A Sentimental Journey

by Laurence Sterne

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*Calais (ka-LAY). French port town on the English Channel, where Yorick lands after crossing from England. The author places travelers in various categories such as “Inquisitive” and “Splenetic.” Yorick himself wishes to be a “sentimental traveller.” He will experience the world without a jaundiced eye, and thereby learn more about himself than about the places he visits. It hardly concerns this type of traveler where he goes; it is the journey that matters.

Yorick has not entirely slipped into the sentimental mode when he first arrives in Calais. While dining at a local inn, he rudely dismisses a poor monk seeking alms. He quickly repents of his harsh treatment, however, and, through the rest of the novel treats people, from noblemen to beggars, with great interest and compassion. This is particularly true of the many women he encounters. Though Calais is Yorick’s first experience in a foreign country, he spends his entire time there flirting with a woman from Brussels. Time is largely irrelevant to the sentimental traveler. If one looks at everything around him with interest in his heart, he muses, “what a large volume of adventures may be grasped” within a single hour.


*Paris. French capital and obligatory stop on the grand tour of Europe. On the way to the great city, Yorick employs a manservant named La Fleur, a young Frenchman who is a sentimental traveler in his own right and who sees the world through his heart. When they arrive in Paris, Yorick makes a point of avoiding famous sites such as the Louvre, the Palais Royal, and galleries and churches. He believes that the “originals” of art are humankind and that all people are temples unto themselves. Sterne himself was a cleric, and Christian love for one’s neighbor, both charitable and physical, suffuses his traveler’s universe.

Eschewing the city’s traditional tourist spots, Yorick explores bookstores, millinery shops, and the comic opera. While his adventures routinely involve pretty young shop girls and chambermaids, he engages a wide variety of characters from all rungs of the social ladder. He is particularly taken by an old French military officer, who declares that the great advantage of a journey is that through seeing a great deal of human nature, one is taught mutual tolerance, and, by extension, mutual love. This is contrary to most eighteenth century travelogues, in which excessive description of locality is the norm.

After gaining entry into Parisian society, and establishing himself as a popular house guest, Yorick soon tires of the artificial milieu. He longs to return to people whose behavior is guided more by nature than by etiquette. Here, Sterne touches on the common literary dichotomy of city/artifice in opposition to country/nature. But, importantly, he shies away from overly simplistic qualitative judgments. The sentimental traveler sees both the good and the bad wherever he wanders.


*Versailles (ver-SI). Town on the outskirts of Paris that was the royal seat of France’s government during the eighteenth century. Tired of high society, Yorick decides to leave Paris. He is obliged, however, to get a passport or possibly face the unpleasantness of the great prison, the Bastille. He ponders the unhappy fate of captives and immediately sets out for Versailles to lobby a government official. Along the way, he pointedly remarks that there was nothing on the trip which interested him. Instead, he tells a story about a bird in a cage that is never able to gain its freedom, possibly referencing the barbarity of slavery. Imprisonment, then, is especially horrible because it deprives one of social interaction, not freedom of movement.


*Bourbonnois (bor-bo-NWAW)....

(This entire section contains 797 words.)

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Historic rural region in central France, also called Bourbonnais. Having acquired a passport, Yorick journeys into the countryside. He describes the Bourbonnois as one of the “sweetest” regions in France. It is harvest time, and the laughter and singing of workers in the field complete a bucolic picture of happiness. There, he meets a poor, country girl named Maria who has gone mad with grief over her father’s death. Yorick, in turn, is overcome with emotion for the girl, and thereby unable to enjoy his lovely surroundings. Again, there is no environment or location that affects the sentimental traveler more than the human condition he finds there.

Later, Yorick takes refuge at a peasant farmhouse where he is treated with great hospitality. Among these generous folk, he has found a home, if just for a few hours, because he has found hearts full of sentiment and goodness.

The novel abruptly ends in the middle of a delicate situation involving a chambermaid at a country inn. Ostensibly, Sterne died before he could complete the book. Alas, poor Yorick never reaches Italy. However, to a sentimental traveler, this failing scarcely matters.


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Brissenden, R. F. “The Sentimental Comedy: A Sentimental Journey.” In Virtue in Distress. London: Macmillan, 1974. Argues that the primary purpose of A Sentimental Journey is to show the inextricable if ironic link between human beings’ capacity for the social virtues of compassion and sympathy and their capacity for sexual responsiveness.

Cash, Arthur Hill. Sterne’s Comedy of Moral Sentiment: The Ethical Dimensions of the “Journey.” Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1966. Explores ethical rationalism by comparing A Sentimental Journey and “the comedy of moral problems” to Sterne’s The Sermons of Mr. Yorick (1760, 1766) and The Sermons by the Late Rev. Mr. Sterne (1769).

Howes, Alan B., ed. Sterne: The Critical Heritage. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1974. A thorough and well-organized compilation of criticism, acclaim, and accusations of plagiarism by Sterne’s contemporaries in response to the publication of A Sentimental Journey. Also discusses other works by Sterne.

Loveridge, Mark. Laurence Sterne and the Argument About Design. London: Macmillan, 1982. Explores Sterne’s use of pattern, design, and form, and places these concepts within the general cultural and literary context of his day. Chapter 7 deals exclusively with A Sentimental Journey.

Moglen, Helene. The Philosophical Irony of Laurence Sterne. Gainesville: The University Presses of Florida, 1975. Systematically discusses Sterne’s use of stylistic and thematic irony in relation to character, theme development, and thematic unity. Also explores the relevance of his novel to contemporary times.


Critical Essays