Laurence Sterne Sterne, Laurence - Essay


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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...

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Melvyn New (essay date 1969)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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...

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Richard A. Lanham (essay date 1973)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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...

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Susan G. Auty (essay date 1975)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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...

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Helene Moglen (essay date 1975)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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....

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James E. Swearingen (essay date 1977)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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...

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Martin C. Battestin (essay date 1978)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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...

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Michael Rosenblum (essay date 1978)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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...

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Arnold Weinstein (essay date 1981)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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...

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Howard Anderson (essay date 1985)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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,...

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David McNeil (essay date 1990)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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...

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Elizabeth Kraft (essay date 1992)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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...

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Ann Jessie Van Sant (essay date 1993)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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...

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Further Reading

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))


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...

(The entire section is 1309 words.)