A Sentimental Journey Summary
by Laurence Sterne

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A Sentimental Journey Summary

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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Twentieth century British novelist Virginia Woolf, commenting on the style of A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy, wrote:The very punctuation is that of speech, not writing, and brings the sound, the associations, of the speaking voice with it. The order of the ideas, their suddenness and irrelevancy, is more true to life than to literature. There is a privacy in this intercourse which allows things to slip out unreproved that would have been in doubtful taste had they been spoken in public. . . . We are as close to life as we can be.

These comments, which could apply to Tristram Shandy as well, underline Sterne’s relationship to the stream-of-consciousness style that Woolf, Irish novelist James Joyce, and others would develop and perfect a century and a half later. Sterne did not set out to develop a style, but in A Sentimental Journey the combination of urgent delight in the flight from morality and easy familiarity with a specific readership create the immediate and intimate style that Woolf describes.

In volume 7 of Tristram Shandy, Tristram recounts his trip through France to escape illness; A Sentimental Journey, in a similar vein, is Parson Yorick’s account of his travels. Sterne’s book is at once a response to contemporary travel books—Tobias Smollett’s had appeared two years before—that criticize the host culture and a burlesque of the Grand Tour of Europe that was a traditional part of a gentleman’s education. It is also a picaresque narrative in the tradition of the Spanish writer Miguel de Cervantes’s El ingenioso hidalgo don Quixote de la Mancha (1605, 1615; Don Quixote de la Mancha, 1612-1620), which Sterne greatly admired.

Sterne’s Yorick goes to France and Italy seeking understanding, with a heart open to the people and the places that he visits. There are still elements of satire, especially where the upper class and artistic elite are concerned, but Sterne is gentler and mellower, and Yorick’s travelogue comes directly from the heart. While A Sentimental Journey incorporates much material from Sterne’s own travels, it is a work of imagination, dependent on extrapolation and fancification of actual experience. Yorick is a humorous and sentimental man who delights in the lives of common people and finds himself in ridiculous postures under the influence of love, lust, and infatuation. Yorick’s narrative includes descriptions and catalogs of people and places and a wide variety of travel difficulties and accidents that imbue it with humor and pathos. In the end, Yorick is cast as a “man of feeling,” in true eighteenth century tradition. Sterne here brings to life The Sermons of Mr. Yorick, which his audience knew and loved well, and through the all-too-human observations and adventures of a sentimental journeyer, he further educates, edifies, and entertains.


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Mr. Yorick feels no kinship with all the different kinds of travelers—the Idle Travelers, the Inquisitive Travelers, the Travelers of Necessity, the Simple Travelers, and the rest. He is a Sentimental Traveler. As such, he collects sentimental adventures as other tourists collect postcards of the points of interest they visit. Mr. Yorick had started his journey because a man had asked him, with a sneer, if he had ever been in France. Yorick had just made some statement on the French and did not like being answered so tartly merely because he did not have firsthand experience. That same evening, he packed some clothes and left by boat for Calais.

While Yorick is having supper at an inn in Calais, a poor monk approaches him and begs alms for his monastery. Yorick rebuffs him with caustic and witty remarks. Later, Yorick sees the monk talking with an attractive woman who is also staying at the inn. Afraid the monk might tell her how rudely he has behaved, Yorick approaches the couple, apologizes to the monk, and offers his shell snuffbox to him as a peace offering. Now that Yorick has made friends with the monk and the lady, he plans to ask...

(The entire section is 1,914 words.)