Toby's defense lies in its conclusion: in the confusion of the game with its object. Indeed, it is the extent to which Toby is unable to differentiate between the two, the extent to which one becomes a complete substitute for the other, that makes Toby's obsession so fascinating and invests it with a psychological validity of its own. Toby's explanation of his motivations and his description of the development of his interest suggest that the grimmest aspects of war have been repressed in much the same way that he has escaped from an awareness of his wound. In a sense, the affliction of his wound represents the only infusion of the ideal with the real—in this case, a physical fact that cannot be denied.

Significantly, it is not Toby's instinct for life that restores his health. His wound, a scar from the contact of mind and body with the undeniable fact of war, is healed when the reality is made acceptable: when it is, in effect, sublimated. "The desire of life and health is implanted in man's nature; the love of liberty and enlargement is a sister-passion to it: These my uncle Toby had in common with his species;—and either of them had been sufficient to account for his earnest desire to get well and out of doors; but I have told you before that nothing wrought with our family after the common way;—and from the time and manner in which this eager desire shew'd itself in the present case, the penetrating reader will suspect that there was some other cause or crotchet for it in my uncle Toby's head …" (II.iv.92). The cause is Trim's creation of a game that has all the fascinations of war, drawing its inspiration, progress, and form from actual campaigns, but sharing none of war's horrors. It is, in effect, a concretization of the meaning which war has always had for Toby. And the soldier's fidelity to (as well as Tristram's description of) the smallest details having to do with the accoutrements and techniques of battle gives the illusion its reality for both Toby and the reader. At the same time, the irony of the exquisite complications of warfare—the rational control of that which is a sign of man's irrationality—is underlined.

Of course, the irony is always reciprocal. If reality gives the lie to Toby's illusion, that illusion—harmless in the protected quiet of the bowling green—accentuates the questionable concomitants of his noble utterances: "… the knowledge of arms tends so apparently to the good and quiet of the world—and particularly that branch of it which we have practised together in our bowling-green, has no object but to shorten the strides of AMBITION, and intrench the lives and the fortunes of the few from the plunderings of the many …" (IX.viii.609-10). Although Toby's wholehearted, childish immersion in his hobby has its delightful side, there is a more menacing aspect to it in his dependence for the continuation of his play upon the continuation of actual combat and in his sorrow at the signing of the Peace of Utrecht.

It is further significant that when the regrettable peace forces Toby to turn from the delights of war, it is by the lures of love that he is tempted.7

—No more was he to dream, he had fixed the royal standard upon the tower of the Bastile, and awake with it streaming in his head.

—Softer visions,—gentler vibrations stole sweetly in upon his slumbers; the trumpet of war fell out of his hands,—he took up the lute, sweet instrument! of all others the most delicate! the most difficult!—how wilt thou touch it, my dear uncle Toby? (VI.xxxv.466)

That his immersion in military affairs had been a substitute for romance is suggested by this comparison of Toby, about to embark on his bowling-green adventure, with an ardent lover: "Never did lover post down to a belov'd mistress with more heat and expectation, than my uncle Toby did, to enjoy this self-same thing in private" (II.v.98).

Toby's new excursion into romance with the Widow Wadman serves the same purpose as his experimentation with the war games. They represent different expressions of the same impulse and, just as the complications of the game offered an escape from the harsher realities of the wound, so too with the maneuvers of love. Unfortunately for Toby, it is not as easy with the Widow Wadman to cloak the reality in the illusion. In the first place, he is not as familiar with the rules and procedures of this contest: "… he knew not (as my father had reproach'd him), so much as the right end of a Woman from the wrong, and therefore was never altogether at his ease near any one of them—unless in sorrow or distress; then infinite was his pity …" (IX.iii.602-603). In the second place, the game cannot be played for an extended period of time. The campaign is brief and the victor is expected to claim his reward. Just as Toby does not want the rewards of war—he bemoans the signing of the treaty, for it means that the reality must deny the illusion—neither does he wish to claim the reward of this other combat, sexual fulfillment. His wound, the only reality with which Toby must cope although he will never fully comprehend it, hinders him and negates the possibility of sublimation. When the crisis arrives he can only sidestep the issue and withdraw. When asked his reasons for wishing to marry, he replies, "They are written … in the Common-Prayer Book" (IX.xxv.634). Finding himself put off by the Widow's indelicate concern, he trades the new hobby for the old pleasures and proceeds to read about the Siege of Jericho (IX.xxv.635). The frustrations, tragic as well as comic, are inherent in the paradox of his situation.

Toby and Walter.—As we have observed with regard to Walter and Tristram, the hobbyhorse can be seen as a result of the individual's method of perceiving and his mode of expression. In other words, it provides the bridge between the world of thought and the world of action. The confidence in the power of wit and reason which is shared by Tristram and his father extends also to their love of rhetoric, their fascination with forms of expression. Both interests are reflected in their "hobbyhorsical" preoccupations. Toby, on the other hand, is not a man of thought and expression. He is rather the man of feeling and action. With significant irony Sterne interrupts Toby, in his first dramatic scene, after Toby has repeated the words "I think … I think." He is left gesturing mutely with his pipe as Tristram begins a long digression (I.xxi.63), and is picked up later when the long pause is lamely concluded: "I think, replied he,—it would not be amiss, brother, if we rung the bell" (

Toby's early love of the military reflects his adherence to simple, formularized values as well as his desire to express himself directly through action. Sustaining his wound, he is not only forced into contact with a harsh, irrefutable reality, but is also, in his attempt to describe clearly the place and circumstances of his mishap, forced to rely upon language and abstract reasoning: "… the many perplexities he was in, arose out of the almost insurmountable difficulties he found in telling his story intelligibly, and giving such clear ideas of the differences and distinctions between the scarp and the counterscarp, the glacis and covered way,——the half-moon and ravelin, as to make his company fully comprehend where and what he was about" (II.i.82). In a sense, it is his inability to master language that is responsible for the perpetuation of his sickness. As Tristram explains: "T'was not by ideas,——by heaven! his life was put in jeopardy by words" (II.ii.87). His hobby is born from his lack of verbal success, and with his new-found approximation of action comes also an approximation of health. Still, when he attempts to function anywhere beyond this play world of soldiers and campaigns, when he attempts to communicate with anyone whose interests and responses differ to any extent from his own, he faces the same acute problems. Because of the polar differences that exist in Toby's and Walter's perceptions of the world, their relationship emphasizes the propensities and weaknesses of each.

It is necessary to recognize the depth of feeling, the good will and common sympathy, that exists between the two brothers. Typical is Toby's immediate response to Trim's explanation of the Widow Wadman's repeated inquiries into the nature of his wound: "—Let us go to my brother Shandy's, said he" (IX.xxxi.643). Nor is Walter's attachment to Toby any less strong. "He was, however, frank and generous in his nature;——at all times open to conviction; and in the little ebullitions of this subacid humour toward others, but particularly toward my uncle Toby, whom he truly loved; he would feel more pain, ten times told (except in the affair of my aunt Dinah, or where an hypothesis was concerned) than what he ever gave" (II.xii.1 14). But Toby is as little able to overcome the pressure of Walter's rhetoric to discover his meaning as he is able to overcome the narrowness of his own associations. And the nature of Toby's customary response is a constant cause of disturbance to Walter: "… it is one of the most unaccountable problems that ever I met with in my observations of human nature, that nothing should prove my father's mettle so much, or make his passions go off so like gun-powder, as the unexpected strokes his science met with from the quaint simplicity of my uncle Toby's questions" (III.xli.239). Even when Walter vows that he will never again tease his brother about his hobbyhorse, his own language—reflecting the irresistible attraction that the subject has for him—undercuts the force of his intention. "May my brains be knock'd out with a battering ram or a catapulta, I care not which, quoth my father to himself, if ever I insult this worthy soul more" (III.xxiv.212). When the brothers do respond to one another's pronouncements, the cause can always be traced to a misinterpretation growing out of a private association. Thus Walter, at one point, becomes interested in Toby's discussion of fortification because he finds in it ripe ground for a dissertation upon trade (II.xiv.1 17-18). Or Toby wrongly defines a word when there is more than one possible meaning that could be assigned to it. "'Tis a pity, said my father, that truth can only be on one side, brother Toby, considering what ingenuity these learned men have all shewn in their solutions of noses.—Can noses be dissolved? replied my uncle Toby" (III.xli.239). But more often than not Toby merely provides Walter with a convenient presence at which he can philosophize. Unhappily Walter is doomed to be a teacher who cannot teach since Toby is the student incapable of learning.

The irony of their relative positions is continually emphasized by the effect which each unconsciously achieves, an effect that seems frequently to stand in direct contradiction to the one intended or expected. It is with good reason that uncle Toby is compared to the Cynic philosopher Diogenes, who refuted the arguments of Zeno against motion: "… the Philosopher would use no other argument to the sceptic, who disputed with him against the reality of motion, save that of rising up upon his legs, and walking a-cross the room …" (I.xxiv.78). For the irrefutable simplicity of Toby's commonsense response seems often to contain more relevance, more meaning, more profound intuition, than all of Walter's elaborate theorizing.

As the antients agree, brother Toby, said my father, that there are two different and distinct kinds of love, according to the different parts which are affected by it the Brain or Liver—I think when a man is in love, it behoves him a little to consider which of the two he is fallen into.

What signifies it, brother Shandy, replied my uncle Toby, which of the two it is, provided it will but make a man marry, and love his wife, and get a few children. (VIII.xxxiii.585-86)

Of course, there is another, deeper irony here that is inherent in the nature of their lives. Walter, despite his analytical and rational approach, has married and begotten children, while Toby, although not lacking in feelings proper to his sex, seems doomed to a childless bachelorhood. It is but another example of the illusory and deceptive effect of language in its tenuous relation to thought and its more tenuous relation to reality.

Similarly, Toby's gestures, his facial expressions, his habit of whistling Lillabullero "when anything shocked or surprised him; but especially when any thing, which he deem'd very absurd, was offered" (I.xxi.69), all declare the impotence of language, its in feriority to a more delicate and subtle method of communication. Meaning shines through the intuitive response while it is hidden beneath the obliquity of the complex, carefully planned utterance.

Trim.—Trim and Toby's relationship offers the only example of communication on an explicitly verbal as well as a mute, intuitive level. The irony of their relationship consists of the domination of master by servant, for although Toby frequently acts as a kindly guardian to Trim, gently reprimanding his lapses of taste, it is Trim who draws the pattern for their lives and emerges as the stronger, more lucid of the two. Trim is more consistent than any of the Shandys. He is not ruled so much by an obsession as he is by a kindly understanding of his master's needs and a sincere concern for the practice of basic moral and humanitarian precepts.

Although it is true that Trim is willing to mount Toby's hobby-horse and share with him a total imaginative immersion in the minutiae of their play battles, one does not feel that he is as deeply committed. He delights in his own inventiveness in working out the details of their game, and he is not immune to the delights of play, but his real interest is in his master's well-being. His purpose is therapeutic; when one form of therapy becomes impractical, he throws himself without regret into the development of the next possibility, the romance with the Widow Wadman.

If Trim could be said to have a hobbyhorse of his own, it would be this: "The fellow lov'd to advise,—or rather to hear himself talk…" (II.v.95). Trim is an orator, and because he is a subtle mixture of the intuitively artful and the intuitively artless, he functions as a foil for both Toby and Walter. A central irony of his characterization grows out of the paradox developed between art and nature.8 Trim is the natural orator whose instinct approximates art. Nevertheless, he is unable to differentiate art from nature and can only comprehend fiction when it is reduced to concrete terms. He resorts, as does Toby, to the use of gesture and posture in order to express himself; but while Toby's dependence is clearly the result of impotence before language, Trim's bears the force of intention. Asked for an opinion, he formally arranges himself in a particular attitude before replying: "Prithee Trim, said Yorick, without staying for my father's leave,—tell us honestly—what is thy opinion concerning this self same radical heat and radical moisture? … The corporal put his hat under his left arm, and with his stick hanging upon the wrist of it, by a black thong split into a tassel about the knot, he marched up to the ground where he had performed his catechism; then touching his under jaw with the thumb and fingers of his right hand before he opened his mouth, he delivered his notion thus" (V.xxxviii.400). But his knowledge of the gesture which can most effectively be employed, the posture which can most eloquently be assumed, is intuitive. It is prompted by his fine sense of the dramatic and facilitated by a matter-of-fact acceptance of his own body.

Trim's rhetoric—indeed his whole method of approaching and interpreting the objective world—is characterized by his commonsense perspective, literalness, and lack of imagination. Unlike Walter, he is never led astray by a richly fabricating wit or a playful fancy. Trim tends always to particularize the abstract and translates everything into experiential terms. He is unable to differentiate between imaginative materials and phenomenological occurrences, although he is himself, in his instinct for rhetoric, presented as an artist. He must submerge the work of art and the theoretical formulation in the chaotic mass of personal experience. His emotional rendering of Yorick's sermon "On Conscience" demonstrates this, just as the responses of Toby, Walter, and Dr. Slop to his reading comprise a statement about their epistemological and aesthetic orientations.

In Walter's and Trim's responses to Bobby's death we are given "two orators … contrasted by nature and education, haranguing over the same bier" ( Walter's route, which proceeds by way of metaphor, reference, and allusion, is a circuitous one, while Trim, we are told, goes "strait forwards as nature could lead him, to the heart" ( His speech is the more effective of the two, for it is not obscured by the oddments of learning. Trim is, in a sense, the ideal orator, for his rhetoric is an expression of the whole man. His eloquence is derived from his conviction of the correctness of his cause and reflects the generosity of his heart and the strength of his values. In this sense he satisfies the classical Platonic rules of oratory. While Walter's primary concerns are intellectual and aesthetic (this is true of his perceptions as well as his mode of expression), Trim's orientation is principally moral. He deals in clear absolutes, never recognizing that more than one meaning may be assigned to a value term. Thus, when Dr. Slop gives his permission for Trim to read the sermon on the grounds that they all take equal risks on which side of the church it is written, Trim replies: "'Tis wrote upon neither side … for 'tis only upon Conscience, an' please your Honours," (II.xvi.120). Trim's naive simplicity does more here to undercut the doctor's position than would a direct attack. He produces a similar effect with similar means when he speaks of the misfortunes of people he has known, while Walter lies prostrated after learning that Tristram's nose has been crushed in the birth process:

O!—these are misfortunes, cried Trim,—pulling out his handkerchief—these are misfortunes, may it please your honour, worth lying down and crying over.

My father could not help blushing. (IV.iv.275)

Trim emerges as a more balanced human being than most of Sterne's other characters. Through his morality and humanity, the world of thought and the world of action are united, and there is no disparity created between his aspiration and the reality against which it is measured. His judgments are not marred by Walter's eccentricities or Toby's unknowing optimism, and both perspective and deliberation mark his actions. That the functioning of his body is as normal as the functioning of his mind and conscience—typified by the same easy acceptance and righteous confidence—is made clear by his relationship with Bridget. Walter, Toby, and Tristram are unable, for a combination of physical and psychological reasons, to allow themselves the satisfactions of normal sexual pleasures. Walter and Toby find their escapes in games of the intellect and the imagination. Tristram finds his in art and in a harmless but frustrated sentimentality.

Thus, on one side we have Toby's unnatural modesty and the Widow Wadman's elaborate machinations as she attempts to discover the extent and significance of Toby's wound. In contrast, we are given Trim's and Bridget's direct acceptance of the real issue. What is illegitimate curiosity in the widow becomes justifiable concern in the maid. The cause, one infers, lies in the readiness of the suitors and the attitudes of the social groups to which they belong: "… and in this cursed trench, Mrs. Bridget, quoth the Corporal, taking her by the hand, did he receive the wound which crush'd him so miserably here—In pronouncing which he slightly press'd the back of her hand towards the part he felt for—and let it fall" (IX. xxviii.639). Throughout Tristram Shandy, Sterne demonstrates that sexual potency, as an alternative mode of communication, is a function of the whole man, reflecting his capacities and the balance of his faculties. Trim is the most normal of the people who inhabit Tristram's world. The directness of his approach and his firm grounding in the practical and realistic demand the sacrifice of his imagination but allow him to move with physical and intellectual freedom, unhampered by the irrational demands of obsession or the stringent controls of society.

Mrs. Shandy.—At the opposite end of the spectrum stands Mrs. Shandy, who is defined almost exclusively in negative terms: she is Locke's "white paper," unmarred by experience, passive in her perception of the world, seemingly unable to interpret meaningfully or express her impressions, performing her female functions more by accident than through intent. Totally lacking in imagination, she is also without curiosity: "—That she is not a woman of science, my father would say—is her misfortune—but she might ask a question" (VI.xxxix.472). A woman who prefers to remain at home knitting a pair of worsted breeches for her husband rather than joining her family on their Grand Tour, Mrs. Shandy is without ideas or interests and is therefore possessed of few associations, depending upon habit and tradition for her responses. Because her ability to learn is so restricted, she is virtually unable to express herself: "Now she had a way … and that was never to refuse her assent and consent to any proposition my father laid before her, merely because she did not understand it, or had no ideas to the principal word or term of art, upon which the tenet or proposition rolled. She contented herself with doing all that her godfathers and godmothers promised for her—but no more; and so would go on using a hard word twenty years together—and replying to it too, if it was a verb, in all its moods and tenses, without giving herself any trouble to enquire about it" (IX.xi.613).

There are no scenes of greater comic frustration in Tristram Shandy than those which present the dialogues between Tristram's mother and father: "… a discourse seldom went on much further betwixt them, than a proposition,—a reply, and a rejoinder; at the end of which, it generally took breath for a few minutes, (as in the affair of the breeches) and then went on again" (VI.xxxix.472). The patterns of their conversations also contain an elementary paradox. Typically, in the "Bed of Justice" which is held to decide the advisability of putting Tristram into breeches (VI.xviii.437), Mrs. Shandy's continual agreement—intellectual as well as sexual—implies criticism through its passivity. Her extreme flexibility implies a basic, mindless inflexibility and her willingness is tantamount to refusal. In her neutrality, extremes meet and negate one another. Further, their lack of communication extends to sexual matters, and their physical and intellectual incompatibility are reciprocal metaphors. Although they approach their conjugal bed from opposite extremes of temperament and orientation, Walter's accusation of his wife might with justice be applied to him as well: "You never will distinguish, Mrs. Shandy, nor shall I ever teach you to do it, betwixt a point of pleasure and a point of convenience.—This was on the Sunday night;—and further this chapter sayeth not" (VI.xviii. 438-39). The relationship between Mr. and Mrs. Shandy is one of the novel's numerous instances of the difficulties that arise when one attempts to distinguish cause from effect. Their misfortune arises not so much from their own individual circumstances as from the impossibility of combining their two temperaments. Tristram makes it clear that they share—albeit unconsciously—the responsibility for the misfortune of his destiny. "A temperate current of blood ran orderly through her veins in all months of the year, and in all critical moments both of the day and night alike.… And as for my father's example! 'twas so far from being either aiding or abetting thereunto, that 'twas the whole business of his life to keep all fancies of that kind out of her head … And here am I sitting, this 12th day of August, 1766, in a purple jerkin and yellow pair of slippers, without either wig or cap on, a most tragicomical completion of his prediction, "That I should neither think, nor act like any other man's child, upon that very account" (IX.i.600).

Occupying this negative position in terms of potentiality, achievement and aspiration, Mrs. Shandy plays a minor but curiously contemporary and parodic role. Northrop Frye has written in his Anatomy of Criticism: "To the extent that the encyclopaedic form concerns itself with the cycle of human life, an ambivalent female archetype appears in it, sometimes benevolent, sometimes sinister, but usually presiding over and confirming the cyclical movement" (p. 322). Indeed, there is in Mrs. Shandy's presence something of the universal principle of female endurance which persists amid the paradoxes of her position and her personality. She is the woman—the life-force—who remains remote and uninvolved. She is the mother who, in the earliest moments of procreation, flaws the very life she creates because she rejects her own sexuality. She is an absurd Penelope, a silent and frigid Molly Bloom. But within the peculiar, alien demands of her milieu, despite the extraordinary limitations which are imposed upon her from within and without, she does continue to function, and follows, however unenthusiastically, the patterns set down for her.

Sterne seems anxious to convey in his characterization of Mrs. Shandy a sense of an irreducible human quality—purged of all that is meaningful save an inarticulate demand for sympathy: sympathy for her personal situation and for the chaotic collection of circumstances that have created it. It seems important that we are not allowed to see her response to the news of Bobby's death. A strong response would make of her a completely different, more conventional character, and her usual passivity would in this case become intolerable. It is only by maintaining her in neutrality that Sterne can create the polar image that is more limited in its universality but not essentially different from that of all the Shandys.

Sterne follows the same basic technique with his other characters, immersing them in just enough complexity to give them depth while keeping his world sufficiently abstract. In a curious way, the qualities of characterization that are responsible for his realism are responsible also for the abstract universality. These qualities grow out of his awareness of the empiricist paradox and his desire to communicate it in specifically human terms. As we have seen, the hobbyhorse, which expresses the uniqueness of the individual, develops from the control of the external world by the internal economy peculiar to each man. The relation of rational, imaginative, and physical powers determines whether the individual will function principally in a world of intellect, art, action, or instinct; this in turn determines which of the faculties and functions will remain undeveloped and even unused. In such a world, where uniqueness is confirmed by a lack of successful communication, eccentricity must be the rule.

By concentrating upon these basic functions Sterne does, of course, achieve a certain universality in his characterizations, and by keeping outside of the complexities and superficialities of a world that is defined by social values, he cannot avoid a measure of abstraction. Because of the intensely personal nature of each man's response, all gestures toward creating a meaningful, communicable concept are made invalid—all but the attempt itself: the repeated movement outside oneself, the continuation in the face of all frustration and negation.

In some fundamental way, then, Sterne defines his characters as he organizes his structure: through diversity and eccentricity. And his people—much as the form of his book—are subject to the whims and pressures of external forces. Just as they cannot control the world outside of themselves, so too are they unable to determine the course and manner of their own lives. The irony of them all, as we have seen, is the disparity between their aspirations and the reality, their distortions of the world and their delusions about themselves. They are important because they tell us about the nature of the human mind, the nature of the human predicament, the possibility of human salvation. Together their lives compose a pattern which represents universal—not individual—potentiality and limitation. The unity of Tristram Shandy is thematic. Just as the form and structure work to create an image of confusion, so do the characters achieve their definition in isolation and alienation. There are dramatic scenes (vignettes) and the drama of monologue, but there is no progressive dramatic movement. The characters are part of a universal paradox, subject to the ironies that besiege their lives, motivating and defeating them. These ironies are inevitable in a completely subjective world in which neither circumstance nor language can claim absolute reference.…


1 "The Character of Herod," in The Sermons of Mr. Yorick, 1:105.

2Sermons, I:211.

3 "The Character of Herod," p. 107.

4 M. K. Singleton, in his essay "Trismegistic Tenor and Vehicle in Sterne's Tristram Shandy," relates (albeit not very persuasively) Tristram Shandy to Greek and Latin Trismegistic or Hermetic Literature.

5 Martin Esslin, The Theatre of the Absurd, pp. 231-33, points out that the tradition of the clown derives from the mime plays of antiquity in which the clown's absurd behavior reflected his inability to understand simple logical relationships. The court jester who descended from the MIMUS was characterized by his inverted logic, his use of false syllogisms, free associations, and real or feigned madness.

6 Quoted in Alan B. Howes, Yorick and the Critics: Sterne's Reputation in England, 1760-1868, p. 112.

7 A. R. Towers, "Sterne's Cock and Bull Story," [in ELH, vol. xxiv (1957)] also discusses the role of displacement in Toby's hobby.

8 See William S. Farrell, "Nature vs. Art as a Comic Pattern in Tristram Shandy[,]" [in ELH, vol. xxx (1963)]. Farrell discusses at length the expression of the art-nature paradox in the rhetorical patterns of the novel.

James E. Swearingen (essay date 1977)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6685

SOURCE: "The Problem of Interpretation or Criticism under the Aspect of the Hobby-Horse: Hermeneutics and Hobby-Horses," in his Reflexivity in Tristram Shandy: An Essay in Phenomenological Criticism, Yale University Press, 1977, pp. 6-25.

[In the following excerpt, Swearingen suggests that Sterne has created a narrator in Tristram Shandy whose intent is "self-interpretation" in order to sort out the perpetual "misinterpretation" that dogs his family and, consequently, his own life.]

It will eventually be argued in this discussion that Tristram's whole enterprise is a hermeneutics, a process of self-interpretation which is required by his awareness of being part of a family and of a tradition in which there has been serious misinterpretation. It is not surprising that the parson whose sermons interpret biblical texts by imaginatively filling out the human setting of those texts should raise the problem of a general hermeneutics in a work that professes to give an account of the mind. Nothing is more obvious to the most casual reader of the novel than the fact that in Shandy Hall every mode of experience down to the simplest sense perception—of the crevice in the parlor wall, say—offers a problem of interpretation. Historically, hermeneutics may still have been an ancillary discipline of rules for interpreting biblical and legal texts, but in Sterne's novel it undergoes an intuitive expansion of application that was not to reach its full theoretical development until the twentieth century.9

A reasonable starting place is with the narrower question of interpreting the novel, and Tristram does not leave us without advice on that point:

Writing, when properly managed, (as you may be sure I think mine is) is but a different name for conversation: As no one, who knows what he is about in good company, would venture to talk all;—so no author, who understands the just boundaries of decorum and good breeding, would presume to think all: The truest respect which you can pay to the reader's understanding, is to halve this matter amicably, and leave him something to imagine, in his turn, as well as yourself. [I.ii. 108-09]

"Conversation" in Tristram's remark is more than metaphoric: it is an effort to preserve the original spontaneity of spoken language and to overcome' the inherent recalcitrance of the written word in catching the movement of thinking. The intention acknowledged in this passage is to write in a way that will keep the reader's imagination "as busy as my own"; but that indication of how the writing is to be carried forward also implies how reading is done when it is rightly done, implicitly, a prescription about how the text is to be interpreted. In Truth and Method, Hans-Georg Gadamer makes extensive use of the analogy of conversation as a means of describing the event of interpretation which underlies even the most sophisticated epistemological methods. Tristram's similar concern with the event of understanding the spoken word is also concentrated in that term conversation which is the foundation of his reflections, and it invites one to consider what exactly constitutes authentic conversation and authentic interpretation. Three features in Gadamer's discussion (pp. 330 ff., 344 ff.) are especially revealing, though the analysis may appear to make illicitly free use of a casual analogy in the passage quoted above from the novel. I believe, however, that the point of view will be amply justified in the course of the ensuing discussion when interpretation is viewed ontologically, that is, as a way of being instead of merely a way to knowledge.

The first requirement for conversation is that the conversants engage in a give and take in which each tries to enter into what the other says rather than talking at cross-purposes. Such an openness to the other is the posture of one who, unlike the Shandys, is willing to risk the security of one's prior grasp of reality by listening to what another says. Authentic conversation presupposes such an attitude of true enquiry and such a will to understand. Since the implication of that openness for the reader is a requirement for considerably more than mere aesthetic appreciation of the form and technique of his book, it will be well to ask what exactly Tristram requires in this respect, what quality of openness he expects in the exchange with his text. The question is important enough to him that he teases and taunts the reader throughout the novel for inattention, misreading, and misinterpretation. Most conspicuous, however, is the vivid example of how Yorick's sermon on a good conscience, the most important self-contained text within the book because of its normative function, is abused by inattention to its inner significance on the part of the company assembled at its reading in the parlor. It attacks conscience as undependable, inconsistent, and deceptive, thereby accounting for its own poor reception as due to human resources for subverting it. The reading completed, Walter expresses an attitude of abstract aesthetic appreciation: "Thou hast read the sermon extremely well, Trim, quoth my father.… I like the sermon well … 'tis dramatic, and there is something in that way of writing, when skilfully managed, which catches the attention" (II.xvii. 140-41). The character in the novel most guilty of the self-deceptions which the sermon anatomizes listens only to the aesthetic surface, one might say "listens away from" the moral and religious meaning that informs the words and that he is called upon to appropriate. Thus well before Kant's Critique of Judgment completes the subjectivization of aesthetics, Sterne criticizes that aesthetic consciousness which ignores the existential roots in the context of the world from which and about which a text speaks and makes it accessible to an audience. Language for him is still preeminently a signifying milieu which demands that one understand what is said. Walter's response demonstrates how those connections between a text and its world may be dissolved by the preference for the pure immediacy of surface attractiveness, stripping it of its power to speak, judging it in abstraction from the context to which it belongs, and neutralizing its claim to truth.

How fully Steme is in agreement with his conservative Augustan forebears, for whom art and nature were complementary and nature the framework and norm within which art functioned, may also be inferred from the passage. Aesthetic consciousness was destined to dissolve that old sovereignty of nature and to detach art from reality. In Either/Or Kierkegaard makes a moral analysis of the aesthetic as a way of life that demonstrates how it abstracts its object of interest from all ties with the life to which it belongs and attempts to hold it in the simultaneity of purely immediate experience. To do so is for the ego to assume a universal and sovereign authority over everything in a manner comparable to the spirit of technology. Inherent in that spirit is the impulse to dissolve the unity of being and to make the ego the measure of all things, treating the world as a collection of tools or, in the case of the aesthete, pleasures to be manipulated for the immediate gratification of the ego.10 The subjective consequence which interests Kierkegaard is that the need for continuity and unity in life itself is frustrated by that self-destructive demand for immediacy. Tristram plainly discourages our dwelling on the aesthetic appearances of his work by encouraging us to see the significance of the work in its relation to reality and to grasp what it attempts to say. His criterion of conversation, in contrast to autonomous aesthetic consciousness, demands that one become engaged with the extra-aesthetic content of his work, with the book's context of meaningfulness. Gadamer's description of the way in which a common world of reference underlies the comprehension of a text summarizes the point clearly:

Inasmuch as we encounter the work of art in the world and a world in the individual work of art, this does not remain a strange universe into which we are magically transported for a time. Rather, we learn to understand ourselves in it, and that means that we preserve the discontinuity of the experience in the continuity of our existence. Therefore it is necessary to adopt an attitude to the beautiful and to art that does not lay claim to immediacy, but corresponds to the historical reality of man. The appeal to immediacy, to the genius of the moment, to the significance of the 'experience', cannot withstand the claim of human existence to continuity and unity of self-understanding. The experience of art must not be side-tracked into the uncommittedness of aesthetic awareness.… Art is knowledge and the experience of the work of art is a sharing of this knowledge. [Gadamer, pp. 86-87]

However, openness even to the world that speaks through the work does not exhaust the implications of Tristram's example of interpretation as conversation.

The second characteristic of conversation that is pertinent to Tristram's statement is a "fusion of horizons" that occurs when there is a meeting of minds. One who suspends his own point of view in order to understand the perspective of another, as when the physician interviews his patient or the attorney his client, is not conversing in the true sense of the term: no conversation can occur because the with is suspended and there can be no exchange of views and mutual expansion of the understanding of both parties. Likewise, in interpreting the text, if a reader tries to suspend his own point of view and to cultivate a detached appreciation of the perspective Tristram adopts toward his life, he thereby ignores the historical dimension of his own being and fails in his task, for all understanding is interpretation and requires assimilation of the new materials to the old structures of its preunderstanding. The aim is "not to get inside another person and relive his experiences"; reproduction, were it possible, would not be interpretation.11 Detaching himself from his own orientation, attempting to suspend his own historical conditioning insures a reader's failure as conversationalist, for Tristram has laid down the prior condition that his reader engage in an exchange that presupposes the integrity of each person's horizon. And he never forgets that the reader is maintaining his own horizon as demonstrated by frequent interrogation about what he thinks, how he feels, how he is responding. Never in the annals of fiction is the awareness of the integrity of the reader more explicit and sensitive than here.

The third feature of conversation according to Gadamer's analysis is that when it is real it is an activity that guides the conversants rather than being guided by them. Its extraordinary value in this regard is that it leads one into new territory, revealing the unthought and even uncovering what heretofore lay concealed in one's own thinking. Thus when Tristram comments on his "most religious" manner of proceeding, writing "the first sentence and trusting to Almighty God for the second" (VIII.ii.540), he is not being facetious; he is admitting that he is surrendering himself to the conversation rather than approaching his task with a preconceived method. His ideal requires that both he and his reader abandon themselves and their methods of procedure to the free play of the event in which new meanings unpredictably occur. This question of method is exceedingly important, for choosing a rational method establishes a ratio between reader and text. Questions imply answers and methods filter from experience what the methods have prejudged as important. The general problem of interpretation is not a matter of settling on a procedure for finding what one seeks as in those enquiries where the goal is established in advance; it is a more primitive experience and a more extensive concept than the scientific one of method. Whereas the question of method properly belongs to the domain of objective knowledge, the general problem of understanding is concerned with a mode of being rather than a mode of knowing. In fact, understanding is coextensive with "the total human experience of the world."12 However, the example of conversation—and hence the denial of method—would appear to be limited by the stasis of Tristram's side of the exchange. How can the relationship be a dialogue when the printed word is a unilateral speaking, a kind of denial of reciprocity? The answer is that the text speaks in the reading and, by Tristram's having anticipated and in large measure controlled our responses, we participate, even more than in reading most books, in the advent of meaning that is not only a common ground of understanding, but also a literal fusing of horizons.13 This is the real meaning of Tristram's confidence that our association with him in the reading will lead gradually from acquaintance to the kind of unique understanding and affection that exists between friends ( 10-11).

According to contemporary hermeneutic theory a linguistic event does not consist merely of univocal statements about particular things or events; it puts into words in a less intense way than does poetry the manner in which one comports oneself toward the whole of being. In authentic conversation, then, one listens not only to what is said but to the unsaid, the horizon of meaningfulness, that wells up within it. In the complicated act of reading this means that while holding on to one's own relation with being, one must catch, beyond the literal references of words spoken, another manner of comportment within the whole of things which is part of the meaning of what is said. It is in this sense that language is inherently speculative. In Gadamer's words, "the finite possibilities of the word are oriented towards the sense intended, as towards the infinite" (p. 426). Accordingly, it will be part of the purpose of this critical study to attempt to retrieve in all its original vitality the problem that occupies Tristram's attention. He insists that we respond to the question with which he is engaged and that we think it through with him. Our thinking is not a reiteration of his, but a reworking which is completely unlike abstract aesthetic appreciation. To retrieve Sterne's problem may even involve a certain violence in wresting the book free from the pattern of references that customarily surround it, and it is in this sense that the present study is speculative: to retrieve the problem of being that lies at the heart of the work and to explore new ways in which the meaning of the text deploys itself in the cultural horizon of the twentieth century. The tension between Tristram's thinking and our own parallels the dialectical relation between his thinking and the family tradition from which he springs and which occupies most of his reflections. The close relation between understanding an "other"—person, event, text, or tradition—and understanding oneself, Tristram's ultimate aim in his book and ours in the reading, occupies Paul Ricoeur in his essay "Existence and Hermeneutics." He remarks that "all interpretation is to conquer a remoteness, a distance between the past cultural epoch to which the text belongs and the interpreter himself.… It is thus the growth of his own understanding of himself that he [the exegete] pursues through his understanding of the other. Every hermeneutics is thus, explicitly or implicitly, self-understanding by means of understanding others" (pp. 16-17).

Tristram's enquiry is stimulated and shaped by a need to understand himself through discovering his relations to a tradition. He does not look back for positive historical fact, doubting, questioning the integrity of his tradition, for the old dichotomy between reality and appearance, events-in-themselves and events-as-they-appear, has been obviated by the ontological character of the events of understanding. His, like other histories, is no more discovered than invented. As readers often observe, there is no way that he could have a visually accurate picture of Trim's oratorical posture as he reads the sermon in the parlor or know his exact tone of voice as he discourses on death to the servants in the kitchen. He could not have positive knowledge of a thousand other details, many of which occurred before he was even born. What is important is why this lack of verification is at the least irrelevant, and perhaps even an advantage. Tristram's procedure leaves little doubt that his imaginative grasp of his heritage has, from the point of view of historical objectivism, altered the "facts"; but the ultimate result is a kind of preservation of the truth that he is, as a participant in that tradition, rather than positive knowledge of alien events with which he has no living tie. To the scientific mind such an apparently careless disregard for verfication must remain fallacious until it recognizes that the empirical principle itself derives, laden with prejudgments, from just such a primitive and precritical engagement with the historical world. In an entirely different sense, Tristram is highly critical, not factually but morally. His reflections are critical of the aberrations in the life of Shandy Hall, and he comes gradually to a superior understanding which in effect is a purifying of the tradition as represented in a comically debased form by Walter, Toby, and Elizabeth Shandy. The form of that purification is the retrieval of a much older and wiser stratum of his tradition represented by Yorick. His problem is not one of historical knowledge; it is interpretive and, hence, necessarily historical in a more radical sense. While it may be assumed, then, that Tristram has not deliberately misrepresented his family history, on the ground that misrepresentation would hinder rather than serve his purposes, the issue of historical accuracy simply does not fall within the purview of his project. His concern is with the primitive events of understanding as a mode of being. Our own act of participation in his book, which on his model requires that we let the text become contemporaneous and address us in our present world, will, however, raise the issue of validity in an urgent form.

The implications of Tristram's analogy interpreted in this way are extensive for criticism and need to be made explicit since they demand an approach to the text substantially different from critical methods based on the model of scientific knowledge which assumes a false objectification. In fact, the implications weigh heavily against all procedures which stress either side of the subject-object schema that underlies most modern literary theory. On the one hand there is the realist assumption that a text is an objective thing-in-itself to be manipulated according to specified methods by an unconditioned reader, and, on the other, the idealist assumption that the reader projects his own meaning into the text, using it to launch into his own orbit. Both ignore the fact that the event of understanding is anterior to this epistemological model of a subject confronting an alien object and calls for a critique of positivity. That model is not simply given in primary experience as is so often assumed; it is an abstraction, derived from concrete experience, for the purpose of dealing with a world of objects. As such it is specifically unsuited to literary criticism. More appropriate for critical purposes is the analogy of human relationships such as Tristram's conversation. Gadamer uses the term I-Thou to distinguish three different qualities of relationships which parallel ways of addressing a text and offer distinct critical alternatives.

The first is an "I," a subject, confronting a "Thou" who is not a thou at all but an it, an object with which the subject has nothing in common; the resulting relationship of "objectivity" consists in subsuming the object under various universal concepts by specific methods of procedure. Thus one may find that a person exemplifies one or another trait of "human nature," to use an eighteenth-century category, or, as in twentieth-century social science, he may predict how the person would behave under some specified circumstances. In such a "scientific" procedure everything about the person that does not exemplify some universal concept is submerged, including the uniqueness that is the person himself. The objective habit of mind approaches all reality with what Victor Shklovský calls an "'algebraic' method of thought" which facilitates one's dealing with a world of objects with great economy though the price of that abstract economy is the gradual evacuation of reality which, one might argue, it is a function of art to rehabilitate.14 An objectivist posture toward a text strips it of its power to make a personal claim on the reader and effectively silences it. In the domain of natural science it is as true as in the study of literature that the event of understanding cannot itself be understood by constructing and retrospectively imposing such a pattern on the event of interpretation. Subjects and objects are possible only because of the rich texture of relationships that obtain in the world prior to reflection. A realist criticism that attempts to study the text objectively, as if it were an autonomous entity, is uninterested in the concealed processes by means of which the object is accessible and in the subjective conditions that influence the way it presents itself to consciousness. "To speak of the being of a thing as it 'actually is' is to indulge in metaphysical speculation: as it is for whom? There is no human perspective from which one can say what a being 'actually is.'"15

Underlying the objectivist position is a legitimate concern with the question of verification and an apprehension of the critical anarchy, not to say generally shabby thinking, that would be fostered by an unrestrained impressionism. Hermeneutical theorists, especially Gadamer, though the criticism applies better to Heidegger, have been blamed for an indifference to the possibility of valid interpretation.16 All critics are convinced, of course, that there is a discernible difference between getting a point of interpretation right and getting it wrong, but that does not imply that only one way of interpreting a text is admissible. What needs to be examined carefully is the notion of objectively valid results. Just as the object "as it really is" is as problematic in physics as in historical criticism, so is the notion of objective validity. In the introduction to the Cartesian Meditations, Edmund Husserl observes that the phrase "objectively valid results … signifies nothing but results that have been refined by mutual criticism and that now withstand every criticism" (p. 5). Not even the positive sciences "attain actualization of a system of absolute truths"; they must settle for "an infinite horizon of approximations" (p. 12). As Aron Gurwitsch puts it, objectivity is "identifiableness, i.e. the possibility of reverting again and again to what, through the present experienced act, is offered to consciousness."17 Hence, that claim may be said to have objective, empirical validity which withstands public criticism. In discussing the historian's effort to achieve objectivity, Ricoeur says that the meaning of such objectivity is an educated subjectivity, that is, "not just any subjectivity," not "a subjectivity adrift," but one shaped by history whose predispositions derive from the tradition of which it is part and "are dimensions of historical objectivity itself."18

The task of criticism is not to dissect a rationally structured object with the intellectual scalpel from a position of detached contemplation. There are dimensions of the critical enterprise that can be and should be reduced to method, regions that require empirical research and formal analysis; but those regions of enquiry presuppose a more primitive living relationship with the text which makes rational analysis worth the trouble and establishes the directions of interest which it will take. A pertinent example for the study of Tristram Shandy is the case of the historical text. Approached as an objective entity the historical text can be nothing more than an object of antiquarian interest which has lost the power to speak. Antiquarianism which attempts to reconstruct some original meaning or the response of the original audience fails utterly to understand the historical nature of either the text or the interpreter and thus misses the work entirely. As R. G. Collingwood correctly observes, the historian "is a part of the process he is studying, has his own place in that process, and can see it only from the point of view which at this present moment he occupies within it."19 The proper aim is not the futile effort to restore the irretrievable life of the past or to return to some original meaning; it is to establish that reciprocity between historian and text that was described above as a fusion of horizons. When judiciously practiced, historicism escapes its absurdly deterministic implications by searching for formative influences rather than "causes" in the strict sense. Its excesses are frequent enough, however, to justify the observation that whatever antecedents might be recoverable, a writer is a self, a transcendence, that does not respond to ideas in books as billiard ball responds to cue.20 In his relatedness to himself there is an open space of reflection that breaks the deterministic friction of causality, setting him at a distance from the self that is acted upon by causes and motives. The motives for thought and the influences giving it shape are as likely to be "a good dinner" or "a bad wife"21 as the reading of Montaigne; but, in any case, there is an agency guiding from the front as causes push from behind.

The idealist who stresses the opposite pole of the subject-object relation in criticism chooses a relation to the text that corresponds to Gadamer's second "I-Thou" model in which the thou is a reflection of the I. In personal relationships the thou is thereby allowed a uniqueness of its own, but at the same time that uniqueness is subordinated to projective patterns of explanation by which one establishes supremacy over the other. There is reciprocity in this relationship, but it does not allow the other to speak for himself. As a model of interpretation it has one advantage over the objectivist position in that it closes the distance between reader and text and allows the intimacy of encounter that is the beginning of meaning. But the advantage is offset by the absence of any principle restraining the imposition of wanton subjective patterns that distort the objective outlines of the text. The threat posed by this subject-centered impressionism is qualified by one fact that is not always recognized: the projecting of patterns of meaning is not the completely private gesture of a solus ipse isolated within the walls of its own subjectivity. The fabric of prejudgments that are thus imposed on the text are part of the historical sedimentation of the tradition in which one lives with others and with the text itself. The issue is simply the difference between what Ricoeur calls a "bad" or uncultivated subjectivity and a "good" or educated one.22

Criticism based on the subject pole of the subject-object schema contains a practical truth which has often been overlooked to the detriment of literary studies. Classroom experience richly demonstrates the impossibility of engaging readers in abstract analysis of such features of a work as form until imaginative reading or imaginative teaching has enabled the text to establish its authority over the prestructured consciousness of the reader by means of the dialectic of participation. Once that interaction has taken place, analysis has its raison d'etre, namely, the extension of the understanding and the power of the work. To proceed in the opposite direction is to encourage the common, naive misunderstanding of criticism as stifling the life of the text. When all the formal problems have been explained, the life of the author written, the books in his library cataloged, sources and influences traced, and archetypes explicated, the central challenge of the text and the reason it is read will still be untouched unless the reader's separation from the work has been overcome by a bridging of the gulf that divides his values, experiences, and preconceptions from the horizon of the work. What is needed is close attention to the actual patterns of understanding in concrete experience which can show the way that interpretation occurs, as distinguished from the calculation of abstract methods with their lumber of philosophical presuppositions.

The third "I-Thou" relation illuminates the hermeneutic experience in precisely the way that is needed; the thou, whether person or text, is allowed to reveal itself in its own integrity in the manner of authentic conversation. It assumes neither a commitment to an underlying philosophical system nor a presuppositionless starting point; it leaves the act of interpretation in its inherent setting, what Heidegger has taught us to recognize as "the hermeneutical circle," and thereby makes full allowance for the historical and finite character of both reader and text. By means of the sedimentation of experience in his tradition, his standpoint in history, and his language, he brings a rich texture of prejudices to his reading which are the subjective conditions out of which his kinship with the text grows and which are to some extent objectively present in the work itself. Increase in understanding causes revisions and corrections in those prejudices, but without them there could be no understanding, the text would not even be identifiable as a work of art. It should also be observed that the understanding of the necessary role of bias encourages such corrections, whereas objectivism conceals them from itself by assuming the possibility of an ideal or at least a partial objectivity. This structure of preunderstanding completes the circle of believing in order to understand and understanding in order to believe. Such a basis of criticism combines the ideals of truth to the objective outlines of the work with authentic response on the part of the historically situated reader whose horizon of interests makes his kinship with the text possible. Tristram Shandy, for example, attracts our attention first because it says things that seem true and important in the context of modern life and of our own thinking. At the same time that we attend to the author's intent in what the novel says, insofar as that is knowable to him or to us, we also understand it in ways he could not have foreseen, in the light of modern ideas and historical events of which he could have no knowledge. When Melvyn New remarks that the "meaningful context" of the novel "is not the novels of Proust and Beckett, but rather the Augustan view of man," he corrects a frequent error in historical understanding, but he also uses the term "meaningful" in a highly uncritical way that excludes the necessary contemporaneity of all understanding.23 It is important to note that this dialectic is not a mere theoretical compromise between realism and idealism. That would combine the philosophical disadvantages of each rather than going behind both to their origin in the "life-world" and thereby escaping the disadvantages of each.24 It is a description of the process of interpretation, what, for better or worse, happens in the event of understanding, combined with the thesis that although the inherent process may be elaborated by rational and methodical enquiries, the relationship is and must remain hierarchical. Systematic enquiry can bring speculative processes to clarity in retrospect, but it can only make explicit what is already implicit in the exchange in which one has been caught up and transformed. It cannot control without destroying that relationship: "The question is," as Humpty Dumpty says, "which is to be master—that's all."

It has been remarked above that the act of reading is an effort to recover more than is actually said, more than the work considered as a series of discursive statements can say. A criticism that aspires to become engaged with the text in the manner of conversation may properly be called speculative. The shift in emphasis in the word speculation over the last two hundred years illustrates the problem well: the primary meaning of the term in Dr. Johnson's Dictionary is "contemplation" and only secondarily "conjecture," whereas the reverse is now the case, so influential has the ideal of exact knowledge become. But since literature belongs to the world in which we live rather than the world known to science, the old and venerable sense of the term may be employed to articulate that free play of mind which Tristram properly demands. To engage in such a venture is to accept the risk of doing criticism under the aspect of the hobby-horse. The restriction of the concept of validity to those derivative enquiries which admit of genuine scientific precision and objectivity frees the critical impulse to attend to all that happens in the interaction with a text but without thereby enabling it to claim immunity from rational examination and revision. It might be objected that such an unmethodical criticism, in seeking to stimulate imaginative explorations of new appropriations of meaning such as renew the vitality of a cultural tradition, also encourages idiosyncrasy and even nonsense. That is no doubt true, but little is risked. There has never been a noticeable shortage of nonsense in the world, whatever methods have been in the ascendency, and the fact has rendered a service to humanity in that it "opens the heart and lungs … and makes the wheel of life run long and chearfully round" (IV.xxxii.338). Besides, "so long as a man rides his HOBBY-HORSE peaceably and quietly along the King's highway, and neither compels you or me to get up behind him,—pray, Sir, what have either you or I to do with it?" (I.vii. 13). What is compelling in criticism as in any other discipline, is the advent of understanding, the act of interpretation in which illumination occurs. The important difference is between the comic incrustation of Walter Shandy's rationalism (which entertains without convincing because it offers no direct enlightenment) and the experience of clarity in the understanding of our common mode of being which derives from Tristram's reflections … Just as it is possible for conclusions to be valid which are of no interest to anyone, so it is possible, at the opposite extreme, for insights to be of the greatest moment to a whole culture and yet lie beyond the bounds of validity in any rigorous sense of the term. Something of the kind is evident in the cases of mystery and paradox. Or again, Heidegger's reflections on the poetry of Hölderlin and Rilke or his explorations of the etymologies of Heraclitean Greek are, on the one hand, a scandal to objective criticism and deserve severe examination for the liberties that they take with texts, and yet they may be seen, on the other hand, as of greater importance to the life of the culture in some cases than the texts that occasion them. It is surely an important dimension of the life of those German poems and those Greek fragments that they have fostered such radical thought and illumination. Moreover, it is a predictable consequence of critical finitude that among the hobby-horses of today is the orthodoxy of tomorrow and the dogma of the day after.…


9 The modern development of hermeneutics begins with Friedrich Schleiermacher who undertakes to interpret texts, specifically scripture, by means of understanding the individual personalities of the writers (Hermeneutik, trans. Heinz Kimmerle). Wilhelm Dilthey deepens the study of the writer by claiming that the individual can be understood only from the broad perspective of historical lived experience. Heidegger, in turn, overcomes the romantic illusion that reader and text, subject and object, interpenetrate in the interpretive encounter and avoids Dilthey's relativism of historical perspectives with its underlying psychological notion of lived experience by expanding the hermeneutic question to the nature of interpretation itself as the primary activity of man (Dasein), the being who seeks to interpret his own experience. Heidegger's own development of the question moves from interpreting the interpreting being in Being and Time to attempting to understand the hermeneutical experience in Unterwegs zur Sprache, the essence of which he locates in language and the role of Hermes, the bringer of tidings and the god of boundaries.

10 See pp. 184-92 [of James E. Swearingen, Reflexivity in "Tristram Shandy" (Yale University Press, 1977)] where this dimension of Walter's character as rhetor is explored.

11 Gadamer, p. 345. This reconstruction of others' experience was the goal of the early hermeneutics of Schleiermacher.

12 Schleiermacher, p. xi.

13 The phenomenological metaphor of horizon brings into view the whole spatial, temporal, and cultural context of meaningfulness of an object or phenomenon, the encircling sphere that constitutes the setting within which an object reveals itself as what it is. Thus Heidegger introduces the thesis of Being and Time with the statement, "Our provisional aim is the Interpretation of time as the possible horizon for any understanding whatsoever of Being" (trans. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson, p. 21). Later Heidegger gives up the concept of horizon as belonging to metaphysics and its concern with objects (Siendes) and their representation rather than with being (Sein).

14 "Art as Technique," in Russian Formalist Criticism: Four Essays, trans. Lee T. Lemon and Marian J. Reis, p. 11.

15 Richard Palmer, Hermeneutics: Interpretation Theory in Schleiermacher, Dilthey, Heidegger, and Gadamer, p. 229.

16 Emilio Betti in Die Hermeneutik als allgemeine Methodik der Geisteswissenschaften and E. D. Hirsch in Validity in Interpretation both argue this point against Gadamer. Hirsch is concerned with limiting hermeneutics to a philological method of establishing the "verbal meaning" of a text as opposed to its "significance" for the reader. But Gadamer is interested in a different question, and one that apparently does not interest Hirsch since he excludes it from hermeneutics, namely, the distinguishing features of all events of understanding. Based on Gadamer's response to Betti in Supplement I of Truth and Method where he insists, "I am not proposing a method, but I am describing what is the case" and thus going "beyond the concept of method … to envisage … what always happens" (Gadamer's italics, pp. 465-66), one suspects that his intention is to dissolve the question of validity in instances of premethodical understanding by confining it to its proper scientific sphere.

17 "On the Intentionality of Consciousness," in Philosophical Essays in Memory of Edmund Husserl, ed. Marvin Farber, p. 83.

18 "Objectivity and Subjectivity in History," in History and Truth, trans. Charles A. Kelbley, pp. 30-31.

19The Idea of History, p. 248.

20 See the discussion of the epistemology of sophism in chapter 4 [of James E. Swearingen, Reflexivity in "Tristram Shandy" (Yale University Press, 1977)].

21 Duke Maskell, "Locke and Sterne, or Can Philosophy Influence Literature?" Essays in Criticism 23 (1973), 25.

22 "Objectivity and Subjectivity in History," p. 30.

23 "Sterne and Henry Baker's The Microscope Made Easy," Studies in English Literature 10 (1970), 597.

24 Husserl introduces the term life-world (Lebenswelt) to refer to the primordial world of immediate experience as opposed to the complexly conditioned, cultural world given by science.

Works Cited

Betti, Emilio. Die Hermeneutik als allgemeine Methodik der Geisteswissenschaften. Tübingen: J.C.B. Mohr, 1962.…

Collingwood, R. W. The Idea of History. New York: Oxford University Press, 1956.…

Gurwitsch, Aron. "On the Intentionality of Consciousness." In Philosophical Essays in Memory of Edmund Husserl, edited by Marvin Farber. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1940.…

Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. Translated by John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson. New York: Harper & Row, 1962.…

Hirsch, E. D. Validity in Interpretation. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1967.…

Husserl, Edmund. Cartesian Meditations. Translated by Dorian Cairns. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1973.

Kant, Immanuel. The Critique of Practical Reason. Translated by Lewis White Beck. New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1956.

——. The Critique of Pure Reason. Translated by Norman Kemp Smith. New York: Macmillan and Co., 1958.

Kierkegaard, Soren. Fear and Trembling and the Sickness Unto Death. Translated by Walter Lowrie. New York: Doubleday Anchor, 1954.…

Maskell, Duke. "Locke and Sterne, or Can Philosophy Influence Literature?" Essays in Criticism 23 (1973), 22-39.…

New, Melvyn. "Sterne and Henry Baker's The Microscope Made Easy." Studies in English Literature 10 (1970), 591-604.…

Palmer, Richard. Hermeneutics: Interpretation Theory in Schleiermacher, Dilthey, Heidegger, and Gadamer. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1969.…

Ricoeur, Paul. "Existence and Hermeneutics." Translated by Kathleen McLaughlin. In The Conflict of Interpretations: Essays in Hermeneutics, edited by Don Ihde. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1974.

[Ricoeur, Paul]. "Objectivity and Subjectivity in History." In History and Truth, translated by Charles A. Kelbley. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1965.

Schleiermacher, Friedrich Ernst Daniel. Hermeneutik. Translated by Heinz Kimmerle. Heidelberg: Carl C. Winter, 1959.…

Shklovsky, Victor. "Art as Technique." In Russian Formalist Criticism: Four Essays, translated by Lee T. Lemon and Marion J. Ross. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1965.…

Martin C. Battestin (essay date 1978)

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SOURCE: "A Sentimental Journey and the Syntax of Things," in Augustan Worlds, edited by J. C. Hilson, M. M. B. Jones, and J. R. Watson, Leicester University Press, 1978, pp. 223-39.

[In the following essay, Battestin contrasts the emotional and sexuasl connection between characters in A Sentimental Journey with the solipsism that renders the characters in Tristram Shandy essentially isolated and unconnected to others.]

Recently I made a case for the fundamental—it might be said, revolutionary—modernity of Tristram Shandy (1759-67), in which Steme, repudiating the Augustan faith in symmetry and rational order, devised a form to mirror and to mitigate the disturbing subjectivist conception of reality he found implicit in Locke's Essay concerning Human Understanding—a form that defines the world in terms of the processes of the mind while implying, in its appeal to the senses and the imagination, the means of communication and relationship.1 Enforced by the mechanism of the mind and the inefficacy of rational discourse to bridge the gulf that separates us, solipsism and frustration are the conditions of life at Shandy Hall, relieved only in those humanizing moments when, by means of the sympathetic or the sexual imagination, we are, in Walter's words, led out 'of our caverns and hiding-places' into communion with another.2

In A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy (1768) Sterne resumed these themes, but transmuted and softened them by asserting more confidently than before the possibility of relationship, achieved through the sensuous and imaginative apprehension of what I will call the syntax of things. The phrase is convenient because it would have carried for Sterne and his contemporaries a double reference, pointing not only to the logical process of grammatical predication, by which subject is coupled with object or acts upon it, but also to the universal grammar of Nature herself, the system of interrelationships that obtains in what Yorick prefers to call the 'great—great SENSORIUM of the world'.3 The two senses of syntax, linguistic and metaphysical, will help to clarify the ways in which, even at the most elementary and essential level of his narrative, Sterne's form implies his meaning.4 In carrying his reader along with him on this 'quiet journey of the heart in pursuit of NATURE, and those affections which rise out of her, which make us love each other—and the world, better than we do' (p. 219), Yorick means so to conduct his narrative that we participate in it, that, in the process of reading, we will ourselves become, in terms of the metaphoric classifications of the Preface, 'Sentimental Travellers' capable of responding to life and the vexatious circumstances of our mortality with compassion, and of course with laughter: his reader, he warns, must eventually 'determine his own place and rank in the catalogue' of travellers, whether 'Idle', 'Inquisitive', 'Lying', 'Proud', 'Vain', 'Splenetic', or 'Sentimental'—'it will be one step towards knowing himself …' (pp. 82-3). Both these transactions—the journey of the heart in pursuit of Nature and the narrator's striving to achieve a closer, ameliorative relationship with his reader—may be seen to have a linguistic analogue in the paradigm of the sentence itself, in which the subject (and here especially the subjective ego of the first-person narrative) is linked through a copulative or transitive verb to an object beyond itself. Happily, in addition to being helpful in clarifying the interdependence of theme and form in A Sentimental Journey, this analogy has the advantage of having occurred to Sterne himself: for Tristram, at least, Yorick, the humorous, philandering parson who is our subject, is 'as heteroclite a creature in all his declensions' as any parsing student of the human comedy could wish for;5 and, as Yorick himself assures us, his relationships with others are always predicated 'according to the mood I am in, and the case—and I may add the gender too, of the person I am to govern' (p. 124).

If the grammatical paradigm may thus imply the establishment of human relationships, however, the notorious syntactical eccentricities, ambiguities, and interruptions of A Sentimental Journey will remind us that, in art as in life, such relationships are seldom so neatly accomplished. Nor, perhaps, is it always desirable that they should be. Sterne's fiction in a sense anticipates E. E. Cumnmings's observation that 'life is not a paragraph',6 rounded and coherent, its premisses neatly fulfilled. For Tristram it was rather a fluid, open-ended, whimsical thing that would be conterminous with the narrative he was writing; for Yorick it is, however brief, 'a large volume' of sentimental adventures (p. 114). Like Cummings, too, Sterne understood that in this process Death, from whom Yorick flees toward the pleasant valleys of Italy, is no more 'parenthesis',7 but rather the final full stop, whose symbol in Tristram Shandy had been blackness filling the pages to the very margins. Understandably, therefore, Yorick inclines to a loose, unconventional punctuation, preferring dashes to periods, and in the narrative of his journey breaks off in mid-sentence as in mid-career, leaving us with the image of himself reaching out toward one kind of syntactical completion he covets, but grasping only the blank vacuity of the unprinted page. On 18 March 1768, with a poignant and appropriately shandean irony, Fortune decreed that Sterne should come to the end of his own volume of adventures, with half his book still to write.

Because Death at last won his race with Sterne, Yorick has remained in that final comical attitude ever since, prevented by impassable mountain roads from reaching his destination, his more immediate objective eluding his grasp. We will never know, then, what Sterne's final intention for his work may have been. Yet to judge from the part of the book he did complete, it would appear that A Sentimental Journey represents a modification of one of the conventional thematic motifs of journey literature, that it was in some sense designed, in Gardner Stout's phrase, as 'a comic "Pilgrim's Progress" for the man of feeling'.8 The stages measuring the spiritual distance Yorick travels in the first two volumes are, on the one hand, the early chapters entitled 'The Monk' and 'The Desobligeant' and, on the other hand, the later episodes concerning Maria and the peasant family whose charity and simple piety are celebrated in 'The Supper' and 'The Grace': seen in this way, Yorick's true progress is from solipsism toward communion, from self-love toward a felt apprehension of the syntax of things. Just how much mental travelling this process will require is suggested upon Yorick's arrival at Calais by his inability to translate his fine-sounding sentiments into deeds. His spirits heightened by a good dinner and a bottle of burgundy, he is in an expansive, altruistic mood. Generalizing from his own generous sentilents, he imagines mankind almost literally as subjects in search of predication, looking round 'for an object to share' their money with; the benign motions of such a soul as his seem proof sufficient against those cynical French materialists who represent man as a mere machine actuated by self-interest (pp. 69-9). Far from oversetting their creed, however, he will instantly seem to confirm it when he refuses alms to the kindly Franciscan who intrudes upon this complacent reverie. The practical demand upon his charity summons up all his selfish impulses and brings reason rushing to their justification: 'The moment I cast my eyes on him, I was predetermined not to give him a single sous; and accordingly I put my purse into my pocket—button'd it up—set myself a little more upon my centre' (p. 70). The doctrine of L 'Homme machine is thoroughly congenial to Yorick's present mood, who could wish to believe that, since 'the ebbs and flows of our humours' depend upon physical causes beyond our control, there is 'neither sin nor shame' in our actions (p. 70). His purse buttoned up in his pocket, his portmanteau securely locked against all solicitations, Yorick rationalizes his meanness by reminding the monk that he is presuming upon a fund which is the rightful property of the truly unfortunate, 'the lame, the blind, the aged and the infirm'—that charity, as Fielding's Mrs Tow-wouse declared in behalf of the niggardly everywhere, begins at home: 'but of all others, resumed I, the unfortunate of our own country, surely, have the first rights; and I have left thousands in distress upon our own shore' (p. 73).

Critics have found in such episodes evidence for Sterne's persistent mockery of his hero;9 but it is Yorick, we must remember, who has the honesty to embarrass himself by telling us about them. And he knows better: 'I have behaved very ill; said I within myself; but I have only just set out upon my travels; and shall learn better manners as I get along' (p. 75). As a traveller requires a vehicle to make his progress, so, in the journey of life (the metaphor again is Yorick's own, p. 114), the vehicle must be our own sensibilities, the quality of which will determine our experience of the world. Reality for Sterne is subjective; we create the world in our own image. The Sentimental Traveller, which Yorick will become, can transform a waste land into a garden, for he goes sympathetically, seeking connexions and relationships that will improve and nourish his heart:

I pity the man who can travel from Dan to Beersheba, and cry, 'Tis all barren—and so it is; and so is all the world to him who will not cultivate the fruits it offers. I declare, said 1, clapping my hands chearily together that was I in a desart, I would find out wherewith in it to call forth my affections—If I could not do better, I would fasten them upon some sweet myrtle, or seek some melancholy cypress to connect myself to—

(pp. 115-16)

The Splenetic Traveller, for whom Smollett is the archetype, will find at his journey's end that 'heaven itself is a hell, its happiest mansion only a place to 'do penance … to all eternity'; for he has 'brought up no faculties' to appreciate felicity (p. 120).

At this first stage of his journey, however, Yorick's 'vehicle', as we have seen, is cramped and in need of repair. 'Discontented with himself (p. 76), his spiritual condition after the initial encounter with the monk is symbolized by the ruined desobligeante, a single-seat chaise which, having made the tour of Europe and 'not profited much by its adventures' (p. 87), sits mouldering in the farthest corner of the innyard. Finding it 'in tolerable harmony with [his] feelings' (p. 77), Yorick enters this useless and unsociable conveyance, completes his isolation by drawing the curtain to shut out the figure of the monk, an object of charity, and proceeds to write his Preface; it would have been better, as he remarks to the English traveller who interrupts him, 'in a Vis a Vis' (p. 85). Later, when the process of his sentimentalizing has opened his heart, he will exclaim, '—Surely—surely man! it is not good for thee to sit alone—thou wast made for social intercourse' (p. 167); now the desobligeante provides the emblem of his self-enclosure.

Yet the symbolism of Yorick's situation here is not entirely negative. It includes two further curious circumstances pointing to a distinctive feature of Sterne's conception of his craft: the notion that an important means of escaping the condition of solipsism is the act of authorship itself. Writing for Tristram, like the Hobby-horses of his uncle and father, is a device for ordering the confusing multiplicity of one's fugitive experience;10 unlike most Hobby-horses, however, which tend to confirm us in our isolation, writing about one's private experience is the means of apprehending its latent significance and, therefore, of rendering it intelligible. It is thus the very activity of writing the Preface that sets Yorick's otherwise useless vehicle in motion, beginning, as it were, both the process of his mental travelling out of himself and the process of his developing relationship with us, his readers. By the time he finishes the Preface, Yorick declares, 'I had wrote myself pretty well out of conceit with the Desobligeant' (p. 87); his writing seems a kind of therapy, purging his mind of its discontents. What is more, the episode concludes with a dramatization of the fact that only as readers of his narrative may we become participants of the journey it recounts, which is ideally the mutual progress of both author and reader toward self-knowledge and benevolence. Sterne abruptly interjects into the scene a pair of English travellers who have been drawn to the desobligeante by the motion Yorick's writing has imparted to it. Though as characters in the narrative they cannot actually have heard the question which concludes his Preface—'Where then, my dear countrymen, are you going—' (p. 85)—they are nonetheless made to answer it: 'We are only looking at this chaise, said they.' Responding thus improbably to the written words, these English travellers seem surrogates for us, Sterne's English readers, who, as we will see, by such surprising strategies of his art will be made to answer that same crucial question.

That this curious parable of the desobligeante points to an ultimate concern of Sterne's narrative is confirmed by the subject itself of the Preface, the writing of which has set the machine in motion. Springing naturally from Yorick's mood and situation, the Preface sounds the dominant theme of the Journey: the difficulties of communication, of leaving our homes (and our selves) behind to seek new relationships abroad. That Sterne means us to regard Yorick's confinement in the desobligeante as a symbol of our fundamental solipsism seems clear from the phrasing of the opening sentence, which universalizes his discontent and isolation: 'nature', Yorick observes, 'has set up by her own unquestionable authority certain boundaries and fences to circumscribe the discontent of man … laying him under almost insuperable obligations to work out his ease, and to sustain his sufferings at home':

'Tis true we are endued with an imperfect power of spreading our happiness sometimes beyond her limits, but 'tis so ordered, that from the want of languages, connections, and dependencies, and from the difference in education, customs and habits, we lie under so many impediments in communicating our sensations out of our own sphere, as often amount to a total impossibility.

(p. 78)

In A Sentimental Journey the impediments to breaking 'out of our own sphere' are many, and they cannot be circumvented without much ingenuity and diligence. For one thing, and most essentially, there is the whole intractable mechanism of the self, with all its appetites and vanities—the mechanism described by the likes of Hobbes and the French philosophes and which Yorick symbolizes not only by the desobligeante, but by the caged starling, crying '"I can't get out—I can't get out" '—whose prison is secure and permanent: the door of the cage, Yorick declares, 'was twisted and double twisted so fast with wire, there was no getting it open without pulling the cage to pieces—I took both hands to it' (p. 197). It is the 'poor starling', emblem of the confined and therefore tormented self, that Yorick, and his author, bear as the crest to their arms (p. 205). As Gardner Stout has argued, Sterne, while keeping his place within the Latitudinarian tradition of benevolism, felt in no inconsiderable degree the force of the Augustinian and Hobbesian doctrine that man is a creature of pride and the sport of his appetites. In a fit of selfishness Yorick first refuses the monk charity, and, when he finally offers the snuff-box to make amends, he is motivated as much by vanity and the desire to get on with his philandering as by the impulses of disinterested benevolence (p. 98). He is even disposed, in simile at least, 'to fight a duel' with the innkeeper over the price of a post-chaise: 'Base passion! said I … base, ungentle passion! thy hand is against every man, and every man's hand against thee—' (p. 89). No sooner does he feel the 'impulse' to share his coach with an attractive young woman whom he imagines to be in distress than 'Every dirty passion, and bad propensity in my nature, took the alarm': Avarice, Caution, Cowardice, Discretion, Hypocrisy, Meanness, Pride—all start up, like prudent counsellors, to secure the citadel of the ego (pp. 104-6). Even much later in Paris, Vanity will intrude upon the process of his sentimentalizing, which is then well along: he revels in his lionizing by a coterie of worldly 'children of Art' whose favours he has won by flattery—'a most vile prostitution of myself to half a dozen different people' (p. 266).

For Sterne, moreover, not only the selfish passions, but reason itself—the faculty that philosophers from Aristotle and the Stoics to Swift's Houyhnhnms had regarded as the primary agent of morality—works to ensure the condition of solipsism and self-delusion. As the example of Walter Shandy perpetually crucifying Truth may suggest, no novelist of the period went as far as Sterne in disparaging what the humanist tradition took to be the noblest faculty of the soul. In passages such as Yorick's summoning up plausible arguments to justify his meanness to the monk, Sterne seems especially close, in fact, to the shocking author of A Treatise of Human Nature (1739), for whom reason was 'the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them'.11 Thus Yorick insists that the purifying of the soul and the calming of the heart's 'commotions' are not to be entrusted 'to reason only', but to the influence of the more benign social affections: 'I can safely say for myself, I was never able to conquer any one single bad sensation in my heart so decisively, as by beating up as fast as I could for some kindly and gentle sensation, to fight it upon its own ground' (p. 226). At other times he would seem to anticipate the Wordsworthian notion that we murder to dissect. As he stands before the remise door holding the hand of an attractive stranger in the first real moment of sentimental communion he has experienced on his journey, Yorick makes the mistake of trying to analyse the circumstances that account for his happiness: 'you thank Fortune', replies the lady, disengaging her hand, '… you had reason—the heart knew it, and was satisfied; and who but an English philosopher would have sent notices of it to the brain to reverse the judgment?' (p. 96). As for the Stoic confidence that philosophy can render us invulnerable to misfortune, Sterne mocks it as a delusion; and, as a man of feeling, he condemns the inhumanity of the doctrine of self-sufficiency it implies. All Yorick's 'systematic reasonings' (p. 198) to persuade himself that there is no more inconvenience in imprisonment in the Bastille than in a confinement for the gout are overthrown in a moment by the cry of the caged starling, awakening his affections and bringing home vividly to his imagination 'the miseries of confinement' (p. 201). As a work of art and morality, Yorick's narrative of his journey, sentimental though it may be, owes everything of course to his author's thoughtful anatomy of the human comedy, and to the sister faculties of the mind, wit and judgment. Yet Yorick insists, 'this is not a work of reasoning' (p. 177), for in Sterne's view the senses and the sympathetic imagination can alone redeem us.

Cooperating with our rationality in the work of self-enclosure are language itself and the prescribed polite forms of social conversation, systems invented by men to facilitate intercourse but which, as they are normally applied, effectively reinforce our privacy. A 'hundred little delicacies' (p. 107) stand in Yorick's way as he tries to know his companions better, and the final chapter comprises a veritable 'Case' of their efficacy in preventing such connections. Our dialogues, furthermore, as those memorable ones between Walter Shandy and his brother attest, are at best only intersecting monologues, each man using words whose meaning eludes the other, hampered not only by the general curse of Babel, but by the impenetrable privacy of our individual experience and the decorums that conceal the heart beneath a fine brocade of formality.

To circumvent such formidable impediments to communication as these, Sterne looked to another, nonverbal kind of language, anticipating what certain twentieth-century psychologists have called 'body language'; and, as a novelist, he attempted to turn the very imprecision of words to his advantage. A useful illustration of both these strategies is the chapter called 'The Translation'. Words being the clumsy things they are, Tristram, we recall, had wished for a Momus's glass that he might see into the soul of man,12 and Yorick protests that his ambition in pursuing women is 'to spy the nakedness of their hearts, and through the different disguises of customs, climates, and religion, find out what is good in them, to fashion my own by—' (pp. 217-18). The better to achieve this goal of an immediate, intuitive apprehension of another's self, he perfects his skill at rendering an unspoken language with its own rules of syntactical connexion. As Yorick enters the box at the Opera, the old French officer who occupies it puts down bis book, removes his spectacles and places them in his pocket. Though no word has been spoken, the sense of this kindly action is instantly translatable, as is the bow Yorick makes in return, because it is expressed in the universal language of looks and gestures and attitudes, a kind of automatic writing of the heart by which the motions of the soul may be read in those of the body. So, earlier in Tristram Shandy, Walter's physical attitude as he lies sprawled on his bed grieving over the death of his son is more eloquent testimony of his feelings than any words could supply. The grammar and idioms of this language are immediately intelligible:

There is not a secret so aiding to the progress of sociality [declares Yorick], as to get master of this short hand, and be quick in rendering the several turns of looks and limbs, with all their inflections and delineations, into plain words. For my own part, by long habitude, I do it so mechanically, that when I walk the streets of London, I go translating all the way; and have more than once stood behind in the circle, where not three words have been said, and have brought off twenty different dialogues with me, which I could have fairly wrote down and sworn to.

(pp. 171-2)

For the purpose of communication and relationship, then, words are less useful than the body, reason than the sympathetic imagination. The most satisfactory moments of communion between characters in Sterne's fiction are accordingly those achieved in silence by touch and intuition. Though their spoken discourse fails to bring them together, Toby's hand placed on his brother's shoulder unites them instantly in mutual affection. In A Sentimental Journey, indeed, hands are often the means of syntactical connexion, in both senses of the word syntax. The holding of hands, the feeling of another's pulse, becomes for Yorick not only (as, say, in Paradise Lost) a sign of harmony between man and woman, but the actual means by which their hearts are made intelligible, one to another. The first true moment of relationship he experiences on his journey, Yorick's sentimental intercourse with the lady at the remise door, continues over the course of many pages, while her hand remains in his, their 'communications'—which lead the English travellers to suppose they 'must be man and wife at least' (p. 104)—made possible chiefly by the silent rendering of the fingers' subtle pressures: 'The pulsations of the arteries along my fingers pressing across hers', Yorick observes, 'told her what was passing within me' (p. 97). Later, like a true sentimental physician, Yorick will reckon 'the temperature' of the beautiful grisset by counting the throbs of her pulse, since, he believes, 'it is the same blood which comes from the heart, which descends to the extremes' (p. 164). At such moments Sterne enacts the cordial part that Fortune played in Yorick's encounter with the lady in Calais, promoting Friendship's cause by taking 'two utter strangers by their hands—of different sexes, and perhaps from different corners of the globe' (p. 96), the physical union enabling a kind of concordia discors of the heart.

This, then, is the essential message of the chapter called 'The Translation': that for the Sentimental Traveller who seeks connexions and relationships, the body's 'short hand' may be more revealing than the spoken word, that our intuitions may compensate for the limitations of the intellect. But, as the chapter also makes clear, Sterne goes farther than this in circumventing the obstacles to communication he found so persuasively delineated in An Essay concerning Human Understanding. As man of feeling and as author, he continually exploits the very quirks of mind and language of which Locke complained. It is the mechanism of association that brings Yorick closer to the stranger at the Opera by connecting him in Yorick's mind, despite the separation of time and place, with the idea of Captain Tobias Shandy, 'the dearest of my flock and friends, whose philanthropy I never think of at this long distance from his death—but my eyes gush out with tears' (p. 170). Similarly, it is the ambiguity of words that enables Sterne to achieve a simultaneity of thematic, as well as comic, implications—the multiplicity of connotations comprising a sort of linguistic equivalent of the syntax of things in the 'great SENSORIUM of the world'. The word translation in the chapter we are considering can also denote the idea of movement from one place to another, specifically from a situation of isolation outside to a situation of communion within: thus Yorick enters the box and takes his place baside the old officer who reminds him of Toby, the type of philanthropy, as later the Marquesina invites him to enter her coach and carries him to her home—'the connection', Yorick assures us, 'which arose out of that translation, gave me more pleasure than any one I had the honour to make in Italy' (p. 173). Yet another sense of the word seems to lurk here in true shandean fashion, the sense of translation as sexual transport—though, of course, Yorick and the Marquesina are ostensibly recalling their awkward encounter in the passage to the concert hall:

Upon my word, Madame, said I when I had handed her in, I made six different efforts to let you go out—And I made six efforts, replied she, to let you enter—I wish to heaven you would make a seventh, said I—With all my heart, said she, making room—

(p. 173)13

Yorick's philandering and his irrepressible bawdry are not, I think, quite to be dismissed as a case of arrested adolescence. They seem rather to be manifestations of Steme's belief that, given the inadequacies of those traditional instruments of communication, reason and language, the way out of the self must be through the senses and the imagination, and most especially through the recognition that it is our common sexuality that draws us together in spite of the conventional strictures of morality and the proscriptions of propriety. Though the Sentimental Traveller's ultimate goal is an awareness of the unity and interrelatedness of all beings in the great Sensorium of creation, his first approaches to that condition must be through the frank acceptance of his sexual nature; it is this specifically—source of so much awkwardness and laughter in Shandy Hall—that 'makes us come out of our caverns and hiding-places'. Yorick is nothing less than a 'connoisseur' of women (p. 219) because he believes that Eros, the longing of the self for union with another, is the instrument of charity and fellow-feeling. He travels with the picture of Eliza about his neck because, as he assures the innkeeper at Montreuil, he has

been in love with one princess or another almost all my life, and I hope I shall go on so, till I die, being firmly persuaded, that if ever I do a mean action, it must be in some interval betwixt one passion and another: whilst this interregnum lasts, I always perceive my heart locked up—I can scarce find in it, to give Misery a sixpence; and therefore I always get out of it as fast as I can, and the moment I am rekindled, I am all generosity and good will again; and would do any thing in the world either for, or with any one, if they will but satisfy me there is no sin in it.

(pp. 128-9)

The 'Fragment' that follows is meant as a kind of parable of this creed. In the reformation of Abdera, 'the vilest and most profligate town in all Thrace', it is the 'pathetic' apostrophe to Eros in Euripides' Andromeda, not Democritus's more Augustan applications of 'irony and laughter', that cleanses the city of malice, transforming it at once into an image of the Golden Age: 'Every man almost spoke pure iambics the next day, and talk'd of nothing but Perseus his pathetic address—"O Cupid! prince of God and men"—in every street of Abdera, in every house—"O Cupid! Cupid!" … The fire caught—and the whole city, like the heart of one man, open'd itself to Love.' It is worth stressing that this miraculous transformation of a corrupt people is accomplished not through the intellectual appeals of philosophy or satire, but through the 'pathetic' mode of poetry that 'operated more upon their imaginations', the faculty of the mind most nearly allied to the senses, in which the images and motions of desire are vicariously experienced: ' 'Twas only in the power, says the Fragment, of the God whose empire extendeth from heaven to earth, and even to the depths of the sea, to have done this' (p. 131). As Yorick later explains to the Count, though he is travelling in pursuit of Nature and a universal benevolence, the journey is accomplished only through a process of refining the 'affection' he feels 'for the whole sex' (p. 216). The hearts of women, not the Palais Royal or the Louvre, are the temples he 'would rather enter in' (p. 218).

The pursuit of Nature, then, begins in the frank—which is not to say salacious—acceptance of our sexuality, and Sterne as an author means to involve us in this humanizing enterprise. He does so not only in such sentimental passages as the above, but in those bawdy jokes for which he is equally celebrated. These jokes, moreover, are almost invariably the effect of a distinctive rhetorical strategy calculated, no less than the pathos of Perseus's apostrophe to Eros, to operate upon our imaginations. As in the third sense of the word translation discussed above, this strategy is the double entendre—some object or action or word which at the level ostensibly intended by the author is perfectly straightforward, but which at another level which the reader's imagination, however reluctantly, is teased into supplying, carries a less 'innocent' meaning.14 The classic instance of this technique in Steme's fiction is Tristram's elaborate protestation that the word nose in his book always and invariably means a nose and nothing more (or less); as a consequence we never afterward encounter the word without supplying a phallic reference. In A Sentimental Journey numerous other examples come to mind, such as the 'proposal' Yorick wishes to make to the young woman at Calais (p. 113), or the gloves which the beautiful grisset holds open to receive his hand (p. 168). Better still is the titillating encounter between Yorick and the fille de chambre related in the chapters called 'The Temptation' and 'The Conquest'. As they sit side by side on the bed in his room, the essentially sexual nature of their interest in each other is obliquely symbolized by the purse she has made to hold his crown:

I'll just shew you, said the fair fille de chambre, the little purse I have been making to-day to hold your crown … it was of green taffeta, lined with a little bit of white quilted sattin, and just big enough to hold the crown—she put it into my hand—it was pretty; and I held it ten minutes with the back of my hand resting upon her lap—looking sometimes at the purse, sometimes on one side of it.

(p. 236)15

Having heightened our expectations with further descriptions of 'innocent' intimacies the fille de chambre passing 'her hand in silence across and across [Yorick's] neck' as she mends his stock, Yorick returning the favour by fondling her feet as he fastens the buckle of her shoe—Steme breaks off the chapter in mid-sentence with the image implanted firmly in the reader's mind of his hero and the temptress tumbling together on the bed: 'and putting in the strap—and lifting up the other foot with it, when I had done, to see both were right—in doing it too suddenly—it unavoidably threw the fair fille de chambre off her centre—and then—' (p. 236). In such a predicament even the chastest of Sterne's readers will be inclined to construe the title of the following chapter, 'The Conquest', in a sexual sense. But, as always in Sterne, honi soit qui mal y pense. What Yorick has conquered of course is not his companion's virtue, but the temptation she posed. What has ultimately been tested by Sterne's coy presentation of the episode is the quality of his prudish or 'stoical' reader's imagination. By implicating us in the joke, furthermore, he has, for all our vaunted rationality and decorous self-possession, made us face the fact that we are, as nature would have us be, essentially sexual creatures, and that, indeed, the communion of hearts begins in the inclinations of the body:

YES—and then—Ye whose clay-cold heads and luke-warm hearts can argue down or mask your passions—tell me, what trespass is it that man should have them? or how his spirit stands answerable, to the father of spirits, but for his conduct under them?

If nature has so wove her web of kindness, that some threads of love and desire are entangled with the piece—must the whole web be rent in drawing them out?—Whip me such stoics, great governor of nature! said I to myself—Wherever thy providence shall place me for the trials of my virtue—whatever is my danger—whatever is my situation—let me feel the movements which rise out of it, and which belong to me as a man—and if I govern them as a good one—I will trust the issues to thy justice, for thou hast made us—and not we ourselves.

(pp. 237-8)

But if, not unlike the progress of Plato's philosopher in the Symposium, that of the Sentimental Traveller must begin in sexual desire, its goal is something finer and more generous. At Calais, before he 'put [himself] into motion' (p. 114), Yorick's selfishness in the affair of the monk had belied his complacent opinion of his own altruism and served to confirm the cynical materialism of the philosophes. By the time he has reached the Bourbonnois, however, the instrument of his sensibilities has been more finely tuned, his sexual epicureanism transmuted into the higher delights of a general and disinterested benevolence. The episode of the fille de chambre has a counterpart in Yorick's quite different relationship with Maria of Moulines. Sitting close by her side, his feelings are those of compassion not desire, the purity of his affection, untainted by any baser motive, providing at last the refutation of the materialists he has been seeking:

I sat down close by her; and Maria let me wipe [her tears] away as they fell with my handkerchief.—I then steep'd it in my own—and then in hers—and then in mine—and then I wip'd hers again—and as I did it, I felt such undescribable emotions within me, as I am sure could not be accounted for from any combinations of matter and motion.

I am positive I have a soul; nor can all the books with which materialists have pester'd the world ever convince me of the contrary.

(p. 271)

The famous apostrophe to Sensibility which this episode inspires is the culmination of Yorick's sentimental education and of his passage, begun in discontent in the desobligéante, from solipsism to a more expansive realm 'beyond' himself: 'all comes from thee, great—great SENSORIUM of the world! which vibrates, if a hair of our heads but falls upon the ground, in the remotest desert of thy creation' (p. 278). This, the apprehension of the syntax of things, is the moment of grace in Sterne's religion of the feeling heart, his own peculiar refinement of the Latitudinarian tradition which, as R. S. Crane has shown,16 already offered its own peculiarly optimistic reconstruction of Christian assumptions about human nature. The two chapters that follow clearly imply that the sentimental pursuit of Nature in which Yorick, priest and man of feeling, has been engaged is ultimately for Sterne a religious act, having even its own readily improvised sacraments and rituals.17 'The Supper', though merely a meal of bread and wine shared with a peasant family, becomes a type of eucharist—'a feast of love', as Yorick calls it (p. 281). 'The Grace', the dance of thanksgiving in which Yorick beholds 'Religions mixing' (p. 284), is in a deeper sense an expression of that gift of the Holy Spirit without which there could be no 'Work of Redemption"18—the capacity for love, for feeling those 'generous joys and generous cares beyond [ourselves]' (p. 278).

The trouble with this reading of A Sentimental Journey is, of course, that the work—or at least the part of it that Sterne completed—does not end with the celebration of communion, but with another, and the most notorious, of his bawdy jokes. If the book is a 'comic "Pilgrim's Progress" for the man of feeling' as I believe with Gardner Stout it was in some sense meant to be—it is certainly no conventional allegory, any more than it is 'a work of reasoning'. Perhaps the genre to which it is more nearly allied is that of spiritual autobiography, in which, typically, the narrator recounts his unsteady and (since there is always the possibility of a relapse) inconclusive progress from a condition of alienation and despair to a state of grace.19 But Steme rejoiced in what he has Yorick call the 'Novelty of my Vehicle' (p. 82), and he has always been an embarrassment to genericists.

What interests me about the concluding chapter of A Sentimental Journey is that, even in its abrupt shift of the tone from one of an exuberant piety to a sort of arch and irreverent verbal pruriency, it comprises a fitting coda and recapitulation of the motifs Sterne has been sounding throughout the work. Serving as prelude to 'The Case of Delicacy' itself is Yorick's description of the terrain over which he passes on his way toward his destination. Between the safe and friendly valleys of France and those of Italy stand those 'mountains impracticable' which impede the passage of 'the way-worn traveller', confronting him with 'the sudden turns and dangers of your roads—your rocks—your precipices—the difficulties of getting up—the horrors of getting down' (p. 285). In this book of obstacles to translations of all kinds—closed doors and drawn curtains, buttoned pockets and locked portmanteaus, the wretch's prison and the starling's cage, not to mention the differences in languages, educations, customs and habits that obstruct us 'in communicating our sensations out of our own spheres'—one of the most noticeable is the great stone that halts Yorick's sentimental journey in mid-career. Greater still than this, however, is the obstacle of mutual embarrassment, thoughts 'too delicate to communicate' (p. 288), that separates Yorick and the attractive Piedmontese whom circumstances oblige to share the only room in the inn: 'There were difficulties every way [Yorick observes]—and the obstacle of the stone in the road, which brought us into the distress, great as it appeared whilst the peasants were removing it, was but a pebble to what lay in our ways now' (pp. 287-8).

In conducting his travellers out of this impasse and leading his readers to the end of the second volume, Sterne presents a sort of comic parable of the theme of estrangement and communion which he has already elaborated. Obliged to sleep side by side in two beds narrowly separated, Yorick and his companion, like two hostile nations, enter into a 'two hours negociation' leading to 'a treaty of peace' between them (p. 288). Dictated by the requirements of decorum, the articles of the treaty are calculated to multiply the 'barriers' separating them and to prevent communication: first, the opening of the lady's bedcurtains, which, besides being of 'a flimsy transparent cotton', are 'too scanty to draw close', is secured by corking pins; second, Yorick must lie all night in his breeches; and third, he is forbidden to 'speak one single word'—except, of course, that he may say his prayers. What the proprieties of social decorum have thus put asunder, however, the irrepressible operations of the sexual imagination—Yorick's, the lady's, and most especially the reader's—will join together. Before allowing the joke to continue, Sterne pauses to make his point inescapably clear: that the real author of his hero's titillating adventures with the opposite sex has been the reader all along. How the lady and the parson contrive to get to bed in such a situation, he will 'leave to the reader to devise; protesting as I do it, that if it is not the most delicate in nature, 'tis the fault of his own imagination—against which this is not my first complaint' (pp. 289-90). Possessing the same lively imagination as the reader, neither Yorick nor the lady can sleep for thinking of each other. 'O my God! said I'—an 'ejaculation' on Yorick's part that instantly elicits the chiding of the lady, so warm that 'she weakened her barrier by it' and the bed curtains part in a shower of corking pins:

Upon my word and honour, Madame, said I—stretching my arm out of bed, by way of asseveration—

(I was going to have added, that I would not have trespass'd against the remotest idea of decorum for the world)—

—But the Fille de Chambre hearing there were words between us, and fearing that hostilities would ensue in course, had crept silently out of her closet, and it being totally dark, had stolen so close to our beds, that she had got herself into the narrow passage which separated them, and had advanc'd so far up as to be in a line betwixt her mistress and me—

So that when I stretch'd out my hand, I caught hold of the Fille de Chambre's

So Sterne—twice breaking off the syntax of Yorick's narrative (at the beginning and most hilariously at the end of this famous passage)—leaves him frozen forever in a gesture that may serve as the dramatic correlative of the human desire for another sort of syntactical completion, the subjective ego set apart, yet reaching out to close the gap that separates us. The final broken sentence, however, its grammatical predication never closed on the page itself, is nevertheless most certainly completed in the imagination of Sterne's reader. For, as Yorick has been at some pains to make clear in relating his sentimental journey, the imagination is our means of apprehending the syntax of things. At such moments in his fiction Sterne in his relations with his reader almost literally enacts the linguistic metaphor he had playfully applied to his hero: that 'heteroclite … creature in all his declensions' whose predications are formed 'according to the mood I am in, and the case—and I may add the gender too, of the person I am to govern.'


1 See The Providence of Wit: Aspects of Form in Augustan Literature and the Arts (1974), esp. pp. 241-69.

2The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, ed. Ian Watt (Boston, Mass., 1965), 495.

3A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy. By Mr. Yorick, ed. Gardner D. Stout, Jr (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1967), 278. Subsequent citations of A Sentimental Journey will be to this edition. The first meaning of syntax given in Johnson's Dictionary is 'A system; a number of things joined together', which he illustrates by Glanville's phrase, 'the whole syntax of beings'.

4 For an excellent discussion of the relation of style and meaning in Steme's masterpiece, see Ian Watt's essay, 'The Comic Syntax of Tristram Shandy', in H. Anderson and J. S. Shea (eds), Studies in Criticism and Aesthetics, 1660-1800: Essays in Honor of Samuel Holt Monk (Minneapolis, 1967), 315-31.

5Tristram Shandy, ed. Watt, p. 20.

6 See Cummings's delightful poem beginning, 'since feeling is first / who pays any attention / to the syntax of things' from is 5 (1926); in his Complete Poems, Volume One 1913-1935 (1968), 290.

7Loc. cit.

8 See Stout's excellent article in English Literary History, xxx (1963), 395-412, which served as the basis of Section IV of the Introduction to his edition.

9 See, for example, Rufus Putney, 'The evolutions of A Sentimental Journey', Philological Quarterly, XIX (1940), 349-69, and 'Laurence Sterne, Apostle of Laughter', in The Age of Johnson: Essays Presented to Chauncey Brewster Tinker (New Haven, 1949), 159-70; and Ernest N. Dilworth, The Unsentimental Journey of Laurence Sterne (New York, 1948), ch. V. In a similar vein, though better balanced, is John M. Stedmond's discussion of 'The Faces of Yorick' in The Comic Art of Laurence Sterne: Convention and Innovation in 'Tristram Shandy' and 'A Sentimental Journey' (Toronto, 1967), ch. VI.

10 On this aspect of Tristram Shandy, see The Providence of Wit, esp. pp. 261-2.

11 David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, II.iii.3 ('Of the influencing motives of the will'); in L. A. Selby-Bigge (ed.) (1888), 413. Though Sterne of course regretted Hume's infidelity, he admired him personally; in A Sentimental Journey Yorick praises him as 'a man of an excellent heart' (p. 122 and nn. 28, 31). For an attempt to establish Hume's influence on Sterne, see the article by Francis Doherty, Essays and Studies, 1969 (1969), pp. 71-87.

12 Watt, ed, 55.

13 At least one of his first readers found a sexual innuendo in Sterne's account of his relationship with the Marquesina. See Stout's edn, 344.

14 For an excellent discussion of this strategy in Tristram Shandy, see Robert Alter, 'Tristram Shandy and the game of love', American Scholar, XXXVII (1968), 316-23. Alter, indeed, sees the double entendre as 'the basic rhetorical device—almost the narrative method—of Tristram Shandy' (p. 317).

15 As Stout's note on this passage makes clear, 'purse' was a common slang term for the female pudendum (p. 236n.). The passage also illustrates one of Sterne's favourite rhetorical methods for assuring that the 'innocent' and sexual references of an object are held together in the reader's mind. Yorick's gaze alternates between the purse and the fille de chambre's lap, suggesting—but of course never explicitly stating—that he is himself aware of the sexual innuendo. Similarly, as Yorick and the grisset, whose husband has just left the shop, stand silently facing each other across the narrow counter, with the gloves between them, Sterne uses the same rhetorical alternation of reference to imply what is mutually on their minds:

The beautiful Grisset look'd sometimes at the gloves, then sideways to the window, then at the gloves—and then at me. I was not disposed to break silence—I follow'd her example: so I look'd at the gloves, then to the window, then at the gloves, and then at her—and so on alternately

(p. 168)

Again the locus classicus of the technique occurs in Tristram Shandy, as Maria appears to discern a certain ambivalence about Tristram's interest in her, a perception leading her companion to exclaim, 'What a Beast man is' (Watt, ed, 484):

MARIA look'd wistfully for some time at me, and then at her goat—and then at me—and then at her goat again, and so on, alternately—

—Well, Maria, said I softly—What resemblance do you find?

16 See 'Suggestions toward a genealogy of the "Man of Feeling" ', ELH: A Journal of Literary History, I (1934), 205-30.

17 In this context consider how Yorick regards the snuffbox given him by the kindly and forgiving Franciscan: 'I guard this box, as I would the instrumental parts of my religion, to help my mind on to something better; in truth, I seldom go abroad without it; and oft and many a time have I called up by it the courteous spirit of its owner to regulate my own, in the justlings of the world' (p. 101).

18 Steme's phrase for A Sentimental Journey. With Stout I am inclined to see in it something more than Sterne's facetious wish that his final work would redeem his literary and financial fortunes. (See Stout's edn, 18 and 40 n.43.)

19 Critics have recently demonstrated Defoe's affiliation with this tradition: see G. A. Starr, Defoe and Spiritual Autobiography (Princeton, 1965), and J. P. Hunter, The Reluctant Pilgrim: Defoe's Emblematic Method and Quest for Form in 'Robinson Crusoe' (Baltimore, 1966).

Michael Rosenblum (essay date 1978)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7215

SOURCE: "The Sermon, the King of Bohemia, and the Art of Interpolation in Tristram Shandy," in Studies in Philology, Vol. LXXV, No. 4, October 1978, pp. 472-91.

[In the following essay, Rosenblum argues that there are two types of interruptions in the narrative of Tristram Shandy: the "digressions," which stresses the interconnectedness of things, and the "interpolations," which stress discontinuities in the accounts of events.]


Our age likes to define man as a maker of fictions which he uses, legitimately or not, to make himself at home in the world. Man wants to orient himself in time and space, to discover his "whenabouts and whereabouts," and since neither one o'clock nor the boundaries of the state of New Jersey exist in nature, he invents temporal and spatial markers, such fictions as hours and days, latitude and longitude. Thus are established chronology and geography, arts which Uncle Toby tells Trim are essential to soldiers—and, we would add, essential to everyone else as well. Another way men use fictions to make themselves at home in the world is by the construction of narratives, another kind of orienting fiction. An obvious use of narrative is to make fictions of continuity, to show the relationships between separate events. Less obviously, but no less necessary, is the use of narrative for discontinuity, making related events intelligible by disentangling them. It's often been said that Tristram Shandy is a narrative about the nature of narrative. More specifically, I would say that it is an examination of the sloppy way in which less self-conscious narratives connect the discontinuous and disconnect the continuous.

Whether the world is ultimately continuous or discontinuous (or, as is more likely, those categories have meaning only in relation to the human intelligence which uses them), we are often frustrated by the appearance of continuity where we want discontinuity, and vice versa. The celebrated opening of Tristram Shandy examines the assumption that both life and narratives are discontinuous enough for us to be able to isolate a beginning. According to received opinion, both begin at birth; but Sterne shows us what we knew all along but chose to ignore in the interests of making any start at all: that birth is only an episode in a continuum of closely related events. Before the child there is the foetus, and before that the homunculus. And since the narrator's intention is to pursue the ultimate causes for his singular nature, the theme of the opening books being "How I became Tristram Shandy," he must go farther back to such remote but crucial events as his mother's marriage contract, his great-grandmother's jointure, and his uncle's would at the Siege of Namur.

What protects us from the alarming continuity of all phenomena, the "one-damn-thing-after-anothemess" of experience, are such demarcating fictions as "the beginning." Ordinarily we don't inquire into such protective fictions too closely lest we grow dizzy, but Tristram does not fear dizziness. The good doctors of the Sorbonne innocently welcome a technological breakthrough which will allow them to baptize an infant before it emerges from the womb. But Tristram points out that baptism can be carried even a few stages backward in the life of the embryo—"par le moyen d 'une petite canulle, and sans faire aucun tort au père."1 Tristram is as usual being mischievous; but beyond the mischief lies a real question: at what point does mere germ plasm become an immortal soul capable of salvation or damnation? Puzzles about continuity lead to an analogous question: when does a series of words become deeds? The theologian Didius conjectures about the number and kinds of errors a priest could make in his recital of the baptismal formula before his words would cease to constitute a valid baptism. The abbess of Andouillets and Margarita break "Bouger" into syllables in the hope that halving the venial sin will dilute it into no sin at all. Where we most need a fixed boundary, we are most plagued with continuity, the imperceptible and infinite degrees by which one thing or moment shades off into another. We wish to say this is the first moment of life, or this is the exact moment of death; or (to shift to another dimension where continuity also bedevils us) this is the exact place where the wound was got.

Steme is equally skeptical about the ease with which narratives conveniently give us the continuity we want. When we read most narratives we feel that continuity is natural; one event leads us inevitably to another. Writing and reading a narrative are like travelling along a road, a road that, we hope, is smooth and straight. And maybe even downhill, so that the lucky reader and writer will pick up momentum as they advance. The basic metaphor (a book is a kind of a road) is a favorite with Steme; but he has no use for easily travelled roads. Only fools would want to go the shortest distance between two points in the shortest possible time. His road, as he always reminds us, has twists and turns, with even a roadblock or two. But what most slows down the traveller along Tristram Shandy is the discontinuity of the road. Like the road which goes from two lanes to one, from blacktop to gravel, Sterne's road is always changing—typographically, linguistically, or temporally. Sometimes it is in plain type, sometimes in italics, gothic, or no type at all (the famous mottled, blank, or blackened pages). Usually the road is in English, but sometimes it is in Latin (or alternating Latin and English), or French, or even Italian or Greek. Sometimes we are travelling in 1718, or 1748, or 1695, or any combination of those times.

In the famous engravings of lines and loops which close Volume VI, Sterne has given his map of the road. For all their twists and tums the lines representing the digressions suggest continuity rather than discontinuity, because no matter how curled and looped the squiggles are, the line itself is unbroken. "This" leads to "that" because there is no boundary between "this" and "that." The account of the birth leads to the account of the midwife which leads to Yorick's horse which leads to Yorick's character which leads to Yorick's death. (There's an end, at any rate.) While the digression emphasizes the connectedness of events and of the narrative which relates them, what I will call the interpolation emphasizes the discontinuities in our accounts of events. Where the digression sneaks up on us (the narrator starts talking about one thing and by degrees finds himself talking about something else), the interpolation is sharply set off against what precedes it and what follows it. The interpolation shifts to another kind of language. The main road of 7m-tram Shandy is the language of the autobiographical narrative, but in the interpolation we switch to the language and conventions of the sermon (Volume II), the legal contract (the marriage articles of Volume I), the theological deliberation (the Doctors of the Sorbonne in Volume I), the curse (Volume III), the mock-romance (The Tale of Slawkenbergius in Volume IV or The Fragment on Whiskers in Volume V), the educational handbook (the Tristrapaedia of Volume V), the personal history (Trim's tale of the Fair Beguine in Volume VIII), or the travel book (Volume VII): The road then is heterogeneous, composed of mixed rather than uniform materials.

Another way of putting it is to say that the road is not entirely a new one since it incorporates previous verbal structures. In order to set down the words of Tristram Shandy Tristram/Sterne consulted either genuine documents or actual literary texts, or pretended to consult mock-documents and pseudo-quotations. In the first category are the record of the deliberations of the Doctors of the Sorbonne on the tenth of April in 1738, or the curse of Bishop Emulf (Sterne's footnote attests to the authenticity of both documents). The most important of the "real" documents is the sermon preached at the cathedral church at York in July of 1750. In the second category of actual literary texts are the famous "borrowings" from Rabelais, Burton, Locke, etc. In the third category of the pretended document there are Mrs. Shandy's marriage settlement, Walter's letter to Toby, and the Tristrapaedia. In the fourth category one could put the pretended literary quotation like the Tale of Slawkenbergius or the Fragment Upon Whiskers.

In all four categories Sterne is incorporating printed or written (or ostensibly printed and written) texts into the main narrative. An equally important class of speech which purports to be anterior to the narrative is the speech of the live voice: either the oral recitation of a memorized text, the telling of a tale or a "true" story, or the reading aloud of a written text. Where the written text is associated with Walter, Tristram, and Yorick, the star performer of the oral mode is Trim, who recites the Ten Commandments, who tells (almost) the Story of the King of Bohemia and his Seven Castles, who recounts his own true history in the story of the Fair Beguine, and his brother Tom's in the parallel history of the Sausage-Maker's Widow. For a while it appears that Trim is to be the chosen instrument for the recital of Le Fever's story, but at the crucial moment the narrator remembers that he has left Mrs. Shandy listening at the door. Since Trim likes to hear himself read aloud, he is chosen for the most extended oral performance of all, the reading of Yorick's sermon. Also in the class of reading a written text aloud is Slop's rendition of the curse of Ernulf. A variation of this class is Walter's performance ("half-reading, half-discoursing") of his Tristrapaedia.

The interpolation as I am defining it, then, is an extended and contrasting insertion into the main narrative which actually follows or pretends to follow a preexisting verbal formulation. Of course the premise of any realistic narrative is that it follows pre-existing speech, dialogue being only the record of what "someone" has said. The difference is that in the interpolation "what someone has said" is shaped or controlled even before he has said it. The tale of the King of Bohemia or the story of Le Fever is presumably more or less in Trim's head before he gets the opportunity to begin it: if not the actual words, at least the order of events and the conventions for telling a story. His performance is not unique and spontaneous, but generic and artificial since it is being shaped by "rules"—in this case the rules of story-telling. On this basis any extended speech deliberately cast into a mold by the speaker could be considered an interpolation. Thus we might include Walter's speech on the death of Bobby since it is a deliberate imitation of a classical oration, or Toby's apologetical oration—though perhaps here the conventionality is to be attributed more to the narrator than to the intentions of the speaker.

The interpolation calls our attention to the element of "preformedness," the presence of an independent construction within the larger narrative. In The Poetics of Quotation in the European Novel; Hermann Meyer describes the quotation as "a bit of preformed linguistic property shaped by another"2 in the works of such writers as Rabelais, Cervantes, and Steme. What I'm calling the interpolation shows how much of language is "preformed" in a broader sense. The interpolation, unlike the quotation, doesn't necessarily imitate a specific speech act (these words in this order), but the form of a speech act: the sermon, oration, curse, etc. Thus it reminds us of some simple truths about how men speak. We use one master code, the English language, which contains all the rules for syntax and the possibilities of diction from which the individual speaker must choose. Between the total system of the language and the individual utterance, there is another level, what Jakobson calls a "system of interconnected sub-codes," or what Todorov calls "the rules of discourse."3 Speech thus is cast into forms; everything is a manner-of-speaking. Telling a story is not a natural act, a mere automatic recital of what happened: telling and listening to a story mean knowing the rules for following a story.4 Men don't just speak the English language—they tell jokes, anecdotes, made-up stories, and "true" stories; they give orations and they give sermons.


Tristram Shandy is a book full of many strange things, but perhaps nothing stranger than the appearance of "On the Abuses of Conscience" in Volume II. For one thing, although it is broken into repeatedly, the sermon is given in its entirety, and thus provides one of the few times that the word "FINIS" can appear unequivocally in Tristram Shandy. More surprising is the fact that Sterne should put a sermon into the secular, not to say profane, context of Tristram Shandy. Sermons were something to be delivered in church or to be published separately or as part of a homogeneous collection. They were not (until Steme did so) to be published within a novel. Of course Steme has a great fondness for theological and ecclesiastical material. But in such episodes as the deliberations of the Doctors of the Sorbonne, the curse of Emulf, the tomb of St. Maxima, and the pilgrimage of the Abbess of Andouillets, the lore is drawn from the Church of Rome, which for Steme puts it within the realm of literature—satire. The sermon, however, comes from Sterne's own church and pulpit, making its inclusion a breach of decorum only to be matched by the publication of the collected sermons in the name of Yorick. Both Yorick and his creator are casual about their "used" sermons; one cuts them into strips to light his pipe and the other uses them to fill out the pages of his novel.

Why should Sterne want to include a sermon in Volume II? Why this sermon? The questions are inevitable and, as is usually the case with Steme, lend themselves to a wide variety of answers. It is conventional for a group of characters in early fiction to read an accidentally discovered manuscript in order to pass the time (though it is typical of Steme to insert a sermon into the "slot" where a reader of Cervantes or Fielding might expect to find a romance such as "The Curious Impertinent" or "The Unfortunate Jilt"). We can also relate the themes of the sermon to the themes of Tristram Shandy as a whole, or we can emphasize the kinds of responses that the sermon elicits from the characters.5 All of these answers make sense, but I think the best answer is that Steme put in the sermon because he chose to, and that choice is totally arbitrary. To use a fancy word from modern poetics (which already exists in Uncle Toby's critical vocabulary), the appearance of the sermon at this point is contingent. Perhaps habit and critical ingenuity have diminished our capacity to feel the full force of the contingent in Sterne. What is at first surprising and inexplicable may eventually come to seem necessary and even inevitable: How could there be a Tristram Shandy without a complete Anglican sermon somewhere within its first hundred pages? Yet one of Steme's feats as a novelist (or Tristram's as an autobiographer) is his ability to show how any contingency can become part of a pattern, how the apparently discontinuous can be experienced as continuous. But we can't appreciate this feat unless we see fully how arbitrary the inclusion of the sermon is.

In order to emphasize the arbitrariness Steme gives a precise account of the train of events leading up to the discovery and reading of the sermon. The immediate starting point is the thoughts that take place in Toby's head at the moment of Slop's appearance in the Shandy parlor. Toby assumes that Slop's rapid arrival is the effect of Obadiah's summons but one need not be a student of Hume to realize that this is a faulty inference of cause and effect. The un-Humean conclusion leads to a Lockean association of ideas: "Your sudden and unexpected arrival … instantly brought the great Stevinus into my head …" (II, 12; p. 84). We are led from Toby's head to Stevinus, to what the book of Stevinus which Trim has fetched might contain (in the way of chariots) to a sermon stuck between the pages. The sequence, like every other one in Tristram Shandy, is at once totally unpredictable and yet totally intelligible. There is an explanation for everything, though it may take a while to find it. We discover that the sermon is planted between the pages of Stevinus because the author of the sermon had borrowed the volume earlier. Chance has brought them a sermon. Chance has also made it difficult for Walter to make use of Dr. Slop's professional services, but Walter sees that something can be made of the convergence of the Protestant sermon and the Catholic Slop. Because a sermon has been stuck incongruously between the pages of a military treatise, we have the even greater incongruity by which an authentic, mid-century Anglican sermon of mildly Latitudinarian persuasion can find its way into the pages of a novel.

Sterne is, I think, less interested in the contents of "On the Abuses of Conscience" than he is in the fact that it belongs to so highly conventionalized a genre. Though Sterne wouldn't have put it in these terms and would have mocked anybody who did, the question that underlies the whole episode is "What are the formal properties of the sermon as a kind of discourse?" The very first thing noted about the sermon, the means by which Trim identifies it as a sermon rather than a chariot, is a formal feature: "'tis more like a sermon, for it begins with a text of scripture, and the chapter and verse; and then goes on, not as a chariot,—but like a sermon directly" (II, 15; p. 90). Quotation from scripture is a distinctive attribute of the genre, the sermon being that kind of composition which not only takes its point of departure, but also receives its ultimate authority, from the word of God. A sermon is always governed by rules; not only rules for how the text is to be written, but also rules for the circumstances of delivery of the text. In recent years Richard Ohmann has applied J. L. Austin's influential account of "speech acts" to the study of literature. The notion that each kind of speech act has its own rules helps us to see exactly why the sermon episode is so funny. According to Austin, any "illocutionary act" must meet the following criteria if it is to be considered "felicitous": "(1) the participants are qualified and appropriate, (2) the circumstances are right, (3) the verbal component is spoken accurately and completely, (4) the speaker's beliefs and feelings are those required for performance of the act in good faith, and (5) the participants conduct themselves appropriately afterwards."6 It is easy to see that Trim's delivery of the sermon is a kind of Art of the Fugue of infelicity. The speaker is not an ordained clergyman, nor is he the author of the text which he is reading. The site is not a church where the participants are worshipping, but the Shandy downstairs parlor where they are killing time. The speaker breaks into tears before he can complete the text and is repeatedly interrupted by his auditors. The speaker undertakes the reading not because he wishes to reform his auditors, but because he likes to hear himself read aloud. The only effect of the sermon is that Slop falls asleep, which may or may not be in accord with the rules of sermons. These various "infelicities" are of course more striking when we realize that in July of 1750 the sermon was part of a felicitous speech act: given by a clergyman in consecrated space before a body of the (one hopes, appreciative) faithful.

To break the rules for sermons is to remind us what those rules ordinarily are. Steme's formal bias, his concern with "the message for its own sake"7 is evident, as it is evident throughout all of Tristram Shandy. Sterne contrasts what the sermon usually is with what the sermon can become. It is not one, but four different messages, or four ways of conceiving the relation of sender to receiver. First, there is the original sermon as preached and published by Laurence Sterne, whose auditors and readers would understand it as a serious Anglican sermon. The second kind of message takes place within the fictional world. There it is hard to decide whether the sender is Yorick who wrote the sermon, Trim who reads it, or (more likely) Walter who encourages Trim to read it. Walter's intention is to tease his auditors and thereby divert himself. The third way of analyzing the message takes us outside of the fictional world. At this level the sender is Laurence Steme, novelist, one of whose resources as a novelist is access to the sermons of Laurence Steme, clergyman. The addressee is the reader, who is intended to admire the way a sermon can be used in a novel, and the way in which Sterne can brilliantly anticipate the charges of plagiarism which were to be brought against him. Yes, he says, the preacher Sterne is as much a plagiarist as Sterne the novelist. Both steal from Parson Yorick.

If the first message was sermon as sermon, the second sermon as a way to pass the time, the third sermon as novelist's material, the fourth is sermon as come-on or "puff." Toby says "it does not appear that the sermon is printed, or ever likely to be" (II, 17; p. 95). Toby is wrong three times over as both the contemporary and modern reader cannot help noticing. The sermon was printed in August of 1750, and "is" in print at the very moment the reader scans the text of Tristram Shandy. Moreover, the footnote at this point announces Sterne's further intention of making the sermon part of the collected sermons of Yorick: "That in case the character of Parson Yorick and this sample of his sermons is liked,—that there are now in the possession of the Shandy family, as many as will make a handsome volume, at the world's service …" (II, 19; p. 108). To return momentarily to Austin's fourth rule, one would assume that the "good faith" of the speaker requires his disinterestedness. He should not have any ulterior designs upon his auditors other than his professed one (design enough) of their salvation. Sermons surely are not to be the means by which other sermons are sold. But the sender at the fourth level is the prospective publisher of four volumes of sermons, and the addressee is the original contemporary audience, with, the publisher hopes, a fondness for sermons and an extra guinea or two to spend. With this stroke we are moved from the realm of the sermon or the novel into the real outer world in which the reader lives, breathes, and spends his money.

I have been arguing that the comedy of the sermon episode depends upon Sterne's playing with the rules of discourse. To understand a sermon is to know its particular manner of speaking. This means knowing how its metaphors are to be taken and how it is related to other kinds of speaking such as historical narration. When the sermon evokes the "piteous groan" of a victim of the Inquisition and asks the congregation to "see the melancholy wretch who utter'd it," Trim thinks the wretch is his brother Tom. Trim, Slop, and Walter argue about the proper interpretation of the passage: "I tell thee, Trim, again, quoth my father, 'tis not an historical account,—'tis a description.—'Tis only a description, honest man, quoth Slop, there's not a word of truth in it.—That's another story, replied my father" (II, 17; p. 105). In taking the words literally as a historical account Trim reveals his ignorance of the way figurative language can operate in a sermon. As Walter tells him, the passage is a description, or more precisely, the figure hypotyposis.8 It's not Tom but a construct of language, an allegorical abstraction whose cellmates are Mercy, Religion, and Justice.

Toby and Mrs. Shandy have the same kind of difficulty in recognizing a special manner-of-speaking when they listen to Walter's response to the news of Bobby's death. His speech is a neo-classical form of the speech of consolation. Just as the sermon is an intertwining of the words of the sermonizer with the preexisting words of the prophets, apostles, and God, the neo-classical orator mingles his own situation and words with his classical source, producing a conventional double-speaking with which the classically educated gentleman of the eighteenth century would be familiar. Needless to say, this is a code that is unavailable to either Toby or Mrs. Shandy. "Returning out of Asia, when I sailed from Aegina towards Megara, (when can this have been? thought my uncle Toby) …" (V, 8; p. 267). The calendar established by Walter's mode of discourse points to the time when Servius Sulpicius took the trip to which the words refer, the time shortly thereafter when he wrote his letter of consolation to Cicero, the time when Cicero incorporated it into his Epistolae ad Familiares, the "present" time (1719) when Walter speaks those words, and 1761 when Tristram writes those words. But mostly "no year of our Lord" as Walter tells the incredulous Toby. Mrs. Shandy has the same trouble with Walter-as-Socrates' enumeration of "three desolate children."

This same question—how are our coordinates for referring to time and space changed by different kinds of discourse9—is raised most explicitly by Trim's attempt to tell the tale of the King of Bohemia. If the events of a story can be said to happen (and that's just what a story seems to assert), then they must be "situatable" in time and in space. Trim and Toby assume that language works in the same way as it does elsewhere. Toby insists that Trim tell exactly when the story takes place, and Trim in his innocence chooses the year 1712. Toby's objection is sound: to have even one giant, as Trim modestly proposes, means that it must be set "some seven or eight hundred years out of harms way" where the teller is safe from the niggling demands of formal realism. But it's not so clear that Toby is right to assume that the date implies all of the historical events of the year. Does 1712 mean that, among other things, the narrative is alluding to the secret agreement by which the Duke of Ormand, commander of the British forces, was prevented from engaging in battle with the French?

And similarly, when Trim says Bohemia, does that automatically mean, whether or not he specifies it, that we are to infer "landlocked" as one of its properties?10 The means by which Bohemia's geography becomes a part of Trim's tale and finally terminates it illustrates Sterne's formal interest in the rules that regulate telling and listening to a story. Trim is unable to get on with his tale because he and Toby get bogged down in the discussion of the importance of chronology and geography. On his fifth attempt to tell the tale Trim introduces the epithet "unfortunate" to describe the King of Bohemia. I assume that the king was not unfortunate in the original version of the story; he becomes so only the fifth time around, when the frustration of the teller of the tale is attributed to the subject of the tale. When Toby inquires "why unfortunate?" Trim is much too polite to tell the real reason, and so he must invent a reason. Given Bohemia, he makes the inference that the king lives in a landlocked country by the analogous process by which 1712 begets the Duke of Ormand's disgrace. From there it is only a small jump to invent the attribute which will explain "unfortunate": the king's love of navigation. What is "outside" the tale, the map of Bohemia and Trim's frustration as a storyteller, changes the tale—another illustration of the general rule in Tristram Shandy that no system or secondary world (whether it be sermon, tale, or fortification) is uncontaminated by what is outside it.

Toby and Trim are naive in their understanding of how stories work, just as they are naive in their response to the sermon. But at the same time their misunderstandings do reflect ambiguities in the codes themselves. In their own fashion Toby and Trim are puzzling over real questions. We can smile along with Walter over Trim's difficulties with the "naked wretch," or his intention of handing over the crown that Toby will give him to the women and children who are the victims of fanaticism. Although the fanatic and his victims are hypothetical, the sermon is also asserting that there are real people for whom they stand. Within the framework of the sermon real claims are being made about alleged Catholic cruelty in battle and the suffering caused by the Inquisition. In other words, Tom is not on an entirely different plane of reality than the naked wretch of the sermon. Trim has difficulty with the sermon because at this point it is speaking a complex combination of the figurative and literal, the hypothetical and the historical.

Toby and Trim also raise real questions about the construction of stories: To what extent are stories self-enclosed constructions creating their own time, space, and causality, and to what extent are they bound to the pre-existing chronology, geography, and the order of events of the "real" world? The writer can take the map, the almanac of facts, and the calendar of events that constitute history as his necessity, or else he can see them for what they are—contingent because they could be otherwise. And because they could be otherwise, as an artist he is free to imagine them otherwise. Toby objects when Trim confuses the area of his choice with the area in which he is constrained, when he tries to pass off what is necessary as his own free choice. Toby approves of Trim's saying that "the King of Bohemia with his queen might have walk'd out, or let it alone;—'twas a matter of contingency, which might happen, or not, just as chance ordered it" (VIII, 19; p. 437). But when Trim says that there "happening throughout the whole kingdom of Bohemia, to be no sea-port town whatever," Toby argues that Trim is confusing the contingent and the necessary. Bohemia's seacoast is not subject to the control of any narrator. For the pious Toby the primary world is not contingent but providential, the configuration of Europe being such that the inhabitants of Germany do not drown.

For the modern novelist the realm of the contingent is enlarged. It is unlikely to Toby that the seas could overflow into the lowlands of Europe, but Roquentin in Nausea can conceive of the seat of a tram car turning into a donkey's paw. For Roquentin the only necessity is that which he creates within his own narrative. A modern writer is likely to claim more for his sovereignty as a storyteller, insisting upon his right to "re-invent the world," as when the author of Ada bends and warps our spatial and temporal coordinates, grafts the twentieth century onto the nineteenth, and playfully crossbreeds the continents. Such wheeling and dealing with "reality" reflects a willingness to assert the autonomy of narratives.11 A less extreme formulation, more in accord with the conservative spirit of Toby's poetics, is that the novelist works within a dialectic of sovereignty and constraint. Narratives which are totally free or totally bound are uninteresting. Trim discovers that even with the fairy-tale-like King of Bohemia he is still obliged to follow rules.12


Telling a story or giving a sermon is a very special kind of speaking, and so is writing an extended narrative like Tristram Shandy. which is made up of many manners of speaking. In fashioning so piebald a work Sterne is demonstrating something of the actual linguistic discontinuity of real life in which we shift automatically from one code to another, making our continuities out of patched-together discontinuities. By reminding us of how we are always shifting our coordinates, the interpolation defamiliarizes something which we might otherwise take for granted. In this sense the interpolation is the instrument of Sterne's realism, realism being defined here (following the Russian Formalists' definition of art) as the means by which we are forced out of our customary orientation, those mental habits which familiarize and so cheat us out of the world.

I would assume that it is the goal of realism to enlarge our sense of what can be and therefore what ought to be put into novels: the background noise, the competing messages, the remote circumstances which a tidier narrative would reject as irrelevant. Chekhov showed that people do not speak as consecutively or as intelligibly as the conventions for representing speech on the stage suggest. In a similar way the interpolation enlarges our sense of how men use words. The real subject of Tristram Shandy (and perhaps of all novels—and to that extent Shlovsky's famous claim about its typicality is true) is how men use words. Certainly the main activity of the Shandy family is almost entirely verbal: they talk, read, write, and listen.13 William Gass has argued that the true source of the storyteller's verisimilitude is not the imitation of nature, but the attempt to follow "as closely as he can our simplest, most direct and and unaffected forms of daily talk."14 The mysterious "reality" of Walter and Toby is bound up with Sterne's representation of their speech, but precisely because Sterne is such a great realist he does not confine himself to the simplest and most direct forms of speech. Instead Sterne gives us the highly formalized speech, the full range of oral and written messages which Walter and Toby send and receive. Realism in the eighteenth-century novel means quite simply the representation of such contemporary forms as the sermon, the guide-book, and the neo-classical oration, in the same way that realism in the modern novel would mean representing such characteristic modern forms as the commercial or the telephone conversation. At the same time verbal reality in Tristram Shandy is made up of such unlikely performances as the recitation of the Ten Commandments, a paragraph from Rabelais, and a twelfth-century formula for excommunication.

I would also assume that it is the goal of realism to demonstrate the multiplicity of possible viewpoints that may be taken towards the world."15 A discontinuous narrative, a motley narrative stitched together out of different ways of speaking (and stitched together with black thread so that all the seams will show) acknowledges that each account has its own way of making sense of the world. Sterne knows that there are many ways of speaking, none of them privileged or uniquely authoritative. A single way of speaking, like a single hobby-horse, is reductive because we are confined to only one way of interpreting the world. But the contemplation of more than one hobby horse or the bringing together of many ways of speaking in successive interpolations is expansive and liberating. For Sterne the established ways of handling historical or autobiographic narrative are not the only ways. He is always aware of making choices, adopting one convention rather than another. To write is to obey certain rules, and if we are confined to one set of rules we may forget that there are others, or that we are working within a system which is neither natural nor inevitable. As the philosopher Nelson Goodman puts it, "the world is as many ways as it can be truly described, seen, pictured etc. and … there is no such thing as the way the world is."16 Lest we forget, the interpolation forces us to shift, immersing us successively in the account of the world given by legal contracts, literary quotations, letters, mock-romances, sermons, travel-guides, educational handbooks, and imitations of oral narration.

Finally I would argue that the interpolation educates the reader in an attitude towards experience which can be described as Shandian. Things put themselves in our path and we must allow them to testify, to yield full measure of instruction, wit, and mystery. When the train of association in Toby's head leads to Stevinus, Walter is willing to allow the sailing chariot to become the new center of interest, and when the chariot leads to the sermon, he is willing to listen to that too. There is the great impending event, the birth of Tristram abovestairs, but Walter is downstairs, and he need not confine his interest to the birth any more than Tristram as narrator need focus on the "main" event. Neither Walter nor Tristram asks how the sermon is relevant, or asks it to justify itself in relation to something else. Events need not be subordinated to one another because each event is potentially its own center. Yorick has borrowed Stevinus in the first place because he is "inquisitive after all kinds of knowledge." Walter welcomes the reading of the sermon because he has such a "strong propensity … to look into things which cross my way, by such strange fatalities as these …" (II, 17;p. 91). Where the father likes to see where circumstances will lead, the son likes to trace events back to their origins: "My way is ever to point to the curious, different tracts of investigation, to come at the first springs of the events I tell" (I, 21; p. 50). This kind of inquisitiveness is the first cause of everything in Tristram Shandy, just as everything in the Iliad follows from the wrath of Achilles. Walter, Yorick, and Tristram are admirers of the gratuitous act and connoisseurs of the contingent. Chance is for them and for the reader the opportunity to break out of the closed circle of experience. Chance offers one of the few pleasures that Walter and Tristram can consistently enjoy, the delight in seeing the way in which the purely contingent yields a pattern.

I have quoted the maxim that art gives us the world back again by making it strange. For somebody like Walter the world is already made strange: "The truth was, his road lay so very far one side, from that wherein most men travelled—that every object before him presented a face and section of itself to his eye, altogether different from the plan and elevation of it seen by the rest of mankind" (V, 26; p. 289). Sterne has made sure that we make our way along his "road" in the same way Walter makes his way along his, circumspectly, deliberately, and with surprise. To invoke the Formalists once more, we are made to feel the stones of the road. Our speed depends upon our familiarity with the road and the kinds of guesses which we think we can safely make as to what lies ahead. The interpolations, among other aspects of the book, make it difficult for us to feel confident about what lies ahead, since the road is always changing. Because the road is always new, we are convinced that it is worthy of our closest attention.


1 I, 21; p. 48. All references are to Ian Watt's edition of Tristram Shandy (New York, 1965).

2 Hermann Meyer, The Poetics of Quotation in the European Novel (Princeton, 1968), p. 6. See also Mixail Baxtin's observation that "to the prose writer the world is full of other people's speech acts; he orients himself among these, and he must have a keen ear for perceiving and identifying their peculiarities." "Discourse Typology in Prose," in Readings in Russian Poetics: Formalist and Structuralist Views (Cambridge, Mass., 1971), ed. Ladislav Matejka and Krystyna Pomorska, p. 194.

3 See Roman Jakobson, "Linguistics and Poetics," in Style in Language, ed. Thomas Sebeok (Cambridge, Mass., 1966), and Tzvetan Todorov's "Structuralism and Literature," in Approaches to Poetics, ed. Seymour Chatman (New York, 1973).

4 See W. B. Gallie, "What Is a Story," in Philosophy and the Historical Understanding (New York, 1964).

5 In a fine and persuasive account of the sermon in the context of the work as a whole, J. Paul Hunter argues that Sterne's emphasis on the response to the sermon "demonstrates what will not, and what will, move the minds of men." See "Response as Reformation: Tristram Shandy and the Art of Interruption," Novel, IV (1971), 132-46. In The Comic Art of Laurence Sterne (Toronto, 1967), J. M. Stedmond suggests that the sermon "seems to represent the closest thing to a straightforward 'norm' against which to gauge the comedy of the first two volumes" (p. 84). For a treatment of the sermon as theology, see Arthur H. Cash, "The Sermon in Tristram Shandy," ELH, XXI (1964), 395-417.

6 Richard Ohmann, "Literature as Act," in Chatman, p. 83.

7 Jakobson, p. 356.

8 William J. Farrell, "Nature versus Art as a Comic Pattern in Tristram Shandy," ELH, XXX (1963), 16-35.

9 In their own unsophisticated way Trim and Toby have stumbled upon the theoretical issues pursued more systematically in Kate Hamburger's Die Logik der Dichtung (Stuttgart, 1957).

10 I don't think we have to worry whether or not Trim had read Winter's Tale, but it would be interesting to know at what point the "seacoast in Bohemia" had become notorious as the spatial counterpart of what would be an anachronism in time.

11 In an interview John Barth argues that "if you are a novelist of a certain type of temperament, then what you really want to do is re-invent the world…a certain kind of sensibility can be made very uncomfortable by the recognition of the arbitrariness of physical facts and the inability to accept their finality. Take France, for example: France is shaped like a tea pot, and Italy is shaped like a boot. Well, okay. But the idea that that's the only way it's ever going to be, that they'll never be shaped like anything else—that can get to you after a while." See The Contemporary Writer, eds. L. S. Dembo and Cyrena N. Pondrom (Madison, 1972) p. 23.

12 In fact the fairy tale, of which we require the least fidelity to the outside world, is conversely the most bound by its very distinctive conventions. Stories are always constrained, either by the demands of realism, by the conventions of particular genres, or by the fact that a story as it unfolds constitutes a system. Once certain choices have been made, other possibilities are excluded.

13 Perhaps this is because the domain of language is safer. The "doing" which is an alternative to "saying" is always suspect. "And pray what was your father saying?" asks the stupid reader at the end of the first chapter (Walter is clearly "doing," not "saying"). Toby thinks that at the end of the tale of the Beguine Trim "made a speech." See also David Grossvogel's emphasis on the importance of live speech in Sterne in Limits of the Novel (New York, 1972), p. 32.

14 William Gass, Fiction and the Figures of Life (New York, 1972), p. 32.

15 The following pronouncements on realism are offered in the knowledge that no generalizations about the goal of realism are likely to win universal consent. For a recent, able defense of what seems to me a very traditional view of realism in the novel, see J. P. Stern, On Realism (London, 1973).

16 Nelson Goodman, Language of Art (Indianapolis, 1968), p. 6.

Arnold Weinstein (essay date 1981)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6651

SOURCE: "New Worlds and Old Worlds: Tristram Shandy," in his Fictions of the Self: 1550-1800, Princeton University Press, 1981, pp. 214-32.

[In the following excerpt, Weinstein demonstrates the originality of Tristram Shandy for its time, pointing out that the novel focuses on wordplay and innuendo rather than on plot and narrative coherence.]

… I would submit that Tristram Shandy, in a manner that resembles Joyce's Ulysses, is built on and out of the fragments of crumbling traditions and institutions. In his fine essay on the tradition of learned wit in Tristram, D. W. Jefferson's essential conclusion is that "the theme of Tristram Shandy may be seen in terms of a comic clash between the world of learning and that of human affairs."1 Comic though that clash is, I think that Sterne is depicting a cleavage, a gulf between the profuse materials of scholastic authority and learning which appear on every page of Tristram, and not only in the words of Walter Shandy, but in Toby and Tristram as well, the constant web of erudite allusion, on the one hand, and the already modern sense, on the other, that humans are adrift, unmoored, cut loose from these systems that used to give structure to life. The Past is ubiquitous in Tristram; Greek, Latin, Dutch, and French sources are cited, and often cited at considerable length, for virtually every event in the novel, but Sterne is having his pleasure with them, turning them into puns, exploding them into fantasy. Let us consider the following learned discussion:

Gastripheres, for example, continued Kysarcius, baptizes a child of John Stradling's in Gomine gatris &c. &c. instead of in Nomine patris, &c.—Is this a baptism? No,—say the ablest canonists; inasmuch as the radix of each word is hereby torn up, and the sense and meaning of them removed and changed quite to another object; for Gomine does not signify a name, nor gatris a father.—what do they signify? said my uncle Toby.—Nothing at all—quoth Yorick.—Ergo, such a baptism is null, said Kysarcius. (p. 247)2

Beyond the wordplay the thing itself, the ceremony and significance of baptism, does not remain intact, and that is because wordplay is inevitably corrosive. Corrosive but also extensive, projective: Sterne's narrative strategy is to make a revolutionary new purchase on language, discrediting old realms but spawning and then occupying new ones. I do not want to overstate my case: it is well known that the medieval Christian tradition was resilient enough to house and tolerate a considerable amount of parody and self-satire, but wordplay, in Sterne, is already on the way to becoming creative rather than satirical, and, as such, it will be an indispensable tool for Tristram in narrating his life and opinions; it will also be a tool for Laurence Sterne to employ in completing a book and in expressing a vision in a world where nothing can be completed and everything has already been said.

Yorick's sermon on conscience, happily inserted among the pages of Stevinus, nicely states the already modernist problems of authority, judgment, and orientation which beset Sterne. Conscience is defined as "the knowledge which the mind has within herself" (p. 95), and is therefore quite close to the notion of consciousness; but Sterne is aware that conscience is unreliable, that, in all too many cases, "this domestic God was either talking, or pursuing, or was in a journey, or peradventure he slept and could not be awoke" (p. 97). Conscience is not to be trusted alone; it needs to be abetted by a law, a firmer one than jurisprudence offers, one setting forth the principles of morality and religion. But those principles themselves, augustly quoted from the Bible, the Sorbonne, and other repositories of authority, are no longer sound, function primarily as touchstones to punning and satire. We need laws, but they are crumbling, we are reduced to conscience and consciousness, but they are fallible. This was Sterne's situation, much as it is our own; it was his precise literary situation as well, since he was clearly not to continue in the path of Defoe, Richardson, or Fielding, and his satire would be unlike that of Pope or Swift. His solution, spiritually and literarily, is to do his own thing: "to write a book is for all the world like humming a song—be but in tune with yourself, madam, 'tis no matter how high or how low you take it" (p. 238). This is no easy matter, for he must do battle with the critics constantly, those critics who judge all by rules and laws, and he must also find his own thing. For the novelist, the Old World is an aesthetic as well as a cultural issue. We have seen the role that tradition and convention play in Manon Lescaut, Werther and Clarissa; yet, Prévost, Goethe, and Richardson were content to use traditional forms of mimesis in their quarrel with tradition. Sterne goes a quantum leap further: he revolutionalizes the form of the novel, finding sustenance everywhere along the way: the innocuous givens of time, place, and sequence, comfortably relied on by mimetic fictioneers, are jostled and overturned by Sterne, yielding new vistas, adumbrating new realms. The hitherto transparent conventions of storytelling are brilliantly foregrounded by Sterne, energized and fictionalized in themselves: the words which used docilely to tell the novelist's story now tell their own. Sterne, beset by impotency at every turn, is to discover the potency of language: The crumbling Old World is to be, not overcome (as Des Grieux, Werther and Clarissa were to learn), but shaped anew.

How can a single writer reverse the Humpty Dumpty story and put the world back together again? Sterne's strategy is to stake out a new area where wholeness, authority and accomplishment will again be possible. It comes in the guise of a Gonopsychanthropologia, a depiction of the origin of the human soul. How does the self come to be what it is? Sterne gives us, comically but not altogether comically, four controlling factors: (1) the disposition of the animal spirits at conception, (2) the safety of the cerebellum at birth, (3) the wholeness and length of the nose, and if a male, of another organ as well, and (4) the name. And, on these fronts, as we all know, Tristram Shandy, hero of a genuine Bildungsroman ab ovo, is a cosmic loser: animal spirits dispersed, cerebellum smashed, nose crushed, other organ almost removed, and Tristram for a name. Nineteenth-century positivism produced fictions that would account for a person's character by his "background," his parents, his socio-economic conditions, heredity, and environment. Sterne is both funnier, and surely as close to the mark, in his insistence (rather, Walter Shandy's insistence) that the real formative stage of the self occurs between conception and birth. Whatever the scientific validity of Walter's position, Tristram emerges—unlike the richly endowed Des Grieux, Werther, and Clarissa—as a character cursed by Fortune and marked by the conditions of his birth. How can a success story be possible?

Most readers and critics assume that Sterne was not seriously concerned with Gonopsychanthropologia, but I would suggest that he is vitally interested in offsetting the rigorous determinism inherent in Walter Shandy's view, and that he is showing you, all the time, just how he and you can conquer such determinism. We are well into the fourth volume of Tristram Shandy before we even get to all the details of Tristram's birth: Sterne has manifestly been up to other things, in fact just about everything including the kitchen sink: anecdotes about Yorick, a Sorbonne document on baptizing foetuses before birth, Uncle Toby's wound and his subsequent hobbyhorse, Ernulphus' curse, the author's preface (midway in the 3rd volume), considerable lore about sieges and fortifications, the immortal tale of Hafen Slawkenbergius, even the story of Licetus "born a foetus, of no more than five inches and a half in length, yet he grew to that astonishing height in literature, as to write a book with a title as long as himself—the learned know I mean his Gonopsychanthropologia, upon the origin of the human soul" (p. 212). Tristram has taken a long time in coming out, but, once there and permanently disadvantaged, Walter is so struck down as to wish his child had been Licetus instead, the five and one-half-inch foetus. Five and one-half inches is not very big. Things are low as we close Chapter 19 of Vol. 4. Chapter 20 goes as follows:

What a rate have I gone on at, curvetting and frisking it away, two up and two down for four volumes together, without looking once behind, or even on one side of me, to see whom I trod upon!—I'll tread upon no one,—quoth I to myself when I mounted—I'll take a good rattling gallop; but I'll not hurt the poorest jack-ass upon the road—So off I set—up one lane—down another, through this turnpike—over that, as if the arch-jockeys had got behind me.

Now ride at this rate with what good intention and resolution you may,—'tis a million to one you'll do some one a mischief, if not yourself—He's flung—he's off—he's lost his seat—he's down—he'll break his neck—see!—if he has not galloped full amongst the scaffolding of the undertaking criticks!—he'll knock his brains out against some of their posts—he's bounced out!—look—he's now riding like a madcap full tilt through a whole crowd of painters, fiddlers, poets, biographers, physicians, lawyers, logicians, players, schoolmen, churchmen, statesmen, soldiers, casuists, connoisseurs, prelates, popes, and engineers—Don't fear, said I—I'll not hurt the poorest jack-ass upon the king's high-way—But your horse throws dirt; see you've splash'd a bishop—I hope in God, 'twas only Ernulphus, said I—But you have squirted full in the faces of Mess. Le Moyne, De Romigny, and De Marcilly, doctors of the Sorbonne—That was last year, replied I—But you have trod this moment upon a king.—Kings have bad times on't, said I, to be trod upon by such people as me.

—You have done it, replied my accuser.

I deny it, quoth I, and so have got off, and here am I standing with my bridle in one hand, and with my cap in the other, to tell my story—And what is it? You shall hear in the next chapter. (p. 223)

No five and one-half-inch foetus here, no problem with animal spirits, cerebellum, noses, and other organs, not even names. Instead we have a prancing, galloping author, leaving Tristram's birth because he is free to, taking apart critics because they deserve it and he can do it, bearing no malice but nonetheless splashing Sorbonne bishops and trodding on the king. Here we witness a celebration of strength, of potency, of authority, of unbridled freedom; it is a peculiar sort of freedom, namely the kind that Sterne has been demonstrating and even celebrating since the outset: the freedom of imagination and language which is unshackled, unbound by the petty narrative business at hand of getting Tristram born, untrapped by the determinist prison that Walter thinks his son has been born into. Among the traditions which Tristram is free to transgress is the linear fiction of fiction, the notion that things must proceed 1, 2, 3 in a life or in a story: "Could a historiographer drive on his history, as a muleteer drives on his mule,—straight forward;—for instance, from Rome all the way to Loretto, without ever once turning his head aside either to the right hand or to the left,—he might venture to foretell you to an hour when he should get to his journey's end;—but the thing is, morally speaking, impossible" (p. 28). Our consciousness of life is multiple and simultaneous, and the power of writing can overcome event and sequence through digression and metaphor, for surely you have recognized that the man on the prancing horse, like Wallace Stevens' capable young rider, is a metaphor of the imagination. We are corporally limited and determined, but we can and do live in and through metaphoric extensions of reality. The mind is its own place, and the hazards of birth may form it, but they cannot control it.

The mind is its own place, and it—in keeping with the dominant metaphor of the novel—is under siege. Sterne's characters occupy their minds much like hermits, rarely going forth to see what it is like outside. Humans, according to Sterne, are without the advantages of some kind of Momus' glass:

… had such a glass been there set up, nothing more would have been wanting, in order to have taken a man's character, but to have taken a chair and gone softly, as you would to a dioptrical beehive, and look'd in,—viewed the soul stark naked;—observed all her motions,—her machinations;—traced all her maggots from their first engendering to their crawling forth;—watched her loose in her frisks, her gambols, her capricios; and after some notice of her more solemn deportment, consequent on such frisks, &c.—then taken your pen and ink and set down nothing but what you had seen, and could have sworn to:—But this is an advantage not to be had by the biographer in this planet.… (pp. 55-56)

And he later adds, "Our minds shine not through the body, but are wrapt up here in a dark covering of uncrystalized flesh and blood; so that if we would come to the specifick characters of them, we must go some other way to work" (p. 56). The muleteer may take the body straight from Rome to Loretto, but Sterne is recording a different trip. The route that he chooses toward the inner life of characters is, of course, the hobbyhorse, the ruling passions and fantasies of individuals which establish their perceptual grid. Uncle Toby's is probably the most developed, and Sterne delights in exchanges such as the following, as Doctor Slop is holding forth on the advancement of medical technology: "Sir, it would astonish you to know what Improvements we have made on late years in all branches of obstetrical knowledge, but particularly in that one single point of the safe and expeditious extraction of the foetus,—which has received such lights, that, for my part, (holding up his hands) I declare I wonder how the world has—I wish, quoth my uncle Toby, you had seen what prodigious armies we had in Flanders" (pp. 108-109). This is more than a comic principle; it is also a recognition that the sounds and sights of the world are refracted, when human beings perceive them, into the preconceived frames inside of us.

"At best," as Benjamin Lehman says, Sterne's characters "understand one another only by fits and starts. A pervasive loneliness is at the core of each, as in life itself."3 Blindness looms large in the novel of failed relationships, but there is nothing tragic in Sterne's book, not only because he renders the hobbyhorsical blinders as palpably laughable (especially in courtship between Toby and Widow Wadman), but also because the locked-up selves can still communicate through feeling. Sterne's cult of sensibility is the other side of this solipsism. Certain set pieces, such as the tearful death of Yorick at the outset, Uncle Toby's speech to the fly, the episode with the dying Le Fever—these scenes, dated as they may appear today, indicate that feeling and sentiment go where words cannot. This dimension of Sterne was prized by his contemporaries, but it is the very oddity of his text, an oddity which Doctor Johnson augured would not wear well, that constitutes its major appeal today. I would suggest that Sterne's narrative tricks are in collusion with his sentimentalism. Above all, as if to enact the bond of comradeship and tenderness depicted among characters, the book seeks a very special relationship with its reader. Early on, Sterne, much like Fielding in Joseph Andrews, addresses the reader as a fellow-traveller and expresses hope that their acquaintanceship will grow into familiarity and finally friendship. But, unlike in Fielding, to be Tristram's friend is to meet him at least halfway, to make a very different kind of voyage, to keep one's own imagination as active as the author's is, even to project that imagination.

The reader is expected to fill in the asterisks, pursue the innuendo, double the double-entendre. This, often enough, works: the reader does the sexual imagining at hand, can feel the hypnotic power of the Widow Wadman's eyes or the sympathy between Walter and Toby; but, very often, this kind of response to one of the characters cannot be forthcoming, because Sterne is busy doing tricks, prancing or digressing, showing us his authorial sleight-of-hand tricks. Tristram's digressions are also, as he shrewdly says, progressive, and a certain amount of interruption and ellipsis is good for a man, whets his appetite and keeps him on his toes. Digressions are, we learn, "the sunshine—they are the life, the soul of reading" (p. 55). But black pages, graphs, left-out chapters, mind-boggling mix of chronology: the reader would have to be a kind of emotional plastic man to sentimentally move into all these items. Why all these pyrotechnics? Consider the following:

I told the Christian reader—I say Christian—hoping he is one—and if he is not, I am sorry for it—and only beg he will consider the matter with himself, and not lay the blame entirely upon this book—

I told him, Sir—or in good truth, when a man is telling a story in the strange way I do mine, he is obliged continually to be going backwards and forwards to keep all tight together in the reader's fancy—which, for my own part, if I did not take heed to do more than at first, there is so much unfixed and equivocal matter starting up, with so many breaks and gaps in it,—and so little service do the stars afford, which, nevertheless, I hang up in some of the darkest passages, knowing that the world is apt to lose its way, with all the lights the sun itself at noon day can give it—and now, you see, I am lost myself! (p. 351)

Going through Tristram Shandy is a strange voyage, a continuous search for that "northwest passage to the intellectual world." The reader must consent to lose himself in Sterne's world if he is to grasp Sterne's meaning. Now there is a new kind of vicious taste, we are told, "of reading straight forwards, more in quest of the adventures, than of deep erudition and knowledge which a book of this cast, if read over as it should be, would infallibly impart with them" (p. 43). Let us take Sterne seriously here, not just when he speaks of erudition and of knowledge, but especially when he admonishes us not to read straight forwards, but to read over. To read for adventures is to seek out a certain thread of plot, whether it be Tristram's birth or Toby's amours; what is not connected with the birth or the amours is digressive, perhaps distracting; it has almost a different ontological status, for it is the nonstory extra-language. If a text has only a few asides or rhetorical chapter headings, we can accept such a story non-story duality: but Tristram Shandy rubs our noses into it, flaunts the unimportance of its stories, wraps any and all linear plots into bowknots, or better still, slipknots. In short, Sterne reminds us over and over that the reality of his text is the reality, not of any tidy particularized story, but of language itself. Sterne revels in mixing levels of plot and time, in leaving characters frozen at keyholes and on beds, because they are all, in the final analysis, red herrings, and the only discourse that counts is that of the narrating Tristram. Tristram tells us: "All my heroes are off my hands;—'tis the first time I have had a moment to spare,—and I'll make use of it, and write my preface" (p. 142), because his heroes and his preface have equal rights in his project. There are no second-class words. As readers and critics, we underline what seems important and relegate the rest to some enormous murky room where "details" are stored. Sterne's belief in language is so democratic that it verges on anarchy. The words themselves are real and potent, capable of instant creation, even spontaneous combustion; a chapter closes with Toby and Walter shaking their heads together for different reasons: the next chapter sovereignly begins: "Holla!—you chairman—here's sixpence—do step into that bookseller's shop, and call me a day-tall critick. I am very willing to give any one of 'em a crown to help me with his tackling, to get my father and my uncle Toby off the stairs, and to put them to bed" (p. 214).

Language spawns meanings; regardless of the grammatical tenses, it creates presence; and it makes, in the mind of the reader, its own place. The prancing author who spattered bishops and trod upon the king happened only in language, and, of course, language is the New World of Tristram Shandy. This book generates new lands, magnificent places such as the Promontory of Noses. Where is the Promontory of Noses? When asked by Widow Wadman where he received his wound, Toby replied, "You shall see the very place, Madam" (p. 479). That place is neither Toby's groin, nor the particular trench near the citadel of Namur, but the realm of the mind. It is the culminating double entendre of the novel, indeed the culminating figure of my entire study: language creates a world, a place to live. The analogical, metaphorical, associational potency of language enables a vivid new lease on life, for it authorizes tangential realms and punning paths along which the hobbyhorsical mind can move. The syntagmatic course is not thereby halted; rather, it bifurcates, sets off in new directions, narrativizes vertically, along the axis of metaphor, rather than proceeding apace, like a muleteer. Sterne powerfully demonstrates the appeal of such new roads, showing them to be much more than the aberrant mistakes of lunatic characters, but more essentially a treasure-house of imaginative ventures. The Promontory of Noses points already to Rimbaud's "Promontoire," to dream-scapes and figural realms where exploration and activity may genuinely take place. Widow Wadman's siege on Uncle Toby, mirroring and imaging Toby's obsession with other kinds of sieges, brilliantly displays the potential of such an analogical, even a comparative, structure: Sterne marvelously inverts his amatory and his military discourses, creating high comedy and laying bare the essential sameness of love and war.

But that is not all. The comic framework and the stylistic foregrounding of Sterne's performance is untroubling: we laugh at the delightful mixture of languages and strategies, for the mimetic charge of Sterne's language, the strangely manipulable world of signifiés, is never dominant: war and love are not the same, but the links between them take priority in Sterne's text, and the endless digressions come to seem legitimate.

Let us, however, do some linking and associating and digressing on our own, by returning (mentally) to a vastly different kind of siege, notably Lovelace's siege of Clarissa in Richardson's novel. Richardson is dreadfully mimetic, and his book is one precisely of imprisonment, of lack of room: for Clarissa—and for Richardson—there can be no analogical reprieve, no metaphorical exit, no digression wherein the verbal medium might aggrandize and open up the material. We are talking about more than comedy and tragedy here; it is more specifically a matter of language's projective and dodging power and the kinds of stories that can be told. What Diderot does to Prévost, Sterne does to Richardson: the mimetic donnee of the fable—erotic pursuit and siege—is internalized and imploded, yielding a magnificent set of new departures, new worlds, breaking the tragic limits of the mimetic love story by transforming it all into verbal discourse. Cervantes and Fielding had written novels of the road, but the only journeys made in Tristram Shandy are made on hobbyhorses, not on horses. And, he is also saying, hobbyhorses are our truest and finest mode of transportation. When Thoreau said, "I have traveled a great deal in Concord," he was talking about the mobility of the mind, its ability to imagine and thereby add to the pitiful data of our lives. Sterne shows repeatedly that language can express that inner itinerary, that voyage which transforms the reader into fellow-traveller just by virtue of reading. Reading itself is emblematic of the Sterne paradox and breakthrough: the body is immobile, the fingers move slightly, the eyelids twitch, and nothing else shows whatsoever: imagine a photograph of someone reading; all the motion and life is internal. Sterne brings the inner mobility and freedom of the mind to language.

At the beginning of Vol. 5, Tristram asks the question which must haunt, all writers:

Tell me, ye learned, shall we for ever be adding so much to the bulk—so little to the stock?

Shall we for ever make new books, as apothecaries make new mixtures, by pouring only out of one vessel into another?

Are we for ever to be twisting, and untwisting the same rope? for ever in the same track—for ever at the same pace?

Shall we be destined to the days of eternity, on holy days, as well as working-days, to be shewing the relicks of learning, as monks do the relicks of their saints—without working one—one single miracle with them? (p. 259)

This quotation pointedly returns us to the old sources and traditions, the visible relics which clutter Sterne's book like a cathedral-junk shop, an Old World that can interest the writer only if he can transform it into a New World. Tristram Shandy does show things coming to life, but it is more than the child of Walter Shandy and his wife. Generation is everywhere. At one point Walter is trying to explain to Toby what an analogy is, and he is interrupted in the process: "Here a devil of a rap at the door snapp'd my father's definition (like his tobacco pipe) in two—and, at the same time, crushed the head of as notable and curious a dissertation as ever was engendered in the womb of speculation;—it was some months before my father could get an opportunity to be safely deliver'd of it" (p. 78). The metaphor, or more precisely the analogy, is one of childbirth, and what is being born is an idea. At another point, Tristram defines hypothesis: "It is the nature of an hypothesis, when once a man has conceived it, that it assimilates every thing to itself, as proper nourishment; and, from the first moment of your begetting it, it generally grows the stronger by every thing you. see, hear, read, or understand" (p. 114). Hypothesis and metaphor are the very soul of creativity, for they extend the real. Sterne's book is not about the birth of Tristram, but more substantially and compositely about the birth of ideas, the life of the mind, that old Gonopsychanthropologia, the origin of the soul. Ideas have distinct advantages over people: they cannot be castrated or have their noses flattened; they are not subject to physical dangers because they are not corporeal; time and space do not worry them, since they generate their own; they do not even need to be possible:

Didst thou ever see a white bear? cried my father.…

A white bear! Very well. Have I ever seen one? Might I ever have seen one? Am I ever to see one? Ought I ever to have seen one? Or can I ever see one? (for how can I imagine it?)

If I should see a white bear, what should I say? If I should never see a white bear, what then?

If I never have, can, must or shall see a white bear alive; have I ever seen the skin of one? Did I ever see one painted?—described? Have I ever dreamed of one?

Did my father, mother, uncle, aunt, brothers or sisters, ever see a white bear? What would they give? How would they behave? How would the white bear have behaved? Is he wild? Tame? Terrible? Rough? Smooth?

—Is the white bear worth seeing?

—Is there no sin in it?

—Is it better than a black one? (p. 307)

Here is the prolific, generative, mind at work, spewing forth hypotheses, making life beyond the niggardly categories of logic and truth. Here is the writer at the crossroads of the paradigmatic and syntagmatic resources of language, refusing to choose, having his cake and cating it. This is the life-making process that is celebrated throughout the book, that underlies all the digressions, that replaces the story of Tristram's birth with the graphic spectacle of its own. It is the life of Tristram's mind, and, committed to language, it is Tristram's book.

Sterne's novel works a miracle, because it gets onto paper and into words the private mechanisms and private topographies which, given there is no Momus' glass for our kind, we would never perceive otherwise. Not just our inner mind set, but the tangential world of connotation is given expression in Sterne. To understand Tristram Shandy is to read it a demi mot, to enter into connivance with Sterne, who is ever decorous in what he says but often bawdy in what he suggests. Sterne says noses, and we know better;4 he describes the fair Bedouine rubbing Trim's knee and above, and we keenly follow the action; he threatens to do a chapter on buttonholes, and our mind starts a wondering:

Button-holes!—there is something lively in the very idea of 'em—and trust me, when I get amongst 'em—you gentry with great beards—look as grave as you will—I'll make merry work with my buttonholes—I shall have 'em all to myself—'tis a maiden subject—I shall run foul of no man's wisdom or fine sayings in it. (p. 217)

Sterne alerts us to the multivalence of our language, multivalent because of all the additional realms of discourse which may be brought in, especially the censored realm of sexual discourse. Whiskers and knots will never be the same after Sterne. In the chapter on whiskers, we see how the Lady Baussiere becomes so obsessed with whiskers that she sees them everywhere and sees nothing else. We are warned that the unsaid meanings, the connotations, can so gain the upper hand, that some words will be discredited forever: night caps, chamber pots, spigots, and faucets. These are all reputable words, Old World words, but, at Sterne's hands, they show their backsides. That is, they do so only if we give our connivance.

Toward the end of this narrative, the dense metaphorical clusters tend to become luminous with meaning. Toby's fortifications and sieges not only mirror warfare itself, but take on their full value in the love battle with Widow Wadman, and the sexual skirmishes in the sentry box actualize the metaphor. Sterne seems to be saying that a powerful enough obsession will eventually leave the realm of thought and of language and become flesh. One of the finest lessons of Tristram Shandy is that our hobbyhorses may lead us into rather than away from life. When Tristram's brother Bobby dies unexpectedly, out come the relics and Walter becomes a speaking dictionary:

"Returning out of Asia, when I sailed from Aegina towards Megara," (when can this have been? thought my uncle Toby) "I began to view the country round about. Aegina was behind me, Megara was before, Pyraeius on the right hand, Corinth on the left.—What flourishing towns now prostrate upon the earth! Alas! Alas! said I to myself, that man should disturb his soul for the loss of a child, when so much as this lies awfully buried in his presence—Remember, said I to myself again—remember thou art a man."—

Now my uncle Toby knew not that this last paragraph was an extract of Servius Sulpicius's consolatory letter to Tully.—He had as little skill, honest man, in the fragments, as he had in the whole pieces of antiquity.—And as my father, whilst he was concerned in the Turky trade, had been three or four different times in the Levant, in one of which he had staid a whole year and a half at Zant, my uncle Toby naturally concluded, that in some one of these periods he had taken a trip across the Archipelago into Asia; and that all this sailing affair with Aegina behind, and Megara before, and Pyraeius on the right hand, &c. &c. was nothing more than the true course of my father's voyage and reflections.—"Twas certainly in his manner, and many an undertaking critick would have built two stories higher upon worse foundations.—And pray, brother, quoth my uncle Toby, laying the end of his pipe upon my father's hand in a kindly way of interruption—but waiting until he finished the account—what year of our Lord was this?—"Twas no year of our Lord, replied my father.—That's impossible, cried my uncle Toby.—Simpleton! said my father,—Twas forty years before Christ was born.

My uncle Toby had but two things for it; either to suppose his brother to be the wandering Jew, or that his misfortunes had disordered his brain. (pp. 267-268)

Relics though they are, Walter's remembered fragments are being put to a humane use that is as serious as it is comic. It is legitimate and wise for the activities of the mind to offset the disasters of the flesh. Those old writers are proving their mettle and, much like Fielding's Parson Adams, Walter has travelled and seen a great deal more than Toby or anyone can know. His ship voyage is a nautical version of the ubiquitous hobbyhorse. The games of Tristram Shandy are not unlike the quilts woven by shell-shocked soldiers; the play of the fingers and the play of the mind can offset the disasters visited upon the body and the soul. Sterne's view of language as natural resource, as saving grace, is the view of a therapist: "A blessing which tied up my father's tongue, and a misfortune which set it loose with good grace, were pretty equal" (p. 266). The parity implied by this vision is civilized and humane, for it measures human event in a wonderfully rich and elastic manner, allowing us to recoup, mentally, what we lose, materially.

But Tristram himself commands fully and finally our interest as the figure in whom life and mind merge. If the narratives of Toby, Walter, Trim, and others are discontinuous, the narrative of Tristram, i.e., his project of describing his life, subsumes them all and never falters. He has found potency and economy. Nothing can be extraneous to him, since he has only one project: to display, through a narrative, the quality of his mind. The play of that mind, its inner voyages and games—this is Sterne's new setting. At one point he claims that the fame of his book will counterbalance the evils that have befallen him as a man. Not so much the fame of the book as the very nature of the book will redress the misfortunes of his life. The determinist prison that the body is subject to can be exploded through thought and language alone. The impossible is only a ten-letter word; Tristram suavely proves that he is in three places at once as he writes from Lyon about two visits to Auxerre and simultaneously about his arrival in Lyon; the times of memory and writing time itself are interwoven in a rich tapestry, because the mind can enjoy just such liberty. The mind knows no limits, and Tristram goes on to add that "the measure of heaven itself is but the measure of our present appetites and concoctions" (p. 376). Heaven, the last bastion of the Old World, has been miraculously novelized, metamorphized, and internalized. Desire, perhaps even more than thought, is the animating force, the demiurge of Sterne's world, financing both the benevolence and the pornography, endlessly potent in its visions and fabrications. There is no life so poor or maimed, so truncated, that it cannot be converted into a rich and whole book. Tristram's misfortunes are transformed as they become merely the materials of his life, and literature—rather than England or France—becomes the field where he lives.

But no one has ever died in literature, since words do not know time. Consciousness, thought, desire, and language permit us to make a figure of our life and to splatter bishops and kings while doing it; they enable us to be in three places at once, to mix luxuriantly our levels of discourse. But the person behind the entire operation, the house for the generative mind, is rooted in time and space. Book 7 depicts Tristram's journey through France, his flight from Death, and it is an integral part of the novel. Our bodies are in time. Churches and books may remain fixed, but Janatone evolves: "But he who measures thee, Janatone, must do it now—thou carriest the principles of change within thy frame" (p. 373). Sterne's characters are frequently frozen in dramatic postures and left for whole chapters, but living people follow other laws:

Time wastes too fast: every letter I trace tells me with what rapidity Life follows my pen; the days and hours of it, more precious, my dear Jenny! than the rubies about thy neck, are flying over our heads like light clouds of a windy day, never to return more—everything presses on—whilst thou art twisting that lock,—see! it grows grey; and every time I kiss thy hand to bid adieu, and every absence which follows it, are preludes to that eternal separation which we are shortly to make.—

—Heaven have mercy upon us both! (p. 469)

Here is a wisdom beyond comedy, a tragic sense of evanescence which accounts for the intermittent stasis within the novel. Time is too often dealt with as a literary problem, but it only appears in literature because it is a human problem, one that literature can miraculously resolve. Language and desire can spawn new worlds, and Toby's hobbyhorse moves him back and forth between England and Flanders quicker than the flash of an eye. But Tristram's vile cough punctuates every book of this prancing novel, and the spectre of impotency—not a man with an unloaded gun, but a man containing, as we all do, a time bomb—that spectre must eventually kill desire. Tristram Shandy indelibly traces the connections, the blood-line between Old Worlds and New Worlds, determinism and freedom, life and art.…


1 D. W. Jefferson, "Tristram Shandy and the Tradition of Learned Wit," reprinted in Laurence Sterne: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. John Traugott (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1968), p. 162.

2 Laurence Sterne, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, ed. Ian Watt (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1965).

3 Benjamin H. Lehman, "Of Time, Personality, and the Author: A Study of Tristram Shandy," reprinted in A Collection of Critical Essays, p. 28.

4 Surely, pornography must take honors in the category of fiction that enlists reader involvement. Pornography is a prototype of "generative" reading, for it counts on the reader to do the crucial extra imagining. This is especially true for the tongue-in-cheek variety that Sterne employs; the notorious description of the fair Bedouine rubbing Trim's "knee" has led Jean Jacques Mayoux to suggest that the reader is transformed into a voyeur of a masturbation scene; the reader-spectator is obliged to "compromise himself to the point of becoming a responsible actor" ("Laurence Sterne," in A Collection of Critical Essays, p. 110). There is, nowadays, much criticism devoted to "reader activity"; it would be interesting to investigate the role of sexual imagining in such activity.

Howard Anderson (essay date 1985)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 16594

SOURCE: "Structure, Language, Experience in the Novels of Laurence Sterne," in The First English Novelists: Essays in Understanding, Tennessee Studies in Literature Vol. 29, edited by J. M. Armistead, The University of Tennessee Press, 1985, pp. 185-223.

[In the following essay, Anderson describes Sterne's novels as full of "surprises" and tries to show how a patient reader learns both to expect and be enlightened by these surprises (or unconventional narrative techniques) so that, ultimately, Sterne's novels "come to matter.…]

Tristram Shandy and A Sentimental Journey1 are surprises waiting for readers. "I wish either my father or my mother, or indeed both of them, as they were in duty both equally bound to it, had minded what they were about when they begot me.…" Tristram's first words to us are urgent, without context, unintroduced. Here is Yorick: "They order, said I, this matter better in France." What the matter is, we have no present way of knowing; our route of discovery is to accompany him on his hasty journey across the Channel.

These initial surprises, anticipatory of greater ones, are Steme's characteristic mode of approach, and not only in the novels. Consider the opening of the sermon which, though he had himself preached it ten years earlier, he ascribes to Parson Yorick when inserting it in the second volume of Tristram Shandy: "For we trust we have a good conscience" (II.xvii.88). Here Walter Shandy's response is a sort of surrogate for the reader's,2 no doubt emulating that of many of those assembled to hear the sermon when the Reverend Mr. Sterne addressed the congregation at the cathedral church of York. Tristram's father is critical of the tone in which the text is read: "Certainly, Trim, quoth my father, interrupting him, you give that sentence a very improper accent; for you curl up your nose, man, as if the Parson was going to abuse the Apostle." Walter, the cathedral congregation, and perhaps the reader as well all have ideas about how a scriptural text should be read—preconceptions unlikely to jibe with the skeptical tone Trim gives it. To Walter's embarrassment, however, Trim turns out to have been more fully in touch with Yorick's use of the text than any of the listening company. The context provided by what follows invests the scriptural quotation with a new meaning, different from that furnished by the original passage in the Epistle to the Hebrews—not contradicting, but intensifying it.

Though Walter Shandy acknowledges the error of his assumption within a page or two, he does not usually find it so easy to admit when he is wrong. And for the reader beginning one of Sterne's novels, the narrator's opening gambit may be more alienating than inviting. Like Walter (who often serves as stand-in for our own overconfident intellects), we discover that they are intended to be both. Tristram and Yorick present themselves to us as zanies: Yorick only the more specifically as the kind of traveler who plunges into his life story regardless of the preparation, or wishes, of the person sitting beside him. Wherever we come from as we open these books, there is little chance that we will understand what is happening, and just as little that we will be able to avoid condescending to a speaker who approaches us with such a breathless lack of self-awareness. Our attitude is ensured as Tristram plunges on from that first sentence with a rambling speculation upon the animal spirits (apparently) until we lose sight of the initial subject altogether. Far from pausing to remind us what that was, he drops us into a fragment of a conversation: "Pray, my dear, quoth my mother, have you not forgot to wind up the clock?" And finally, again nonstop, he concludes this initial chapter with a terse exchange between a putative reader and himself: "Pray, what was your father saying?—Nothing." That Mr. Shandy was indeed saying nothing is the joke. But it is one that we are barely in a position to get the point of. As we move on, then, our initial condescension may be marked by defensiveness attendant on a dull realization that we do not quite understand what we had thought was so simple.

Many readers never recover from this uncomfortable sense of having been played with by Tristram Shandy, or from the comparable feeling that Yorick is forever one step ahead of us, always leaving us to wonder just where we are as he skips across France and Italy. Those who do recover—that is, those who come to like being played with, rather than resenting it—probably find the remedy partly in the self-recognition these narrators teach us to wrench out of our initial defensiveness and bafflement. Tristram, after evoking responses along the lines I have just sketched, startles us within a couple of pages by showing that he is perfectly aware of his unconventionality and has chosen this unorthodox point of departure self-consciously indeed. Ironically acknowledging his reader's right to be "let into the whole secret from first to last, of every thing which concerns you," he asserts that in beginning with his conception he is politely complying with contemporary taste. The irony is enriched by the fact that we have not been ready to appreciate what he has been letting us into. Then his sophisticated self-awareness emerges, not without ambiguity, as he cites a most respected classical critic as authority for his choice of a starting point: "Right glad I am, that I have begun the history of myself in the way I have done; and that I am able to go on tracing every thing in it, as Horace says, ab Ovo" (I.iv.4).

Should we be inclined at this point once again to try a laugh at Tristram's expense—remembering that in the Ars Poetica Horace commended Homer for not starting the Iliad with Helen's emergence from the egg, but in medias res instead—Tristram catches us: "Horace, I know, does not recommend this fashion altogether: But that gentleman is speaking only of an epic poem or a tragedy; (I forget which) besides, if it was not so, I should beg Mr. Horace's pardon; for in writing what I have set about, I shall confine myself neither to his rules, nor to any man's rules that ever lived." The reader by now senses that if anyone lacks self-awareness, it is not Tristram. This narrator's grip on the conventions of storytelling is more secure than our own; the assumptions about narrative procedure that we have gleaned (more or less consciously) from our reading of other books are not entirely adequate preparation for reading this one. Specifically, we are led to consider the limitations of conventional beginnings—how few there are, and how arbitrary—and to grant that Tristram's, which at first seemed merely random, is both ab Ovo and in medias res. More important, it may well be connected with what is to follow in ways we cannot anticipate. His concept of conception, while eccentric, begins to speak to us. In short, questioning Tristram's judgment leads us to question our own. Willingly or not, we start to see the need of accepting guidance from the teller in making out the tale. Tristram Shandy exemplifies the impulse and the necessity of unconventional narrative to teach us how to read it as we go along. In the process, we learn a good deal about reading in general and, at the same time, about our relation to experience outside of books.

The opening of A Sentimental Journey is equally sudden. Sterne's habit of immersing the reader in a conversation (indeed in medias res) has the effect it always has in Tristram Shandy, pushing us to flail about for a context, for other words to give meaning to the ones we are hearing. Who is speaking? Is he really saying that he sets off for France merely in order to put himself into a position of authority on what the French "order better"? And what is that? What is the purpose of this trip? Again it is hard to imagine a more arbitrary jumping-off point. By conventional narrative standards, this speaker does not exist for us at all; yet who can deny the impression of life and vigor—the presence—of whoever he is? Readers are challenged to resist, but again, whether altogether willingly or not, we are unlikely to escape being carried along by the persuasive power of Yorick's voice. Perhaps most important, it is nearly impossible to avoid the curiosity and questioning that engage us in conversation with Yorick as they do with Tristram. In this novel there is much less discussion of narrative method than in the earlier book; Sterne may in fact have depended to a considerable extent on Tristram to teach us how to listen to Yorick. But in both books the process and the purpose of the experience are similar. A reader's expectations (at whatever level of consciousness) are baffled by the lack of contexts usually taken for granted; the bafflement fuels a search for meaning; the search in turn leads to recognition of our dependence on the narrator—or better, our engagement with him—in a journey of discovery.

The desire for meaning, the recognition of context as the provider of meaning and of conversational intercourse as the means to context—this is the pattern of the experience Sterne engages us in and of what he has to teach us. Sterne can never force us to like the experience or the lesson, but his narrators do their best to win our participation by mocking challenges to our self-reliance and, on the other hand, insinuating appeals to our confidence. As early as the sixth chapter of his first volume, Tristram slips from the former to the latter mode in his first open acknowledgement that his aims require our cooperation:

In the beginning of the last chapter, I inform'd you exactly when I was born; but I did not inform you, how. No; that particular was reserved entirely for a chapter by itself; besides Sir, as you and I are in a manner perfect strangers to each other, it would not have been proper to have let you into too many circumstances relating to myself all at once.——You must have a little patience. I have undertaken, you see, to write not only my life, but my opinions also; hoping and expecting that your knowledge of my character, and of what kind of a mortal I am, by the one, would give you a better relish for the other: As you proceed further with me, the slight acquaintance which is now beginning betwixt us, will terminate in friendship. O diem praeclarum!—then nothing which has touched me will be thought trifling in its nature, or tedious in its telling. Therefore, my dear friend and companion, if you should think me somewhat sparing of my narrative on my first setting out, bear with me,——and let me go on, and tell my story my own way:—or if I should seem now and then to trifle upon the road, or should sometimes put on a fool's cap with a bell to it, for a moment or two as we pass along, don't fly off,—but rather courteously give me credit for a little more wisdom than appears upon my outside; and as we jogg on, either laugh with me, or at me, or in short do any thing, only keep your temper. (

Beginning with ironic modesty (he has already let us into more details about his origins than a "proper" teller would do), the passage emerges from irony in its straightforward statement that the narrative depends on our tolerance and good nature. The development and exercise of those faculties, indeed, turn out to be a prime purpose shaping the experience. We undergo steady pressure to fly off from Tristram's annoyingly erratic narrative. Only "True Shandeism" can make us willing to keep reading, as it" opens the heart and lungs, and like all those affections which partake of its nature … forces the blood and other vital fluids of the body to run freely thro' its channels, and makes the wheel of life run long and chearfully round" (IV.xxxii.237).

"True Shandeism" is analogous to the "sentiment" through which Yorick appeals and which he attempts to communicate to his reader. Both are grounded in patience, good temper, tolerance, which in turn imply sympathy, consideration, fellow-feeling, capacities for love. In the preface that Yorick pauses to write while seated in a desobligeant at Calais, he establishes the premise that "the balance of sentimental commerce is always against the expatriated adventurer" (p. 78). The odds against the exercise of sentiment are not unlike those against Shandean good humor. The foreign world insists on levying inconvenience and petty hardship upon the traveler: "He must buy what he has little occasion for at their own price his conversation will seldom be taken in exchange for theirs without a large discount—." As in Tristram Shandy, obstacles to communication stand at the center of the problem, with selfishness and intolerance the prime causes.

Yorick's attempt to overcome barriers to communication issues from his definition of himself as a "Sentimental Traveller," in contrast to a long list of alternatives, but particularly (and repeatedly), the Splenetic (pp. 81-82). "Spleen and jaundice" are the objects against which he most consistently aims his lance as he makes his quixotic way across the landscape. "Smelfungus" epitomizes the prejudiced and angry traveler whose only response to new experience is resentment that it is different from the old: "The learned SMELFUNGUS travelled from Boulogne to Paris from Paris to Rome and so on—but he set out with the spleen and jaundice, and every object he pass'd by was discoloured or distorted—He wrote an account of them, but 'twas nothing but the account of his miserable feelings" (p. 116). To nurture the conversation without which there is no communication, Yorick enlists sentiment as Tristram relied on Shandeism: variant forms of the good nature that can connect human beings.


We have begun to see that these narratives constitute tests for the examination and exercise of these capacities in the reader. In A Sentimental Journey as in Tristram Shandy, these tests of our patience and of our expansive potential appear most regularly in departures from straightforward narrative into digressions (Tristram) and flights of sentiment (Yorick).

The events upon which Tristram's "Life" is based are few and unhappy. His conception, we have observed, is scattered. When he finally emerges from the womb, it is with the dubious aid of a forceps that crushes his nose. His christening, where his father hopes to endow him with a lucky name, results in the opposite: the name he gets means "the sad one."3 Still a little boy, he is the victim of a falling window sash that (at the very least) circumcises him as he aims to relieve himself one night. At the end of the book, his parents are still debating whether or not it is time to put the child into trousers. These barren facts might be neatly summed up by Hobbes's famous description of life in a state of nature—"nasty, brutish, and short." Tristram himself, just before the chapter begging the reader to "keep your temper," has described the world he was brought forth into as "scurvy and disasterous":

I wish I had been born in the Moon, or in any of the planets … for it could not well have fared worse with me in any of them … than it has in this vile, dirty planet of ours,—•—which o'my conscience, with reverence be it spoken, I take to be made up of the shreds and clippings of the rest… for which cause I affirm it over again to be one of the vilest worlds that ever was made; for I can truly say, that from the first hour I drew my breath in it, to this, that I can now scarce draw it at all, for an asthma I got scating against the wind in Flanders;——I have been the continual sport of what the world calls Fortune; and though I will not wrong her by saying, She has ever made me feel the weight of any great or signal evil; yet with all the good temper in the world, I affirm it of her, That in every stage of my life, and at every turn and corner where she could get fairly at me, the ungracious Duchess has pelted me with a set of as pitiful misadventures and cross accidents as ever small HERO sustained. (I.v.5-6)

The dismal facts of Tristram's life are interspersed among rambling digressions that interrupt and disconcert the reader in quest of a story much as Mrs. Shandy's question jarred her husband's concentration at the book's (and Tristram's) outset. By the usual criterion of narrative connection—cause and effect—their relevance seems indecipherable. To speak just of the first volume, our expectation that Tristram's conception will lead to his birth is foiled by the story of Yorick and the midwife, by a facsimile of the Shandy's marriage settlement, by the insertion of a pronouncement by the Doctors of the Sorbonne concerning prenatal baptism, and by a long description of Uncle Toby's character as it is elucidated by his response to the story of Aunt Dinah and the coachman. Yet as we look back (which is what Tristram is doing all along), we can see that the material of these digressions does indeed connect with Tristram's life. While all of it centers in other people, all of it affects the conditions of Tristram's birth. This narrator, then, pushes us to contemplate a scheme of cause and effect more esoterically complex than those we have been taught to look for in fiction or in life. When Tristram pauses near the end of Volume I to congratulate himself on what his method has accomplished, we must, perhaps grudgingly, concur that

in this long digression which I was accidentally led into, as in all my digressions (one only excepted) there is a master-stroke of digressive skill, the merit of which has all along, I fear, been overlooked by my reader, not for want of penetration in him,——but because 'tis an excellence seldom looked for, or expected indeed, in a digression; and it is this: That tho' my digressions are all fair, as you observe, and that I fly off from what I am about, as far and as often too as any writer in Great Britain; yet I constantly take care to order affairs so, that my main business does not stand still in my absence. (I.xxii.51)

What is to happen to Tristram Shandy has been decided in the lives of other people; to tell of their lives and opinions is to further the main business of Tristram's book.

At the same time, it is impossible to take Tristram's scheme of cause and effect quite seriously. For instance, we are never fully persuaded that Toby's embarrassed recoil from ideas associated with his aunt's elopement is a more decisive cause of Tristram's troubles than any of a thousand others—all of which remain undiscovered in his past and unrealized in his imagination. Tristram's search for the reasons why he is what he is persuades us instead that it is the search that matters, and what he makes of what he finds. In this way, Tristram Shandy comically subverts the solemn foundation of empiricism by disputing the hegemony of factual cause and effect in fiction and in life. First among the rules whose authority he disputes whenever the chance arises—"Is man to follow rules——or rules to follow him?"—mechanical causation draws Tristram's subversive energy. The epigraph from Epictetus with which the novel sets out points to the importance of this theme: "It is not things that disturb men, but their judgments about things."

But Tristram does not merely put in question the precedence of facts in the causal hierarchy by implying that one will serve as well as another and by burying the conventionally important one under a heap of the esoteric; the effect of such a process is to reduce the unhappy events to the merest framework for an expansive comic structure. Tristram's life in outline is the material of tragedy, at least of domestic tragedy; for if he has not (as he admits) suffered any "great or signal evil," what he has undergone nonetheless provides sufficient reason for bitterness. His "pitiful misadventures and cross accidents" are of a private nature, but to have his face disfigured by the loss of his nose—not to mention the diminution administered by the falling window—would in itself be enough to sour many men on life.

Instead, like a Shakespeare alternately bringing tragedy and comedy out of parallel material in Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night's Dream, Tristram chooses to make his misadventures into comedy. He accomplishes the transformation by planting them in the nurturing context of the digressions:

By this contrivance the machinery of my work is of a species by itself; two contrary motions are introduced into it, and reconciled, which were thought to be at variance with each other. In a word, my work is digressive, and it is progressive too,——and at the same time.

This, Sir, is a very different story from that of the earth's moving round her axis, in her diumal rotation … though I own it suggested the thought, as I believe the greatest of our boasted improvements and discoveries have come from some such trifling hints.

Digressions, incontestably, are the sunshine, they are the life, the soul of reading;—take them out of this book for instance, you might as well take the book along with them; one cold eternal winter would reign in every page of it; restore them to the writer; he steps forth like a bridegroom,——bids All hail; brings in variety, and forbids the appetite to fail. (I.xxii.52)

The grandeur of the images Tristram applies to his work is as self-mocking as it is heroic, but the images are appropriate nonetheless: a man's life may indeed be pictured by its parallels to a cosmic system that moves in several orbits at once (despite appearances to the contrary). The image of digressions as the life-giving sunshine is even more compelling: the cold facts of Tristram's life, as of every life, are simple, and heading deathward (with or without the aid of "an asthma got scating against the wind in Flanders"). So, Tristram shows, what matters is not the facts, but what he makes of them.

In Volume IV, Tristram denies that his book is intended as an attack on "predestination, or free will, or taxes," asserting instead that "if 'tis wrote against any thing, 'tis wrote, an' please your worships, against the spleen" (IV.xxii.218). I should say that in so directing his book, he does indeed distinguish the aspects of life where determinism applies from those in which we have choice. Tristram cannot choose to be undamaged by forceps or window sash; no act of will or imagination will free him from his asthma, or from the death that follows on its heels in Volume VII. But he can and does choose how he will see them—with patience, good temper, tolerance, and humor. Opting for a vision (and a principle of narrative selection) that fences against the spleen, he achieves a healthy and life-giving perspective:

If 'tis wrote against any thing,—'tis wrote … against the spleen; in order, by a more frequent and a more convulsive elevation and depression of the diaphragm, and the succussations of the intercostal and abdominal muscles in laughter, to drive the gall and other bitter juices from the gall bladder, liver and sweetbread of his majesty's subjects, with all the inimicitious passions which belong to them, down into their duodenums. (IV.xxii.218)

So Tristram Shandy's "digressive artistry"4 is by no means merely decorative. It is the blood nourishing a self created with his art. In this it parallels the integral function of sentiment in Yorick's Sentimental Journey and in his identity. Another way of putting it is to say that sentiment is to Yorick's journey what opinions are to Tristram's life. And just as that "life" frequently took perceptible shape against patterns established by fictional convention, so the "journey" reflects against conventional travel narratives and guidebooks, popular since before the eighteenth century. Such works concentrate on the local sights (videnda), often with excruciating circumstantiality—precisely how wide and long is the Piazza San Marco, how tall the Campanile, and so on. Their circumstantiality—feeding the modern passion for facts (compare what we have just seen in Tristram Shandy)—had often lent itself to parody and, by extension, to satire excoriating the reduction of the real to the brutally material. Gulliver's Travels is the preeminent example of this kind of parody and satire. While probably no reader in 1768 came to a work written by the celebrated Laurence Steme anticipating a conventional travel book—Volume VII of Tristram Shandy had already parodied the form—Yorick's unique definition of sentiment exerts its demand in opposition to the simpler visual and muscular capacities required by conventional tours and encouraged by conventional tour books.

Sterne's own "asthma"—in reality the tuberculosis that would cause his death just after the publication of A Sentimental Journey—inspired his trips to southern France and Italy between 1762 and 1766. In Volume VII of Tristram Shandy, published in 1765, he had already written what he called "a laughing good temperd Satyr against Traveling (as puppies travel)."5 As Gardner Stout has shown, Sterne's distinctively different treatment of some of the same materials in A Sentimental Journey (different in the ways he covers the same ground) was due in part to a shift in popular and critical taste (Introduction, p. 10). Ralph Griffiths, a spokesman for those who had grown "indifferent to the oddities and hostile to the indecencies of Vols. IIIVIII," wrote in the Monthly Review of February 1765:

One of our gentlemen once remarked, in print Mr. Shandy—that he thought your excellence lay in the PATHETIC. I think so too.… Give us none but amiable or worthy, or exemplary characters; or, if you will, to enliven the drama, throw in the innocently humorous.… Paint Nature in her loveliest dress—her native simplicity. Draw natural scenes, and interesting situations—In fine, Mr. Shandy, do, for surely you can, excite our passions to laudable purposes—awake our affections, engage our hearts—arouze, transport, refine, improve us. Let morality, let cultivation of virtue be your aim—let wit, humour, elegance and pathos be the means; and the grateful applause of mankind will be your reward.

The sentimental, blending pathos and elegance, is less often pierced by witty ambiguities in Yorick's travels than in Tristram's. And as Griffiths's recommendations indicate, Yorick's excursions into sentiment were unlikely to meet the bafflement, or downright resistance, that Tristram's digressions invited. Nevertheless, Steme again gives the sentimental elements of the journey their shape by placing them in contrast to the results of more mundane journeys:

By sending Tristram on a Shandean variation of the Grand Tour governed by the principles of laughter and good humor, rather than by the spleen, Steme took an important step toward Yorick's Journey. And by diverting Tristram from the beaten track of his forerunners in order to demonstrate that such digressions can lead to delightful experiences … he indicated the route which Yorick, the Sentimental Traveller, was to take. (Stout, Introduction, p. 11)

Chief among the predecessors whom Sterne employs as a running foil to his moving scene is Tobias Smollett. Already established as a novelist and as editor of the Critical Review, Smollett had published in 1766 his own Travels through France and Italy. A physician before he was a writer, Smollett was even more aware than most travelers of the unsanitary conditions he encountered, the daily filth taken for granted by the people he traveled among. It is hardly saying too much to call him obsessed with these sordid facts of life in France and Italy (and Humphry Clinker, published in 1771, shows him equally appalled by comparable outrages in Great Britain). Smollett was in bad health when he went abroad, which gave him reason to be especially impatient of inconvenience—but again left him open to contrast with tubercular, humorous Sterne. Even the most universally admired videnda arouse only his grudging appreciation; in an infamous passage he reluctantly describes his partial admiration of the Venus de Medici at Florence:

I believe I ought to be entirely silent, or at least conceal my real sentiments, which will otherwise appear equally absurd and presumptuous. It must be want of taste that prevents my feeling that enthusiastic admiration with which others are inspired at sight of this statue.… I cannot help thinking that there is no beauty in the features of Venus … Without all doubt, the limbs … are elegantly formed, and accurately designed, according to the nicest rules of symmetry and proportion; and the back parts especially are executed so happily, as to excite the admiration of the most indifferent spectator.6

Such a target was too much for Sterne. This is the living figure who lurks behind the allegorical Smelfungus:

I met Smelfungus in the grand portico of the Pantheon he was just coming out of it 'Tis nothing but a huge cock-pit, said he—I wish you had said nothing worse of the Venus of Medicis, replied I for in passing through Florence, I had heard one had fallen foul upon the goddess, and used her worse than a common strumpet, without the least provocation in nature. (pp. 117-18)

Set against such a foil, Yorick's sentimental response to feminine beauty and spirit is uniquely striking. While the Splenetic Traveller diminishes the established beauties of the places he visits, the Sentimental one occupies himself in seeking out those as yet undiscovered.

Unconcerned whether the backsides of statues are "accurately designed" or not, Yorick experiences his most memorable encounters with living human beings. Most of them are women, of course—Madame de R, Maria at Moulines, the Fille de Chambre, the Grisset whose pulse he feels:

I am sure you must have one of the best pulses of any woman in the world Feel it, said she, holding out her arm. So laying down my hat, I took hold of her fingers in one hand, and applied the two fore-fingers of my other to the artery—

—Would to heaven! my dear Eugenius, thou hadst passed by, and beheld me sitting in my black coat, and in my lack-a-daysical manner, counting the throbs of it, one by one, with as much true devotion as if I had been watching the critical ebb or flow of her fever—How wouldst thou have laugh'd and moralized upon my new profession?—Trust me, my dear Eugenius, I should have said, "there are worse occupations in this world than feeling a woman's pulse." (pp. 164-65)

This sentimental foray off the beaten track might be open to the charges of indecency that critics like Griffith had levied against the later volumes of Tristram Shandy—and the charges have been made. But by juxtaposing his physical-emotional intercourse with women like the Grisset against the bloodless perverseness of a Smelfungus, Sterne makes Yorick's digressions into the byways look attractively human.

Furthermore, just as Tristram's digressive artistry manages at the same time to be progressive, Yorick's sentimental experiences are ends in themselves and expand his consciousness toward further ends. The incident with the Grisset contributes to his discernment of qualities distinguishing the French from the English. When the young woman's husband enters and complacently observes Yorick's intimacy with his wife, the Sentimental Traveller takes the opportunity to reflect that, while "in London a shopkeeper and a shopkeeper's wife seem to be one bone and one flesh … in Paris, there are scarce two orders of beings more different: for the legislative and executive powers of the shop not resting in the husband, he seldom comes there in some dark and dismal room behind, he sits commerceless in his thrum night-cap, the same rough son of Nature that Nature left him" (p. 166).

Yorick's inclination to promote tolerance of foreign mores might be construed here as a stance favorable to his own sexual interests. And in fact it does serve his interests to be uncritical of what might be considered lax or even corrupt by a tougher moralist. But his bemused acceptance, even enjoyment, of foreign ways extends also to behavior which might affront his delicate sensual enjoyment. In a passage that seems first to allude to Shandean hobbyhorses, he remarks:

It is alike troublesome to both rider and his beast——if the latter goes pricking up his ears, and starting all the way at every object which he never saw before I have as little torment of this as any creature alive; and yet I honestly confess that many a thing gives me pain, and that I blush'd at many a word the first month which I found inconsequent and perfectly innocent the second.

Madame de Rambouliet, after an acquaintance of about six weeks with her, had done methe honour to take me in her coach about two leagues out of town—Of all women, Madame de Rambouliet is the most correct; and I never wish to see one of more virtues and purity of heart—In our return back, Madame de Rambouliet desired me to pull the cord—I ask'd her if she wanted any thing——Rien que pisser, said Madame de Rambouliet—

Grieve not, gentle traveller, to let Madame de Rambouliet p—ss on—An d ye fair mystic nymphs! go each one pluck your rose. (pp. 181-83)

In this case, Yorick's digression is superficially anti-sentimental. Yet while it does not conform to the popular demand for the "elegant" and the "pathetic," Yorick's response embodies his steady insistence that true sentiment be grounded in acceptance and sympathy. And again, these qualities take on definition as characteristic of the Sentimental Traveller when placed against an early letter among those in Smollett's Travels, where he fumes (at much greater length than I will quote): "Will custom exempt from the imputation of gross indecency a French lady, who shifts her frowsy smock in presence of a male visitant, and talks to him of her lavement, her medecine, and her bidet!" (p. 35).

Finally, the passage provides another example of the general purpose motivating Yorick's journey: the comparison of foreign manners and customs. While Madame de Rambouliet's manner of expressing her physical need may not "order this matter better" than if she had called it plucking a rose, Yorick's point is that both expressions are equally a matter of linguistic custom. Neither way of speaking is morally superior—though we may suspect that he favors the more direct expression. Beyond that, we may sense that the willingness of a woman of Madame de Rambouliet's character to acknowledge her physicality without blushing circumlocution confirms Yorick in his deepest purpose: the integration of his physical, emotional, and spiritual being.

Smollett, as a model for the Splenetic Traveller, is only the most noted and frequent foil to Yorick. The characterization of the Sentimental Traveller takes shape also in contrast to the Vain or Proud Traveller (among the types listed in the preface written in the desobligeant). "Mundungus, with an immense fortune," is a notable example of such a traveler: he "made the whole tour … without one generous connection or pleasurable anecdote to tell of; but he had travell'd straight on looking neither to his right hand or his left, lest Love or Pity should seduce him out of his road" (p. 119). Such total insulation from his fellowmen would be hard for Yorick to accomplish even if he wanted to, as necessity requires that he bargain for vehicles and accommodations. But just as the contrast with Smelfungus stresses the moral benefits of tolerant good humor, so placing Yorick against Mundungus defines the value of sympathy and fellow feeling. Mundungus has the attributes of the selfish man whom Sterne had described in a sermon on the Good Samaritan, which he published as one of the Sermons of Mr. Yorick in 1760. This "sordid wretch," in contrast to the Samaritan himself,

goes to the end of his days, in the same selfish track in which he first set out … as if afraid to look up, lest peradventure he should see aught which might turn him one moment out of that straight line where interest is carrying him or if, by chance, he stumbles upon a hapless object of distress … unwilling to hazard the inconveniences which pity might lead him into upon the occasion.7

Sterne chose in A Sentimental Journey to capitalize upon the fashionable taste for sentiment that he had himself been most instrumental in establishing. But Yorick's essays in the sentimental do not confine themselves merely to the elegant and pathetic qualities which for readers like Griffiths constituted the meaning of the concept. Sympathy, grounded in the good temper and tolerance that make it possible, is the soul of Yorick's sentimental response to the figures he encounters as he crosses the landscapes of France and Italy. The Sentimental Traveller's manners are striking, but it is generous spirit that finally distinguishes him from Smelfungus and Mundungus, even as it allows him to grant them pitying acceptance:

Peace be to them! if it is to be found; but heaven itself, was it possible to get there with such tempers, would want objects to give it every gentle spirit would come flying upon the wings of Love to hail their arrival—Nothing would the souls of Smelfungus and Mundungus hear of, but fresh anthems of joy, fresh raptures of love, and fresh congratulations of their common felicity—I heartily pity them: they have brought up no faculties for this work; and was the happiest mansion in heaven to be allotted to Smelfungus and Mundungus, they would be so far from being happy, that the souls of Smelfungus and Mundungus would do penance there to all eternity. (p. 120)


For both Tristram and Yorick, then, "experience is the force that mediates between the human character and its hidden destiny"; Wolfgang Iser's potent description of what happens in Pilgrim's Progress applies equally to the relations between Sterne's storytellers and their unique, but communicable, experience.8 "Character" in this sense constitutes inherited capacities—the modes of seeing and feeling that Tristram receives from his father and uncle and mother; Yorick's innate self-gratifying inclination to spend two livres a bottle for wine and his perverse reluctance to give much to charity.

"Destiny" remains elusive for Tristram and Yorick as for everybody else. But it manifests itself in events like the ones we have seen descend upon Tristram; it is finally embodied in Death, which pursues him across the Channel in Book VII and lies in wait for him and Yorick somewhere beyond the last pages of their narratives. And "experience"? That is even harder to pin down; but so far in this inquiry it has begun to emerge from the narrators' efforts to get beyond their inherited and innate limitations, both physical and spiritual. It takes from as they resist, and move beyond the impulse to settle bitterly for the conditions they are born to—an effort that the likes of Smelfungus in both books decidedly do not make.

We have noticed that the abiding purpose of the digressions in the two books is connective. Tristram's carry him toward the men (and occasionally women) who inhabit his past, and simultaneously into conversation with the reader. Both these complementary motions serve to establish and connect him with himself, as well. Yorick's sentimental impulses are similarly communicative and reflexive. I should like to consider now the central part that Sterne's language—more specifically, his conscious view of language—plays in the integrative "experience" that Sterne embodies in the digressive progress of his two novels.

Sterne's verbal associationism is the most notorious linguistic feature of Tristram Shandy. From Samuel Richardson, who called it "too gross to be inflaming,"9 to F.R. Leavis, for whom Steme's "irresponsible (and nasty) trifling" was reason enough to leave him out of The Great Tradition,10 double-entendre has been the chief target of hostile critics. "Give up your Long Noses … your Andouillets … try your strength another way … Mr. Shandy," begged Ralph Griffiths in the letter I quoted from earlier. But while to such readers Sterne's irrepressible play on words seems only a tasteless ornament, verbal associationism is in fact vital to what Tristram aims to discover and reveal.

We should begin by recognizing that sexual double-entendre is only one of the forms of associationism that pervade the book; its function, as we shall see, is to connect narrator and reader. Meanwhile, Tristram's father and uncle are engaged in their private obsessions, or hobby-horses, based in associations of ideas that give individual words radically contradictory meanings for each of them. The following exchange is exemnplary:

To understand what time is aright [begins Walter Shandy] … we ought seriously to sit down and consider what idea it is, we have of duration.… In our computations of time, we are so used to minutes, hours, weeks, and months, and of clocks (I wish there was not a clock in the kingdom) to measure out their several portions to us … that 'twill be well, if in time to come, the succession of our ideas be of any use or service to us at all.

Now, whether we observe it or no, continued my father, in every sound man's head, there is a regular succession of ideas of one sort or other, which follow each other in train just like—A train of artillery? said my uncle Toby. A train of a fiddle stick!—quoth my father. (III.xviii. 138-39)

Uncle Toby, the old soldier entirely preoccupied with warfare and fortification, seizes upon the first word that makes sense to him in his brother's dissertation. Simultaneously, Walter, obsessed with categorizing phenomena and winning arguments, is furious that Toby invests "train" with a meaning dragged in from the language of war.

Sterne's play on the power of verbal association to block, rather than promote, communication early won him credit as a Lockean.11 For Locke, "a natural correspondence and connexion" between ideas characterizes normal thought, as he describes its processes in An Essay concerning Human Understanding, the work that established the direction of modern epistemology. In a chapter added to the fourth edition, he distinguishes this "natural correspondence" from those misconceptions of "chance or custom" that give rise to mental aberration:

Ideas that in themselves are not all of a kind, come to be so united in some men's minds, that it is very hard to separate them; they always keep in company, and the one no sooner at any time comes into the understanding, but its associate appears with it; and if they are more than two which are thus united the whole gang, always inseparable, show themselves together.12

Such aberration Locke calls "by so harsh a name as madness," for "opposition to reason deserves that name" (I:528). It is the intrusion of this madness that we have just observed in Toby. More specifically, Tristram tells us as he begins his account of Toby's hobbyhorse, it is not ideas as such, but words that cause Toby trouble—the fact that the same words convey different ideas to different people (II.ii.62).

Toby's hobbyhorsical associations, in collision with Walter's through most of the novel and with the Widow Wadman's in Volumes VIII and IX, provide much of the comedy of the book. This emphasis on Toby's hobbyhorse, with the fact that nearly all the other characters (Yorick and Trim excepted) have their own comparable obsessions, implies that such "madness" is more common than Locke seems to allow. With the good-natured tolerance characteristic of him, Tristram asserts from the start that so long as they do not harm other people, he has nothing against hobbyhorses:

If you come to that, Sir, have not the wisest men in all ages, not excepting Solomon himself, have they not had their HOBBY-HORSES their running horses,—their coins and their cockleshells, their drums and their trumpets, their fiddles, their pallets, their maggots and their butterflies?—and so long as a man rides his HOBBY-HORSE peaceably and quietly along the King's highway, and neither compels you or me to get up behind him, pray, Sir, what have either you or I to do with it? (I.vii.8)

Some of them, however, do harm others: Tristram's satire on the hobbyhorses of public figures and of professionals whose selfish preoccupations take precedence over their responsibilities is a cutting counterpoint to the generous warmth and humor we have looked at. But his dominating point about hobbyhorses seems to be that as no one is immune, we had better understand their etiology in order to avoid being trapped like the Shandys.

Tristram can be said to inherit the linguistic naivete of his uncle and father and the solipsism it leads to as his fundamental problems. The verbal sophistication that liberates him emerges from close attention to his own responses and those of other men and women. His observations form experience useful in salvaging his damaged family heritage. The story of the fate of the word whiskers at the Court of Navarre is an instance of how Tristram learns, and transmits his experience with language to us:

La Guyol, La Maronette, La Sabatiere, fell in love with the Sieur de Croix …La Rebours and La Fosseuse knew better—De Croix had failed in an attempt to recommend himself to La Rebours; and La Rebours and La Fosseuse were inseparable.

The queen of Navarre was sitting with her ladies …as De Croix passed.… He is handsome, said the Lady Baussiere.—He has a good mien, said La Battarelle.—He is finely shaped, said La Guyol.—I never saw an officer of the horse-guards in my life, said La Maronette, with two such legs—Or who stood so well upon them, said La Sabatiere—But he has no whiskers, cried La Fosseuse—Not a pile, said La Rebours. (V.i.241)

Such is the potency of the word whiskers that it is soon impossible for the handsome cavalier to hold up his head—he "found it high time to leave Navarre for want of whiskers"—and the word "in course became indecent" (V.i.243).

The lesson Tristram draws from his parable is one he reiterates, with variations, from the time the forceps crushes his nose. In every case, parallels with sexual shapes endow our response to the objects named with energy, ensuring attention: "There are some trains of certain ideas which leave prints of themselves about our eyes and eye-brows; and there is a consciousness of it, somewhere about the heart, which serves but to make these etchings the stronger—we see, spell, and put them together without a dictionary" (V.i.242). Because Steme can count on his readers' participation in sexual interests, whether or not we will admit to it, words with sexual connotations provide his surest means of teaching us that language is radically connotative and symbolic.

Sterne wrote in a century that saw the publication of the first dictionaries, with their implication that the main function of language is the denotation, naming, of objects. Following Locke, even the inner processes by which objects are perceived are themselves objectified and, as it were, pinned down with a name. Tristram repeatedly attacks such a conception of language, insisting that words are defined in use by human beings who express themselves and communicate with one another. For the ladies at the Court of Navarre, as for Tristram and us, the connection between facial hair and more primary sexual characteristics invests first the hair and then its name with symbolic connotations. In the more famous instance of the word "nose," correspondences in physiological shape affect the sexual connection, so that the word carries meanings that can be summoned up merely by Tristram's insistent emphasis.

The chapter on noses (III.xxii) is a succinct exercise in the power of context and expressive tone to determine meaning. The more Tristram attempts to clarify his meaning, the greater the ambiguity:

I define a nose, as follows [he concludes],—intreating only beforehand, and beseeching my readers, both male and female, of what age, complexion, and condition soever, for the love of God and their own souls, to guard against the temptations and suggestions of the devil, and suffer him by no art or wile to put any other ideas into their minds, than what I put into my definition.—For by the word Nose, throughout all this long chapter of noses, and in every part of my work, where the word Nose occurs,—I declare, by that word I mean a Nose, and nothing more, or less. (p. 159)

The last two words of the chapter are a supreme example of Tristram's skill in teaching us how our minds work through verbal play.13 Because our perceptions are inclined to fuse things in our minds through parallels of some of their qualities, the power of language lies not in its denotative rigor but rather in connotative and symbolic expressiveness. Steme's double-entendres constitute a short course in poetry, initiating the reader (accustomed to dictionaries) into the principles of symbolism, which is the mainstay of his effort to communicate with us in Tristram Shandy. We perceive, whether we want to or not, that the word nose speaks of more than one thing at once. Equally important, we engage with Tristram as he speaks the word to us, acknowledging (with amusement or impatience) that what it means is between us.

Sterne's "irresponsible (and nasty) trifling," then, amounts to a concentrated justification of wit, which Hobbes described as the capacity to notice similarities in things otherwise much unlike. Wit requires seeing together, urging recognition of shared perception. For Locke, its value was decisively inferior to that of judgment, which links things on the basis only of marked similarities and separates them by equally marked differences; judgment, then, is the basis of the scientific method. Locke attacks wit and fancy together as "abuses of words" that have no proper use but for trivial omamentation:

Since wit and fancy find easier entertainment in the world than dry truth and real knowledge, figurative speeches and allusion in language will hardly be admitted as an imperfection or abuse of it. I confess, in discourses where we seek rather pleasure and delight than information and improvement, such ornaments as are borrowed from them can scarce pass for faults. But yet if we would speak of things as they are, we must allow that all the art of rhetoric, besides order and clearness; all the artificial and figurative application of words eloquence hath invented, are for nothing else but to insinuate wrong ideas, move the passions, and thereby mislead the judgment; and so indeed are perfect cheats: and therefore, however laudable or allowable oratory may render them in harangues and popular addresses, they are certainly, in all discourses that pretend to inform or instruct, wholly to be avoided; and where truth and knowledge are concerned, cannot but be thought a great fault, either of the language or person that makes use of them. (11:46; emphasis added)

Tristram Shandy knows that to deny wit and fancy the capacity to transmit truth and knowledge is to deny literature the serious place it had traditionally occupied as an enricher and instructor of human experience. He gives his best energies to opposing such a move.

In challenging Locke's view, Steme takes on what was becoming the dominant modern attitude toward literature. Early in the history of Western thought, Plato had attacked poetry as a seducer of the reason; the Sophists had subverted its prestige in developing a program to divorce rhetoric (the pleasing and persuasive elements of language) from logic (language's claims to truth). But Aristotle effectively countered these concepts by arguing that persuasive and true language can and must be fused, that poetry and rhetoric must be grounded in logic and ethics. Thus understood, poetry "holds up the miror to nature," providing an irreplaceable means of seeing ourselves—as mirrors reflect our own faces, invisible except by indirection. Aristotle's powerful image established and described poetry's power from his time through the Renaissance. It is cited in sixteenth-century defenses of poetry (like Sidney's) against the incursions of the Puritans. And its force is typically buttressed by support from Horace's description of poetry as "dulce et utile." The latter retained its influence into the eighteenth century, translated into French by Boileau, for instance (in his much-quoted Art Poetique), as "plaire et instruire," and into English as to "instruct by pleasing."

But Locke, the Royal Society that adopted his view, and the whole tendency of empirical philosophy and modem science were all pushing out wit and establishing judgment as the only means to truth. As we have seen, Tristram Shandy implicitly opposes this usurpation from its opening page. Then in the "Author's Preface" that Tristram snatches time to write in the middle of Volume III, Sterne directs a full-scale attack against the conception of literature that would reduce his novel (and all others) to mere entertainment. His tone, as usual, is playful, but perhaps more than usually direct:

All I know of the matter is,—when I sat down, my intent was to write a good book; and as far as the tenuity of my understanding would hold out,——a wise, aye, and a discreet, taking care only, as I went along, to put into it all the wit and judgment (be it more or less) which the great author and bestower of them had thought fit originally to give me, so that, as your worships see, 'tis just as God pleases. (III.xx.140)

The critics of his first two volumes agree, he says, that there may be some wit in them, "but no judgment at all … for that wit and judgment in this world never go together; inasmuch as they are two operations differing from each other as wide as east is from west." Tristram knows precisely where to lay the blame for this heresy and how to deal with it: "So, says Locke, so are farting and hickuping, say I" (III.xx.141).

His means of retaliation is emblematic of the whole preface—and of the whole novel. The crude but effective figure of speech brilliantly makes his point that wit can reveal truth. Continuing, he argues that wit and judgment are inseparable, that to place one above the other is a modern error. Illustrations, he says, serve mainly to "clarify the understanding, previous to the application of the argument itself, in order to free it from any little motes, or specks of opacular matter, which if left swimming therein, might hinder a conception and spoil all" (III.xx.141). Wit makes it possible to appreciate the infinite connective parallels in creation; judgment distinguishes them, elucidating significant differences, deciding which similarities matter more and less.

Tristram's preface calls attention to itself as a parody of the usual novelistic preface. While it performs the function of such an essay, describing the purpose and method of the larger work, it does so without recourse to the discursive and logical language typical of prefatory essays. In his first two volumes, Sterne had exercised his reader in reasoning by analogy. In the preface he floods us with images that figure forth what the book is about. Tristram justifies his use of witty illustrations with an illustration: "wiping the looking glass clean." He defends the inseparability of wit and judgment by leaping up and pointing to the knobs on the back of his chair:

—Here stands wit, and there stands judgment, close beside it, just like the two knobbs I'm speaking of.… You see, they are the highest and most ornamental parts of its frame, as wit and judgment are of ours, and like them, too, indubitably both made and fitted together, in order as we say in all such cases of duplicated embellishments, to answer one another. (III.xx. 146)

The reader who has been attentive to Tristram through the first two volumes will by this time hear several meanings even in the word "answer." The most obvious in the context of the paragraph—ornamental symmetry—is deepened by the larger context of our experience in the first two volumes. There, "answer" has proved to mean response, lively, irresistible engagement with what we hear from Tristram. To answer is to be in conversation, in communication, in connection.

He sustains the metaphor through two more long paragraphs, weaving an argument radically dependent on the figurative power of language: "It is by these observations, and a wary reasoning by analogy in that kind of argumentative process, which Suidas calls dialectick induction, that I draw and set up this position as most true and veritable" (III.xx.144). Calling wit and judgment the "top ornaments of the mind of man, which crown the whole entablature," he asks "who does not wish … to be, or to be thought at least master of the one or the other, and indeed of both of them, if the thing seems any way feasible, or likely to be brought to pass" (III.xx. 146-47). The reason that men of influence have so surprisingly forgone the effort to gain credit for both wit and judgment is not really hard to find. The "graver gentry," so grave indeed as to have no hope of gainirrg credit for wit, "raised a hew and cry against the lawful owners." Even "the great Locke, who was seldom outwitted by false sounds,—was nevertheless bubbled here" (III.xx. 147).

Thus self-centered egoism, with the humorlessness it invariably breeds, is as always the enemy of true Shandeism. This combination, in its determination to eradicate wit, has established "the Magna Charta of stupidity." Tristram appears content that he has proved to us our capacity to learn through metaphor and symbol, aware that he has engaged us in a conversational quest for meaning. In the same tone with which he had expressed his tolerance of hobbyhorse riders at the outset of the book, he sidesteps the graver gentry whom he has just anatomized for us: "I have no abhorrence whatever, nor do I detest and abjure either great wigs or long beards, any further than when I see they are bespoke and let grow on purpose to carry on … imposture for any purpose, peace be with them;—mark only [he stresses the moral with a pointing hand],—I write not for them" (III.xx. 147).

The redemption of the vital human function of wit underwrites Sterne's double-entendre as a means of exploring with the reader the connections between mind and body. It instills purpose into the central structural metaphors of both Tristram Shandy and A Sentimental Journey, making words like "hobbyhorse" and "journey" into a kind of vigorous shorthand standing for a rich range of experience that the reader and narrator share. Finally, his redemption of verbal wit spills over to illuminate physical gesture as well: Walter Shandy awkwardly reaching across his coat to extricate a handkerchief from his pocket, Corporal Trim dropping a hat to indicate death's descent, or Tristram jumping up in frustration to hurl a blotted page into the fire all speak a body language inseparable from the metaphoric verbal one.

"A man and his HOBBY-HORSE," says Tristram as he launches into his description of Toby's,

tho' I cannot say that they act and re-act exactly after the same manner in which the soul and body to upon each other: Yet doubtless there is a communication between them of some kind, and my opinion rather is, that there is something in it more of the manner of electrified bodies,—and that by means of the heated parts of the rider, which come immediately into contact with the back of the HOBBY-HORSE.—By long journies and much friction, it so happens that the body of the rider is at length fill'd as full of HOBBY-HORSICAL matter as it can hold;—so that if you are able to give but a clear description of the nature of the one, you may form a pretty exact notion of the genius and character of the other. (I.xxiv.55)

Tristram elsewhere repeats that the hobbyhorse does not constitute the entire character, remarking for example that Toby's moral behavior transcends his hobbyhorse. But as he sets about "drawing Toby's character from his HOBBY-HORSE," he emphasizes the physical connection suggested by the metaphor: a man's obsession is especially like horseback riding in the excitement it arouses, partaking of sexual stimulation. Later he speaks of Toby posting down to his bowling green—the site of his fortifications—like a lover eager to join his mistress.

Such descriptions have been read as reducing hobbyhorsical mankind to mechanisms, with sexual desire—simple or sublimated—as the key to the machine. That interpretation seems to be encouraged by Tristram's pronouncement upon Corporal Trim's story about falling in love with the Fair Beguine "quite suddenly" as she massaged the upper part of his leg: "Whether the corporal's amour terminated precisely in the way my uncle Toby described it, is not material; it is enough that it contain'd in it the essence of all the love-romances which ever have been wrote since the beginning of the world" (VIII.xxii.406). But what we have seen of the transformation of the merely material into wit suggests that such a mechanical view of hobbyhorses (and of love) is inadequate. While Tristram steadily insists that "soul and body" interpenetrate one another (thus mocking hypocrites who deny their own sexual nature), his emphasis on the elaborate construction of Toby's hobbyhorse directs attention to its complexity. Its sources in Toby's physical (and probably sexual) wound are simple. But equally, the resultant structure—illustration, game, raison d'être—is richly multifarious. In the figure of the hobbyhorse, soul and body mesh in a child's game, with the wonder and subtlety of the connection presented for our contemplation as surely as its childishness.

A related image, that of the journey, is as important as the hobbyhorse to the structure of Tristram Shandy—even more so in A Sentimental Journey—and to Sterne's vision of the human situation. Neither image is new. The Oxford English Dictionary shows that "hobbyhorse" was in common use as a name for a child's toy or preoccupation long before Sterne expanded it; the journey is an ancient image figuring forth human life. Consistent with his larger intention of revealing the familiar to us in a new light, Sterne revivifies the metaphor—biblical, Homeric—in recounting Tristram's run from Death in Volume VII. Drawing on parallels he had begun to explore in his sermons,14 Sterne invests the image with intensity by starting Tristram's journey as a race against Death, that "son of a whore [who] has found out my lodgings" (IX.i.336).

Tristram marks the image as his own, transforming it unforgettably, by his means of eluding Death. He is able to slip away because Death finds himself uniquely abashed by his victim's nonchalance and humor. Addressing his own high spirits, Tristram says: "In no one moment of my existence, that I remember, have ye once deserted me … when DEATH himself knocked at my door—ye bad him come again; and in so gay a tone of careless indifference, did ye do it, that he doubted of his commission—'There must certainly be some mistake in this matter,' quoth he" (IX.i.335).

Aware that Death's setback is certain to be temporary, Tristram resolves to fly while he can. The verbs he chooses to describe his plan are themselves images that only Shandean high spirits could apply to a travel cure:

Then by heaven! I will lead him a dance he little thinks of for I will gallop, quoth I, without looking once behind me to the banks of the Garonne; and if I hear him clattering at my heels—I'll scamper away to mount Vesuvius—from thence to Joppa, and from Joppa to the world's end, where, if he follows me, I pray God he may break his neck—.…

Allons! said I; the post boy gave a crack with his whip off I went like a cannon, and in half a dozen bounds got into Dover. (IX.i.436)

Starting like this, Tristram pulls the reader along through a volume that identifies witty agility as a lifesaving power, with good humor (again) as the capacity necessary to stay alive.

In A Sentimental Journey, travel as an image figuring spiritual development is, if anything, more prominent than in Volume VII of Tristram Shandy. Gardner Stout has studied the ways in which Yorick's journey to health evokes seventeenth-century Puritan accounts of spiritual pilgrimage, notably John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress (Introduction, pp. 38-40). While this world is a very different kind of test for Bunyan's Christian than it is for Steme's, their movement through its landscape provides both with chances to reveal their spiritual fiber. If Christian is struggling through on his way to heaven, Yorick too seeks a better world in "NATURE, and those affections which rise out of her, which make us love each other and the world, better than we do" (p. 219). Stout concludes that Yorick's "travels may be said to combine the 'seventeenth-century ideal of pelerinage de l 'ame' with the 'eighteenth-century ideal of cosmopolitanism and sociability,' for by traveling with him the reader can develop the faculties essential to participation in this joyful religion." As I remarked earlier, sentiment is to the Journey what Tristram's opinions are to his life: "incontestably the sunshine." To journey with Tristram and with Yorick is to invest travel with spirits, and high spirits with a spirituality they had never revealed before Sterne.

Finally, Sterne's success at bringing physical nature (man's included) to function as a sign of the spiritual allows the extension of metaphoric language beyond words—to gesture. "A man's body and his mind, with the utmost reverence to both I speak it, are exactly like a jerkin, and a jerkin's lining; rumple the one you rumple the other" (III.iv.114). From this principle it follows that attitudes, in the sense of posture and gesture, indicate attitudes of mind and spirit. In both novels Sterne calls for our close attention to them.

Corporal Trim and his hat will serve to represent jerkin's lining and jerkin. When word of the death of Tristram's brother Bobby reaches Shandy Hall, it sends their father into a paroxysm expressed through quotation of ancient authorities on the brevity of life and the transiency of things. In the kitchen the response differs. "My young master in London is dead! said Obadiah" (V.vii.252), and each of the servants thinks his or her own thoughts. Tristram remarks, "Well might Locke write a chapter upon the imperfections of words"—for to Susannah, "dead" summons up only thoughts of the green satin dress she will get when her mistress goes into mourning. To Obadiah, Bobby's death means that the master will invest his money in "stubbing the ox-moor" instead of a grand tour for his son, and "we shall have a terrible piece of work of it." Their unanimous creatural self-concern is uttered with massive simplicity by the scullery maid as she scours a fish kettle: "He is dead! said Obadiah, he is certainly dead!—So am not I, said the foolish scullion."

But for Tristram this self-concern constitutes as well a brute self-awareness; by now we may anticipate that even such material will serve as a base for expansion. While the word "dead" remained nearly dead for all of them, a metaphorical gesture stirs them to move out of themselves. Corporal Trim is again the effective rhetorician:

Are we not here now, continued the corporal, (striking the end of his stick perpendicularly upon the floor, so as to give an idea of health and stability)—and are we not—(dropping his hat upon the ground) gone! in a moment!—'Twas infinitely striking! Susannah burst into a flood of tears.—We are not stocks and stones.—Jonathan, Obadiah, the cook-maid, all melted.—The foolish fat scullion herself… was rous'd with it. (V.vii.253).

Tristram comments, perhaps not just hyperbolically, that to understand and master persuasive rhetoric as Trim has done would enable a speaker to rally support for "the preservation of our constitution in church and state." Perhaps he means that properly to understand how people connect with things, and the mind with the body, would ensure both social and personal integration.

He concludes by again emphasizing that it is the inseparability of mind and body that involves us in a gesture like Trim's, moves us, and leads us out (the root meaning of educare). We are "but men cloathed with bodies, and governed by our imaginations." Given those facts, we cannot be unaffected by what stimulates the senses. Furthermore, "of all the senses, the eye … has the quickest commerce with the soul, gives a smarter stroke, and leaves something more inexpressible upon the fancy, than words can either convey or sometimes get rid of (V.vii.253). As it is their common mortality that has encroached upon Trim's audience through their eyes, it seems that death, like sex, is another of those "certain ideas which leave prints of themselves about our eyes and eyebrows … a consciousness of it, somewhere about the heart" (V.i.242). Locke also considered vision preeminent among our sensory faculties. But Tristram parts company with him to show that what sight connects us with, and how it happens, radically contradicts Locke's assumptions about the connection between language, speaker, and listener. Like "hobbyhorse" and "journey"—to use them once more as representative of Steme's purposes with language—Trim's hat comes to hold for his watchers and for the reader a lively experience even in the face of death.


Sterne's anticonventional narrative structures and his antiempirical mobilization of language may thus be said to constitute the chief means to the "experience" of narrator and reader in Tristram Shandy and A Sentimental Journey. Hans-Georg Gadamer distinguishes literary experience so conceived as corollary to all experience rather than an event discrete unto itself:

Inasmuch as we encounter the work of art in the world and a world in the individual work of art, this does not remain a strange universe into which we are magically transported for a time.

Rather, we learn to understand ourselves in it, and that means that we preserve the discontinuity of the experience in the continuity of our existence. Therefore it is necessary to adopt an attitude to … art that does not lay claim to immediacy, but corresponds to the historical reality of man. The appeal to immediacy, to the genius of the moment, to the significance of the "experience," cannot withstand the claim of human existence to continuity and unity of self-understanding. The experience of of art must not be side-tracked into the uncommittedness of aesthetic awareness.… Art is knowledge and the experience of the work of art is a sharing of this knowledge.15

While each event, each moment, in a text has its own identity, literary moments are not qualitatively different from others. Such a conception of art deprives it of the "magic" with which it is endowed by more Romantic theories, but it ratifies vital connections between art and the rest of life of the kind we have explored in discussing the preface in Tristram Shandy. In such a view, reading provides intense (and in that limited sense "inmmediate") experiences which take their shape against the background of the experience we bring to them, issuing in perspectives that in turn shape our further experience.

A.D. McKillop's description of Tristram Shandy as narrator suggests that the relationship I have just described between readers and what they read parallels that of the narrator and what he tells: Tristram Shandy is "both inside and outside the moment; he is not only the knower of English empirical philosophy, but the philosopher who writes with confidence about the knower."16 Such conceptions of the relations between reader, narrator, and work return us to the crucial function of conversation as a model for narrative in Sterne's novels. Here is Tristram's most direct pronouncement on the subject:

Writing, when properly managed, (as you may be sure I think mine is) is but a different name for conversation: As no one, who knows what he is about in good company, would venture to talk all;——so no author, who understands the just boundaries of decorum and good breeding, would presume to think all: The truest respect which you can pay to the reader's understanding, is to halve this matter amicably, and leave him something to imagine, in his turn, as well as yourself. (II.xi.77)

As we have seen, leaving the reader "something to imagine" is precisely the function of Sterne's witty language and digressive structure. His vision—and use—of a language rooted in physical human nature and of digressions (Tristram's opinions, Yorick's sentiment) that impede conventional narrative progress aim to persuade the reader to "think as well as read" (I.xx.42).17 That is, they make it almost impossible for a reader to ignore Sterne's narrators as speakers with their own sometimes baffling but always definite points of view on any subject they introduce. Simultaneously, Sterne's language makes it hard for readers to avoid trying to locate and articulate their own relations to what they find themselves involved in. "Never in the annals of fiction," says James Swearingen, "is the awareness of the integrity of the reader more explicit and sensitive than here."18

Iser's theoretical analysis of the reading process and Swearingen's study of reflexivity, both phenomenological in their approaches, provide terms especially useful for appreciating the purposive nature of conversation in Sterne's novels. Iser begins by stressing that reading a literary text is conversational in that it involves text and reader in mutual creation of the literary work, which "must lie halfway between the two":

The convergence of text and reader brings the literary work into existence, and this convergence can never be precisely pinpointed, but must always remain virtual, as it is not to be identified either with the reality of the text or with the individual disposition of the reader.…

It is the virtuality of the work that gives rise to its dynamic nature, and this in tum is the precondition for the effects that the work calls forth. As the reader uses the various perspectives offered him by the text in order to relate the pattems … to one another, he sets the work in motion, and this very process results ultimately in the awakening of responses within himself. (Implied Reader, 274-75)

Swearingen uses a phenomenological term to describe the points of view of the two parties to a conversation; he calls them "horizons" (Reflexivity, 10). While conversation fuses the horizons, such mingling takes place only to the degree that the differing points of view have first been defined and understood by the participants: "Detaching himself from his own orientation, attempting to suspend his own historical conditioning insures a reader's failure as a conversationalist" (p. 11; my emphasis).

Iser situates the origins of the dynamic nature of the process in "gaps" which—again as in conversation—we are invited to fill in from our own direction. Without these "elements of indeterminacy, the gaps in the text, we should not be able to use our imagination" (Implied Reader, 283).19 Probably the best Stemean endorsement of this view of reading is found in a letter to one of his own readers who had sent him a double-handled walking stick, calling it "shandean statuary." Sterne responded:

Your walking stick is in no sense more shandaic than in that of its having more handles than one——The parallel breaks only in this, that in using the stick, every one will take the handle which suits his convenience. In Tristram Shandy, the handle is taken which suits their passions, their ignorance or sensibility. There is so little true feeling in the herd of the world, that I wish I could have got an act of parliament, when the books first appear'd, "that none but wise men should look into them." It is too much to write books and find heads to understand them.… A true feeler always brings half the entertainment with him. His own ideas are only call'd forth by what he reads, and the vibrations within, so entirely correspond with those excited, 'tis like reading himself and not the book. (Letters, 411)

The distinction Steme makes between the "herd" and the "true feeler" is of the greatest importance: the ignorant reader forces the text to fit his assumptions; the better response begins with inward movement ("vibrations") that issues in defining the self through the text.

The letter serves to introduce the fundamental purpose of narrative as conversation. In a relationship where to speak and to listen are also to interpret, what begins as a means of knowing results in "a mode of being" (Reflexivity, 12). Swearingen defines "Tristram's ultimate aim in his book and ours in reading" as articulating "the close relation between understanding an 'other'—person, event, text, or tradition—and understanding oneself (p. 14). Similarly, for Iser, "the production of the meaning of literary texts … does not merely entail the discovery of the unformulated, which can then be taken over by the active imagination of the reader; it also entails the possibility that we may formulate ourselves and so discover what had previously seemed to elude our consciousness" (Implied Reader, 294).

Such analyses of conversation in its relation to the reading process reveal that when, as we found in our discussion of Tristram's preface, Sterne "holds up the mirror to nature," he does so through an art conceived as alive and moving. If Aristotle's formulation of the function of poetry was usually taken to mean that great literature is a kind of static warehouse of "truth," both Tristram and Yorick transform the concept, engaging the reading in a demonstrative experience of art as truth.

Steme is extremely resourceful in engaging the reader's participation in his narrator's quest after his own nature. His most direct means involves Tristram in writing problems that turn out to have ontological implications for the reader as well. We have already encountered some of these in considering the way Tristram chooses to begin his "life and opinions." While he presented himself as assured in the manner of his setting forth, we have seen that in raising the issue of suitable starting places, he makes it a question with more than literary implications. Where does a life—my life?—really begin? Once underway, he reverts periodically to the question of what is suitable for inclusion, and in doing so pushes the "true feeler" to explore the boundaries of his own selfhood:

O ye POWERS! (for powers ye are, and great ones too)—which enable mortal man to tell a story worth the hearing, that kindly shew him, where he is to begin it, and where he is to end it, what he is to put into it, and what he is to leave out,—how much of it he is to cast into shade,——and whereabouts he is to throw his light! …

I beg and beseech you … that wherever, in any part of your dominions it so falls out, that three several roads meet in one point … that at least you set up a guide-post, in the center of them, in mere charity to direct an uncertain devil, which of the three he is to take. (III.xxiv.151)

Such a passage, putting into question what makes up the story of a life, simultaneously questions what makes up life itself. Telling and reading are interpreting.

This conjunction becomes more intense when telling is placed in an adversary relation against the time available to do it. If, once again, an adjunct of Steme's program is to instill new life into time-worn cliche, then ars longa, vita brevis opens in an unexpected direction as Tristram complains how impossibly little time he has to get so much down on paper: "I am this month one whole year older than I was this time twelvemonth; and having got … almost into the middle of my fourth volume and no farther than to my first day's life 'tis demonstrative that I have three hundred and sixty-four days more life to write just now, than when I first set out" (IV.xiv.207).

Ars longa has always meant that art lasts a long time compared to a human life. Grumbling that it takes a long time (never mind whether it will last) provides a laugh for those who summon up the implied cliche, while at the same time the crazily formidable narrative goal lures us again to consider the relation between event and interpretation in our own lives. Later he turns from humorous concern about whether his book will "swim down the gutter of Time" toward Posterity (ars longa in the traditional sense) to carry us suddenly into poignant awareness of how brief life really is:

I will not argue the matter: Time wastes too fast: every letter I trace tells me with what rapidity Life follows my pen; the days and hours of it, more precious, my dear Jenny, than the rubies about thy neck, are flying over our heads like light clouds of a windy day, never to return more every thing presses on—whilst thou art twisting that lock,——see! it grows grey; and every time I kiss thy hand to bid adieu, and every absence which follows it, are preludes to that eternal separation which we are shortly to make.—

—Heaven have mercy upon us both! (IX.xi.430)

Thus artistic problems of narrative inclusion (the resistance of the narrative medium to life) fuse with existential problems (the resistance of life's own medium—time—to life), forcing ontological thoughtfulness.

The "true feeler" will stand in need of all the good-humored acceptance of life that Tristram and Yorick have fostered. For Tristram and Yorick exist to make us laugh and make us willing to explore serious questions about ourselves. We have already noticed many of these questions in studying Sterne's purpose with language and structure. Overall, it is perhaps not too much to say that these questions and purposes are in the service of integration for both narrator and reader. Certainly the interdependence of body and mind that pervades both Tristram Shandy and A Sentimental Journey tests us as readers, with the aim in the long run of making us accept ourselves as we are and be the better for it. As Sterne says in one of his sermons, "'Tis one step towards acting well, to think worthily of our nature" (Sermons, 1:82). But such self-respect is, as we have seen, won (if at all) at the cost of almost steady embarrassment and frequent pain. Like Tristram, whose pitiful body has "been the continual sport of what the world calls Fortune" (I.v.6), the reader of Steme's novels has the chance to come to terms with the body—or spend a lifetime complaining about it.

But reconciling mind with body is not the only reconciliation Steme attempts in his two long conversations with the reader. In A Sentimental Journey even more explicitly than in Tristram Shandy, he implicates us with his narrator in confronting the obdurate problems that human society, as well as individual human nature, pose to the traveler through life's foreign landscapes. The problem of communication takes on further urgency where one's native tongue is itself alien. Yorick confronts the fact that he is without a passport in a country at war with his own; he glimpses the possibility of imprisonment. And of course he skirts all perils by his wit, his subtle empathy, and the privileged position that allows him to exercise them. Recognizing that he is so privileged, we should also acknowledge that anyone who reads his Journey enjoys (by definition?) some comparable resources. Again, the presence in Yorick's route of a "herd" of travelers with all the same privileges, who nonetheless cannot or will not summon his wit and sympathy, places his choice of them in strong relief. And the bitter refusal of Smelfungus and Mundungus to do anything but rail against the abundant beauty through which they pass makes Yorick's participation in the peasants' gesture of grace (in the next to last chapter of the book) a profound acknowledgment of life's value even in a world that has given him his share of troubles:

It was not till the middle of the second dance, when, from some pauses in the movement wherein they all seemed to took up, I fancied I could distinguish an elevation of spirit different from that which is the cause or the effect of simple jollity.—In a word, I thought I beheld Religion mixing in the dance but as I had never seen her so engaged, I should have look'd upon it now, as one of the illusions of an imagination which is eternally misleading me, had not the old man, as soon as the dance ended, said, that this was their constant way … after supper was over … to dance and rejoice; believing, he said, that a chearful and contented mind was the best sort of thanks to heaven that an illiterate peasant could pay—

—Or a learned prelate either, said 1. (pp. 283-84)

Once again Steme has so constructed his dialogue with the reader that it is impossible to deny the relevance of the alternatives offered—gratefulness vs. bitterness—regardless of what we think about heaven.

By their nature, the existential contradictions Sterne works and plays at reconciling are all linked with one another: the difficulty of comprehending our life story, compounded by the persistence of time in piling on more and more for us to interpret, results in the first place from conflicting impulses of mind and body—all of which make life seem as much damnation as blessing. The most inclusive and daunting contradiction of all is the presence of death in the midst of life—the most intimidating challenge to living fully. Sterne takes it on implicitly in the same early chapter of Tristram Shandy that tells us the date of his hero's birth: "I can truly say, that from the first hour I drew my breath … to this, that I can now scarce draw it at all, for an asthma I got in scating against the wind in Flanders;— —I have been the continual sport of what the world calls Fortune" (I.v.6). That shadow is the darkest that Tristram confronts. He faces it with the same comic vision that encompasses such "pitiful misadventures and cross accidents" as his crushed nose and extreme circumcision. Introducing the threat of death, he refuses to exploit its tragic potential, opting instead for the mock-heroic. When much later he refers again to his illness, it is to comment that his most recent attack resulted from laughing too hard—as usual, at one of life's incongruities:

To this hour art thou not tormented with the vile asthma thou gattest in skating against the wind in Flanders? and is it but two months ago, that in a fit of laughter, on seeing a cardinal make water like a quirister (with both hands) thou brakest a vessel in thy lungs, whereby, in two hours, thou lost as many quarts of blood; and hadst thou lost as much more, did not the faculty tell thee it would have amounted to a gallon?—


Sidestepping the ultimate danger with that final humorous prevarication is precisely the opposite of ignoring the threat's reality.

The extra-fictional connection of Tristram's illness with Sterne's own tuberculosis contributes to intensify that reality. As early as his Cambridge days, Sterne had been afflicted—he woke one morning to find he had "bled the bed full"—and his lungs never healed. Even a reader unacquainted with the facts of Sterne's life might start to sense an autobiographical reference in this ominous note as it is repeatedly inserted among the private and relatively small-scale trials of Tristram. Swearingen remarks that the voices of Sterne and Tristram "are neither equivalent nor cleraly discriminated. One senses that the living voice must often be speaking from his own experience.… The problems encountered in the process of writing, for example, are not fictional problems, one is convinced, even if they are the ostensible concerns of Tristram" (Reflexivity, 4). Death, in the circumstantial guise of a "vile asthma," begins to stand out as a concern insinuating itself beyond the fiction toward the author and back again. Thus the reader also, more and more enmeshed in a web of conversation bonding him with the narrator, finds it impossible to distance the threat or extricate himself from the issues raised by its presence.

The fact that Yorick and Tristram, too, "are neither equivalent nor clearly discriminated" has the effect of emphasizing the role of death as threat and motivator. The story of Yorick's destruction by the solemn and vindictive targets of his humor is told within the first dozen chapters of Tristram Shandy: his descent from Hamlet's dead court jester, his generosity of spirit, his death with a joke on his lips, his grave marked "Alas, poor YORICK!"—and Tristram's two black pages. Then he is resurrected to play out at length the part his brief tragicomedy had prepared us for: Tristram's clearest exemplum of a life well lived. To say the least, Yorick's cheerful acceptance of life's blows, including the final one, fuses him with Tristram as both offer brilliant resistance to death's dominion.

And then consider some of the further autobiographical interweaving of Sterne, Tristram, and Yorick. Having begun Tristram's tale, including the short life and death of Yorick, in the first volumes of Tristram Shandy, and having published volumes of his sermons as those of "Mr. Yorick," Sterne (whose own life was steadily more well known) broke the retrospective patterns established in his novel to leap into Tristram's adult travels in Volume VII. Such a break calls attention to Sterne's direct experience by the urgency with which illness and danger of death suggest a motivation not only of Tristram's journey but of his author's decision to grasp it as subject for his work. And finally, in choosing to retell his own and Tristram's journey as Yorick's Sentimental Journey, Sterne infuses the sentimental with the dangerous, and Yorick's urgent pursuit of life partakes of Tristram's earlier escape from death.

By this time, readers of Sterne who have come through Tristram Shandy and gone on to A Sentimental Journey will be occupied with uncertainty about where they have arrived. Conception, asthma, humor, death, unexpected journeys—Sterne's aim is to submerge us in them and get us to swim in them, or transcend them. Learning to swim is a more modest conception than transcendence. Either will suffice to suggest the vision Sterne makes available through good-natured travel in the world and humorous reflection in art. The vision, transcendence, mode of motion in a foreign medium—all are epitomized in a passage from the midst of Tristram's travels:

Now this is the most puzzled skein of all for in this last chapter, as far at least as it has helped me through Auxerre, I have been getting forwards in two different journies together, and with the same dash of the pen for I have got entirely out of Auxerre in this journey which I am writing now, and I am got halfway out of Auxerre in that which I shall write hereafter—There is but a certain degree of perfection in every thing; and by pushing at something beyond that, I have brought myself into such a situation, as no traveller ever stood before me; for I am this moment walking across the marketplace of Auxerre with my father and my uncle Toby, in our way back to dinner and I am this moment also entering Lyons with my post-chaise broke into a thousand pieces and I am moreover this moment in a handsome pavillion built by Pringello, upon the banks of the Garonne, which Mons. Sligniac has lent me, and where I now sit rhapsodizing all these affairs.

—Let me collect myself, and pursue my journey.


And yet it must be admitted that there are readers for whom the experience Sterne offers remains uncompelling. For some, the invitations to good-humored participation in a joint search for self-definition may seem merely a mocking challenge. Appeals to our confidence may lead no further than the next embarrassing encounter with one of our own false assumptions or one of the narrator's dirty jokes. Responses to Sterne were from the start, and they remain, very strong and very mixed. A perceptive reader like Horace Walpole could find that the first volumes of Tristram "make one smile two or three times at the beginning, but in recompense make one yawn for two hours,"20 and he goes on to comment on the "odd coupling" of the sermon in the first volume with a good deal of bawdy. A few laughs paid for with a great deal of boredom, an unlikable mixture of high sentiment and low talk—these are descriptions of how many readers still feel.

Coleridge, who loved Sterne's works, nevertheless describes (in appreciating them) some elements that may add up to a negative effect on many readers:

A sort of knowingness, the wit of which depends, first on the modesty it gives pain to; or secondly, the innocence and innocent ignorance over which it triumphs; or thirdly, on a certain oscillation in the individual's mind between the remaining good and the encroaching evil of his nature, a sort of dallying with the devil, a fluxionary act of combining courage and cowardice … so that the mind has in its own white and black angel the same or similar amusements as might be supposed to take place between an old debauchee and a prude.… We have only to suppose society innocent—and [these effects are] equal to a stone that falls in snow; it makes no sound because it excites no resistance. [These effects account] for nine tenths [of our response]; the remainder rests on its being an offence against the good manners of human nature itself.21

I am not concerned here to show again the ways in which Sterne works to place these various affronts to the reader in the service of "experience"; rather, what Coleridge appreciates, simply (or complexly) puts off many readers.

Women readers may find Sterne's approach to them (especially in Tristram Shandy) as prudes and hypocrites hard to get beyond, regardless of how strong a case one makes for interpreting that treatment as aimed at the prudish in all of us, of both sexes. And the fact that both Tristram and Yorick sketch their female characters first as libidinous and mostly mindless may turn away female readers altogether. (On this score, Swearingen's appraisal of the role of Elizabeth Shandy in her son's story does more than anything else I know to reassess her much-maligned character.)

Along with what can easily be taken as misogynist in Sterne, a general air of masculine impotence—or at least disability—hangs over the novels, from Walter Shandy's premature ejaculation right to the last act of Yorick s journey: "So that when I stretch'd out my hand, I caught hold of the Fille de Chambre's" (p. 291). Toby Shandy—in Swearingen's words, "the man of feeling with the wound upon the groin" (Reflexivity, 215)—is in so many ways a model of sympathy that one may come to the conclusion that sentiment is achieved only at the cost of sexual potency and action. Some of Yorick's sexual contretemps encourage that equation, as does Tristram's acknowledgment of his own incapacity (at least temporarily) with his "dear Jenny (VII.xxix.363). To distinguish Tristram the narrator, who sees such failures and discontinuities as the symptoms of a malaise his work exists to heal, may not be enough to redeem him—for many readers—as a character crippled by an infirmity that pervades his world.

Such reservations, or revulsions, may come between many readers and the kind of experience I have described, believing that it coheres in the manifold means by which Sterne seeks us out and engages our participation. My own purpose has been to show how Steme's books come to matter for a reader. In other words, to corroborate one of Walter Shandy's many statements that mean more than he knows: "Every thing in this world, said my father, is big with jest,—and has wit in it, and instruction too,—if we can but find it out" (V.xxxii,276).


1 References are to Tristram Shandy, ed. Howard Anderson (New York: Norton, 1980), and to A Sentimental Journey, ed. Gardner D. Stout, Jr. (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1967), and to Stout's Introduction in the latter.

2 J. Paul Hunter, "Response as Reformation: Tristram Shandy and the Art of Interruption," Novel 4 (1971), 133.

3 Tristram Shandy's two names imply the dialectic between tragic fact and comic treatment in his "life and opinions."

4 See William Bowman Piper, Laurence Sterne (New York: Twayne, 1966).

5Letters of Laurence Sterne, ed. Lewis P. Curtis (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1935), 231.

6 Tobias Smollett, Travels through France and Italy, ed. Thomas Seccombe (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1935), 235-36.

7The Sermons of Mr. Yorick, 2 vols. (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1927), 1:29.

8 Wolfgang Iser, The Implied Reader: Patterns of Communication in Prose Fiction from Bunyan to Beckett (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1974), 24.

9Selected Letters of Samuel Richardson, ed. John Carroll (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1964), 341.

10 F. R. Leavis, The Great Tradition (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1954), 11.

11 See Kenneth MacLean, John Locke and English Literature of the Eighteenth Century (New Haven, Conn.: Yale Univ. Press, 1936).

12 John Locke, An Essay concerning Human Understanding, ed. Alexander Campbell Fraser, 2 vols. (Oxford: Clarenden Press, 1894), L:529.

13 Cf. Ian Watt, Introduction to Tristram Shandy (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1965), xxv; and Richard A. Lanham, "Tristram Shandy": The Games of Pleasure (Berkeley: Univ of California Press, 1973).

14 Cf. Stout, Introduction, p. 47, n. 64.

15 Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method (New York: Seabury Press, 1975), 86-87.

16 A. D. McKillop, The Early Masters of English Fiction (Lawrence: Univ. of Kansas Press, 1956), 210.

17 Earlier in the same chapter, Tristram has explained that his aim in sending "the lady" reader back to see if she can discover a clue to his mother's religion is "to rebuke a vicious taste which has crept into thousands besides herself, of reading straight forwards, more in quest of the adventures, than of the deep erudition and knowledge which a book of this cast, if read over as it should be, would infallibly impart with them" (I.xx.41).

18 James Swearingen, Reflexivity in "Tristram Shandy An Essay in Phenomenological Criticism (New Haven, Conn.: Yale Univ. Press, 1977), 11.

19 Iser remarks a few pages earlier that the "unwritten" in the text, which "stimulates the reader's creative participation," had been noticed by Virginia Woolf in her study of Jane Austen (pp. 275-76). In The Common Reader, 1st ser. (London: Hogarth Press, 1957), 174, Woolf wrote: "Jane Austen is thus a mistress of much deeper emotion than appears upon the surface. She stimulates us to supply what is not there. What she offers is, apparently, a trifle, yet is composed of something that expands in the reader's mind and endows with the most enduring form of life scenes which are outwardly trivial."

20Horace Walpole's Correspondence with Sir David Dalrymple, ed. W. S. Lewis, Charles H. Bennett, and Andrew G. Hoover (New Haven, Conn.: Yale Univ. Press, 1951), 66.

21Coleridge's Miscellaneous Criticism, ed. Thomas M. Raysor (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1936), 121.

David McNeil (essay date 1990)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 12019

SOURCE: "Sterne: Military Veterans and 'Humours,"' in his The Grotesque Depiction of War and the Military in Eighteenth-Century English Fiction, University of Delaware Press, 1990, pp. 144-67.

[In the following essay, McNeil asserts that Sterne's major works reveal his affection for war veterans even while Tristram Shandy in particular demonstrates that Sterne is well aware that any enjoyment of the trappings of war demonstrates the violent, irrational side of human nature.]

The Charm of the Military Veteran

Laurence Sterne was charmed by the military character. This charm obviously had its roots in family history; Steme's father served as an ensign in Chudleigh's Foot Regiment and saw action in the Spanish Succession War after which he was posted to Jamaica.1 Although Sterne went to live with relatives in York who raised him, he never lost the soft heart that he had for the military veteran and that inspired the incomparable figure of uncle Toby. Sterne's love for the military character is explicitly stated in A Sentimental Journey when Yorick steps into a box at the Comic Opera and sees a "kindly old French officer" sitting there quietly by himself:

I love the character, not only because I honour the man whose manners are softened by a profession which makes bad men worse; but that I once knew one—for he is no more … Captain Tobias Shandy, the dearest of my flock and friends, whose philanthropy I never think of at this long distance from his death—but my eyes gush out with tears. For his sake, I have a predilection for the whole corps of veterans … 2

This passage suggests that the creation of uncle Toby was inspired by Steme's acquaintance with a soldier he knew through his father, or by Roger Shandy himself whom Sterne described as an innocent. However Steme came by his character, uncle Toby remains one of the most, if not the most, single quixotic figures in English literature by virtue of the complexity of his military "humour."

Yorick encounters several veterans in A Sentimental Journey, and their military stories tend to be colored by a somber sense of misfortune. First, there is the Calais monk who alludes to "some military services ill requited," which resulted in his abandoning "the sword" (SJ, 102). Then there is, of course, Yorick's valet who had been a regiment drummer: "La Fleur had set out early in life, as gallantly as most Frenchmen do, with serving for a few years; at the end of which, having satisfied the sentiment, and found moreover, That the honour of beating a drum was likely to be its own reward, as it open'd no further track of glory to him—he retired …" (SJ, 124-25). Yorick's hiring of La Fleur, who "could do nothing in the world but beat a drum and play a march or two upon the fife" (SJ, 124), is motivated solely by a sense of benevolence that is more than fairly recompensed by La Fleur's good nature and company. Finally, there is the "old soldier" beggar "who had been campaign'd and worn out to death in the service," to whom Yorick gives "a couple of sous" (SJ, 133), and the Chevalier de St. Louis who is selling "pates" at Versailles (SJ, 209-11). The latter is a victim of regimental disbandment, and when the king learns of his plight, which the old soldier suffers without a harsh word, "he broke up his little trade by a pension of fifteen hundred livres a year" (SJ, 211). All of these portraits are infused with that endearing sentimentality that few novelists other than Sterne can success-fully manage.

The situation in England resembled that of France. Hence despite the services offered by institutions like the L 'Hôtel des Invalids or Chelsea Hospital, it was generally thought that veterans were not well treated for their sacrifices. In Hogarth's "The Times, Plate II" (engraved 1762 or 1763, published 1790), the spray of water that symbolizes government assistance completely misses a group of maimed war veterans. John Collier's "The Pluralist and Old Soldier" (1763) is a dialogue between a begging veteran who lost a leg at Guadeloupe and has not received his pension and a "well-fed pluralist" who tells the veteran to begone.3 For those invalids who, for whatever reason, were refused admission to Chelsea or who did not receive pensions, the government did nothing except give them the right to beg in public. The veteran and his family described in the poem "The Volunteer" (1791) endure all kinds of miseries that culminate in a most inglorious end: "Some merciful volley then shatters a leg, / And his crutches procure him permission to beg."4

Consequently, it is not surprising that sentimental portraits of military veterans are quite common in the eighteenth century.5 There seem to be two extreme types: the loquacious soul who, like uncle Toby, is always anxious to verbalize his experience; and the rather silent or pithy stoic whose experience has a significance that lies beyond language. Examples of the first include Goldsmith's "broken soldier" from "The Deserted Village," who sits by the good preacher's fire "and talked the night away; / Wept o'er his wounds, or tales of sorrow done, / Shouldered his crutch, and shewed how fields were won."6 "The Old General" (1740), by Sir Charles Hanbury Williams, contains a portrait that is very close to uncle Toby's "humour":

If you name one of Marlbro's ten campaigns,
He tells you its whole history for your pains:
And Blenheim's field becomes by his reciting,
As long in telling as it was in fighting.


Another comic example is Goldsmith's Mr. Hardcastle who is all too eager to command attention with his stories of Marlborough and Prince Eugene. The same type can be seen in satiric prints such as Bunbury's "Fought His Battles All O'er Again." … One might also think of Defoe's Colonel Jack who "lov'd to talk to Seamen and Soldiers about the War" and from whom he imbibes an oral history, as Jack says,

… those old Soldiers and Tars love to talk with me too, and to tell me all the Stories they could think of, and that not only of the Wars then going on, but also of the Wars in Oliver's time, the Death of King Charles the first, and the like.

By this means, as young as I was, I was a kind of an Historian, and tho' I had read no Books … 8

The soldier who has had to face life-or-death situations on a daily basis bears an experience that demands extraordinary attention and discourse.

Because language cannot adequately contain the meaning of the military experience, veterans are often portrayed as lapsing into cliche or being somewhat distant and silent. A veteran of the battle of Dettingen delights Boswell's curiosity for a moment with simple comments like, "Salvation is promised to those that die in the field."9 Another example of this type is the old soldier whom Wordsworth describes in The Prelude.10 The poet is walking home one summer evening when he encounters an "uncouth shape" (bk. 4, line 387); becoming curious, he looks more closely to see a "meagre man" standing alone "in military garb" and eventually presses the veteran with questions (bk. 4, lines 393, 398):

His history, the veteran, in reply,
Was neither slow nor eager; but, unmoved,
And with a quiet uncomplaining voice,

A stately air of mild indifference
He told in a few plain words a soldier's tale—
(bk. 4, lines 417-21)

Wordsworth prompts the veteran to "speak of war, battle and pestilence" (bk. 4, line 437), and the old man's response gives the impression of a resigned stalwartness:

He all the while was in demeanour calm,
Concise in answer; solemn and sublime
He might have seemed, but that in all he said
There was a strange half-absence, as of one
Knowing too well the importance of his theme,
But feeling it no longer.
(bk. 4, lines 440-45)

The veteran's parting words, spoken with a "ghastly mildness in his look" (bk. 4, line 458), reflect the humble faith and strength that Wordsworth admired in many of his rustic figures: "My trust is in the God of Heaven, / And in the eye of him who passes me!" (bk. 4, lines 459-60). There is a heroic sense of resolution and strength that attaches itself to such figures who suffer hardship and often mutilation and yet who are not embittered. An excellent example is the begging veteran with the wooden leg who is described in The Citizen of the World, Letter 199. The "intrepidity and content" of the veteran despite his misfortune impress his beholders who subsequently acknowledge that "an habitual acquaintance with misery is the truest school of fortitude and philosophy."11 Moving from the particular to the universal, one could claim that the pervasiveness of war in history immunizes us against its horrific barbarism and cruelty.

Several prototypes for Sterne's uncle Toby can be found, beginning with Shadwell's Captain Blunt, whose companions are forever reliving past battles (see The Volunteers). Yet Shadwell's veterans feature the hard celebrating and resolve that look ahead more to the "Sodger Laddie" and "doxy" of Bums's "The Jolly Beggars" than they do Tristram Shandy. In contrast to Sterne's meek Toby, Bums's "Sodger Laddie" is a rollicking ex-trooper:

And now tho' I must beg, with a wooden arm and leg,
   And many a tatter'd rag hanging over my bum,
I'm as happy with my wallet, my bottle and my Callet,
   As When I us'd in scarlet to follow a drum.


The grotesque depiction of the veteran often includes references to lost limbs. Nelson recognizes the black humor in Bums's "Jolly Beggars" and in an Irish song in which a woman facetiously comments on how "queer" her soldier-beau looks on his return:

You haven't an arm and you haven't a leg,
You're an eyeless, noseless, chickenless egg;
You'll have to be put with a bowl to beg:
 Och, Johnny, I hardly knew ye!


Goldsmith chose to mingle the sentimental with an abrupt style, and this combination makes him more like Sterne—as in the following picture in Threnodia Augustalis:

The hardy veteran after struck the sight,
Scarr'd, mangl'd, maim'd in every part,
Lopp'd of his limbs in many a gallant fight,
In nought entire—except his heart.


Major Matchlock of The Tatler may also have figured into the genesis of Steme's Captain Shandy. Matchlock "has all the Battles by Heart" and is held "in great Esteem" among his fellow tatlers.15

However, it is not until Steele's Captain Sentry—Matchlock's counterpart in The Spectator—a "Gentleman of great Courage, good Understanding, but invincible Modesty,"16 that we discover a "humourous" military character who is modest and delicate rather than brash and boisterous. His military "humour" is, of course, animated whenever he has an occasion to indulge in military history. Like so many of Steme's military veterans, Captain Sentry is noteworthy for how his lack of preferment has not left him embittered, as the Spectator himself remarks: "… I never heard him make a sower Expression, but frankly confess that he left the World because he was not fit for it."17 Sentry, however, is an extremely sketchy figure (Matchlock, a ghost). Smollett's Commodore Trunnion seems to rate as the first fully realized military quixotic in the English novel. Yet Trunnion, actually falls into the category of the old sea dog, not known for modesty.18 Seamen represent a separate subgroup insofar as their peculiar roughness and ignorance of social refinements were standard jokes.

This survey brings us back to Steme. The especially intriguing feature of Tristram Shandy is how Steme puts the reader in the awkward position of feeling sorry for uncle Toby because the Peace of Utrecht ends the War of the Spanish Succession, and the end of the war means the end of uncle Toby's miniature reenactments on the bowling green. Uncle Toby and Corporal Trim get their pleasure out of recreating Marlborough's campaigns and battles as accurately as they can; their harmless play depends upon, and is not merely tied to, the real war.19 (In this sense the bowling green campaigns are different from Wemmick's castle.) After the peace is announced, Walter Shandy cannot resist executing a subtle "back-stroke" at his brother's hobbyhorse that expresses the paradox beautifully: "Never mind, brother Toby … by God's blessing we shall have another war break out again some of these days; and when it does,—the belligerent powers, if they would hang themselves, cannot keep us out of play."20 As much as the reader may find uncle Toby (or Captain Shandy) endearing, and as much as his hobbyhorse is amusing, the notion of wanting "another war"—or of seeing the present one continued, which describes Toby's exact desire—is perfectly disturbing.

The grotesque best explains this paradoxical structure as well as the military theme that is an integral part of the Shandean dialectic. Not surprisingly, both Wolfgang Kayser and Mikhail Bakhtin single out Sterne as a writer of the grotesque. Kayser points to how the grotesque is more appropriate than a number of other descriptive generic terms, including satire, for identifying Sterne's art: "I emphatically subscribe to the classification of Sterne as a writer of the grotesque, for the categories of humor, satire, and irony … fail to do full justice to the form and content of Tristram Shandy."21 According to Bakhtin, Sterne stands out as an eighteenth-century writer who continues the carnival elements of the grotesque.22 Laughter, which Bakhtin sees as the key carnival element, clearly dominated the corresponding element of fear in the medieval grotesque, reached a climax in the fiction of Rabelais, and then gradually became extinct when the romantic grotesque exorcised the "comic" and intensified the "terrifying world."23 Sterne is the exception who writes neither condemnatory satire nor pure romantic sentimentality but rejuvenates a kind of saturnalia that is akin to Rabelais's world. Although a few critics have already linked Tristram Shandy to the grotesque, their comments tend to address Sterne's general tragicomic sentimentalism or his disjointed narrative form as opposed to the military subject.24 In Tristram Shandy, the bowling green hobbyhorse represents war as a ludicrous game; conversely, the battle wound represents war as fearful destruction.

The modern theory of the grotesque as a ludicrous-fearful duality differs slightly from the primary meaning that the English word "grotesque" had during the eighteenth century. Johnson defined "Grotesque" as "Distorted of figure; unnatural; wildly formed"—a meaning that reflects the pejorative connotations that the word then had.25 The adjectival sense of "grotesque" as unnatural is still current (OED #2) and remains somewhat pejorative in connotation.26 Sterne himself seems to use "grotesque" in this way (but without a clearly pejorative connotation) when Tristram self-consciously introduces his portrait of Corporal Trim.27 It is also interesting to note that after the second installment of Tristram Shandy appeared in 1761, a writer for the Critical Review associated Sterne's humor with the "grotesque" and raised the subject of laughter as being worthy in and of itself:

Every body had heard of the different species of humour; grave humour and gay humour, genteel humour and low humour, natural humour and extravagant humour, grotesque and buffoonery. Perhaps these two last may be more properly stiled the bastards of humour than the power itself, although they have been acknowledged and adopted by the two arch priests of laughter Lucian and Rabelais…They deserve to be held illegitimate, because they either desert nature altogether, in their exhibitions, or represent her in a state of distortion. Lucian and Rabelais, in some of their writings, seem to have no more purpose in view, unless the design of raising laughter may in some cases be thought a moral aim.28

For Sterne, raising laughter certainly was a moral aim, or at least laughter could serve a therapeutic function and partially redeem mankind.29 The art of cultivating laughter is the art of recognizing the comic in life, in Walter Shandy's words, "Every thing in this world … is big with jest … if we can but find it out" (TS, 1:470). This is the point at which the two senses of "grotesque" meet; what is perceived as unnatural (according to an erroneous assumption about rational behavior as a norm) and fearful may also be seen as ludicrous. Shandeism, therefore, squares with Bakhtin's profound view of carnival laughter as a kind of instinctive folklore celebration of the more frightening aspects of our existence such as death and war—a celebration of the ludicrous, of inexorable birth-death cycles.

Sterne was sensitive to a double-edged effect, similar to that of the grotesque, in laughter itself, and this sensitivity is at the heart of why "satire," as it is usually defined, inadequately accounts for how the military theme is treated in Tristram Shandy. When two parties feel that they are laughing together they also feel like allies insofar as they accept a common ludicrous point even if they themselves are the object of-it. On the other hand, if one of the two feels laughed at, then offense and animosity may result. Sterne is eager to enjoy true comedic laughter but aware that human nature, as sensitive as it is, is often fearful about being the victim of insolence. Tristram tells the reader that uncle Toby's bowling green campaigns could be a satire against the magnificent pomp and ceremony-with which Louis XIV took the field, except that uncle Toby could not insult anyone: Ironically, the very denial of satiric intent only raises the subject of satiric possibility, which is as far as Sterne means to go. Military ostentation can be seen as ludicrous. Likewise, Tristram does not mean to characterize "the militiating spirits of [his] country" (TS, 1:360) in uncle Toby. And one must not forget that the novel is dedicated to William Pitt, the champion of the British cause in the Seven Years' War, which went on while Sterne was bringing out the first three installments of Tristram Shandy. The Dedication recommends that Pitt take the novel "into the country" where it may beguile him "of one moment's pain" for when a man laughs "it adds something to this Fragment of Life" (TS, I:i). Despite these qualifications and the military background of his father, Sterne nevertheless ridicules the human propensity for fragmentation and conflict, but he does not do so with any vain desire to laugh man out of his folly. Uncle Toby's wish to continue the war strikes a fearful chord and no more. Sterne's belief is that redemption lies in laughter itself, and if Tristram is writing against anything, it is, as he says, "the spleen" (TS, 1:360).

Still, laughter is extremely volatile as Trim is well aware when he proposes it as a means of disarming the daunting gravity of courting Widow Wadman: "All womankind … love jokes; the difficulty is to know how they chuse to have them cut; and there is no knowing that, but by trying as we do with our artillery in the field, by raising or letting down their breeches, till we hit the mark" (TS, 2:753). The highest role one can hope to play in the fallen world is that of the self-sacrificing butt, which is what Yorick does in Tristram Shandy: "… he chose rather to join in the laugh against himself (TS, 1:20).30 Conflict arises, however, when others are not willing to join in the comic fun for most consider a joke directed at them to be a declaration of war:

… it happens, that a person laugh'd at, considers himself in the light of a person injured, with all the rights of such a situation belonging to him; and when thou viewest him in that light too, and reckons up his friends, his family, his kindred, and allies,—and musters up with them the many recruits which will list under him from a sense of common danger;—'tis no extravagant arithmetic to say, that for every ten jokes,—thou hast got a hundred enemies.

(TS, 1:31)

When it is considered inappropriate or made at somebody's expense, humor can create rather than alleviate tension. The idea of laughing at another—satirizing an individual for example—recalls Hobbes's view of laughter as being a "sudden glory" derived from a feeling of superiority.

Sensitivity is the key to uncle Toby's Cervantic attraction,31 for his military affectation or "humour" constitutes a sharp Jonsonian ridicule. This parodox of being a man-at-arms and yet a man so harmless, innocent, and naive puts Toby at the center of Sterne's grotesque rendering of the military theme in Tristram Shandy. The military veteran who possesses a blind professional simplicity and kindness of heart emerges as a character type in eighteenth-century fiction, the very opposite of the miles gloriosus. Uncle Toby, however, may be the most lovable of these characters; he literally cannot hurt a fly. On the other hand, he may be the most unnerving as well, insofar as his perverse wish to continue the war is concerned.

War Games and Wounds

Laughing at a serious subject like war seems callous and bound to offend, but it is here that Steme's subtlety plays such an important role. Neither Tristram nor the reader ever laugh directly at war; we laugh at the hobbyhorse, and the hobbyhorse is both a mock-heroic of adult play and a travesty of the War of the Spanish Succession. As Rabelais's Picrocholine War is both a mock-allegory of a lawsuit in Rabelais's home village, according to Bakhtin, and a satire against the aggressiveness of Charles V, so Sterne's uncle Toby is both a man at play and a man at arms.32 For those who, like uncle Toby, feel themselves to be emotionally caught up in the military spirit, to go to war is—grotesquely or unnaturally enough—an expression of love. Toby defends his wish to continue the war by arguing that it is based on his love of honor and liberty (see TS, 2:557, 753). Violence is sometimes necessary to curb greater violence. Steme's madcap narrator may describe uncle Toby's "amours" as the "choicest morsel" of his story (TS, 1:401), but the bowling green reenactments clearly form another key episode that Steme could have expanded if he had felt more hobbyhorsical. What the reader gets in the novel, according to Tristram, is only a "sketch" of uncle Toby's entire "campaigns" (TS, 2:536), which Tristram is considering to publish as a separate work and which he estimates will, by itself, consist of three books.

Uncle Toby's hobbyhorse is the epitome of war as play or game. The reality of war is symbolized by Toby's war wound, and it is important to see the connection between the two. Toby's hobbyhorse originates from his attempt to communicate the circumstances that led to his horrific wound at the siege of Namur. The wound is as horrific as Steme could have made it—a piece of a parapet breaks off and hits Toby in the groin, crushing his hip bone and confining him to his room for four years. It is an unheroic and freak accident that can only be blamed on the conflict itself, since the parapet was presumably hit by British artillery. But it is the diction of technicalities that plagues poor Toby (and his audience) more than anything else, when he tries to explain his sacrifice both to himself and the world: the "distinctions between the scarp and counterscarp,—the glacis and covered way,—the half-moon and ravelin" (TS, 1:94) are too much to handle. Language fails. Toby confuses himself as much as his audience and is in danger of sliding into fatal despair when he suddenly gets the idea to consult a map.

Ichnography appeals to the demand of the mind for rational explanation, and here Peter Stevick's comments are relevant: "Uncle Toby's fortifications and battle diagrams are, among other things, his defense against the possibility that his function, as part of the 'prodigious armies in Flanders,' may have been meaningless or incomprehensible."33 As an individual soldier, Toby plays less than a "miniature" role in the siege of Namur. But explaining how he was injured is crucial to him for in Tristram's words, "The history of a soldier's wound beguiles the pain of it" (TS, 1:88). One map leads to another, to the science of fortifications, and then to the hobbyhorse itself, which Toby rides with all his love away from death's door.34 His play-fantasy constitutes the essence of how the grotesque mode is used to address the subject of war, because it effectively distances the reader (and Toby too for that matter) from the reality of battle. I have already discussed the board war game in Ferdinand Count Fathom essentially as a wish-fulfillment being played out by King Theodore—the occupation of Genoese territory. For uncle Toby, the bowling green imitation is his mission.

It has been suggested that uncle Toby's miniature reenactments may have derived from Steme's possible knowledge of "raree" or puppet shows.35 Reenactments of military victories were popular parts of theatrical entertainments; for instance, the battle of Dettingen (in particular, George Darraugh's recapture of an English standard) was reproduced several times on the London stage in August 1743.36 The main difference, however, between such shows and Toby's fun on the bowling-green is that the latter constitutes a private hobby that can produce great personal pleasure at the risk of public embarrassment. (Toby, however, is too far gone to be self-conscious about the puerility of his hobby.) The more important, albeit obvious, source for the bowling green reenactments is the military miniature, those wonderful toy soldiers and artillery pieces that were often given to monarchs-to-be to play with and were eventually mass-produced for the public about the time Steme was writing Tristram Shandy.37 These miniatures were constructed out of papier-mdch6, cardboard, and wood carvings; tin eventually became the most common material. Some miniatures were elaborately mechanized. Louis XIII and his war-loving successor had mechanical soldiers designed by none other than Vauban himself, the famous French military engineer; they "moved, marched, fired, shot and retreated."38 The wood carvers of southern Germany even produced a splendid "movable fortress," which reminds one of uncle Toby's changeable model town (TS, 2:539-40).

Although there is no direct evidence linking Steme to military miniatures, it is clear that through his father he would have known many soldiers and people in the military coterie who could have collected them.39 Miniature artillery pieces were often given to veterans. The significance of the miniature as a reproduction is its abstract nature, which it shares with military history and tableaux. In his discussion of Charles LeBrun and battle painting, Norman Bryson claims that "one sees a marked tendency towards a signification that is highly abstract": "the model here is the war-room…a simulacrum of the battlefield, the war-room is also its real theatre … nothing essential is lost."40 For the military strategist, this "simulacrum" allows one to be indifferent to the materiality of armies: "the martial body is enciphered, made into a statistical entity, a vortex of abstract force."41 As a veteran and soldier's soldier, Toby is certainly not indifferent to the flesh, but only when it appears as such, as in the case of LeFever; otherwise, the bowling green campaigns are nothing but abstract games.

Before proceeding any further, one should note that there are no miniature soldiers on uncle Toby's bowling green. Toby and Trim are in effect toy soldiers or play as such in wielding spade and shovel to cut the breaches in the walls or in arranging the artillery pieces to copy the steps of the actual siege carried on by their commander Marlborough. Their commitment to reproducing the actual events of the war forms the key to the novel's theme of automatism or I'homme machine, because uncle Toby's hobby-horsical joy is to play out a reproduction that is entirely under the control of a greater force. To match exactly the real campaign is Toby's order, and a military man to the core (which is to say a puppet on strings), he thrills in the carrying out of that order without question and as perfectly as he can. This mechanical aspect can also be linked to the grotesque, which according to Kayser often shows a world in the process of dissolution—a world in which the human body is reduced to a marionette or automatoh.42 A commitment to duty, not the intellect, makes a good soldier, as suggested by uncle Toby's remark about the "Walloon Officer at the battle of Landen, who had one part of his brain shot away by a musket-ball,—and another part of it taken out after by a French Surgeon; and, after all, recovered, and did his duty very well without it" (TS, 1:173). The mechanical feature of uncle Toby's hobbyhorse is Steme's subtle way of identifying the comic in military discipline and behavior. Furthermore, Toby and Trim's obsession with sequential detail and precision also reflects the discursive emphasis of military history. One thinks of Marlborough himself, who personally directed de Vos's representations of troop deployments in the Blenheim tapestries so that they coincided as accurately as possible with the Duke's own memories.

Uncle Toby's habitual association of whatever might be uttered by others (e.g., moisture, lashings) with his own military experience is perhaps the more central part of his mechanical "humour," which has traditionally been explained by Sterne's adaptation of Lockean epistemology.43 Northrop Frye aptly describes the comic quality of the mechanical in his comments on "blocking character" or the Jonsonian "humour": "The principle of the humour is the principle that unincremental repetition, the literary imitation of ritual bondage, is funny.… Repetition over-done or not going anywhere belongs to comedy, for laughter is partly a reflex, and like other reflexes it can be conditioned by a simple repeated pattern."44 The mechanical aspect of uncle Toby's behavior can also be seen as the element that connects the ludicrous antics of the bowling green campaigners with Sterne's greater comic vision of human conflict. As we have seen, the tradition of learned wit includes a comic stoicism with regard to war and natural catastrophes (plagues, floods, famines, etc.) that arises from a sense that these phenomena are part of inevitable cycles (see AM, 2:127).45 Tristram alludes to the cyclical theory of war that was part of the popular culture of the Renaissance: "… war begets poverty, poverty peace" (TS, 1:72) and continues thus—peace begets prosperity, prosperity envy, and envy leads back to war. Writing on the subject of Sterne and late eighteenth-century ideas of history, Stuart Peterfreund claims, "Cyclicality … was in general viewed with a sentiment… approaching comfort arising from familiarity."46 Again as we saw with Swift, a cyclical or determined view lends itself to the comic; the certain swings of fortune might as well be accepted, even celebrated. Henri Bergson's identification of the "mechanical" in human behavior as being the source of the comic or ludicrous can easily be extended to this cyclical theory.47 If it is inevitable that humankind will fall into conflict, then we have nothing to do but continue on our merry way, stay in motion, and make the best peace we can—as Tristram does in France during the Seven Years' War.

When Tristram is arrested in Volume 7 for not paying a post fee to French officials, Sterne seems to be mock-heroically representing the Seven Years' War, or France's attempt to confine British expansion. In spite of the dedications to Pitt, who opposed the peace treaty of 1763 because he considered it too generous towards France, Sterne suggests that everyone should be willing to sacrifice something to obtain peace: "AND SO THE PEACE WAS MADE;—And if it is a bad one—as Tristram Shandy laid the corner stone of it—nobody but Tristram Shandy ought to be hanged" (TS, 2:638). In A Sentimental Journey, Yorick is detained in Paris specifically on account of the war. When a passport is finally issued to him to allow him to continue, it is issued to "let Mr. Yorick, the king's jester, and his baggage, travel quietly along" (SJ, 228). Again, humor is, for Sterne, the best way to make peace with the world and go merrily forward.

In An Essay on Man, Pope alludes to the justification of human suffering that is based on the hypothesis that mortal afflictions are part of some greater divine plan. The Miltonic echo, "Laugh where we must, be candid where we can; / But vindicate the ways of God to man," forms the rationale for Pope's later lines on war:

Who knows but he, whose hand the light'ning forms,
Who heaves old Ocean, and who wings the storms,
Pours fierce Ambition in a Caesar's mind,
Or turns young Ammon loose to scourge mankind?


As pointed out in the introduction, the scourge theory of war, like the cyclical, was a popular Renaissance belief and derived from both classical and biblical sources. Satire has also been called a scourge,49 and in this punitive function it may again be linked to war. If the cyclical or mechanical view of war possesses a ludicrous kind of inevitability, then the scourge theory conversely may be said to imply a kind of fearful expectation of punishment. Therefore, the combination of a sense of the inevitable and the idea of divine wrath, which can be located in Clarendon and Voltaire as well as Pope, incorporates the basic ludicrous-fearful dichotomy of the grotesque.

Lockean epistemology and a cultural sense of war memory run deep; furthermore, their relationship is given to sentimentalism. Cultural war memories are triggered by a variety of sensory phenomena that have historic properties (e.g., old battlefields, national music, roll calls). Thus Boswell contemplates the battle of Culloden on his trip to Scotland with Johnson:

There is a certain association of ideas in my mind upon that subject [battle of Culloden], by which I am strongly affected. The very Highland names, or the sound of a bagpipe, will stir my blood and fill me with a mixture of melancholy, and respect for courage; and pity for the unfortunate, and superstitious regard for antiquity; and inclination for war without thought; and, in short with a crowd of sensations.50

Sterne keeps the reader well away from the possibility of such melancholy by emphasizing the "humourous" quality of Toby and Trim. Still, the reader is never allowed to forget the reality of battle as represented by the war wound, and this maintains the necessary fearful-ludicrous duality.

Like his master, Corporal Trim has been maimed by war. He was hit in the knee by a "musket-bullet" at the battle of Landen. Trim likes to see the positive side of his fate, and his remarks may actually be Sterne's way of subtly satirizing the inadequate pensions awarded to veterans, especially the disabled: "that the shot which disabled me at the battle of Landen, was pointed at my knee for no other purpose, but to take me out of his [King William's] service, and place me in your honour's [uncle Toby's], where I should be taken so much better care of in my old age" (TS, 2:693). Uncle Toby and Trim are so proud of their wounds that the only real dispute that arises between them is "Whether the pain of a wound in the knee is not greater than a wound in the groin" (TS, 2:696). For them the pain is emblematic of their love of country and freedom or of the highest principles of humanity. This paradoxical relationship between love and war is central to Tristram Shandy.51'

Hence, however ludicrous the mechanical aspect of war can be, Sterne uses the war wound motif to remind his readers of what is fearful about war—the pain and injury suffered by so many. Besides Captain Shandy and the corporal, there are a number of other figures in the novel who have been victimized by battle: LeFever, his son, and even Cervantes—whose "wither'd stump" is referred to in Tristram's "Invocation" (TS, 2:780). (Cervantes's left hand was mangled at the battle of Lepanto—lucky for us it was not his right!). Their maimed bodies are living proof of the unnatural injury of war. When Tristram defends his purpose in the novel, he claims that uncle Toby's wound "is a wound to every comparison of that kind" (TS, 1:360), and one may interpret this ambiguous statement in two ways: it is either of the military kind or of the groin kind. One is probably safe in saying that Sterne wants the reader to associate the two within the greater symbolic structure of the novel; the threat of castration, which is what Toby's wound signifies, reflects the danger that war poses to the human species. Tristram's wound also represents the threat of castration; the curtain falls while he is relieving himself at the window. And Tristram's can also be called a war wound; for after all the curtain only falls because Trim has taken and melted down the weights on the sash-window pullies to add a few cannon to the bowling green artillery. As much as Sterne makes his readers laugh, he can also make them wince.

Adding to the bowling green miniatures becomes a subtle means for Sterne to express what seems to be a clear yet indirect indictment of the cost of war. As with all hobbies, the bowling green campaigns are sure to incur some expense. Trim wants to use a pair of "jack boots" to make "two mortar pieces for a siege next summer" and this arouses some objection from Walter Shandy. It turns out that the "jack boots" date back to the civil wars and were worn by Roger Shandy "at the battle of Marston-Moor" (TS, 1:241-42); this confers a sentimental value on the boots, and Walter does not want to part with them. When uncle Toby offers his brother ten pounds for the boots, his brother goes into a harangue about how much money has been spent outfitting the bowling green. But uncle Toby will not be easily denied in his campaign: "… 'tis for the good of the nation" (TS, 1:242). Walter Shandy relents at this good-natured, yet absolutely mad, response. Steme dissolves the distance created by the hobbyhorse fantasy whenever it serves his purpose. Trim enthusiastically melts down a good part of uncle Toby's rain gutters and spouts and even his pewter shaving basin, "going at last, like Lewis the fourteenth, on to the top of the church, for spare ends" (TS, 1:451).52 Sterne does not want to upset his reader unduly. The sash-window incident throws a scare into the bowling green campaigners and suspends their fun but only temporarily. Likewise, one might say that on the surface Sterne's novel keeps us laughing, for the action certainly remains comic even if we laugh nervously at times.

Surely one of the most exquisite features of Steme's art as a comic novelist is the yoking of the vulgar with the heroic. When the news of Tristram's misfortune at the window arrives in the parlor, uncle Toby is giving an account of the battle of Steenkirk to Yorick, who more than any other character enjoys seeing others in full gallop on their hobbyhorses. Yorick draws Toby into the full vigor of his spirit by allowing him to indulge himself in the particulars of "the strange conduct of count Solmes in ordering the foot to halt, and the horse to march where it could not act; which was directly contrary to the king's commands, and proved the loss of the day" (TS, 1:452). Enter Trim all in a panic about how he is responsible for Tristram's injury. Toby gallantly contests for the blame by insisting that Trim was only following orders, and this leads Yorick to draw an analogy between the historical account and the hobbyhorsical crisis: "Had count Solmes, Trim, done the same at the battle of Steenkirk, said Yorick, drolling a little upon the corporal, who had been run over by a dragoon in the retreat,—he had saved thee" (TS, 1:453). Yorick knows that such a remark will only give the pair a chance to escape, momentarily at least, from the immediate crisis back into their glorious rememberances. This they do and the climax comes when Trim blames Solmes for his wound for "had we drub'd them soundly at Steenkirk, they would not have fought us at Landen" (TS, 1:454). The subject of blame relates directly to the immediate crisis concerning Tristram's injury. Although Trim goes too far in accusing Solmes, both Trim and Toby feel responsible for the fall of the curtain. Steme's point is clear enough: life is a confused muddle of intent and accident.

The History of Discord and the Discord of History

As mentioned, part of Toby's military "humour" is to indulge in the history of King William's wars at every opportunity. This fascination with battles and sieges is clearly understandable according to the "curiosity value of grotesque art," which Clayborough claims "is considerable."53 The bizarre and monstrous attracts and fixes the human eye, a circumstance that is evident when the citizens of Strasbourg all follow the stranger with the huge nose and later find that their city has fallen into French hands (TS, 1:323-24). It may be remembered that much of the attractiveness of military art and the theater of war lies in their monstrous symmetry and conformity: uniforms, parades, and—of course—fortifications. Tristram, himself, is disappointed that he could not "take an exact survey of the fortifications" of Calais, which he calls "the strongest in the world" (TS, 2:583). But conversely the human imagination is also drawn in numerous ways to the monstrosity and spectacle of violence. For Toby, military history is resplendent with unnatural heroism and glory. And although his single-track enthusiasm strikes the reader as ludicrous, the eighteenth-century tactic, about which he and Trim get so worked up, of advancing right up to the opposing line and drawing the enemy fire before discharging one's own musket is itself fraught with the fearful: "some regiments … marched up boldly … and received the enemy's fire in their faces, before any one of their own platoons discharged a musket" (TS, 1:454). This standard procedure of withholding one's fire amounted to a battle of nerve to see which side could control the fear of its individual soldiers—sacrifice the few to achieve the greater objective (see "Introduction," pp. 23-24).

Moreover, to be enjoyed to the full, an enthusiasm must be shared; the raconteur must have an audience. Corporal Trim and Captain Shandy have each other, and their friendship forms one of the main sentimental lines of the novel. The delight with which they describe past battles reaches a climax when they are addressing Yorick on how to fight the French: "There is no way but to march cooly up to them,—receive their fire, and fall in upon them, pell-mell—Ding dong, added Trim.—Horse and foot, said … uncle Toby.—Helter skelter, said Trim.—Right and left, cried … uncle Toby.—Blood an' ounds, shouted the corporal;—the battle raged,—Yorick drew his chair a little to one side for safety …" (TS, 1:454-55). Because the soldier's profession involves such awesome performances of duty in the face of death, it is natural for the military to amuse themselves, and others, with stories of their trade. In Book 12 of The Metamorphoses, Nestor entertains the Greeks after a day of slaughter by relating the battle between the Lapithae and the Centaurs. Militarism feeds on its own history. When Yorick decides to entertain Toby by reading him Rabelais's account "of the battle fought single hands betwixt Gymnast and captain Tripet," uncle Toby brims with anticipation and requests that Trim be called in since "the description of a battle, will do the poor fellow more good than his supper" (TS, 1:462-63). Yorick's Rabelaisian joke is lost on the pair because for them the story of a battle should be the story of heroic love and sacrifice. Moreover, it comes as no surprise that Toby's favorite biblical passage is the siege of Jericho. The history of a military event may, as Tristram believes, beguile a veteran's pain, and this notion offers some explanation for the profusion of military memoirs and accounts from all ages. It may also partially account for the military emphasis in what Bryson defines as the lowest level of historiography—a narrative that "consists almost exclusively in a listing of battles, and where the work of history as an interpretative discipline is at a minimum."54 Literary parodies of such historiography include Gulliver's accounts of Europe to the Brobdingnagian king and later to his Houyhnhnm master, and Toby's campaign stories.

Toby answers the charge of cruelty against the soldier's profession when he justifies his reasons for wanting to continue the war. Based on the irreconcilable plurality of the world, his justification is irrefutable: "'Tis one thing, from public spirit and a thirst of glory, to enter the breach the first man … and 'tis another thing to reflect on the miseries of war: (TS, 2:556). One cannot debunk the ideals of soldiery by pointing to the horrible consequences of war. Those satirists who do exercise too much wit and not enough judgment. H. J. Jackson points out that uncle Toby's defense "was taken from an outright attack upon war in Burton's Anatomy and observes, "Steme inverted the bias … when he transposed the passage into Tristram Shandy."55 This is true, but Jackson may dismiss Toby's defense too easily. For Steme and Burton, war is a terribly complex and ambiguous issue. Burton certainly rages against the soldier's profession in his tirade, but later in the "Satyricall Preface" he actually says that the world is so fraught with madness that what it needs more than anything is "another Attila [or] Tamberlane" (AM 1:96). And Toby's idea of his military role involves nothing but benevolence: "what is it, but the getting together of quiet and harmless people, with their swords in their hands, to keep the ambitious and the turbulent within bounds?" (TS, 2:557). Shaftesbury makes one of the most lucid statements on how "most savage" war ironically brings out the most heroic affections:

'Tis strange to imagine that war, which of all things appears the most savage, should be the passion of the most honest heroic spirits. But 'tis in war that the knot of fellowship is closest drawn. 'Tis in war that mutual succour is most given, mutual danger run, and common affection most exerted and employed. For heroism and philanthropy are almost one and the same. Yet by a small misguidance of the affection, a lover of mankind becomes a ravager; a hero and deliverer becomes an oppressor and destroyer.56

As paradoxical as Toby's martial benevolence is, England under William of Orange did feel a responsibility to help curtail the aggression of Louis XIV.

The military theme in Tristram Shandy is characterized by this kind of contradiction. Steme may satirize man's fallen nature but he also accepts and even celebrates the stubborn endurance of human folly. Although uncle Toby is a perfect simpleton, it is his very simplicity that puts him in touch with the naturalness of his role in the world. When his heart follows the beat of a drum, he believes that in sallying forth he is answering the great end of his creation. And so he is, at least in his own eyes. Uncle Toby is also a Carlylean man of action and duty; according to him, a benevolent deity will judge in the end: "God Almighty is so good and just a governor of the world, that if we have but done our duties in it,—it will never be enquired into, whether we have done them in a red coat or a black one" (TS, 2:506). The camaraderie of soldiers transcends conflict, and conflict remains an integral part of the world.

The Shandy brothers can be seen as representatives of an archetypal dialectic or discord that manifests itself in the Shandy parlor, a microcosm of the world theater. Walter will talk of philosophical matters, the Captain military, and other than a few tolerances on the part of the former never the twain shall meet. While Tristram is being born, uncle Toby mounts his hobbyhorse and begins a discourse on the relative merits of the ravelin and the demibastion. His brother cannot hold his irritation:

By the mother who bore us!—brother Toby … here you have got us, I know not how, not only souse into the middle of the old subject again:—But so full is your head of these confounded works, that tho' my wife is this moment in the pains of labour,—and you hear her cry out,—yet nothing will serve you but to carry off the man-midwife [Dr. Slop] … I wish the whole science of fortification, with all its inventors, at the Devil;—it has been the death of thousands,—and it will be mine, in the end.

(TS, 1:129-30)

Images of birth and death mingle together. Uncle Toby may be his brother's worst provoker, but he also cannot hurt a fly, and when he sends his brother a tender and innocent glance, Walter Shandy melts with shame. Although a soldier by profession, Toby himself usually responds to provocation by smoking his pipe or whistling Lilliburlero. Whistling is a good way to reach a cease-fire in a hostile exchange of words, but the song Lilliburlero is ironically a mockery of Irish Catholics (the satirical content perhaps accounts for its popularity among the military; see TS, 3:113-15). In any case, Steme's positive comic vision can be seen in the fact that while the Shandy brothers rarely communicate outside of a few sentimental moments, their differences never lead to a lasting or serious conflict. Uncle Toby may interrupt his brother's expose on the radical moisture to recall the rain-drenched siege of Limerick, but his brother cannot stay angry. The larger characters on the world stage have the same propensity for inadvertent provocation but without the fraternal sentiment. Interrupting his own characters, Tristram gives the reader an anecdote about how Francis I sought to strengthen the understanding between France and Switzerland. Ironically misunderstanding results, and instead of achieving closer relations, the two countries find themselves in a state of war (TS, 1:357-59).

For Sterne as for many other comic writers, language miscarries. In fact, Tristram's "Well might Locke write a chapter upon the imperfections of words" (TS, 1:429—which of course Locke did, Essay, bk. 3, chap. 9) is the keynote of the novel and guides an analysis of its abundant war metaphors. Uncle Toby and Trim advance on the widow Wadman and Bridget from two flanks, but a breakdown in communications between the male pair leads to another hilarious misconception. Touched by the widow's inquisitiveness about the particulars of where he received his wound, Toby thinks about his map, "You shall lay your finger upon the place" (TS, 2:773). To him the widow's query is proof of her humanity, and so it is, but in more of a physical than idealistic context. In the end, uncle Toby's wound remains as bewitching and obscure to the reader as it does to the widow.

Tristram describes the courtship in the language of "Love militancy" (TS, 2:673) or in terms of war metaphors, a practice that goes back at least as far as Ovid and that reminds us of the love-war paradox. Like war, love or courtship often takes on the semblance of a game. Reminiscent of Mrs. Waters's "artillery of love" in that famous seduction scene of Tom Jones (bk. 9, chap. 5), widow Wadman uses her "eye" as a "cannon" and succeeds in blowing up uncle Toby, whose heart has been left vulnerable after the demolition of Dunkirk. Putting a hand on his breast, the gallant veteran turns to Trim and murmurs, "She has left a ball here" (TS, 2:712). The language of "Love militancy" is an accurate means of identifying the aggressive party—normally the male but not in this case. Despite his profession, uncle Toby is neither aggressive nor suspicious. It is Trim who devises a plan of attack and who recognizes the proximity between what he and his master have dedicated their lives to and what hits uncle Toby so unexpectedly: "Love … is exactly like war, in this; that a soldier, though he has escaped three weeks compleat o' Saturday-night,—may nevertheless be shot through his heart on Sunday morning" (TS, 2:700). Once inside her parlor, uncle Toby walks right up to the widow as he would to the French and blurts out that he is in love. As devotion to liberty and justice inspires Toby to fight under William of Orange, so he handles his courtship as if it were a military decree.

Furthermore, Sterne uses Trim to draw attention to the more physical connection between war and love when Trim relates the story of how love burst upon him "like a bomb" as a fair Beguine nurse rubbed "every part" of his frame (TS, 2:700, 703). However, Sterne does not just degrade the subject of physical love as uncontrollable passion; it is life, the life of us all and the life of Tristram's book. If war threatens the human species, love saves it, or in the words of Mrs. Shandy, "keeps peace in the world … [and] replenishes the earth" (TS, 2:721). (Mrs. Shandy, largely ignored by Tristram, represents the maternal figure of love and life.) But this kind of love can also cause war as Swift suggests in the "Digression of Madness" (Tale of a Tub, sec. 9). The Trojan War rates as the greatest mythic example of love-begetting-war in Western literature, and the only harsh word that uncle Toby ever speaks in his life regards Helen of Troy whom he calls a "bitch" (TS, 2:556) for her part in that conflict.

War metaphors pervade Sterne's novel and suggest that the Shandean universe is a dialectic, that reality is not a state of flux but a state of conflict. To Walter Shandy, the speculative philosopher, it is imperative "to investigate truth and fight for her on all sides," but truth is known "not to surrender herself sometimes up upon the closest siege" (TS, 1:271, 282). Bombarded with all kinds of connected thoughts whenever he continues his Tristra-paedia, Walter Shandy discovers that "the life of a writer … was not so much a state of composition, as a state of warfare" (TS, 1:447). To Tristram, whose book is an elaborate improvisation on Locke's philosophy, the world is about equal in its stock of wit and judgment; wit leads to satire and conflict, but judgment makes "up matters as fast as ever they went wrong" (TS, 1:229). When another communication miscarries at Tristram's christening, Walter Shandy wails that "heaven has thought fit to draw forth the heaviest of its artillery against me" (TS, 1:353-54). Siege and fortification, aggression and defense, are the rhythms of the world.

While recounting uncle Toby's bowling green campaigns, Tristram mentions that "the most memorable attack in the whole war" was fought during the siege of Lille, it being "the most gallant and obstinate on both sides,—and … the most bloody too, for it cost the allies themselves that morning above eleven hundred men" (TS, 2:543). The grotesque formula for how man views war partially lies in the implied apposition between memorable, gallant, obstinate, and bloody. The more blood, the more memorable; the more bizarre or irrational, the more curious. Sterne is only playing with the reader when he has Tristram say that he cannot resist giving the reader a fifty-page description of the "most memorable" (TS, 2:584) siege of Calais—a threat that he does not carry out. But there is a very serious side to Walter Shandy's last harangue, which begins as a lament on the grotesque side of physical love and turns into an attack on the glorification of war. Accordingly, the first part is addressed to Mrs. Shandy, the maternal figure of love, and the second to uncle Toby, the fraternal figure of fragmentation:

That provision should be made for continuing the race of so great, so exalted and godlike a Being as man … I still think and do maintain it to be a pity, that it should be done by means of a passion which bends down the faculties … continued my father, addressing himself to my mother … and makes us come out of our cavems and hiding-places more like satyrs and four-footed beasts than men.

—The act of killing and destroying a man, continued my father raising his voice—and turning to my uncle Toby—you see, is glorious—and the weapons by which we do it are honourable—We march with them upon our shoulders—We strut with them by our sides—We gild them—We carve them—We inlay them—We enrich them—Nay, if it be but a scoundril cannon, we cast an omament upon the breech of it.

(TS, 2:806-7)

Despite the serious side, the harangue reasserts the comicality of life and death and rates as the most memorable run in Walter Shandy's oration. Lila Graves cites the "satyrs" reference in her argument that there is a "coherent imagistic pattern" of "man/beast references" in the novel; she then relates this pattern to Locke's attack on the doctrine of distinct essences and belief that there are no perfect divisions between man/beast or rational/irrational beings.57 As Tony Tanner suggests, humankind is in reality more grotesque and less rational than we think.58 The indictment of the glorification of war is, of course, a universal theme, yet one that has a special significance in an age that saw the lavish decorative art of Marlborough's Blenheim Palace and the Salon de la Guerre at Versailles. Keeping with the Shandean dialectic, Sterne has both uncle Toby and Yorick ready "to batter the whole hypothesis to pieces" (TS, 2:807) before Obadiah interrupts with his Cock and Bull story, the finale.

Walter's last harangue remains unanswered, and the silence on the part of Toby and Yorick, while preserved only through Obadiah s timely interruption, has the effect of implicating the reader in the statement itself. It may be said, therefore, that Sterne's closing segment climactically recapitulates the ludicrous and fearful incongruity of human discord by moving beyond the Shandy parlor and involving the greater audience of the novel. And as much as most readers feel the tickle of Shandean laughter in Tristram Shandy, uncle Toby's naive idealism and wish to continue the war will never cease to give them a gentle shudder as well.


AM Robert Burton. The Anatomy of Melancholy. Edited by Holbrook Jackson. 3 vols. 1932. Reprint. London: Everyman, 1968.…

SJ Laurence Sterne. A Sentimental Journal Through France and Italy by Mr. Yorick. Edited by Gardner D. Stout, Jr. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1967.…

TS Laurence Sterne. The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. Vols. 1-3 of The Florida Edition of the Works of Laurence Sterne. Edited by Melvyn New, Joan New, Richard A. Davies, and W. D. Day. Gainesville: University Presses of Florida, 1978-84.


1 Roger Sterne fought under Marlborough and ended his military career as a lieutenant—the highest rank that a commoner without money could expect to attain. On the military environment of Sterne's childhood, see Arthur Cash, Laurence Sterne: The Early and Middle Years (London: Methuen, 1975), 1-23, 36-39.

2 Laurence Steme, A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy by Mr. Yorick, ed. Gardner D. Stout, Jr. (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1967), 170-71; all subsequent citations are made to this edition (hereafter cited as SJ).

3New Oxford Book of Eighteenth-Century Verse, 511. The poem was published with an accompanying print in 1773.

4 Ibid., 786, lines 40-41.

5 See J. Walter Nelson, "War and Peace and the British Poets of Sensibility," Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture, vol. 7, ed., Rosann Runte (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1978), 345-66.

6Collected Works of Oliver Goldsmith 4:293, lines 155-58.

7Oxford Book of Eighteenth-Century Verse, 295.

8 Defoe, Colonel Jack, 11. Later, on his tobacco plantation, Jack does read much history, especially military, and he travels to Ghent just to see the fortified city and military preparations, to his "Delight"; see 157, 172, 183-84.

9Boswell's London Journal: 1762-1763, 22 December 1762, 100.

10 William Wordsworth, The Prelude, in Poetical Works, ed. Thomas Hutchinson, rev. Ernest de Selincourt (1936; reprint, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975), 520-21; all subsequent citations are to this edition.

11Collected Works of Oliver Goldsmith 2:465.

12Poems and Songs of Robert Burns 1:197.

13 Nelson, "War and Peace," 357. "Johnny, I Hardly Knew Ye," in Eighteenth-Century English Literature, ed. Geoffrey Tillotson, Paul Fussell, Jr., and Marshall Waingrow, with Brewster Rogerson (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1969), 1525.

14Collected Works of Oliver Goldsmith 4:338.

15The Tatler, No. 132, 3:99. On Steele and the military, see Richard H. Dammers, "Soldiers and Philosophers: Captain Steele and Captain Ayloffe," Eighteenth-Century Life 3, no. 2 (December 1976): 52-55.

16The Spectator, No. 2, 1:11.

17 Ibid.

18 See Ronald Paulson, Satire and the English Novel (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1967), 285.

19 In The Philosophical Irony of Laurence Sterne (Gainesville: University Presses of Florida, 1975), 85, Helene Moglen observes, "Although Toby's wholehearted, childish immersion in his hobby has its delightful side, there is a more menacing aspect to it in his dependence for the continuation of his play upon the continuation of actual combat and in his sorrow at the signing of the Peace of Utrecht." This fact is not emphasized in the most extensive study of the "game" or "play" aspect of Toby's hobbyhorse; see Richard A. Lanham, "Tristram Shandy": The Games of Pleasure (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1973), 37-51, 77-92. Lanham claims (85), "Sterne sees … Toby's war as a kind of applied pastorality, using the mechanism of pastoral to discharge quite unpastoral impulses."

20The Florida Edition of the Works of Laurence Sterne ed. Melvyn New, Joan New, Richard A. Davies, and W. D. Day (Gainesville: University Presses of Florida, 1978-84), 2:552; all subsequent citations are made to this edition (hereafter cited as TS).

21 Kayser, Grotesque, 51.

22 See Bakhtin, Rabelais, 36-37, 47; and Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination, 237, 308-10.

23 Bakhtin, Rabelais, 38-9, 90; and Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination, 237.

24 See Bosmajian, "The Nature of the Grotesque Image in Eighteenth-Century English Literature," which includes an insightful chapter on Tristram Shandy: and Lilian R. Furst, "The Dual Face of the Grotesque in Sterne's Tristram Shandy and Lenz's Der Waldbruder," Comparative Literature Studies 13 (1976): 15-21, which concentrates on the narrative disjointedness of the novel. See also Jean Claude Dupas, "Tristram Shandy: une rhapsodie grotesque," Bulletin de la Societe d'etudes anglo-américaines des XVIIe et XVIIIe Siecles 6 (June 1978): 61-75. None of these critics is specifically concerned with the novel's military content.

25 Samuel Johnson, "Grotesque," vol. 1 of A Dictionary of the English Language, 5th ed. (London: W. & A. Strachan, 1784).

26 Barasch has made the most detailed study to date of how "grotesque" began to be used as an art, and then generic, term from the late seventeenth to the late eighteenth century; see his The Grotesque: A Study in Meanings, 56, 103, 144.

27TS, 2:544: "Let me stop and give you a picture of the corporal's apparatus; and of the corporal himself in the height of this attack just as it struck my uncle Toby, as he turned towards the sentry box, where the corporal was at work,—for in nature there is not such another,—nor can any combination of all that is grotesque and whimsical in her works produce its equal." Bosmajian refers to this use of "grotesque."

28 Anonymous, Critical Review 11 (April 1761), quoted from Sterne: The Critical Heritage, ed. Alan B. Howes (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1974), 125. I am indebted to Bosmajian for this source.

29 Patricia Spacks's comments on comedy and point-of-view in Tristram Shandy are appropriate in this context; see Imagining a Self (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1976), 138: "Perhaps it can be argued that comedy distinguishes itself from tragedy entirely by its point-of-view.… One stamps his foot at the universe: how grotesque!"

30 Yorick's philosophy of humor, of course, derives from the grotesque gravedigging scene in Hamlet 5.1.

31 See Edward Niehus, "Quixotic Figures in the Novels of Sterne," Essays in Literature 12, no. 1 (1985): 49: "In sentimentality, as in most things human, Sterne saw elements of both the absurd and the noble, the comic and the serious." Alan B. Howes holds that Sterne combines Rabelaisian and Cervantic humour in his characterization; see "Laurence Sterne, Rabelais, and Cervantes: The Two Kinds of Laughter in Tristram Shandy," Laurence Sterne: Riddles and Mysteries, ed. Valerie Grosvenor Myer (London: Vision and Barnes & Noble, 1984), 55.

32 Lanham, "Tristram Shandy," 88, draws upon Huizinga's Homo Ludens and the game theory of others; he ultimately sees Toby's hobbyhorse as a combination of pastoral and chivalrous play.

33 Peter Stevick, "Miniaturization in Eighteenth-Century English Literature," University of Toronto Quarterly 38, no. 2. (1969): 173.

34 Hobbies are supposed to be therapeutic, and Michael Deporte discusses uncle Toby's somewhat mad game on the bowling green in exactly this respect; see his Nightmares and Hobbyhorses: Swift, Sterne, and Augustan Ideas of Madness (San Marino, Calif.: Huntington Library, 1974), 114-19.

35 See J. M. Stedmond, "Uncle Toby's 'Campaigns' and Raree-Shows," Notes and Queries 201, New Series, no. 3 (1956) 28; and George Speaight's "Reply" in the same issue, 133-34.

36The London Stage, 1660-1800, Part 3: 1729-1747, ed. Arthur H. Scouten (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1961), 1059-60.

37 On the history of military miniatures, see Max von Boehn, Puppets and Automata, trans. Josephine Nicoll (New York: Dover, 1972), 37-47; and Fraser, A History of Toys, 18, 61, 74, 86.

38 Ibid., 86.

39 In Arthur Cash's words, Laurence Sterne, 16, "It was indeed a family of soldiers that Laurence grew up in."

40 Bryson, Word and Image, 36.

41 Ibid.

42 Kayser, Grotesque, 183: "The mechanical object is alienated by being brought to life, the human being by being deprived of it. Among the most persistent motifs of the grotesque we find human bodies reduced to puppets, marionettes, and automata." See also ibid., 198.

43 Exactly how Sterne adapts Locke's philosophy has been the subject of much criticism on Tristram Shandy. See Peter Briggs, "Locke's Essay and the Tentativeness of Tristram Shandy," Studies in Philology 82, no. 4 (1985): 502, 506, wherein Briggs argues, "Sterne quite consistently adopted Lockean notions of the mind's mechanisms for understanding, but with equal consistency he reserved for himself the right to interpret the value of those mechanisms"; as an example, he cites Locke's negative view of fantasies and concludes, "Sterne agreed with Locke as to what a fantasy was, but he saw in fantasy a real potential for human good; military fantasies cure Uncle Toby's wound when the reasonable measures urged by doctors fail, and imagined battles on the bowling-green add life and color to an otherwise drab and frustrated retirement."

44 Frye, Anatomy of Criticism, 168.

45' Deporte, Nightmares, 126, argues that the mechanical or "determined" quality about the Shandean world is "one reason why the novel contains so little true satire."

46 Stuart Peterfreund, "Sterne and Late Eighteenth-Century Ideas of History," Eighteenth-Century Life 7, no. 1 (1981): 48.

47 Henri Bergson, Laughter, trans. Cloudesley Brereton and Fred Rothwell (London: Macmillan, 1911), 69. In this context, it is interesting to note Northrop Frye's claim (Anatomy of Criticism, 62) that "cyclical theories of history [are] … a typical phenomenon of the ironic mode."

48An Essay on Man, ed. Maynard Mack (London: Methuen, 1950), 1: 14, 35; Epistle 1, lines 15-16, 157-60.

49 Especially in the Renaissance; see Alvin Kernan, The Cankered Muse (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1959), 93.

50 James Boswell, A Tour to the Hebrides, ed. Frederick A. Pottle and Charles H. Bennett (New York: Literary Guild, 1936), 106-7.

51 Steme probably inherited it from Robert Burton who in the Third Partition of The Anatomy of Melancholy argues persuasively that the extreme all-for-love attitude is responsible for more war and madness than anything else.

52 James Aiken Work suggests that this is a reference to the fact that Louis XIV financed many of his "long and expensive campaigns" by obtaining "forced loans from the clergy," but the editors of the Florida edition believe that Steme may have meant the statement to be literal since church bells were commonly confiscated for their valuable metal (see TS, 3:368).

53 Clayborough, Grotesque, 72.

54 Bryson, Word and Image, 36.

55 H. J. Jackson, "Sterne, Burton, and Ferriar: Allusions to the Anatomy of Melancholy in Volumes Five to Nine of Tristram Shandy," Philological Quarterly 54 (1975): 464.

56 Right Honourable Anthony Earl of Shaftesbury, "An Essay on the Freedom of Wit and Humour," in Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times, etc., ed. John M. Robertson (London: Grant Richards, 1900), 1:75-76.

57 See Lila V. Graves, "Locke's Changeling and the Shandy Bull," Philological Quarterly 60, no. 2 (1981): 260, 258. Graves believes that Sterne may have been influenced by Locke's views on the "changeling" and "monster."

58 Tanner, "Reason and the Grotesque," 828-31. See "Introduction," p. 19.


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Elizabeth Kraft (essay date 1992)

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SOURCE: "Tristram Shandy and the Parody of Consciousness," in her Character and Consciousness in Eighteenth-Century Comic Fiction, The University of Georgia Press, 1992, pp. 100-18.

[In the following essay, Kraft argues that Sterne saw narrative form as imperfect because a story is understood differently by each narrator as well as by each reader, and that thus through the pointedly chaotic form of Tristram Shandy, Sterne hoped to show that narrating a life cannot possibly result in the quantification or identification of that life.]

Henry Fielding and Charlotte Lennox both regard the structurings of consciousness with a skeptical eye. Even so, they seem to accept with few questions the propensity of consciousness to seek narrative form; at least, that seems to be the operation of the mind that interests them the most—the way the individual consciousness puts together its experiential gleanings, the conclusions it draws, the revisions it makes, the interpretation and reinterpretation of others and of self upon which thought and action are based. In its effort to give shape to human experience, narrative takes many forms. Lennox and Fielding admit that, though most of these narratives fall short of truth, the conscious mind recognizes in the very act of creating narrative a kind of truth: a recapitulation of the first fiat, a making of order out of chaos, which approximates, though it can never fully realize, the narrative of human existence in a divinely ordered world.

Laurence Steme disagrees. Not with the inherent limitation of narrative—that he is more than willing to admit. Steme, like Fielding and Lennox, clearly recognizes the self-interest—the hobbyhorsical self-justification—that precipitates and governs most narrative acts, and he recognizes it as a factor that deceives and misleads both teller and hearer or drives them completely asunder.1 In Tristram Shandy, of course, narrative generally signals isolation in that it, like every act of communication in the novel, is spoken in one frame of reference and understood in another (as in the familiar example of the Widow Wadman's narrative-initiating query: "And whereabouts, dear Sir, … did you receive this sad blow?" [2: 793]). The lesson Tristram insists on teaching the world—"'To let people tell their stories their own way"' (2: 785)—has a corollary in his readers' insistence on reading his story their own way.2 On every level, in other words, the novel demonstrates the fundamental chaos of human existence, an existence in which the narrative act is the single most poignant indication of our inability to order. More than Fielding or Lennox, Sterne sees narrative as a peculiarly human order, as fundamentally and quintessentially different from the divine order. As a consequence, he finds more abhorrent than they do the notion that identity should be equated with a consciousness that takes a narrative form.

For Sterne as for Swift, self-knowledge is simply a matter of recognizing our flawed natures, our basic incompleteness.3 While Locke himself does not argue for human perfection, his notion of self as consciousness assumes that to record the individual's experiences is to establish individual identity.4 Completion, if not perfection, is implied; and novels of identity, in their typical movement toward conclusion, in their silence about the process of selectivity, in their physical existences as book, page, and ink, both personify and embody the abstract notion of permanence. As such, Sterne perceives, the novel—particularly as it centers on human existence—personifies and embodies a lie based on sinful pride.

While Tristram's narrative seeks to repeat the lie, it is clearly unable to do so. Tristram does not move toward a conclusion; he is anything but silent about the process of selectivity; and, while his story does have a physical form, it is one that draws attention to its artificiality, with its dashes, astericks, and blank and marbled pages. In all of these characteristics, which, in Mikhail Bakhtin's words, throw over the construction of the narrative the "mantle of materiality" (374), Tristram Shandy points to its own parodic nature.5 That it is a parody of the novel as form is, of course, widely accepted. In addition, however, the work Victor Shklovsky calls "the most typical novel in world literature" (57) also suggests that the genre itself is fundamentally parodic in its distortion of human life and consciousness, based as it is on an assumption of the mechanistic nature of identity—the causally determined, the "beginning, middle, and end."6

Before I discuss Sterne's parodic treatment of what he regards as the parody of identity represented by the novel, I want to situate this discussion in the corpus of Steme criticism. Traditionally, there seem to have been two schools of thought about Sterne's authorial stance and the nature of Tristram Shandy. One position is that Sterne is a benign humorist primarily interested in the creation of character and the "realistic" reflection of life. Critics of this position tend to regard Tristram Shandy (and A Sentimental Journey) as an expression of the school of "feeling," a novel that teaches us tolerance for the shortcomings of ourselves and of others.7 A logical corollary to this position is the identification of Sterne with both Tristram and Yorick, a practice certainly encouraged by Sterne himself. Tristram Shandy and A Sentimental Journey thus become, in a sense, apologia for Sterne's life, and our proper response to both Sterne and his characters is a sympathetic recognition, if not celebration, of a common human condition of fallibility, impotence, and disappointment. I myself once subscribed to this line of argument.8

The other way of reading Sterne also recognizes the presence of sentimentality and self-justification in his novels, but it sees them, the characters, and the narrative itself as objects of satire. These readings emphasize Steme's Anglicanism and describe him as a kind of latter-day Swift, who speaks in the character of a hack in order to prompt our recognition, once more, of a common human condition of fallibility, impotence, and disappointment—a recognition that, this school maintains, should chasten pride rather than provoke embrasive sympathy.9 In considering Sterne's treatment of the relationship between consciousness and narrative, I have come to find this line of argument the more persuasive. Given that the novel of feeling credits the emotional and psychological states of its characters through a narrative that traces the development and results of these conditions, Tristram Shandy cannot be thus defined: for, while Tristram's purpose is to explain his identity, his "figure in the world," by informing us of the "tracks and trains" into which his "animal spirits" have been put (1: 1-2), he does so by reducing the formula to absurdity. Interruption, incongruity, and frustration define his life from the moment of his conception just as they define his narrative, positing an incomplete and incoherent identity that seeks but is denied the complete and coherent form of narrative.10 Tristram's efforts to find stable identity in temporal experience fail, as all such efforts, being human, will.

The parallels between the Scriblerian Memoirs of Martinus Scriblerus and Sterne's Tristram Shandy suggest a shared concern about modern materialist efforts to define identity in terms of experientiality.11 Sterne's echoing of this work also implies both a shared attitude toward the subject and a further refinement on the Scriblerian argument. The history of Martin Scriblerus, like Tristram's own, begins before his conception and is dominated by his father's efforts to control as well as create his life. Like Walter Shandy, Cornelius Scriblerus subscribes to arcane and amusing superstitions that lead to a variety of absurd behaviors. For example, he performs his "conjugal duty" only when the wind is in the west, following the Aristotelian beliefs that "the grossness and moisture of the southerly winds occasion the procreation of females, and not of males," that the western wind had the opposite effect, and, more generally, "that the Semina out of which Animals are produced, are Animalcula ready formed, and received in with the Air" (96-97). During Mrs. Scriblerus's pregnancy, Cornelius has the embryonic child "entertained … with a Consort of Musick once in twenty four hours, according to the Custom of the Magi" (97). Cornelius also notes the "Prodigies" that attend Martinus's birth, among them Mrs. Scriblerus's dream of a "huge Ink-horn" and a swarm of wasps that invade the nursery (98). In the infant's appearance Cornelius finds the defects of Cicero, Alexander, Marius, and Agesilaus; and he hopes soon to note the stutter of Demosthenes (100).12 In other words, common to both Cornelius and Walter is the belief that they can form or predict the identity of their sons.

Yet, like Walter, Cornelius finds himself continually thwarted. Planning to establish early on his son's relationship with ancient virtuosi, he has the child christened in a shield, an "invaluable piece of Antiquity," rusted with the "beautiful Varnish of Time" (103). Cornelius discovers to his horror and to his child's near injury that "the Maid … had scoured it as clean as her Andirons" (103). And if circumstances did not frustrate his designs, the ancients themselves often did by contradicting each other. Still, "his Reason was so pliant and ductile, that he was always of the opinion of the last he read." His most fundamental characteristic is that, like Walter Shandy, "he reckon'd it a point of honour never to be vanquish'd in a dispute" (125). He typically argues from ancient precedent and seems to proceed from the assumption that man exists as a part of universal forces to be reckoned only by prognostics and divination, as he reveals on the day of Martinus's christening: "'This day, my Friends, I purpose to exhibit my son before you; a Child not wholly unworthy of Inspection, as he is descended from a Race of Virtuosi. Let the Physiognomists examine his features; let the Chirographists behold his Palm; but above all let us consult for the calculation of his Nativity" (102).

However, also like Walter, Cornelius is a peculiar blend of a precious kind of antiquarianism, an outmoded sense of man's relationship to the universe, and modern notions about epistemology and human identity. He particularly reflects the Lockean theory of sensual acquisition of knowledge and thus materialistic identity. His insistence on certain foods for Martinus, even though he grounds this regimen in the thought of Horace and Lycurgus, also reflects a materialist sensibility, as does his stamping gingerbread with the "Letters of the Greek Alphabet" so that Martinus could ingest knowledge along with his favorite sweet. Cornelius's educational system has the predictable result of creating a complete materialist: "Martin's understanding was so totally immers'd in sensible objects, that he demanded examples from Material things of the abstracted Ideas of Logick" (119). Asked to give a definition of a lord mayor, Martinus immediately exposes the limitations of his grounding in the sensible, for, having seen only one lord mayor, he defines the general by the particular. Martinus believes in the intimate relationship between experience and identity, the physical and the spiritual. His notion of physiognomy, for example, shares none of the superstition that governs his father's belief in the same method of revealing character. Martin's is a thoroughly experiential understanding: "He observ'd that the Soul and Body mutually operate upon each other, and therefore, if you deprive the Mind of the outward Instruments whereby she usually expresseth, that Passion, you will in time abate the Passion itself; in like manner as Castration abates Lust." "All Muscles," he believed, "grow stronger and thicker by being much us'd; therefore the habitual Passions may be discerned in particular persons by the strength and bigness of the Muscles us'd in the expression of that Passion" (131). Tristram, the inheritor of his father's similar habits of mind, echoes the notion of material revelation of the soul in his famous metaphor of the jerkin: "A Man's body and his mind, with the utmost reverence to both I speak it, are exactly like a jerkin, and a jerkin's lining;—rumple the one—you rumple the other" (1: 189). He, too, is a materialist, a self-styled prisoner of his experiences and sensations.

Martin's prevailing interest is in the mind. This interest leads him to a quest for the body's "Seat of the Soul," which he seeks through anatomical dissection, focused particularly on the exploration of the pineal gland, and through applications to the society of freethinkers who inform him of their design to make a "Hydraulic Engine" of a man that can be wound up once a week to "reason as well as most of your Country Parsons" (141). He entertains, as well, a freethinker's argument that explains the relationship between consciousness and the individual through the analogy of John Cutler's "pair of black worsted stockings, which his maid darn'd so often with silk, that they became at last a pair of silk stockings": "Now supposing those stockings of Sir John's endued with some degree of Consciousness at every particular darning, they would have been sensible, that they were the same individual pair of stockings both before and after the darning; and this sensation would have continued in them through all the succession of darnings; and yet after the last of all, there was not perhaps one thread left of the first pair of stockings" (140).13 Finally, Martin's equation of identity and mind leads to his ludicrous marriage with a Siamese twin, whose separate consciousness cannot be denied anymore than her shared corporality can—a marriage annulled "upon a natural, as well as legal Absurdity" (163). As Christopher Fox notes, Martin's inquiries and experiences in large part serve to examine the ridiculous extremes to which the arguments (both materialist and antimaterialist) about human identity were wont to go (88-89). Yet, Fox also observes, the Scriblerian's antipathy for the scholastic arguments about identity also reveals a concern about "the theological and ethical questions that controversy raised" (95).

Tristram's own search for identity suggests the same sort of double-focus satire that Fox describes in the Memoirs—satire that proceeds from a theological conservatism all too aware of the implications of an experientially defined sense of self. As Martin's materialism leads him into an absurdity with regard to the identity of another individual, Tristram's leads him into an absurd effort at self-definition, a shift in perspective that speaks to the habit of conflating identity with consciousness expressed in narrative form.14 Sterne perceives as yet another materialistic sophistry the confusion of self-conscious narrative with who one is. Tristram, too, rejects the mechanistic life story, preferring to travel his own route (at least in the beginning), a preference for psychological freedom made all the stronger by his fear of physical determinism, which he has inherited from his father.

James E. Swearingen has described Tristram's method as a "sifting, reflecting, deciphering, appropriating [of] his heritage, his intentions, and even, occasionally, his activities in the present" (50), which results in the "recording of a stratified consciousness" rather than in the writing of an experiential tale (51). It is true that Tristram rejects the notion of the empirical consciousness advanced by Locke in favor of what Swearingen calls the consciousness of intentionality. Tristram's is a deliberate search for self-definition "whereby he uncovers stratum after stratum of his own consciousness in order to find out what kind of 'thing' he is" (Swearingen 75). But try as he might to define new methods for discovering himself, he is continually confronted with the demands of narratology. His readers, for example, assume that, in expressing his life, he will render his experience in narrative form; and he finally comes to share the belief that he and his story are one, though, throughout, there is something in him that resists the narrative line. As we witness his difficulty in telling his story (a struggle that reaches its crisis in volume 7), we realize that the act of structuring is far from a natural response of the conscious mind to the events of life. In Tristram's dilemma resides Sterne's denial that the narrative of consciousness is an analogous recapitulation of the presence of the divine in the mind of man. Swearingen argues that, in Tristram Shandy, Sterne "carries out the analysis that Locke only suggests and that Husserl defines in the Crisis of European Sciences" by perceiving and demonstrating that the nature of consciousness is a "transcendental subjectivity" (36, 26-46). While I agree with Swearingen that Sterne, in having Tristram define consciousness thus, has anticipated many of the phenomenological "discoveries" of the twentieth century, I find Swearingen's celebratory attitude toward Tristram's modernity quite a contrast to Sterne's own satirical attitude toward his protagonist's secular, transient, and admittedly modern imagination.

Tristram's resistance to narrative manifests itself in his tendency to stray off the narrative track, to digress. He justifies his proclivity for wandering by styling his work his "Life and Opinions," suggesting that, like any good narratologist, he is modifying the form he is adopting, meeting his obligation to be sui generis: "My work is digressive, and it is progressive too,—and at the same time," Tristram says toward the end of volume 1, going on to praise especially that element not generally associated with the telling of a life: "Digressions … are the sun-shine;—they are the life, the soul of reading;—take them out of this book for instance,—you might as well take the book along with them" (1: 81).15 This celebration of digression notwithstanding, it is immediately apparent that Tristram finds maintaining a balance between the two movements of his narrative quite difficult. Sometimes, he explains, the author of such a work as his is thrown into a "distress … truely pitiable" in his effort to control his text: "For, if he begins a digression,—from that moment, I observe, his whole work stands stock-still;—and if he goes on with his main work,—then there is an end of his digression" (1: 81). Still, Tristram sees himself as the skillful builder and operator of a narrative mechanism: "From the beginning, … you see, I have constructed the main work and the adventitious parts of it with such intersections, and have so complicated and involved the digressive and progressive movements, one wheel within another, that the whole machine, in general, has been kept a-going;—and, what's more, it shall be kept a-going these forty years, if it pleases the fountain of health to bless me so long with life and good spirits" (1: 81-82).

Although Tristram himself employs the metaphor of machinery to describe his narrative, he objects to any mechanistic tendencies his readers might evidence. He mocks their attention to form: "And what of this new book the whole world makes such a rout about?—Oh! 'tis out of all plumb, my Lord,—quite an irregular thing!—not one of the angles at the four corners was a right angle.—I had my rule and compasses, &c. my Lord, in my pocket.—Excellent critic!" (1: 213). The passage perhaps grows out of the actual response to the work, for a principal animadversion in early reviews of the novel has to do with the very quality on which Tristram prides himself. William Kenrick, for example, observes that Tristram's "historical Readers … are not a little apprehensive he may, some time or other, give them the slip in good earnest, and leave the work before his story be finished" (471). Kenrick recommends that Tristram pay "a little more regard to going straight forward, lest the generality of his Readers, despairing of ever seeing the end of their journey, should tire, and leave him to jog on by himself (471 n. 1).16 Tristram makes it clear, however, that such forward movement is neither natural nor inevitable. In telling "a story worth the hearing," an author makes choices. There are no rules, Tristram suggests in his address to the "Powers" of storytelling. In constructing a tale, "mortal man" does not know "where he is to begin it,—and where he is to end it,—what he is to put into it,—and what he is to leave out,—how much of it he is to cast into shade,—and whereabouts he is to throw his light!" (1: 244). Such confusion is true of Tristram and all "biographical freebooters." Tristram exposes what the others disguise with their seamless constructions, that is, the arbitrariness of the narratives they write: "A sudden impulse comes across me—drop the curtain, Shandy—I drop it—Strike a line here across the paper, Trisltram—I strike it—and hey for a new chapter!" (1: 336). In this sense, digression is akin to sudden insight, though the revelation concerns, not the order of the authoritative, but the chaos of the tentative.

In the beginning, Tristram's digressive imagination provides him a source of freedom, but by volume 5, the situation has changed. His digressions are no longer the result of the whimsy or curiosity of the present moment; rather, they are the result of the obligatory contracts he made with the reader in the whimsy or curiosity of the past.17 They are, moreover, subjects about which he has become self-conscious since the time he first mentioned them. Now, he worries, whiskers, chambermaids, and buttonholes are inappropriate topics for the readership he has come to know: "I'm sorry I made it—'twas as inconsiderate a promise as ever entered a man's head—A chapter upon whiskers! alas! the world will not bear it—'tis a delicate world—but I knew not of what mettle it was made—nor had I ever seen the underwritten fragment; otherwise, as surely as noses are noses, and whiskers are whiskers still; (let the world say what it will to the contrary) so surely would I have steered clear of this dangerous chapter" (1: 409). Still, there is the matter of Tristram's "small account … with the reader," his promises, his "book-debts" (1: 433-34). Further, there is Sterne's need to complete his satire. It is thus that chapter 7 of book 5 comes to replace the promised digression on chambermaids and buttonholes. Though Tristram says it "is nothing, an't please your reverences, but a chapter of chamber-maids, green-gowns, and old hats," it suggests much about the relationship between readers, misreaders, narrative convention, and identity (1: 434).18

The chapter begins with Obadiah's announcement to the Shandy servants that "my young master in London is dead!" (1: 429). Susannah's mind turns first to the thought of Mrs. Shandy's "green sattin nightgown," and then, as she imagines for her mistress a period of mourning followed by her own death from sorrow, to the thought of the rest of the wardrobe: "What a procession! her red damask,—her orange-tawny,—her white and yellow lutestrings,—her brown taffata,—her bone-laced caps, her bed-gowns, and comfortable under-petticoats.—Not a rag was left behind" (1: 430). The other characters are equally hobbyhorsical—Obadiah thinking of the ox-moor, the coachman of the last time he had driven poor Bobby.19 The reactions prompted by the report are in fact simply variations on that of the "fat foolish scullion," who remarks, to Obadiah's reiterated "he is certainly dead," "So am not I" (1: 430). It is Trim who manages to focus the servants' attention on the universality of Bobby's fate. Imitating the posture in which he had read Yorick's sermon on the abuses of conscience, he drops his hat in physicalization of his response to Obadiah's news: "'Are we not here now; … and are we not … gone! in a moment?"' (1: 432). As Tristram observes, "Nothing could have expressed the sentiment of mortality, of which it was the type and fore-runner, like it,—his hand seemed to vanish from under it,—it fell dead," as bodies do (1: 432).

Sigurd Burckhardt's argument that "gravity" is "the law of the novel" recognizes that Tristram Shandy sets up a metaphoric equivalence between words, engines, narrative, self-consciousness—all the tools of human existence (70). Words, like "green gowns" and "old hats," have a tendency to turn into bawdy; engines, like bridges, forceps, window sashes, and squirts, are inclined to fail; narrative, especially Tristram's, tends to disintegrate; self-consciousness quickly becomes paralysis and shame. Gravity, in other words, characterizes mortal life, and even the devices created by human beings to raise themselves above the condition of mere physicality are, because human, subject to its laws. This characteristic of any human endeavor is precisely that of which Tristram speaks in his response to Bobby's death, Trim's emblem, and Susannah's tears: "We are not stocks and stones … nor are we angels … but men cloathed with bodies, and governed by our imaginations;—and what a junketting piece of work of it there is, betwixt these and our seven senses, especially some of them, for my own part, I own it, I am ashamed to confess" (1: 431-32).20 Of the senses, Tristram, like Locke, privileges the eye, but as an engine of revelation that leads to spiritual insight rather than a tool of sensory perception. It has, he maintains, "quickest commerce with the soul," leaving "something more inexpressible upon the fancy, than words can either convey—or sometimes get rid of (1: 432).

Tristram asserts that the proper understanding of Trim's "eloquence" is necessary to "the preservation of our constitution in church and state,—and possibly the preservation of the whole world" (1: 431); clearly he, or at least Sterne, means that recognition of human mortality, fallibility, and imperfection is requisite to spiritual survival.21 But what Tristram also implies, I think, is the importance of the momentary as a suggestion of the ineffable, the inexpressible spark of divinity that resides in the corporeal form. His apostrophe at the end of the chapter is addressed to "ye who govern this mighty world … with the engines of eloquence, … ye who wind and turn the passions, … ye … who drive, … ye also who are driven"; and his charge is to "meditate … upon Trim's hat"—not simply its physicality as emblem of mortality, but also its efficacy as purveyor of sudden spiritual insight (1: 433). Trim's hat is the revelation of the unexpected, not the flattering portrait of sequential narrative.

The purpose of human existence, Sterne holds, is to acknowledge, not to deny, mortality. As Trim explains to Obadiah, Susannah, Jonathan the coachman, and the fat scullion, the best way to deal with Death is to face him: "The man who flies, is in ten times more danger than the man who marches up into his jaws" (1: 436). While Trim seems to mean that death is more likely to attend the cowardly than the brave, Tristram's ensuing experiences suggest another level of meaning: the narrative structure itself—the straightforward, progressive story, in its semblance of sequence and of wholeness—is nothing more than a denial of Death.

In volume 4, Tristram notes the "strange state of affairs between the reader and myself caused by his narrative procedure: "I am this month one whole year older than I was this time twelve-month; and having got, as you perceive, almost into the middle of my fourth volume—and no farther than to my first day's life—'tis demonstrative that I have three hundred and sixty-four days more life to write just now, than when I first set out; so that instead of advancing, as a common writer, in my work with what I have been doing at it—on the contrary, I am just thrown so many volumes back" (1: 341). "I shall never overtake myself," he continues, "whipp'd and driven to the last pinch, at the worst I shall have one day the start of my pen" (1: 342). As he becomes more and more preoccupied with the pursuit of the narrative line, he subordinates all to the need to tell his story. In volume 6, we find, he is driven still by the urge for unity—"When a man is telling a story in the strange way I do mine, he is obliged continually to be going backwards and forwards to keep all tight together in the reader's fancy" (2: 557-58)—and the end of the volume finds him resisting the impulse to digress. He refuses to preface his discussion of Toby's amours with a definition of love, for, he says, "I can go on with my story intelligibly, with the help of the word itself (2: 564-65). There is something wistful in his continuing, "When I can get on no further,—and find myself entangled on all sides of this mystick labyrinth,—my Opinion will then come in, in course,—and lead me out" (2: 565); but he is so concentrating on the progressive narration of his life that he is simply unable to indulge the digressive fancy of his opinion, though he does leave a blank page on which, if he is so inclined, the reader can "paint to … [his] own mind" the picture of Uncle Toby's Widow Wadman (2: 566-67).

Following this discussion are the famous linear representations of the first five volumes of Tristram Shandy. They portray Tristram's celebration of the increasing flatness of his narrative line in a ludicrous physicalization by which we, as readers, are alerted to the dullness of narrative that follows a predictable course. Tristram exults: "From the end of Le Fever's episode, to the beginning of my uncle Toby's campaigns,—I have scarce stepped a yard out of my way," hoping that he may "go on with my uncle Toby's story, and my own, in a tolerable straight line, … turning neither to the right hand or to the left," following the "pathway for Christians," the "emblem of moral rectitude" (2: 570-72). Tristram hopes, in other words, that he can reach the narrative perfection that stands for human perfection. That he—or, that is, Sterne—wants us to doubt the validity of this approach, however, is suggested by the observation that the straight line is also the best line for a row of cabbages.

In volume 7, Tristram does literally what Sterne has suggested the straightforward narrative does figuratively: he pursues his path in a straight line. As William V. Holtz notes, this volume contains "the most chronologically direct and rapidly paced portion of Tristram's story, in which his meandering narrative mule is replaced by a post chaise and horses, and digressive freedom by progressive urgency." "Were he to diagram this volume," Holtz continues, "the line would be the straightest of any, especially in the earlier chapters" (131). But this holds true for only the first half of the volume, during Tristram's preoccupation with his escape from death.22 Motion, he says, disagreeing with Bishop Hall, is life, and the faster one goes, the more one is living and the less likely one is to encounter death. Movement, direct and swift, becomes everything to Tristram; he will stop for nothing: "I know no more of Calais, … than I do this moment of Grand Cairo; for it was dusky in the evening when I landed, and dark as pitch in the morning when I set out" (2: 580). Even a "rosy" young woman returning from her matins receives Tristram's rebuke for unwittingly catching his attention and tempting his delay: "How can you be so hard-hearted, MADAM, to arrest a poor traveller going along without molestation to any one" (2: 585). As the girl is out of earshot during the greater part of Tristram's speech, we can assume it is his own impulse to dally and digress that he is trying to fight here.

All of this urgency to move forward, however, results only in delay, for the post chaise breaks down repeatedly, and the feeling of delay even when it is moving, for "the precipitancy of a man's wishes hurries on his ideas ninety times faster than the vehicle he rides in" (2: 586). Now not just running from death, Tristram is also in pursuit of his ideas: they come tumbling out, one on top of another, without even the eccentric order of his usual reflection. As he moves "CRACK, crack—crack, crack—crack, crack" through Paris (2: 599), his mind jumps from the nasty streets, to the filthy wall, to the ship, to the lamps, soup, and salad; he will not pause to convey sustained thought of any sort:

No;—I cannot stop a moment to give you the character of the people—their genius—their manners—their customs—their laws—their religion—their government—their manufactures—their commerce—their finances, with all the resources and hidden springs which sustain them: qualified as I may be, by spending three days and two nights amongst them, and during all that time, making these things the entire subject of my enquiries and reflections—

Still—still I must away—the roads are paved—the posts are short—the days are long. (2: 604)

In effect, Tristram discovers, he has come a long way, but he does not know where he has been: "What a tract of country have I run! … There's FONTAINEBLEAU, and SENS, … and a score more upon the road to LYONS—and now I have run them over—I might as well talk to you of so many market-towns in the moon, as tell you one word about them" (2: 615). Finally, however, Tristram asks for his foolscap and attempts to reclaim his habit of digressive reflection. In Auxerre he is successful; about this city, he says, he could talk "forever," because he had been there once before with his father and Uncle Toby, and his father's reflections have furnished him "enough to say upon AUXERRE" (2: 617). This digression is a movement both away from the narrative line and away from self.

From this point on, volume 7 is as digressive as any of the preceding volumes. Tristram sells his post chaise and, inadvertently but significantly, sells his "remarks," too; he has a "conversation" with an ass who blocks his way, for "a minute is but a minute," after all, he says, "and if it saves a fellow creature a drubbing, it shall not be set down as ill-spent" (2: 630-31). He slows down, echoing Trim's sentiment in defiance of death: "Why," he asks, "should I fly him at this rate?" (2: 645).

As volume 7 concludes, we see Tristram crossing a plain in continuance of his journey, but here his movement is less frenzied, his spirit calmer; as in earlier volumes, he proceeds digressively. He stops and talks to those he meets, whomever they are, "beggars, pilgrims, fiddlers, fryars." He dances with a "sun-burnt daughter of Labour" (2: 648-49). But perhaps most significantly, he refuses to answer the question put to him by the commissary: "And who are you?" "Don't puzzle me," Tristram says before moving on. "In short," Tristram says, "by seizing every handle, of what size or shape soever, which chance held out to me in this journey—I turned my plain into a city" (2: 633, 648). Human life is not a straight line, Tristram finds. Although he ends volume 7 by vowing to "go on straight forwards, without digression or parenthesis, in my uncle Toby's amours" (2: 651), what he observes at the beginning of volume 8 is more to the point: "Notwithstanding all that has been said upon straight lines in sundry pages of my book—-I defy the best cabbage planter that ever existed … to go on cooly, critically, and canonically, planting his cabbages one by one, in straight lines, and stoical distances, especially if slits in petticoats are unsew'd up—without ever and anon straddling out, or sidling into some bastardly digression" (2: 655). In "Freeze-land" or "Fog-land," Tristram says, such a focus on progression might be feasible, but the names of these places suggest fixity and obscurity, not the "clear climate of fantasy and perspiration" that characterizes the imaginative corporeality that is the world of Tristram Shandy (2: 655).

The autobiographical narrative is, of course, a hobbyhorse, a "sporting little filly-folly which carries you out for the present hour—a maggot, a butterfly, a picture, a fiddle-stick—an uncle Toby's siege—or an any thing, which a man makes a shift to get a stride on, to canter it away from the cares and solicitudes of life" (2: 716).23 It is a story of self-justification, reflecting individual preoccupations; it is not to be taken for truth any more than Uncle Toby's reenactments of the Siege of Namur are to be taken for the battle itself. But narrative can serve truth. Sterne makes this point quite clearly by inserting his sermon "The Abuses of Conscience" in his novel.24 He further supports this idea in "Self-Knowledge," another sermon on a related topic.

In fact, to compare Swift's "On the Testimony of Conscience" and Sterne's "Abuses of Conscience" is to reveal a shared emphasis on self-knowledge. The sermons are generally parallel. Both Swift and Sterne understand conscience as "an Accuser and a Judge," discourage accepting what the world calls "honesty" or "morality" or "honor" as evidence of conscience, and conclude that, "unless Men are guided by the Advice and Judgment of a Conscience founded on Religion, they can give no Security that they will be either good Subjects, faithful Servants of the Publick, or honest in their mutual Dealings; since there is no other Tie thro' which the Pride, or Lust, or Avarice, or Ambition of Mankind will not certainly break one Time or other" (Swift, "Conscience" 158).

Yet in spite of Sterne's fundamental agreement with Swift as to the role of conscience and the need for standards of judgment grounded in sound training in the principles of religion, and in spite of Sterne's belief, shared by all the Scriblerians, that man is by nature flawed and that his inquiry into himself should reveal limitations, he feels that the stumbling block to such knowledge is less the failure to reflect than the failure to recognize reflexivity. The only significant difference between Sterne's "Self-Knowledge" and Swift's "The Difficulty of Knowing One's Self suggests as much. Swift tells the story of Hazael, who was sent to Elisha the prophet for news about the king of Syria's future health. While there, Hazael heard from the prophet another, more personal prediction: weeping, the prophet tells him, "I know all the Evil that thou wilt do unto the Children of Israel; their strong Holds wilt thou set on fire, and their young Men wilt thou slay with the Sword, and wilt dash their Children, and rip up their Women with Child" ("Difficulty" 349). Swift reports that "Hazael not knowing himself so well as the other did, was startled and amazed at the Relation, and would not believe it possible that a Man of his Temper could ever run out into such enormous Instances of Cruelty and Inhumanity" ("Difficulty" 349-50). Hazael's story illustrates, Swift says, the way "most Men … are wonderfully unacquainted with their own Temper and Disposition" ("Difficulty" 350).

Sterne mentions Hazael in his sermon, but only in passing. His biblical reference is to quite another story and is offered for a different end: to illustrate "the deceitfulness of the heart of man to itself ("Self-Knowledge" 53)—its active deception, not simply its ignorance. The prophet Nathan was sent to David to "bring him to a conviction of … [his sins], and touch his heart with a sense of guilt for what he had done against the honour and life of Uriah" ("Self-Knowledge" 58). The "direct road" to pointing out such defects to one who has them, Sterne has already told us, is "guarded on all sides by self-love, and consequently [is] very difficult to open access," so Nathan takes the route of other "public instructors" before him:

As they had not the strength to remove this flattering passion which stood in their way and blocked up all the passages to the heart, they endeavoured by stratagem to get beyond it, and by a skilful address, if possible, to deceive it. This gave rise to the early manner of conveying their instructions in parables, fables, and such sort of indirect applications, which, though they could not conquer this principle of self-love, yet often laid it asleep, or at least overreached it for a few moments, till a just judgment could be procured. ("Self-Knowledge" 57-58)

Nathan tells David a story, "not so parallel to David's as he supposed would awaken his suspicion, and prevent a patient and candid hearing, and yet not so void of resemblance in the main circumstances, as to fail of striking him when shown in a proper light" ("Self-Knowledge" 58-59). Upon hearing the story, David felt his anger "kindled at the man," thus enabling Nathan's closing comment, "Thou art the man," to provoke both recognition and remorse ("Self-Knowledge" 60, 62).25

The narrator's role is that of an instructor who provides a standard of judgment that results in a momentary awareness, a reevaluation—not prediction, as in Swift's exemplum, but interpretation. Narrative as a tool of indirection is used to dislocate the subject self from the object self. It is not a moment of consciousness but it precipitates one through disjunction, which necessitates a reflexive self-knowledge.

The interplay of author/narrator/reader is complex. It involves, on one level, the story of God/Nathan/David and, on another, Sterne/Yorick/reader, behind which, of course, is Sterne and his congregation. For Sterne, this kind of interplay was endlessly fascinating, emphasizing, as it does, the relationship between artistry and enlightenment. The task of a sermon writer or a storyteller, as Steme seems to have defined it, was to bring the listener/reader through revelation to self-knowledge. The moment of self-recognition is the significant moment of consciousness. The "Thou art the man!" moment occasions true self-knowledge. Opposed to that is the self-consciousness of self-justification, the overt attempt to interpret one's actions and thoughts to the advantage of self—the self-centered abuses of conscience, in other words. It is significant, I think, that in this sermon Sterne clearly delineates self-love as the primary impediment to true enlightenment, in contrast to Swift, who assigns equal status to sensual distractions, business, and unwillingness.

In Tristram Shandy Sterne depends on the reader's propensity to seek answers in the progression of narrative. Tristram explains: "My way is ever to point out to the curious, different tracks of investigation, to come at the first springs of the events I tell;—not with a pedantic Fescue,—or in the decisive Manner of Tacitus, who outwits himself and his reader;—but with the officious humility of a heart devoted to the assistance merely of the inquisitive;—to them I write,—and by them I shall be read" (1: 74). Through its very disconnection, Tristram's narrative teases readers into thought: they must piece together the chain of events for themselves, unjumbling Tristram's confusing chronology in search of a narrative line. The combination of complete disdain for the ordering of the tale and the scrupulousness apparent in the coherence of detail makes us aware that the narratives we write represent a learned response to the disorder of experience, a response learned, by and large, from novels, which have taught us to beg the question of spiritual identity in the search for narrative expression of the human life.26 As Donald R. Wehrs has put it, in the end, Sterne believes "the stories we can know and the stories we can become remain incomplete and equivocal" precisely because we are human and not divine (147).27 Our moment of insight, our recognition of the cheat of narrative, should occur at the end of the novel, when Mrs. Shandy unwittingly voices the question that has kept us reading Tristram's tale to this point: "L d! … What is all this story about?" In Yorick's response we have our answer and our enlightenment: "A COCK and a BULL, … and one of the best of its kind, I ever heard" (2: 809).

The jester is not so much a truth teller as one who points the way to truth. In the service of another (just as Yorick preaches by the authority of God), he is distinguished by an ability to perceive the disjunctions of his world and what they suggest about the enduring truth—the true narrative of man's fall and redemption through Christ—which is often ignored by the teller of coherent tales of self or of others. The jester's is no narratological consciousness formed by sensation and reflection. His is a moment's insight, impersonal and disconnected. For that reason, I think, Sterne found the persona both suitable and functional. The three lives of his sermon on the abuses of conscience witness his commitment to the truth it contained, his belief in the ability of that truth to transcend and even profit by the various contexts, and his desire to bring to the attention of his readers and followers the disjunction between himself, his various roles in life, and the truth he voiced by divine authority. He reveled in his celebrity, but in its comedy, its fundamental instability, not in anything it suggested about his importance or his ultimate identity. His adoption of both Yorick and Tristram as pseudonyms speak to the temporality of fame and the public mask, as does his lack of concern about the consistency of the personae.28 He donned each, however, to point us toward what he saw as the fundamental truth of human existence—mortality—and the fundamental truth of spiritual existence—immortality. In spite of the implications of narrative and of Lockean psychology, Sterne maintains that identity is finally a matter, not of proof, but of faith.


1 The relationship between putative author and reader in Tristram Shandy has been variously interpreted. Wayne C. Booth, for example, finds that the narrator's ambiguity and unreliability cast the burden of determining meaning onto the reader (Rhetoric 235-40). Howard Anderson, too, sees that the narrator is untrustworthy but feels that the novel nevertheless requires the reader's complete reliance on him. Helene Moglen finds that the subjectivity that isolates the novel's characters also ultimately separates the reader and Sterne (55-56). See also Hartley and Dowling.

2 Sterne asks our patience and trust in the first volume as well as the last: see Tristram Shandy 1: 9.

3 See Swift's "Difficulty of Knowing One's Self," Sterne's "Self-Knowledge," and the discussion below.

4 On Steme's response to and use of Locke's theory of perception in general, see Peter M. Briggs. Briggs argues that Steme "had little argument with Locke as to how cognitive processes worked, but placed different values on those workings," reversing Locke's valuation of reason over imagination (505). W. G. Day also notes Steme was no "committed disciple" of Locke (80). See also Maskell and Traugott 3-61.

5 Bakhtin refers specifically to Sterne's use of "lengthy and abstract discussions … [which have a] retarding function and interrupt the story at its most intense and tension-filled moment" (374). See also Dane's discussion of the antipoetics of Tristram Shandy (162-72).

6 See Shklovsky 57. On Tristram Shandy's parody of causality, see Iser 24-30.

7 See, for example, Brissendon; Lanham 50-51; Olshin; Graves; and Anderson. In dividing the large and complex body of Sterne studies into two broad camps, I am admittedly oversimplifying the arguments of his critics. Many (Olshin, for example) see the novel as advancing both an awareness of shortcomings and a human sympathy: as Olshin says, quite rightly, "Lifeaffirmation and cynical satire" can and do coexist (371). Ultimately, however, most analyses of Tristram Shandy emphasize either the novel's celebration of pleasure or its awareness of a longing these pleasures will not serve, though most also acknowledge the fact that both ideas are central to Tristram and to Steme.

8 In "Tristram Shandy and the Age That Begot Him," I made clear my support of this point of view.

9 The most persuasive of these critics are John Stedmond, Melvyn New, Sigurd Burckhardt, and, on Sentimental Journey, Kenneth MacLean. In discussing Sterne's attitude toward sympathy, MacLean invokes Adam Smith, who notes that sympathy is too often mere self-indulgence. As a side note, it is interesting that, while Swift ends his sermon "The Difficulty of Knowing One's Self by recommending the Golden Rule, Steme's sermon "Self-Knowledge" insists on daily self-examination in quiet and solitude, an examination that should yield awareness of "several irregularities and unsuspected passions" (67). Still, in Swift the focus is on neither a celebration of common weaknesses nor a patronizing regard for the unfortunate, but avoiding the censuring of others through the admission of one's own guilt.

10 In Sterne's Fiction and the Double Principle, his recent, provocative reading of Tristram Shandy, Jonathan Lamb recognizes the way the novel both exploits and explodes the notion of textual and individual completion; see especially chapter 4, "Narratives and Readings."

11 See Stedmond 49-54; New, Sterne as Satirist 53-69; and Cash, Early and Middle Years 278. For background on the intellectual milieu in which Memoirs was written, see Fox 96-117 and Kerby-Miller's note on the Scriblerians and the freethinkers (280-85).

12 As Kerby-Miller points out (197-98), these prognostics and analogies would be seen as evidence of pride and egoism.

13 Here Steme parodies the Clarke-Collins controversy, which Christopher Fox discusses as confronting the notion of a transient self (108).

14" The most remarkable evidence of this principle I have yet encountered occurs in Sarah Fielding's novel The Governess. The novel concerns nine young girls, most of them under twelve years of age, each of whom is called upon to instruct and entertain the others by relating "the History of her Life."

15 On the digressive structure of Tristram Shandy, see, among others, Hunter, "Response as Reformation"; Piper 31-46; Rosenblum; and Iser 71-82.

16 Kenrick's review appeared anonymously in the Monthly Review's 1759 appendix, and his sentiment was echoed privately by Horace Walpole in a 1760 letter to Sir David Dalrymple: "The great humour … consists in the whole narration always going backwards. I can conceive a man saying that it would be droll to write a book in that manner, but have no notion of his persevering in executing it" (473). Early readers and critics also objected to the novel's bawdy sense of humor and its specific satire: see Cash, Later Years 21-23, 32-37.

17 On the way the story grows "out of the reader's desire to know more," see Preston 153, 151-59.

18 And, of course, there are the salacious puns, as the Florida edition notes: "'To give a green gown' meant to 'tumble a woman on the grass,"' and "old hat" refers to the "'female pudend"' (Tristram Shandy 3: 358).

19 See Swearingen, who discusses this episode as revealing "the intentional arcs of different characters," their intersubjectivity (64).

20 The Florida edition notes in Tristram's speech an echo of Sterne's forty-third sermon (3: 356).

21 As the Florida edition notes, here Sterne echoes Thomas Sheridan (A DiscourseIntroductory to His Course of Lectures on Elocution), who placed great emphasis on oratory for the survival of church and state. Sterne's allusion in the context of a discussion of mortality has obviously a satirical intent (Tristram Shandy 3: 355-56).

22 On book 7 and Tristram's reclamation, see Columbus; Brienza; and Lamb 105-57, esp. 140, 149, 157.

23 This description is an echo of his early definition of the hobbyhorse (1: 12).

24 Kenrick calls the insertion of the sermon a "masterly" stroke by which "it will probably be read by many who would peruse a sermon in no other form" (472). On the sermon itself and its relationship to matters of canon, textual corruptibility, and truth, see Zimmerman and Brown, "Tristram." On the relationship of the sermon to the more specific limitation of self-judgment, see New, Sterne as Satirist 16-21; Cash, Sterne's Comedy 25-29; and Reed 159-60. Sander L. Gilman points out the veiled inclusion of another of Sterne's sermons, "Trust in God," in Walter's speech to Toby in volume 4, chapters 7-8 (Gilman 77-79).

25 See New, Sterne as Satirist 20-21.

26 On Sterne's scrupulous attention to the chronology of his tale, see Baird.

27 "Narrative," Wehrs maintains, "however artfully contrived, remains an all-too-human exertion," and he places Sterne within the skeptical tradition represented by Montaigne, Cervantes, Erasmus, and Rabelais (128, 130-42). For other studies that situate Tristram Shandy within the context of Sterne's religious belief, see New, "Exuberant Wit," and Harries.

28 Lamb argues that Sterne's use of the Tristram/Yorick personae was in effect his own self-creation, evidence of his "illusion that he was inhabiting his own text," indeed, becoming his own text, as Tristram does (82-83, 104). Ultimately, however, Lamb suggests that, in spite of "Sterne's growing weakness for reading himself into his fiction" (104), he, like Tristram, recognizes the peril of a "single, self-sufficient reading" (105). For a similar suggestion, see Preston 189-95. See also James; and Dussinger, who describes Yorick as a posture who never reveals his "real self (Discourse 17677).

Ann Jessie Van Sant (essay date 1993)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5910

SOURCE: "Locating Experience in the Body: The Man of Feeling," in her Eighteenth-Century Sensibility and the Novel: The Senses in Social Context, Cambridge University Press, 1993, pp. 98-115.

[In the following excerpt, Van Sant discusses A Sentimental Journey to support her argument that Sterne uses emotional sensibility as well as physical sensitivity as satirical devices to focus the readers' attentionsand intellectsupon themselves.]

The Abbe de Condillac's statue touches first itself and then the world and thus discovers the existence of each.' It is an epistemological rather than a psychological statue, and Condillac's real interest in his examination of touch lies in the recurring eighteenth-century epistemological problem of how to verify knowledge of what is outside the self. Self-discovery is a step toward discovery of the external. But Condillac's centralizing of touch in an epistemological context has a psychological parallel in Laurence Sterne's A Sentimental Journey. Yorick verifies himself by intensifying his experience in the structures of feeling. He situates himself so as to be touched by the world, and his story occurs in his own physiological landscape. In this chapter, I examine the body of the man of feeling and ask what happens when it becomes prominent in a report of experience. I argue that the body of sensibility, which leads to both sentimental and satiric reports on the world, is inherently parodic. Further, I suggest that despite definition by reference to a feminized standard of delicacy, this body is not a woman's body and could not become the sustained location of women's experience.

'Tis going, I own, like the Knight of the Woeful Countenance, in quest of melancholy adventures—but I know not how it is, but I am never so perfectly conscious of the existence of a soul within me, as when I am entangled in them.2

Though he travels in France, Yorick's "road," as Virginia Woolf says, is "often through his own mind, and his chief adventures … with the emotions of his own heart."3 And though he is a contemporary continental traveler, he is also a parodic knight. As he places himself, so' he belongs, in company with Don Quixote,4 notwithstanding the latter's sublime incapacity to turn the mind's eye inward and Yorick's incapacity to do otherwise. Both isolate themselves from public reality by having adventures in their own created worlds.

But unlike Don Quixote, who exteriorizes a private vision and has no powers of internalization, Yorick often interiorizes external event. His tendency to subordinate the world to his own "interpreting sensibility"5 looks back not only to Don Quixote's stylized encounters with a world continually interpreted into existence but also to spiritual autobiographers, for whom (as for Yorick) the external event is important not in itself, but as it figures in the internal landscape. As they looked inward to discover in their souls marks of sin and marks of grace, he discovers, to himself and to the reader, all his varied sensations: the workings of his heart, lungs, and nerves; his impoliteness, his dirty passions, and his tender sensibility. His extraordinary self-preoccupation is a mode of self-study.

Steme uses traditional narrative forms associated with the journey (romance, contemporary travelogue, spiritual autobiography), but his development of discrete episodes allows him to feature the activation of Yorick's sensibility. As much of the narrative of Clarissa is shaped by an investigative provocation, the narrative of A Sentimental Journey is shaped by isolable episodes of delicate stimulation. "I declare," declares Yorick, "that was I in a desert, I would find out wherewith in it to call forth my affections" (115). The world, from Dan to Beersheba, is an instrument for stirring his sensations. He goes on the road not to rescue widows and virgins but to watch them—and record his experience.

In his journey to see Maria, Yorick involves himself in the distress of the "disordered maid," in order to create a psychological event in himself. After experiencing "undescribable emotions" during the encounter with her, he can exclaim: "I am positive I have a soul; nor can all the books with which the materialists have pester'd the world ever convince me of the contrary" (271). Moving from the sight of suffering to the internal motions it activates, he is able to locate the operations of his soul and confirm its existence by entangling himself in her melancholy story. His observation is doubled.6 He looks at Maria in order to pity her, but the pitying response that he raises in himself becomes evidence in his own investigation. Sympathy for distress and an investigative approach to experience coincide in Steme's pathetic scenes.

Further, for Yorick, in quest of melancholy adventures means in search of exquisite sensations. Though Steme rather frequently separates his sentimentalism from concern with the body—"[M]y Journey," he writes, "shall make you cry as much as ever it made me laugh—or I'll give up the Business of sentimental writing—& write to the Body,"7—nevertheless, Yorick's adventures take place in a refined physiological interior. "I felt every vessel in my frame dilate" (68), he expansively reports as he experiences his imaginary benevolence just before colliding with the reality of Father Lorenzo, the mendicant monk. In A Sentimental Journey, not only is sensation the basic unit of experience; it replaces adventure as the basic unit of narrative.

By creating an interior landscape, Steme limits the scale of Yorick's adventures but extends fictional territory. "—What a large volume of adventures may be grasped within this little span of life by him who interests his heart in every thing … the pleasure of the experiment has kept my senses, and the best part of my blood awake, and laid the gross to sleep" (114). The most minuscule occurrence gains the status of an event. Only a character whose vibrations are worth reporting could have eighteen chapters of adventure in Calais, without even spending the night. And only in such a context could the varying pressure of a woman's hand provide material for a fully developed episode. So thoroughly reordered is the understanding of experience that an exchange of snuff boxes between strangers becomes an action in the largest sense.

With his adventures located in nerves, fibers, and blood vessels, Yorick has what we might call microsensation. The moment of friendship between the sentimental traveler and the monk achieves its importance as it causes reverberations in the nervous and circulatory systems of participants and readers. The resulting adjustment of attention to the events of physiology allows Sterne to give near-epic force to a sentimental exchange. Yorick and Father Lorenzo with their snuff boxes are, mutatis mutandis, Glaucus and Diomedes with their armor.

This miniaturization of experience is Steme's chief means of sentimentalizing Yorick's world.8 To see further the character of Sterne's miniaturized events, we can compare him with Robert Bums, who also arranges an unexpected and miniaturized point of view but does not depend on a sensationist psychology. Like Yorick, the poet's speaker notices ordinarily unremarkable objects and remarks. But the mountain daisy's significance rests on external reference: the daisy is analogous to, or an emblem of, the artless Maid, the simple Bard, and suffering worth. (Even the louse, whose tiny world briefly occupies full stage, gives way, in order for a moral to be drawn, to a reference point that belongs to our larger frame.) A temporary reordering of scale allows the featuring and reassertion of a value (a sentiment) already known and simply in need of revivification. Significance in Bums is derived from the comparison to which the miniaturizing strategy gives rise.

Though Steme and Bums were both interested in delicate perception, Bums's speaker is a keen observer while Yorick is a sensitive one. Bums's perceptual shifts, and thus his emotional attitudes, are intellectually rather than organically defined. Sterne's are both: his reordering of scale rests not simply and often not at all on the creation of a point of view for an object that ordinarily does not have a perceptible one,9 but on a redefinition of experience itself. The poet's speaker has a remarkable eye, Yorick a delicate set of nerves. The snuff box therefore achieves an absolute rather than a comparative significance.

Sensibility, as we can see in Yorick, translates the body into its own most delicate structures, producing for the man of feeling an intensified world. Though he probably would not have used Yorick as a confirming example, Hugh Blair, in a sermon on sensibility, delineates the condition of refined feeling:

Sensibility heightens, in general, the human powers, and is connected with acuteness in all our feelings … [The man of a virtuous sensibility] lives in a different sort of world from what the selfish man inhabits. He possesses a new sense,10 which enables him to behold objects which the selfish man cannot see.11

Heightened powers, acuteness of feeling: these special blessings mark not only a refined but an expansive world, one available to the man of sensibility because of his specialized body.

The separation of the man of sensibility from the ordinary world is not, however, always a sentimentalizing gesture. John Locke speculates in his Essay about the isolation and inconvenience that heightened perception would cause. Concerning the eye, he says, "[I]f that most instructive of our Senses, Seeing, were in any Mar 1000, or 100000 times more acute than it is now by the best Microscope … he would come nearer to the Discovery of the Texture and Motion of the minute Parts of corporeal things … But then he would be in a quite different World from other People: Nothing would appear the same to him, and others."12 Similarly, Samuel Johnson's illustrative quotation for microscope (from Richard Bentley's A Confutation of Atheism from the Structure and Origin of Human Bodies) shows that enhanced perceptual capacities would produce extreme discomfort: "If the eye were so acute as to rival the finest microscopes, and to discern the smallest hair upon the leg of a gnat, it would be a curse and not a blessing to us."13 In his sermon on sensibility, Blair uses the figure of microscope to describe the magnifying powers of the kind of perception that he called a "false species of sensibility." People overly "refined in all their sensations … produce disquiet and uneasiness, to all with whom they are connected": "In consequence of examining their friends with a microscopic eye, what to an ordinary observer would not be unpleasing, to them is grating and disgusting" (emphasis added).14 Microsensation can aggravate as well as enhance feeling. These writers use an image and deal with a theme that Pope made familiar in The Essay on Man:

Why has not Man a microscopic eye?
For this plain reason, Man is not a Fly.
Say what the use, were finer optics giv'n
T'inspect a mite, not comprehend the heav'n?
Or touch, if tremblingly alive all o'er,
To smart and agonize at ev'ry pore?
Pope, Essay on Man, Epistle 1, 11. 193-8."

The cultural fascination with the figure of the microscope preceded and followed widespread use of the term sensibility, but it was especially suitable as a metaphor for conveying the genetal heightening of sensory powers attributed to a more than ordinarily delicate physical structure. And because it suggests not only acuteness but disorder, it allowed a number of writers to convey the isolation and distortion that would result from such extraordinary sensory powers.

Matthew Bramble, in Tobias Smollett's Humphry Clinker, embodies the condition of over-refinement. Created "to smart and agonize at ev'ry pore," he is forced to see what others can overlook and to analyze a "compound of villainous smells" into its sources ("putrid gums"; "imposthumated lungs").16 He is what Frances Burney's Lady Louisa claims to be-"nerve all over."17 In his character, Smollett brings together the man of feeling and the man of humor, defining excess by acuteness of sensation rather than humoral imbalance. Bramble is, in other words, a traditional physiological character type with a new physiology. And appropriately for a character in a medically defined literary tradition, he reports his experience to his doctor—as if Smollett had accepted as a challenge Yorick's advice to Smelfungus: "You had better tell it, said I, to your physician" (118).

With his "morbid excess of sensation" (18), Bramble is what we might call a "touchy" man of feeling. As his nephew describes him, "He is as tender as a man without a skin; who cannot bear the slightest touch without flinching" (48). Registering experience directly on the nerves, he, even more than Yorick, has not so much a physical as a physiological body—and it determines the nature of his experience. Sensuality, for example, is generally out of his range. A man without skin runs few risks of the flesh. With "nerves of uncommon sensibility" (63), Smollett's character necessarily perceives the world as painful or repugnant.18 Bramble's experience, in fact, is rather like that caused by Gulliver's reduced size in Brobdingnag. For both Bramble and Gulliver, the fineness or delicacy of the sensory register magnifies all objects of sensation and renders them gross. What Swift accomplishes by physically relocating Gulliver in a land too large for his sensory receptors, Smollett achieves by making Bramble's sensory capacity too acute for London life. His body is created for satiric perception.

Delicacy of the nervous system does for all the senses what the microscope does for vision. And, thus, a refined sensibility can lead either to sentimental or to satiric report of experience. Pope treats heightened powers as a problem of disproportion and thus adopts a traditional satiric or moral stance, one that coincides with that expressed by Locke and Bentley. All three develop the disease, disorder, distortion range of possibilities for heightened sensory powers. In this view, over-refinement can be treated just as any other excess is treated. Smollett similarly exploits the image of disorder, but because he emphasizes touch, he creates a character who sometimes inhabits a sentimental world. On account of the pain he experiences through being touched by the world, his body can become an object of sympathy. Nevertheless, on the whole, Matthew Bramble, like Gulliver, has a fantastical body, suited to be an index of the world's or his own disorder.

Sterne's explorations raise different issues. Though often parodic, he is not a traditional satirist or moralist pointing to a standard of the mean or of proportion. Instead, his use of the body of sensibility shows that it is naturally at odds with itself. The ambiguous nature of the idea of sensibility, both in medical literature and the general culture, has received critical attention. Sensibility combines debility with refinement, "privilege" with "affliction."19 What I want to emphasize here is that the body itself is inherently contradictory; it is a parodic body.

It is, first, a physiological body. And, second, it is feminized. The physiological body both coincides with and runs counter to the feminized body. Women were, as a matter of medical observation, thought to have more delicate nervous systems than men.20 But in addition, delicacy and other idealizing terms—noble, ultimate, fine—had at. this time a technical status in physiology. Hermann Boerhaave explains that "we call a nerve that vessel which is the ultimate and most delicate."21 Albrecht von Haller calls nerve fluid "the noblest humour of the body"22 and uses the term "finer anatomy"23 to describe what is made visible by injections in blood vessels. Alongside a clinical and specialized scientific vocabulary describing the nervous system, then, is a range of terms that seem to suggest that the physiological body is, itself, in many instances a feminized body.

The coincidence between the physical structures of sensibility and a feminine standard of refinement arises in part because these structures were accessible only through microanalysis, which paradoxically became the basis for an imagined immateriality of the body. In a note in his edition of L 'Homme Machine, Aram Vartanian indicates the idealizing function of the microscope: "In laying bare for the first time the extremely complex structures of even the crudest organisms, the microscope had profoundly altered the scientific imagination of the period. As a result, matter seemed to lose much of its classic grossness and, in proportion to the anatomical perfections it displayed, became capable of functions which, owing to their apparent excellence, had traditionally been placed beyond the range of merely material factors."24 The microscopic size of these structures, together with their complexity, gave rise then to an idealized body.

This imagined immateriality of physical structures is crucial to an understanding of Sterne's use of sensibility. It must, for example, be the basis for Yorick's conviction that his smoothly functioning arteries constitute an argument against materialism. Though philosophically specious ("the most physical precieuse in France" could have used Yorick's evidence to support her own case),25 his claim is imaginatively persuasive. It is this understanding of sensibility that underlies the commonplace declarations that it is opposed to the material and sensual. To appreciate the transformation of physical structures, we can contrast to these delicate nerves and fibers the brain, which, although obviously central to medical research on the nervous system, never became part of the ordinary vocabulary of sensibility. This exclusion occurred partly because the heart was regularly substituted for the brain (in popular thinking, sensibility is located anatomically in a quasi-metaphorical heart and literal nerves), but partly because as a physical structure, the brain cannot be sufficiently refined.

But nerves and fibers do not always coincide with the feminized standard used in the general culture and in medicine to characterize the nervous system. These minute internal structures often call their own physicality into view. They literalize as well as etherialize the idea of the inner being. In his essay of 1747, Jerome Gaub, obviously fascinated by interior complexity, describes "neural man," which, he says,

is distributed throughout the entire body and so intermingled with each of its parts that if separated from these parts it could present a simulacrum or skeletal image of a man. Furthermore, this structure of nerves is no less animated from within by its motive power than it itself stirs up the rest of the body's inert mass throughout which it extends. In this sense it represents a kind of man within a man.26

This literal inner man—this clinical version of the man of sensibility—creates a tension with the idealized, feminized body that it underlies. This "embodied" tension defines a naturally parodic field.27

Sterne exploits the essential ambiguities of sensibility and thereby achieves the instability of tone that defines his fictional world. The parodic quality of Sterne's episodes often inheres in their delicacy. The miniaturization that arises from microsensation is not only refining but reductive. Minute perceptual Capacities simultaneously heighten and trivialize experience. More importantly, however, sensibility is a source of Steme's parody because the physiological body necessarily physicalizes experience. The nervous "simulacrum or skeletal image of a man" is continually present as Yorick reports his most delicate connections. The organic nature of experience accounts, then, not only for Steme's delicate intensity but also for its undermining. Yorick is an imaginary knight with real nerves. ("I knew not that contention could be rendered so sweet and pleasurable a thing to the nerves as I then felt it" [100]. "The pulsations of the arteries along my fingers pressing across hers, told her what was passing within me" [97].) The refinement of experience is at odds with the structures of its creation. Sensibility is thus the basis not only for Sterne's delicate sentiment but also for the mock-heroic reductiveness that runs counter to it.28 Sterne's imagination is fundamentally parodic. His parody of sensibility, however, derives not from some opposing idea but from sensibility itself, from its miniaturizing and physicalizing force.

The parodic tension inherent in the miniaturizing and physicalizing force of sensibility is made further complex by the sexual suggestiveness of refined contact. Delicate sexual impulse is part of sensibility's heightening of responses.29 Though Yorick feels his way across France, this sexualized experience, too, is countered by the physiological body on which it depends. Physiologically pathetic scenes are matched by physiologically sexual scenes. Carnality is as little likely to be an issue for Yorick as for Matthew Bramble. Yorick is a traveling nervous system whose tender experiences collapse in clinical parody. With his feminized and physiological body defining two extremes for which there is only a parodic resolution, he is isolated from ordinary physicality.

The body of sensibility creates a context for the central parodic juxtaposition in A Sentimental Journey: that between benevolence and impotence. With some frequency, Sterne announced that he was not, except in a minimal way, a sexual being. He claims that he was early on refined out of all form for "connubial bliss" and declares in a letter that he has not, since age thirty-nine, had any "commerce whatever with the sex, not even with [his] wife."30 Modern readers generally assume that such statements contain as much truth as wit and that Sterne's carefully cultivated reputation for impotence was deserved. What contemporary readers call "lust in disguise," seems as likely to be a form of undisguise.' Sterne has Yorick raise the idea of a refined sensuality only to deny his own powers. The sexual suggestiveness of the benevolent encounter with the lady is a false suggestiveness: "In a word, I felt benevolence for her; and resolv'd some way or other to throw in my mite of courtesy—if not of service" (95). The tender feeling is animated and mildly contaminated by the possibility that this parodic knight is also a parodic man and cannot throw in a mite of service.

The fusion of benevolence with a confession of impotence is further developed when Yorick, after a struggle between various prudential considerations and a desire to follow the lady to Brussels, rapturously outlines the pleasure he seeks from listening to her story:

[W]ith what a moral delight will it crown my journey, in sharing in the sickening incidents of a tale of misery told to me by such a sufferer? To see her weep! and though I cannot dry up the fountain of her tears, what an exquisite sensation is there still left, in wiping them away from off the cheeks of the first and fairest of women, as I'm sitting with my handkerchief in my hand in silence the whole night beside her (145-6).

The language of moral life has frequently absorbed expressions of desire. Isaac Barrow, in one of the sermons that R. S. Crane sees as a source for the man of feeling, calls the spiritual pleasure associated with beneficence "virtuous voluptuousness."32 But the term exquisite sensation cannot be altogether subordinated to the idea of moral delight. Yorick displays his own inactivity ("sitting with my handkerchief in my hand in silence the whole night beside her") in a way that makes his innocence less significant than his display of it. With actual physiology the usual territory of Yorick's experience, Sterne exploits the instability of the term sensation to create a collision of the moral, sexual, and physiological suggestiveness of sensibility. No resolution is possible, and readers remain at the juncture that creates parody and demands interpretation.

The same pattern is further developed in the scene with the grisset. Yorick uses here, alternately and in combination, emotional and organic ideas of the heart: the heart as center of passional and spiritual life, source of idealized love, on the one hand, and, on the other, the heart as the physical organ pumping blood through the body's envisioned physical structures. Extending the figurative value of the heart to include the physical function of its outerworks, Yorick implies that if one has a good heart, a good pulse will be the index of it: if you want to see the heart, feel the pulse. Sight has been thoroughly subordinated to touch, and the sentimental traveler has become a doctor, applying his forefingers to the woman's artery. Eugenius, the reader, and all the world look on—at an encounter that takes place between his nerves and her circulatory system. With experience transferred to interior physical structures and activity in the external world made secondary to the internal response it excites, stimulates, or provokes, it is the vibration that counts. Sexual activity located in the nervous system can occur only in an attenuated form. The two modes of interiorization—fantasy and monitoring of internal organs—are interdependent but jarring.

Through such a display of Yorick's internal operations, Sterne creates a complex relation with his readers, an analysis of which is implied in an aphorism by Goethe: Yorick "is a model in nothing and a guide and stimulator in everything."33 He is provocative. Made comic by the collision between romantic and physiological uses of the heart, the episode with the grisset shifts into a coy confirmation that we are watching a scene of substituted sexual pleasure: "Trust me, my dear Eugenius, I should have said, 'there are worse occupations in this world than feeling a woman's pulse.'—But a Grisset's! thou wouldst have said—and in an open shop! Yorick—" The word pulse not only creates a comic confusion of literal and metaphorical meanings, but by the end of the scene carries a further heightened suggestiveness. Through his dislocating use of intimacy and clinical encounter, Sterne forces readers to be both observer and observed. His presentation of Yorick's search for sensations makes psychologically possible the interior scrutiny that philosophers require their readers to adopt as a rhetorical stance for proper reading. That is, he initiates—as an unavoidable psychological process—a turning of the mind's eye inward.34 In Sterne's fiction, episodes that begin with observation take the attention to organic sensitivity, which, giving rise to parody, leads back to observation. As Locke wants his readers to locate the operations of the understanding, Sterne makes them locate the experiencing, affectable self—as a more persuasive object of attention than the mind's operations. Sterne's arrangement of Yorick's sensation seeking is, finally, intellectualized.…


1 For a discussion of the significance of touch in Condillac's statue's exploration of itself and the world, see Chapter 5 [of Ann Jessie Van Sant, Eighteenth-Century Sensibility and the Novel: The Senses in Social Context (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993)].

2 Laurence Sterne, A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy by Mr. Yorick, ed. Gardner D. Stout, Jr. (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1967), p. 270. All further references will be to this edition and will be included in the text. My reading of Sterne has been influenced, and my study aided, by the notes and discussion that appear in this edition.

3 Virginia Woolf, "Introduction" to the World's Classics edition of A Sentimental Journey (London: Oxford University Press, 1928), pp. viii-ix.

4 In his introduction, Stout refers to Yorick's "sentimental knight-errantry" and says, "Yorick's benevolent impulses are the counterpart, in an age of sensibility, to Don Quixote's chivalric ideals" (p. 44).

5 In Robert Burns and the Sentimental Era (Athens, Ga.: University of Georgia Press, 1985), Carol McGuirk discusses the central position that men of feeling give to themselves as they participate in pathetic scenes: "Sentimental novels following Steme, however, made the presence of an interpreting sensibility seem more important than the wretchedness described" (p. 5).

6 See Jean Jacques Mayoux ("Laurence Sterne," in Laurence Sterne, A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. John Traugott [Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1968]) for an analysis of sentimental "witnessing": "The witness is necessary to the sentimental scene" and "For as sadness wants solitude, so sentimentalism wants this grouping and this reciprocal witnessing" (111-12). Sterne arranges pathetic scenes in a traditional way, but he also fragments vision, thus bringing attention to the observer/reader's responses.

7Letters of Laurence Sterne, p. 401 (letter no. 219; Nov. 15, 1767).

8 That is, of investing common objects with momentary momentousness. See Alan Dugald McKillop's chapter on Sterne in The Early Masters of English Fiction (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1956), rpt. in Laurence Sterne, A Collection of Critical Essays, pp. 34-65. McKillop discusses Sterne's love for miniatures and his use of "the principle of the tremendous trifle" (49).

9 An exception is the desobligeant, "standing so many months unpitied in the corner of Mons. Dessein's coachyard" (87-8).

10 In declaring that the man of sensibility has a "new sense," Blair's models are the "moral sense" philosophers. His version of enhanced perception depends on an analogy to sense perception but is also related to organic sensitivity.

11 Hugh Blair, Sermons, III, 127. Blair goes on to characterize the experience of the man of sensibility: "At the same time his enjoyments are not of that kind which remain merely on the surface of the mind. They penetrate the heart. They enlarge and elevate, they refine and ennoble it" (127-8).

12 John Locke, An Essay on Human Understanding, p. 303 (II, xxiii, 12).

13 Samuel Johnson, A Dictionary of the English Language, microscope. The section of Bentley's work from which this material is taken is quoted by Marjorie Hope Nicolson ("The Microscope and English Imagination," in Science and Imagination [Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1956], p. 208). Bentley's work is A Confutation of Atheism from the Structure and Origin of Human Bodies, a Boyle lecture delivered in 1692, reprinted in Sermons Preached at Boyle's Lectures … By Richard Bentley, ed. Alexander Dyce (London, 1738).

14 Blair, Sermons, III, 127, 129.

15 Alexander Pope, Essay on Man. The Twickenham Edition of the Poems of Alexander Pope, Vol. III-1, ed. Maynard Mack (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1951), pp. 36-8. In the notes to lines 193-206, Mack refers to a number of works that emphasized the suitability of human perceptual powers for the world of perception. Magnification, though an enhancement of visual power, would amount to a disorder.

16 Tobias Smollett, Humphry Clinker, ed. James L. Thorson (New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1983), p. 62. All further references will be to this edition and will be included in the text.

17" Frances Burney, Evelina (New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1965), p. 267.

18 Matthew Bramble calls another character in the novel "thin-skinned" and thereby provides the OED with its first example of this term.

19 John Mullan, "Hypochondria and Hysteria: Sensibility and the Physicians," Eighteenth-Century Studies, vol. 25, no. 2 (1984), pp. 146, 148.

20 "Women," according to Robert Whytt, "in whom the nervous system is generally more moveable than in men, are more subject to nervous complaints, and have them in a higher degree." Whytt's Observations on the Nature, Causes, and Cure of those Disorders which are commonly called Nervous, Hypochondriac, or Hysteric, To which are prefixed some Remarks on the Sympathy of the Nerves, p. 540.

21 Lester S. King, Introduction to First Lines of Physiology by the Celebrated Baron Albertus Haller, trans. William Cullen. A reprint of the 1786 edition, The Sources of Science, No. 32 (New York and London: Johnson Reprint Corporation, 1966), p. xxvi.

22First Lines of Physiology, p. 223.

23Ibid., Introduction, p. xxxv.

24 Aram Vartanian, La Mettrie's L 'Homme Machine: A Study in the Origins of an Idea (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1960), p. 81. Karl Figlio ("Theories of Perception") quotes this section in a note. Figlio's argument runs the other way: that is, he is interested in the influence exerted on physiological investigation by non-medically-based ideas of the integrity of the mind. Vartanian, on the other hand, is interested in the fact that physiological micro-analysis influenced ordinary and philosophical ways of thinking about the body and mind.

Traces of the discussion of complexity can be found in various general essays. For example, the essayist who defined sensibility as a "peculiar structure" or "habitude of mind" (Monthly Magazine, 2 [1796], 706) refers to this issue, as does Frank Sayers (M.D.) in an essay called "Perception": "[I]t will be granted, I believe," he writes "that the mind, whether immaterial, or the result of organization, has certainly a wholeness or unity belonging to it." Disquisitions, Metaphysical and Literary (London, 1793), p. 64 (emphasis added).

25 In "The Sensorium in the World of 'A Sentimental Journey,"' John Dussinger also discusses this section of A Sentimental Journey: "Ironically, a physical precieuse in La Mettrie's camp could very well have called Yorick a machine and not at all be confounded by his vigorous emotionalism, which on the contrary reveals the very force of living matter from within" (pp. 9-10).

26 Rather, Mind and Body in Eighteenth Century Medicine, p. 64.

27 Spiritual autobiographers, too, imagined their experience in physiological terms and with a potentially comparable conflict between the anatomical details and the spiritual project. See Introduction for material quoted from Thomas Watson's Christian Soldier.

28 See McGuirk, Robert Burns and the Sentimental Era, p. 3 ff. for a discussion of Burns's mock-heroic quality. The phrase, as McGuirk points out, was used by Burns's brother.

29 See Brissenden, "The Sentimental Comedy: A Sentimental Journey" (in Virtue in Distress, p. 78) for a discussion of the correspondence between heightened moral and heightened sexual responsiveness.

30Letters of Laurence Sterne, p. 343 (letter no. 196, May [211, 1767).

31 There is much critical commentary on Sterne's impotence and his literary use of it. I am here interested in its physiological context.

32 "A man may be virtuously voluptuous, and a laudable epicure by doing much good; for to receive good, even in the judgment of Epicurus himself (the great patron of pleasure), is nowise so pleasant as to do it." Theological Works, 2. 225. Quoted by Crane in "Suggestions toward a Genealogy of the 'Man of Feeling,"' p. 228. Crane points out that Fielding approvingly quotes this passage.

33Sterne, The Critical Heritage, p. 434.

34 This is the task of a philosophical rhetorician. My general view of Sterne is very much influenced by John Traugott, both by his Tristram Shandy's World: Sterne's Philosophical Rhetoric (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1954) and by discussions with him.


Blair, Hugh. Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres, 2nd ed., 3 vols. London: Printed for W. Strahan; T. Cadell, in the Strand; and W. Creech, in Edinburgh, 1785.

——. Sermons, 3 vols. New York: Samuel Campbell, 1802.…

Brissenden, R. F. Virtue in Distress: Studies in the Novel of Sentiment from Richardson to Sade. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1974.…

Crane, R. S. "Suggestions toward a Genealogy of the 'Man of Feeling,"' ELH, 1 (1934), 205-30.…

Dussinger, John A. "The Sensorium in the World of 'A sentimental Journey,"' Ariel, 13 (1982), 3-16.…

Figlio, Karl. "Theories of Perception and the Physiology of Mind in the Late Eighteenth Century," History of Science, 12 (1975), 177-212.…

Haller, Albrecht von. "A Dissertation on the Sensible and Irritable Parts of Animals." Rpt. in The Bulletin of the Institute of the History of Medicine, 4 (1936), 651-99.…

Howes, Alan B., ed. Sterne, The Critical Heritage. London and Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1974.

——Yorick and the Critics: Sterne's Reputation in England, 1760-1868. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1958.…

Johnson, Samuel. Dictionary of the English Language. London, 1755.…

Locke, John. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, ed. Peter H. Nidditch. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979.…

McGuirk, Carol. Robert Burns and the Sentimental Era. Athens, Ga.: University of Georgia Press, 1985.…

Rather, L. J. Mind and Body in Eighteenth Century Medicine, a study based on Jerome Gaub's De regimine mentis. London: The Wellcome Historical Medical Library, 1965.…

Sterne, Laurence. Letters of Laurence Sterne, ed. Lewis P. Curtis. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1935, 1965.

——. The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, ed. Melvyn New and Joan New, 3 vols. Gainesville, Fla.: University of Florida Press, 1978.

——. The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, ed. James A. Work. Indianapolis and New York: Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1940.

——. A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy, ed. Gardner Stout. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1967.

——. The Sermons of Mr. Yorick, introd. and ed. Wilbur Cross, 2 vols. New York: J. F. Taylor & Co., 1904.

The Tatler, ed. Donald F. Bond, 3 vols. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987.…

Traugott, John. "Clarissa's Richardson: An Essay to Find the Reader," in English Literature in the Age of Disguise, ed. Maximillian Novak (Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press, 1977), pp. 157-208.

——. Laurence Sterne, A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. John Traugott. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1968.

——. Tristram Shandy's World: Sterne's Philosophical Rhetoric. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1954.…

Further Reading

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Hartley, Lodwick. Laurence Sterne in the Twentieth Century: An Essay and a Bibliography of Sternean Studies, 1900-1965. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1966, 189 p.

Annotated bibliography of biographical and critical works about Sterne and his writings that is aimed at students who are "not yet … thoroughly familiar" with Sterne's work.

——. Laurence Sterne: An Annotated Bibliography, 1965-1977, with An Introductory Essay-Review of the Scholarship. Boston: G. K. Hall and Co., 1978, 103 p.

Later version of Hartley's 1966 bibliography, updated to provide "an annotated list of Sternean studies for the most highly productive … period of this area of scholarship in the century."


Cash, Arthur H. Laurence Sterne: The Later Years. London: Methuen and Co., 1986, 390 p.

Covers the final eight years of Sterne's life, when Sterne had become famous as the writer of the first volumes of Tristram Shandy.

Howes, Alan B., ed. Sterne: The Critical Heritage. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1974, 488 p.

Literary biography of Steme's works, focusing on early public and professional reactions to his writings.

Shaw, Margaret R. B. Laurence Sterne: The Making of a Humorist, 1713-1762. London: The Richards Press, 1957, 274 p.

Examines the circumstances and events in Sterne's life which led to his writing Tristram Shandy.


Alter, Robert. "Tristram Shandy and the Game of Love." American Scholar 37, No. 2 (Spring 1968): 316-23.

Argues that Steme "gave sexuality a large role in his fiction both because … it play[s] a large role in our lives" and because he found it an apt metaphor for other aspects of the human condition.

Anderson, Howard. "Answers to the Author of Clarissa: Theme and Narrative Technique in Tom Jones and Tristram Shandy." Philological Quarterly 51, No. 4 (October 1972): 859-73.

Contrasts the isolated, misanthropic world of Richardson's Clarissa with the narrative-driven, social worlds of Fielding's Tom Jones and Sterne's Tristram Shandy.

Baker, Ernest A. "Sterne." In his The History of the English Novel, Vol. IV Intellectual Realism: From Richardson to Sterne, pp. 240-76. New York: Barnes and Noble, Inc., 1930.

Examines Sterne's work in light of his literary predecessors and with regard to his part in the sentimentalist of the eighteenth century.

Barnett, George L., ed. Eighteenth-Century British Novelists on the Novel. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1968, p.?

Provides eighteenth-century authors' assessments of their own works, including Sterne's humorous comments on the digressions in Tristram Shandy.

Battestin, Martin C. "Swift and Sterne: The Disturbance of Form." In his The Providence of Wit: Aspects of Form in Augustan Literature and the Arts, pp. 215-69. Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1974.

Discusses the ways in which Swift and Sterne focused on and made use of "chaos" in their writing.

Booth, Wayne C. "The Self-Conscious Narrator in Comic Fiction before Tristram Shandy." PMLA LXVII, No. 2 (March 1952): 163-85.

Argues that Steme's innovations in Tristram Shandy are not experiments in chaos, but in creating unity out of the chaos already explored by earlier writers.

Brady, Frank. "Tristram Shandy: Sexuality, Morality, and Sensibility." Eighteenth-Century Studies 4, No. I (Fall 1970): 41-56

Discusses Sterne's preoccupation with sex in Tristram Shandy, and argues that it is interconnected with religion and with the author's efforts to write "honestly" about human nature.

Conrad, Peter. Shandyism: The Character of Romantic Irony. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1978, 190 p.

Ranks Tristram Shandy within the artistic milieu of its period, arguing that this novel is a genuinely original work that deserves an important place in any study of the history of Romanticism.

Drew, Elizabeth A. "Laurence Steme: Tristram Shandy." In her The Novel: A Modern Guide to Fifteen English Masterpieces, pp. 75-94. New York: Dell Publishing Co., Inc., 1963.

Describes Sterne as a "forerunner" of modem novelists whose intention is to entertain both himself and his readers.

Holtz, William V. Image and Immortality: A Study of Tristram Shandy. Providence: Brown University Press, 1970, 175 p.

Examines Tristram Shandy from three perspectives: the tradition of literary pictorialism, the novel as an emerging genre, and Steme's own sensibility.

Howes, Alan B. Yorick and the Critics: Sterne's Reputation in England, 1760-1868. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1958, 186 p.

Traces the critical climate surrounding Sterne's work from the initial reviews of the first two volumes of Tristram Shandy in 1760 until the centenary of his death in 1868.

Jefferson, D. W. "Tristram Shandy and the Tradition of Learned Wit." Essays in Criticism 1, No. 3 (July 1951): 225-48.

Argues against the view that Tristram Shandy is merely chaotic and instead affirms that Sterne's novel possesses its own "artistic scheme" that adheres to some extent to "traditional form and thematic pattern."

Laird, John. "Shandean Philosophy." In his Philosophical Incursions into English Literature, pp. 74-91. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1946.

Discusses Sterne's humanistic philosophy as it unfolds in Tristram Shandy, A Sentimental Journey, and the Sermons.

Loveridge, Mark. Laurence Sterne and the Argument about Design. Totowa, NJ: Barnes and Noble Books, 1982, 242 P.

Examines Sterne's interest in narrative pattern, design and form in his novels. The critic considers contemporary influences on Tristram Shandy and comments on the influential nature of Sterne's novel in turn.

McKillop, Alan Dugald. "Laurence Sterne." In his The Early Masters of English Fiction, pp. 182-219. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1956.

Calls Sterne one of the great innovators of English literature. The chapter ofers an examination of the morality, humor, and narrative artistry of Tristram Shandy.

Muir, Edwin. "Laurence Sterne." In his Essays on Literature and Society, pp. 49-56. London: The Hogarth Press, 1949.

Praises Sterne's ability to probe his characters' minds while maintaining a sense of non-intrusive narration.

Paulson, Ronald. "Sterne: The Subversion of Satire." In his Satire and the Novel in Eighteenth-Century England, pp. 248-62. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1967.

Argues that Tristram Shandy is more of a satire of the novel form than a satiric novel.

Petrie, Graham. "Rhetoric as Fictional Technique in Tristram Shandy." Philological Quarterly XL VIII, No. 4 (October 1969): 479-94.

Discusses Sterne's use of traditional rhetorical devices in Tristram Shandy to develop character and structure narrative.

Priestley, J. B. "The Brothers Shandy." In his The English Comic Characters, pp. 128-57. New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1931.

Character studies of Uncle Toby and Walter Shandy.

Reid, Ben. "The Sad Hilarity of Sterne." The Virginia Quarterly Review 32, No. I (Winter 1956): 107-30.

Argues that the comic nature of Sterne's novels is firmly grounded in tragedy, and that like Shakespeare's characters, Sterne's characters approach unfortunate fates with dignity.

Rothstein, Eric. "Tristram Shandy." In his Systems of Order and Inquiry in Later Eighteenth-Century Fiction, pp. 62-108. Berkeley: University of Califomia Press, 1975.

Asserts that a "covert order," dependant on the value systems and feelings of human beings, accounts for the structure of Tristram Shandy.

Stevenson, John Allen. "Sterne: Comedian and Experimental Novelist." In The Columbia History of the British Novel, edited by John Richetti, pp. 154-80. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994.

Asserts that Sterne experimented with narrative form and novelistic convention in Tristram Shandy not "to revolutionize the novel … but to have fun with the conventions he saw hardening all around him."

Stout, Gardner D., Jr. "Yorick's Sentimental Journey: A Comic Pilgrim's Progress for the Man of Feeling." ELH 30, No. 4 (December 1963): 395-412.

Approaches A Sentimental Journey as an ostensibly paradoxical work which, when examined more closely, offers a unified vision of human existence through a fusion of sentimental and comic components.

Traugott, John. Tristram Shandy's World: Sterne's Philosophical Rhetoric. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1954, 167 p.

Sees Tristram Shandy as a work in which philosophical and rhetorical forms are used ironically to demonstrate that passion, not reason, is the basis of human behavior.

Woolf, Virginia. "The Sentimental Journey." In her The Common Reader, Second Series, pp. 78-85. London: The Hogarth Press, 1932.

Reprints Woolf s 1928 introduction to the World's Classics edition of A Sentimental Journey. Woolf discusses the novel's emphasis on pleasure in all aspects of life and commends the novel's "brilliant ease and beauty."

Additional coverage of Sterne's life and career is contained in the following sources published by The Gale Group: Literature Criticism from 1400-1800, Vol. 2, Contmporary Dictionary of British Literary Biography, 1660-1789, Dictionary of Literary Biogrpahy, Vol. 39, and DISCovering Authors.

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Laurence Sterne World Literature Analysis