Laurence Sterne Sterne, Laurence

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(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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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...

(The entire section is 129,977 words.)