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Alas, Poor Yorick!

The strange world of Sterne's Tristram Shandy

Tristram Shandy is a book which, famously, draws attention to the fact that it is a book; a novel which overturns all the conventions of the novel. Discussing the outlandish time scheme of the novel, it is common to point out that the hero does not get born until the fourth volume. But Sterne, or rather Tristram, does begin in the obvious place: the story starts with his own conception. The trouble with Tristram is that he can’t stick to the point.

But then, what is the point? What is relevant and what isn’t? If he is going to tell us about his conception, Tristram has to tell us something about his parents, and their household. And this leads on to the subject of hobby horses, those curious beasts which are ridden so relentlessly at Shandy Hall. Which leads us to flesh and blood horses such as Parson Yorick’s broken-down old nag. And of course one has to say something about Parson Yorick. And so on. Setting out to record his “life and opinions,” Tristram is incapable of keeping the narrative running in a straight line, and his book is a farrago of digressions and diversions, runnings forward and loopings back, not to mention odd or amusing stories it occurs to him to tell, which have nothing to do with his own life. At the beginning of his book (Vol. 1, Ch. 4) he announces that he shall confine himself to no man’s rules of writing. By Chapter 14 of his first volume Tristram begins to see that he may be in difficulties. But not to worry. His history, he declares, cannot be driven on like a mule. At this point he has been writing for six weeks and has not yet succeeded in getting himself born; but he has resolved not to hurry, and to go on at the same leisurely pace. This means, however, that he will never (as it were) catch up with himself.

“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 as 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 – and consequently, the more your worships read, the more your worships will have to read.

“Will this be good for your worships’ eyes?” (Vol. IV, Ch. 13)

In Vol. IX Tristram, who delights in digression, declares that when he gets to the next chapter he intends to digress. However, as he is not yet ready to digress, he has the present chapter to fill up as he pleases. He looks forward to the digression as to an especial pleasure. But the next chapter is a disappointment:

“The fifteenth chapter is come at last; and brings nothing with it but a sad signature of “How our pleasure slips from under us in this world;”

“For in talking of my digression – I declare before heaven I have made it! What a strange creature is mortal man! …” (IX, 15)

The book is the record of Tristram Shandy’s comic frustration as an autobiographer, and what we learn of his tale we learn in a sense in spite of the teller. The effect of such writing is of an interminable and unedited talk, but Tristram is not talking to himself, or does not imagine himself to be. On the contrary, he is always conscious of an audience, which he summons into reality in the book through his constant references to it. According to one critic, who has counted, this 600-page book contains roughly 350 direct addresses to the reader: “My Lord,” “Jenny,” “Madam,” “your worship,” “Julia,” “your reverences,” “gentry.”


Frequent chapters

But because we are looking at a book, and not really listening to Tristram Shandy talking, Sterne’s comic self-consciousness also leads him to stud his book with innumerable reminders of its status as a physical object. Leafing through Tristram Shandy, we notice at once the extraordinary frequency of chapter divisions. Some chapters are as short as three lines long (and some even entirely blank). In a novel such as Fielding’s Tom Jones, or indeed in almost any novel, division into chapters corresponds with the beginnings and ends of successive phases of the action. In non-fiction, chapter-division indicates the end of one phase of the argument or account that the author is presenting. Sterne’s chapters seem in contrast to be divided by no discernible principle other than that he feels like dividing them. (See his “chapter upon chapters,” IV. 10.)  Conventionally, the chapter-divisions in a novel, like mile-posts by the roadside, enforce the notion that as we read we are in some sense progressing on a journey; in Sterne, though of course each chapter must bring us closer to the end of the book, the notion of reading as a journey to some desired illumination, some satisfactory plenitude of knowledge, is undermined.

This effect is increased by Tristram’s continual promises to provide us with some supposed especial delight at some future point in our reading. For all that he digresses, there is also a great deal that he doesn’t have time for at the moment. When Uncle Toby begins a sentence with the words “I wish, Dr Slop –,” Tristram launches into a disquisition on the subject of wishing, purporting to show the danger of being visited by an unexpected wish. He declares: “This will be fully illustrated to the world in my chapter on wishes” (III.1). We shall wish in vain for that no doubt fascinating chapter. Dr Slop’s dilemma with his tightly-knotted instrument bag brings forth a promise for Tristram’s opinion on knots, his views concerning which, he tells us, “will come in more properly when I mention the catastrophe of my great uncle Mr Hammond Shandy” (III.10). We never hear of Mr Hammond Shandy again. As the book proceeds we are promised chapters on chambermaids and buttonholes (IV.14), sleep (IV.15), whiskers, and the right and wrong end of a woman. Since Sterne is not predictable, some of these chapters actually do appear, and indeed one of the running jokes in the book is Tristram’s anxiety that he should actually get round to writing all his promised chapters. There really is a chapter on whiskers (V.1), although the long-delayed chapter on chambermaids and buttonholes is at last replaced, with apologies, with the chapter on chambermaids, green gowns and old hats (V.8). In addition Tristram cannot forebear to make rash statements about what he will put in the twentieth volume, which we shall never get to read, as well as promising such delights as the full account of Poor Maria, a girl met with on his continental ramblings (IX.24) – who in fact appears only in Sterne’s subsequent novel, A Sentimental Journey – and indeed several entire books he intends to publish, including a full history of the wargames played by Uncle Toby and Trim, of which the present account, we are informed in Vol. VI, is but a “sketch” (VI.21). Like Swift’s narrator in A Tale of a Tub, Tristram gestures continually towards some ideal literary plenitude he can never actually provide.

Sterne is also like Swift in parodying other aspects of the conventional format of a book, including the Author’s Preface, which in Tristram’s book comes in the middle of the third volume (III.20), and the dedication. Tristram offers an all-purpose dedication for sale, to some suitable Duke, Marquis, Earl, Viscount, or Baron. He wants 50 guineas for it, which he thinks is a bargain, and advertises it in a special chapter midway through Volume One:

“Be pleased, my good lord, to order the sum to be paid into the hands of Mr Dodsley, for the benefit of the author; and in the next edition care shall be taken that this chapter be expunged, and your Lordship’s titles, distinctions, arms, and good actions, be placed at the front of the preceding chapter.” (I.9)

Sterne also resembles Swift in his parade of ludicrous learned quotations and footnotes, notably in the disquisition on Roman Catholic theories of baptism (I.20). Sterne here also attempts to disrupt the sequential course of reading in demanding of the female reader he addresses as “Madam” that she go back and read the previous chapter again, as she has obviously been inattentive.

Chapters also appear out of order. In Vol. IX, Chs. 18 and 19 are left blank, but the missing texts later turn up and are inserted after chapter 25. At another point in the novel, the page numbering jumps by ten pages where an entire chapter has supposedly been torn out (IV.23-5). The book is more perfect, says Tristram, without it.

Then there are Sterne’s famous disruptions not only of narrative flow but of the very typographical conventions of the book. The effect of these, it is usually said, is to confront us with the expressive inadequacy of print. Their effect is also like that of another common feature of books, namely illustrations. Sterne’s are rather like avant-garde paintings, two hundred years before their time, anti-illustrations which accompany the text and add to our understanding of it, not by depicting anything, but by depicting nothing. What words could commemorate more dramatically the death of Yorick than the celebrated black page? Sterne uses the gimmick again, with the marbled page, “motley emblem of my work” (III.36). There are numerous other tricks: strings of asterisks indicating omissions; entire lines comprising dashes; graphs purporting to set out diagrammatically the action of previous volumes (VI.40), not to mention Corporal Trim’s squiggly line which he draws on the ground with a stick as Uncle Toby goes to court the Widow Wadman (IX.4). As Tristram says, “A thousand of my father’s most subtle syllogisms could not have said more for celibacy.” And of course there is the blank page provided for us to draw our own impression of the Widow Wadman, whose beauty Tristram despairs of conveying (VI.37-38). We are free to imagine her for ourselves.

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Black page

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More than words


Asterisks, graphs

What is the point of all these bizarre devices?

Sterne is often discussed as if he set out deliberately to satirise the conventions of the novel form. This need not have been the case. In the canon of the novel, Sterne is an anomaly; but in a longer literary tradition he finds his place. The critic D. W. Jefferson located Sterne in a tradition of “learned wit”: see the article “Tristram Shandy and its Tradition” in the Penguin Guide to English Literature. This is a tradition which includes Swift as well as Rabelais and Robert Burton. François Rabelais, who lived in the first half of the sixteenth century, was the famously vulgar French humorist, author of the off-beat satire Gargantua and Pantagruel (1532-4); the English author Robert Burton wrote The Anatomy of Melancholy, published in 1621, an imitation medical textbook which is really a satire on human inadequacies and limitations. The influence of A Tale of a Tub, with its mad narrator whose story is constantly interrupted by digressions, and never gets finished in the end, is clear.

But if Sterne can be discussed in a tradition other than that of the novel, it is inevitable nevertheless that we see him as a novelist. His achievement is a novelist’s as Swift’s in A Tale of a Tub is not. Reading Sterne, we become involved with the absurd goings-on at Shandy Hall in a manner which only the best novelists can inspire; in Uncle Toby and Mr Shandy, Sterne created two of the great characters of English comic fiction.

Considering Sterne within the tradition of the novel, we can look at him in two ways: in relation to his precursors, and in relation to his successors. Sterne’s work need not have been designed to parody the novel, but of course it has that effect. Of the English novelists who preceded Sterne, the key figures were Defoe, Richardson, and Fielding. These three writers are so different as to suggest at once the difficulty of generalising airily about “the novel.” Yet each develops a significant aspect of fiction to a high degree of sophistication, and Sterne’s fiction could be seen to parody all these aspects. The novels of Defoe are fictitious autobiographies: Tristram Shandy also purports to be an autobiography, but reduces to absurdity the conventions of the form. The novels of Richardson are collections of letters, supposedly written in the heat of the psychological moment. The craziness of Tristram Shandy comes in part from the fact that it is a past-tense narrative actually written “to the moment” in Richardson’s terms, its form dictated by psychological impulse. Finally, Sterne’s disorder contrasts strikingly with Fielding’s order. Tristram Shandy, moreover, is like Tom Jones in being a book that makes blatant its status as a book, in which the narrator addresses the reader directly and reflects openly on his method of telling the story. But Fielding’s narrator is intended to convey a sense of an ordered universe, governed by a benevolent Providence; Fielding’s narrator is the God of his world, and is firmly in control of that world and its characters. Sterne’s would appear to have no control, even over himself.

In looking at Sterne as a sort of anti-novelist, whose work reflects ironically on that of other writers, inevitably the word “experimental” comes to mind. Not surprisingly, as long ago as the 1920s Tristram Shandy was seen as a forerunner of many of the celebrated experimental or avant-garde works then appearing: Joyce’s Ulysses, Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, The Counterfeiters by Andre Gide. In his book Aspects of the Novel, E. M. Forster compared Sterne with Virginia Woolf. The randomness of Sterne’s writing struck him as anticipating Woolf’s “stream of consciousness” technique. And there is something in this. Consider the key passage from Woolf’s famous 1925 essay, “Modern Fiction”:


Virginia Woolf

“Examine for a moment an ordinary mind on an ordinary day. The mind receives a myriad impressions – trivial, fantastic, evanescent or engraved with the sharpness of steel. From all sides they come, an incessant shower of innumerable atoms; and as they fall, as they shape themselves into the life of Monday or Tuesday, the accent falls differently from of old; the moment of importance came not here but there; so that, if a writer were a free man and not a slave, if he could write what he chose, not what he must, if he could base his work upon his own feeling and not upon convention, there would be no plot, no comedy, no tragedy, no love interest or catastrophe in the accepted style, and perhaps not a single button sewn on as the Bond Street tailors would have it. Life is not a series of gig-lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end.”

Woolf herself was interested in Sterne, and in 1928 wrote an introduction to the edition of A Sentimental Journey in the original World’s Classics series, in which she speaks highly of his method:

“… [T]he very punctuation is that of speech, not writing, and brings the sound, the associations, of the speaking voice in with it. The order of the ideas, their suddenness and irrelevancy, is more true to life than to literature … Under the influence of this extraordinary style the book becomes semi-transparent. The usual ceremonies and conventions which keep the reader and writer at arm’s length disappear. We are as close to life as we can be.”

It is part of Sterne’s fascination that he is so interesting to us in ways which appear wholly contemporary. If E. M. Forster, in 1927, could compare Sterne with Woolf, we might compare him equally well with later experimental novelists such as B.S. Johnson, who published a novel (The Unfortunates) in unbound sections which can be read in any order; the Nabokov of Pale Fire, supposedly a scholarly edition of a poem in which the mad editor’s footnotes overwhelm the text; or Italo Calvino, whose If On a Winter’s Night a Traveller is a novel consisting of successive beginnings of stories which are never completed.

The trouble with such comparisons is that they lift Sterne out of the context of his time; Sterne becomes a post-modernist experimentalist who accidentally happened to live over two hundred years ago. Though Sterne is unique, and bound considerably less by his time even than other major writers, to regard him as our contemporary is to miss the ways in which he is of his time. This is apparent in his dealings with quintessential eighteenth-century themes: reason; the feeling heart; the depredations of time; the transience of life; the imminence of death. Sterne, like Gray or Goldsmith, is very much part of that trend towards emotion, as opposed to reason, which characterises that literary mode which precedes and in many ways leads towards Romanticism: the “cult of sentiment” or “sensibility.” Sterne is profoundly, and centrally, a “sentimental” writer in the eighteenth-century sense of the term, one who explores and encourages the cultivation of feeling. (Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, in its depiction of two contrasted sisters – each of whom embodies one of the terms in the title – is perhaps the most famous statement of the conflict between “head” and “heart” and the ironies attendant on the cultivation of “sensibility.”)

It is easy to see that Sterne’s writing is bizarre; it is also important to see how appropriate this method is to describing his characters and situations. Logical, systematic thinking doesn’t come off well in the world of Tristram Shandy. We see this in the character of Tristram’s father, a retired businessman with vehemently held theories on various absurd subjects. These include theories on every aspect of having children – their conception and birth as well as upbringing. Fate, however, continually thwarts Mr Shandy’s theories.

Mr Shandy believes that the moment of conception is of vital importance in determining a child’s future development. Without a smooth transference to the mother of what is referred to in the book as the “homunculus,” the entire course of a child’s life could be jeopardised. Now as it happens, Mr Shandy is a man of very regular habits:

“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 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 backstairs head, with his own hands: – And being somewhere between fifty and sixty years of age, at the time I had been speaking of, – 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 pestered with them the rest of the month.” (I.4)

So it is that Tristram’s fate is sealed, when at the vital moment his mother interjects: “Pray, my dear, have you not forgot to wind up the clock?” In later years, contemplating his son’s inadequacies, Mr Shandy will often shake his head and reflect with a tear, “But alas!  My Tristram’s misfortunes began nine months before ever he came into this world” (I.3).

This does not prevent Mr Shandy wanting the best for his boy. So it is that he is concerned that his son’s head should not be unduly crushed during the process of delivery. From a Latin medical book Mr Shandy learns that in strong labour pains a woman may exert a pressure of some 470 pounds on her child’s head:

“… [It] so happened that, in 49 instances out of 50, the said head was compressed and moulded into the shape of an oblong conical piece of dough, such as a pastry-cook generally rolls up in order to make a pie of. – Good God! cried my father, what havoc and destruction must this make in the infinitely fine and tender texture of the cerebellum! [ … ] By heaven! cried he, the world is in a conspiracy to drive out what little wit God has given us [ … ]

“When my father was gone with this about a month, there was scarce a phenomenon of stupidity or of genius, which he could not readily resolve by it; – it accounted for the eldest son being the greatest blockhead in the family.” (II.19)

Mr Shandy begins to muse on Caesarean section, but since his wife turns pale on the one occasion he dares to mention it, he does not bring it up again. Still, medical science may nevertheless intervene in the birth, with its marvellous new technology of forceps. The theorist in Mr Shandy trusts to medical science more than to the traditional midwife; but, since his stubbornness also prevents him from taking his wife to London for her lying-in, “medical science” appears in this instance in the person of the incompetent country practitioner, Dr Slop. So it is that Tristram’s nose is crushed during his delivery by Dr Slop’s forceps. How unfortunate that Mr Shandy also has a theory on the importance of long noses (III.33).

Still, Mr Shandy always has another theory, and one of them is that a child’s character can be determined by his name. Some names seem to Mr Shandy to be quite innocuous – Jack, Dick, Tom and the like are what he calls “neutral names”; but of all the names in the world, the one most abominated by Mr Shandy is TRISTRAM. So strongly does Mr Shandy feel on this subject, indeed, that some years the birth of his son he has written an entire book devoted to the evils of the word “Tristram.”

But if Tristram is the most ignoble of names, there are also names that confer an inevitable distinction. One such name is TRISMEGISTUS. On learning of the fate of his son’s nose, Mr Shandy decides that only this splendid name can undo the damage. But the intended Trismegistus has to be christened sooner than expected. Susannah, the maid, rushes to Mr Shandy’s room to tell him that the child is in a fit and turning black, and may die at any moment. With the child on his arm, Yorick’s curate is waiting for the name. Mr Shandy must come at once. But Mr Shandy cannot find his breeches. He has to call out the name to Susannah:

“Trismegistus, said my father – But stay, – though art a leaky vessel, Susannah, added my father; canst thou carry Trismegistus in thy head, the length of the gallery without scattering? – Can I? cried Susannah, shutting the door in a huff. – If she can, I’ll be shot, said my father, bouncing out of bed in the dark, and groping for his breeches.

“Susannah ran with all speed along the gallery.

“My father made all possible speed to find his breeches.

“Susannah got the start, and kept it – ’Tis Tris – something, cried Susannah – There is no Christian name in the world, said the curate, beginning with Tris – but Tristram. Then ’tis Tristram-gistus, quoth Susannah.

“– There is no gistus to it, noodle! – ’tis my own name, replied the curate, dipping his hand, as he spoke into the bason – Tristram! said he, &c. &c. &c. &c. so Tristram was I called, and Tristram shall I be to the day of my death.” (IV.14)

The continual frustration of Mr Shandy’s theories has the effect of satirising his pretentions. But such satire in Sterne has about it an essential benevolence which makes it very different from the satire of Swift or Pope. The absurdities of Mr Shandy are, if anything, to be pitied rather than scorned. His theorising is an attempt to have control over life, to render life explicable and systematic. He is always comically defeated, his trust is reason shown to be misplaced. One might think that he would learn – but that Mr Shandy does not learn from his experience is his salvation. His life is a series of ludicrous disappointments, but Mr Shandy, not to be cast down, always bounces back with a new theory, a new enthusiasm.

Certainly there is something actively damaging and irresponsible in Mr Shandy’s behaviour. When the drama of his son’s birth is over, Mr Shandy is inspired to sit down and write a book on the proper upbringing of children: as Tristram explains, a “TRISTRA-paedia,” a “system of education” after the example of Xenophon (V.16). Mr Shandy never finishes the Tristrapaedia, but does spend upwards of three years on it, after which he thinks he has only done half the work. As Tristram says:

“… [T]he 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.” (V.16)

Tristram is growing faster than the book. Later the infamous window-sash incident, in which the infant Tristram’s foreskin is guillotined by the falling sash as he is relieving himself out of the window, seems to be of most interest to Mr Shandy in inspiring him to researches on the subject of circumcision. He reflects:

“… [I]f the Egyptians, – the Syrians, – the Phoenicians, – the Arabians, – the Cappadocians, – if the Colchi, and Troglodytes did it – if Solon and Pythagorus submitted, – what is Tristram? – Who am I, that I should fret or fume one moment about the matter?” (V.27)

The treatment of Tristram’s injury is therefore left to the discretion of Dr Slop – one gathers, with unenviable results: Dr Slop, says Tristram, “debased me to death” (VI.14). (It is often said that Tristram is “circumcised” by the window-sash. This is hardly likely or possible. The ends of his foreskin have been crushed together; hence Dr Slop’s remark “’Twill end in a phimosis” [V.39] – a condition in which the foreskin will not retract. If Tristram is circumcised, it is by Dr Slop in his attempts to prevent the phimosis – all we are told directly is that Slop “made ten thousand times more of [the] accident than there was any grounds for” and it is implied that rumours then circulated in the neighborhood that Master Shandy had been entirely unmanned [VI.14].)

When Mr Shandy hears the news of his eldest son’s death, he is inspired to deliver a long philosophical oration on mortality, complete with classical examples (V.3). By the end of it he has forgotten his dead son. In another writer, the purport of this might be to expose the vanity and hypocrisy of Mr Shandy; in Sterne, the admixture of sentiment with the satire becomes predominant. Mr Shandy inspires not contempt but compassion. The pain of life, Sterne suggests, is such that attempts to escape it are inevitable.

Mr Shandy’s absurd theorisings and intellectual enthusiasms are examples of those obsessive behaviours Tristram calls hobby horses (introduced in I.7, defined in VIII.31). The account of Uncle Toby’s hobby horse brings forth some of Sterne’s most inspired strokes. Uncle Toby is an old soldier who has been invalided, seriously wounded in the groin. Here we see yet another example of the male sexual injuries, incapacities or interruptions which feature repeatedly in the frustrated and frustrating world of Tristram Shandy. The character whom Sterne calls Phutatorious discovers the dangers of neglecting to do up his flies when a hot chestnut rolls off a table into the aperture (IV.27). In one of his asides to his “dear Jenny,” Tristram himself hints that he is impotent (VII.29) – hardly surprising after the window-sash business. The novel ends with Mr Shandy delivering an eloquent speech about sex, and how degrading it is, which is interrupted by the servant Obadiah with news that the Shandy’s stud bull cannot perform. “What is this story all about?” asks Mrs Shandy in the concluding lines of the book. “A cock and a bull,” says Yorick.

Uncle Toby, in the early days of his recovery, finds the pain of his injury relieved by telling his visitors how he received his wounds. This involves a full account of the siege of Namur. But here Uncle Toby encounters a typical Shandean dilemma:

“… 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 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.1)

The answer is to circumvent language. Uncle Toby first has the idea of procuring a large map of the town of Namur, its citadel and environs. It is his servant Corporal Trim, also significantly a wounded ex-soldier, who has the idea of moving from maps to models. At Uncle Toby’s country house, the bowling green at the end of the kitchen garden becomes the site on which Uncle Toby and Trim stage ever more detailed recreations of military actions. These come to take the form of wholly accurate enactments in miniature of the current campaigns of the Duke of Marlborough:

“When the town, with its works, was finished, my Uncle Toby and the corporal began to run their first parallel – not at random, or any how – but from the same points and distances the allies had begun to run theirs; and regulating their approaches and attacks, by the accounts my uncle Toby received from the daily papers, – they went on, during the whole siege, step by step with the allies.

“When the Duke of Marlborough made a lodgement, – my uncle Toby made a lodgement too. – And when the face of bastion was battered down, or a defence ruined, – the corporal took his mattock and did as much, – and so on; – gaining ground, and making themselves masters of the works one after another, till the town fell into their hands.

“To one who took pleasure in the happy state of others – there could not have been a greater sight in the world, than, as a post-morning, in which a practicable breach had been made by the Duke of Marlborough, in the main body of the place, – to have stood behind the horn-beam hedge, and observed the spirit with which my uncle Toby, with Trim behind him, sallied forth; – the one with the Gazette in his hand, – the other with a spade on his shoulder to execute the contents.” (VI.22)

Wounded, inadequate in the real world, Uncle Toby creates a model world in which he can retreat from his sufferings. His passion for accuracy comes at a price, as the cessation of the Duke of Marlborough’s campaigns must mean a cessation of Uncle Toby’s too. So he is left vulnerable to the charms of the Widow Wadman. When Mr Shandy, in one of his regular (and always regretted) outbursts against his brother, accuses Uncle Toby of wanting war, to see fellow creatures slain for the sake of his hobby horse, Uncle Toby enters on his one great speech in the novel, his “apologetical oration” (VI.32) in which he defends his obsession as a desire to see evil defeated. But of course the significance of his hobby horse is that it takes him into an imaginative world, a world all the more compelling for its sense of reality. Uncle Toby is a better, kinder man than Mr Shandy. Though fanatical about his hobby horse to the extent that any word with the merest military connotations sets him furiously riding it, Uncle Toby forgets his hobby horse when  called on to relieve the distresses of Le Fever (VI.6-10). Mr Shandy, clearly, thinks his brother is a fool, but Uncle Toby possesses the simplicity of a good and feeling heart. As Tristram says, “my uncle Toby had scarce a heart to retaliate upon a fly”:

“– Go – says he, one day at dinner, to an over-grown one which had buzzed about his nose, and tormented him cruelly all dinner-time, – and which after infinite attempts, he had caught at last, as it flew by him; – I’ll not hurt thee, says my uncle Toby, rising from his chair, and going across the room, with the fly in his hand, – 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 is surely wide enough to hold both thee and me.

“I was but ten years old when this happened; but whether it was, that the action itself was more in unison to my nerves at this age of pity, which instantly set my whole frame into one vibration of the most pleasurable sensation; – or how far the manner and expression of it might go towards it; – or in what degree, or by what secret magic, – a tone of voice and harmony of movement, attuned by mercy, might find a passage to my heart, I know not; – this I know, that the lesson of universal good-will then taught and imprinted by my uncle Toby, has never since been worn out of my mind: And though I would not depreciate what the study of Literae humaniores, at the university, have done for me in that respect, or discredit the other helps of an expensive education bestowed upon me, both at home and abroad since; – yet I often think that I owe half of my philanthropy to that one accidental impression.” (II.12)

Is this sentiment, or satire of sentiment? Possibly the latter, yet with Sterne it is not easy to say; and indeed rather than saying it is one or the other it may be as accurate to say that it is both. But Sterne’s work is filled with a profound tenderness born of his sense of the precariousness of life and the human lot. The shadow of mortality – of time, decay, dissolution and death – hangs over the world of Tristram Shandy. Sterne’s link between his hero’s conception and the winding of a clock has significance beyond that of a joke: from the beginning of our lives the seconds are ticking away. We are only twelve chapters into the book when the shadow of death falls literally across the page: “Alas, poor Yorick!” declares Tristram, and the next page is black. At the end of Vol. IV, which when the novel was published marked a break of a year before the next volumes would appear, the narrator raises the possibility that he may die before the next instalment: “I take my leave of you till this time twelve-month … unless this vile cough kills me in the meantime.” And Tristram inevitably will die before he has achieved the task he has set himself, to record every day of his life in the detail he has recorded the first. Death is overtaking him. Tristram’s European journey, which occupies Vol. VII, though inspired by Sterne’s own continental ramblings during the composition of the novel, is presented explicitly as a flight from death:

“… [H]ad not I better, Eugenius, fly for my life? ’Tis my advice, my dear Tristram, said Eugenius – 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 then to Joppa, and from Joppa to the world’s end; where, if he follows me, I pray God he may break his neck –” (VII.1)

Not only is death chasing us; there is a sense in the book that all life, in ‘the world’ as it is, is from the beginning ineradicably spoiled – fallen, if you will. This is the significance of the absurd accidents surrounding Tristram’s conception and birth. Dancing in a French field with a peasant girl met by the roadside, Tristram declares:

“– Why could I not live, and end my days thus? Just disposer of our joys and sorrows, cried I, why could not a man sit down in the lap of contentment here – and dance, and sing, and say his prayers, and go to heaven with this nut-brown maid?” (VII.43)

There can be no such contentment – because life above all is a process of decay:

“… 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.8)

But Sterne remains defiant. Like Uncle Toby’s hobby horse, Tristram’s narrative is a compensation for life, as his disquisition on the invigorating effects of “Shandeism” makes clear (IV.32). Yet it is also – and the paradox is only an apparent one – a celebration of life in defiance of death. It is rather as if the whole of Tristram’s narrative, in all its monstrous gratuitousness, is an act of stealing a march on death, which mocks, even as it records, the depredations of time. This explains why Sterne writes as he does. Death is an organising principle: organisation suggests structure; structure entails limitation. When we die, our lives are organised into coherent structures, with defined limits, clear outlines, beginnings and ends in their “natural” order. It is this structure that Sterne refuses to follow. This is why Sterne’s writing is so chaotic. This is why Sterne is always disrupting the “natural” flow of events. In the end, this flow will not be disrupted any more: Tristram, and Sterne, will die. But their book Tristram Shandy will remain – to swim, as its hero says, “down the gutter of time” (IX.8).

LS 2

Laurence Sterne, 1713-1768