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Laurence Sterne

Laurence Sterne

The British novelist Laurence Sterne (1713-1768) produced only two works of fiction, but he ranks as one of the major novelists of the 18th century because of his experiments with the structure and organization of the novel.

The English novel came of age in the 18th century. Daniel Defoe had contributed realistic detail in the 1720s; Samuel Richardson had showed the dramatic intensity inherent in the epistolary novel; Henry Fielding had combined the satirical portrayal of contemporary manners with elaborate and carefully worked-out plots. Laurence Sterne, however, published the single most idiosyncratic novel of the century, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy (1760-1767). The apparent plotlessness of Tristram Shandy, the endless digressions and wordplay, and the use of the narrator's psychological consciousness as the governing structure in the novel make Sterne unique among the early masters of the English novel and suggest a tie to the stream-of-consciousness novelists who appeared later.

Biography and Early Work

Sterne was born in Clonmel, Ireland, on Nov. 24, 1713, the son of an English army officer, Roger Sterne, and an Irish mother, Agnes. After spending his early years moving about with his father's regiment, he attended school in Yorkshire from 1723 to 1731. Sterne received a bachelor of arts degree from Jesus College, Cambridge, took orders in 1737, and in 1738 became the vicar at Sutton-in-the-Forest, near York, the first of several benefices in and near York that he held. His marriage to Elizabeth Lumley in 1741 proved unhappy.

In 1743 Sterne published his first verses, "The Unknown World, Verses Occasioned by Hearing a Pass-Bell," in the Gentleman's Magazine. But neither his verses nor his second work, A Political Romance (1759), later called The History of a Good Warm Watch, a work that had grown out of a quarrel with fellow clerics, had prepared the English reading audience for the first two volumes of Tristram Shandy, which were published early in 1760.

The enormous popularity of Sterne's unusual novel quickly made him a celebrity and gave him social access to the great houses of London and Bath. In 1762 the consumption that plagued his entire life forced him to abandon London society and to seek better health in France. During the last winter before his death, Sterne readied his A Sentimental Journey for the press and carried on a curious platonic affair with Mrs. Eliza Draper, the wife of a Bombay official in the East India Company. Sterne's letters to Mrs. Draper were collected in the Journal to Eliza.

Sterne's irascibility and bawdy humor were well known to his congregations and to the English public. His local reputation around York was based, at least in part, on his eccentric dress and habits, his mordant wit, and his fund of indecorous anecdotes. It is said that he preached sermons on brotherly love with unusual rancor and ill temper. He died in London on March 18, 1768.

Tristram Shandy

With the London publication of volumes 1 and 2 of Tristram Shandy on Jan. 1, 1760, Sterne was launched as a successful author. There were baffled readers, bored readers, and indignant readers, but as Sterne observed, even those who condemned the book bought it. Samuel Richardson found the work "too gross to be inflaming," and Horace Mann noted: "I don't understand it. It was probably the intention that nobody should." Within a few months, Sterne had become a literary lion in London. He admitted that he intended to publish additional volumes as part of the novel "as long as I live, 'tis, in fact, my hobbyhorse." Sterne published volumes 3-6 in 1761; volumes 7 and 8 appeared in 1765; and in 1767, not long before Sterne's death, volume 9 appeared. Although Dr. Samuel Johnson observed of Sterne's novel that "nothing odd will do long," it has survived both neglect and the attacks of critics, and it continues to please, puzzle, and attract more readers than any other 18th-century English novel.

The apparently chaotic structure and puzzling chronology of Tristram Shandy are easily clarified. For example, Tristram is born on Nov. 5, 1718; attends Jesus College, Cambridge; and begins his latest volume on or about Aug. 12, 1766. Parson Yorick dies in 1748. Sterne's intention, of course, was to experiment with the straight-forward chronological development of plot that had previously characterized English fiction. By dramatically scrambling chronological and psychological durations, he emphasized the dual nature of time, something to which an individual responds both by reason and by emotion. Despite the immediate confusions of the book, with its blank pages, marbled pages, squiggles, erudite references, footnotes, and puzzling time sequence (Tristram is not born until a third of the way through the work), the novel has an artistic structure of its own, a coherence that resides primarily in the character of Tristram, who holds together all of the elements of the novel, shifting his attention from character to character and from idea to idea. Influenced by the work of John Locke, Sterne concentrated less on the passage of time as the clock measures it than on mental time, in which events can move more or less quickly than clock time. Because the consciousness of the narrator is the unifying factor in the novel, Tristram Shandy can be considered a completed work.

The characters in Tristram Shandy deserve special note because of their idiosyncracies. Tristram himself seems so scatterbrained that he cannot organize his thoughts. He is quickly and easily diverted from whatever topic he is discussing to frequent digressions. While Mrs. Shandy, Obadiah, Susanna, and Dr. Slop never escape from actuality, "My Father" and Uncle Toby ride special "hobbyhorses." "My Father" believes that life should be presided over by theory, but he never troubles to see that life is so ordered. Indeed, life seems less important to him than the idea and contemplation of it. He propounds his theory of noses (the longer the better), of names (Tristram is the worst of all possible names), and of education (the Tristapedia) in the course of the novel. Although Uncle Toby is literally too sentimental to harm a fly, he is so obsessed with warfare, military campaigns, and battle strategy that he can regret that the Peace of Utrecht has ended war in Europe.

Tristram Shandy is bawdy, satiric, humorous, sentimental, filled with Sterne's extensive learning and crammed with footnotes and foreign languages. Much of the novel is made up of talk about Sterne's writing chores and his rhetorical relation to the reader. The book stands as a rich catalog of the possibilities of misunderstanding and confusion inherent in language.

A Sentimental Journey

Parson Yorick, who dies in Tristram Shandy, was habitually identified with Sterne, an identification that he himself promoted in 1760 and again in 1766 by publishing his sermons under the title The Sermons of Mr. Yorick. This identification is also apparent in the brief A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy (1768), a reworking of volume 7 of Tristram Shandy. In both works Parson Yorick is a whimsical, good-hearted, slightly daffy character. The Journey, employing typical Sternean techniques, follows Yorick on a tour through France and Italy punctuated with misadventures, sexual ploys, and the usual fill of digressions and abrupt shifts in topic and tone. Sterne's Sermons, from which he earned a considerable income, shows the development of a moral theory that is more imaginative than his orthodox religion and more complex as a philosophy.

Sterne's fiction exhibits his ability to give immediacy to a dialogue; to handle dramatic techniques with great skill; to capture idiom with delightful mimicry; to quote frequently—if not always accurately—from the Bible and William Shakespeare and other English authors; and to present his ideas with a witty indecision that charms the reader even as it goads his patience.

The small number of letters that form Sterne's correspondence exhibit his playfulness with language and provide an intensely personal view of him. Unfortunately, many of Sterne's letters were burned by John Botham or mutilated by Sterne's daughter, Lydia, before their first publication in 1775.

Further Reading

Two important biographical studies of Sterne are Wilbur L. Cross, The Life and Times of Laurence Sterne (1908; 3d rev. ed. 1929), and Lodwick Hartley, This Is Laurence (1943). Major critical studies of Tristram Shandy include John L. Traugott, Tristram Shandy's World: Sterne's Philosophical Rhetoric (1954); William B. Piper, Laurence Sterne (1966); Melvyn Nero, Laurence Sterne as Satirist (1969); and William Holtz, Image and Immortality: A Study of Tristram Shandy (1970). Lodwick Hartley, Laurence Sterne in the Twentieth Century: An Essay and a Bibliography of Sternean Studies, 1900-1965 (1966), is an indispensable review of Sterne scholarship. Valuable essays on Sterne's works are included in Dorothy Van Ghent, The English Novel: Form and Function (1953); Ian P. Watt, The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson and Fielding (1957); and Wayne C. Booth, The Rhetoric of Fiction (1961).

Additional Sources

Cash, Arthur H. (Arthur Hill), Laurence Sterne, the early & middle years, London; New York: Routledge, 1992.

Cash, Arthur H. (Arthur Hill), Laurence Sterne, the later years, London; New York: Routledge, 1992.

Connely, Willard, Laurence Sterne as Yorick, Westport, Conn.:Greenwood Press, 1979. □

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Sterne, Laurence (1713–1768)

STERNE, LAURENCE (17131768)

STERNE, LAURENCE (17131768), English novelist. Sterne is perhaps most famous as the author of Tristram Shandy (17591767), his serially published comic novel that propelled him from his quiet life as an Anglican clergyman in Yorkshire to the heart of London's literary society. The son of an infantry ensign, Sterne grew up living in army barracks in England and Ireland before attending school in Yorkshire at the age of ten. From there, Sterne went to Jesus College, Cambridge, and in 1738 took holy orders, obtaining a living (an endowed ecclesiastical position) at a country parish church near York with the help of his uncle, an influential church lawyer. His career in the ministry was made more lucrative when, in the 1740s, he was employed by his uncle to campaign on behalf of the Whig party in local county elections. In return for this, Sterne received ecclesiastical preferment, becoming a prebendary (recipient of a stipend given to a member of the clergy) of York Minster.

Marrying Elizabeth Lumley in 1741, Sterne added the living of Stillington to his ministerial duties and lived a relatively quiet life in Yorkshire until 1759, when he published his first imaginative prose, A Political Romance (also known as The History of a Good Warm Watch Coat ). This satire on local ecclesiastical courts included uncomplimentary and thinly veiled portraits of Minster clergy and was ordered by the archbishop of York to be burned.

In the same year, and with more success, Sterne also published the first two volumes of Tristram Shandy. This serialized novel tells the life story of its eponymous hero, beginning with the exact time of his conception, and including long, often absurd or bawdy, digressions about his family, especially his flamboyant father Walter and his soldier brother Toby. Volumes 3 and 4 were published in 1761, 7 and 8 in 1765, and the last volume, 9, in 1767. In the final volume, a conversation between Tristram's mother and the parson Yorick about Walter's bull seems to sum up the entire story inadvertently: "'L-d!' said my mother, 'what is all this story about?''A COCK and a BULL,' said Yorick'And one of the best of its kind I ever heard."' When Sterne visited London in 1759, shortly after the first two volumes had gone on sale, he discovered that his novel was an immediate success and had sold out at the booksellers. Declaring that he wrote "not [to] be fed, but to be Famous," Sterne nevertheless capitalized on his success with Tristram Shandy by persuading his London bookseller to publish a selection of his sermons in 1760.

With his literary reputation established and his financial position secure, in 1762 Sterne headed for France and Italy. For many years, Sterne's wife Elizabeth had suffered from mental illness (at her worst, she believed herself to be the queen of Bohemia); Sterne had suffered with consumption (tuberculosis) since his days at Cambridge, and the trip to Europe was hoped to be beneficial for both. Finally returning to London in 1767, Sterne began an affair with Elizabeth Draper, the wife of an official in the East India Company. When she was forced to move to India with her husband, Sterne began his Journal to Eliza (also called the Bramine's Journal ), which he kept for six months, and which was discovered in 1851. In 1768, Sterne published his next, and final, novel, A Sentimental Journey in France and Italy, which drew on his own experiences of touring in Europe and resurrected the impulsive parson, Yorick, from Tristram Shandy, as its protagonist. As with Tristram Shandy, which satirized the conventions of the contemporary "Life of . . ." narrative (or novel), A Sentimental Journey satirized the conventions of travel writing by claiming to be a journal of a grand tour (a tour of the Continent traditionally undertaken by young Englishmen) and "a quiet journey of the heart in pursuit of NATURE," with comic, and famously bawdy, encounters.

As the author of Tristram Shandy, Sterne is credited with being the originator of the "streamof-consciousness" novel, influencing modern authors Virginia Woolf and James Joyce in particular. Even in its day, this book was celebrated because it brought a new level of consciousness to the developing novel by satirizing the manipulation of fact for the purpose of fiction, and by casting comic doubt on the idea of capturing a life in writing. In his own life, Sterne also trod a fine line between fact and fiction, living in "Shandy Hall" and writing to friends under the name of "Yorick." A month after the publication of A Sentimental Journey, Sterne died in his lodgings in London; the Journal to Eliza was published for the first time in 1904.

See also Burney, Frances ; Defoe, Daniel ; English Literature and Language ; Fielding, Henry ; Richardson, Samuel ; Smollett, Tobias .

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Primary Sources

Sterne, Laurence. Letters of Laurence Sterne. Edited by Perry Lewis Curtis. Oxford, 1935.

. The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. Edited by Ian Campbell Ross. Oxford and New York, 1983; rev. ed., 2000.

. A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy with The Journal to Eliza and A Political Romance. Edited by Ian Jack. Oxford and New York, 1968; repr. 1984.

. The Sermons of Laurence Sterne. Edited by Melvyn News. 2 vols. Volumes 4 (text) and 5 (notes) of the Florida Edition of Laurence Sterne. Gainesville, Fla., 1996.

. Sterne's Memoirs: A Hitherto Unrecorded Holograph Now Brought to Light in Facsimile. Edited by Kenneth Monkman. Coxwold, U.K., 1985.

Secondary Sources

Basker, James G. Tobias Smollett: Critic and Journalist. Newark, N.J., 1988.

Loveridge, Mark. Laurence Sterne and the Argument about Design. London, 1988.

New, Melvyn. Critical Essays on Laurence Sterne. New York and London, 1998.

Ross, Ian Campbell. Laurence Sterne: A Life. Oxford and New York, 2001.

Alison Stenton

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Sterne, Laurence

Laurence Sterne (stûrn), 1713–68, English author, b. Ireland. Educated at Cambridge, he entered the Anglican church and was given the living of Sutton-in-the-Forest, Yorkshire, in 1738, where he remained until 1759. He came to London the following year and was a great social success. Unhappily married, he was involved with various women during his lifetime, most notably Mrs. Eliza Draper, for whom he wrote the Journal to Eliza (1767). He led a somewhat dissolute life and much of the time was plagued by ill health, dying finally of tuberculosis. In 1760 the first volume of his masterpiece Tristram Shandy appeared. Although it was denounced on moral and literary grounds by Dr. Johnson, Horace Walpole, and others, the book was a popular success and eight subsequent volumes followed (1761–67). As a result of his travels to the Continent (1762–66) he wrote, but left unfinished, A Sentimental Journey (1768). He also published in his lifetime several volumes of sermons. One of the most entertaining and original literary works in English, Tristram Shandy is, in a sense, a parody of a novel. It is a hodgepodge of character sketches, blank pages, dramatic action, transposed chapters, and various digressions. Sterne constantly obtrudes himself into the novel and is by turns witty, satiric, sentimental, knowledgeable, and obscene. Beneath this apparent chaos, however, is a structure based on the association of ideas. In Tristram Shandy Sterne enlarged the scope of the novel from the mere recording of external incidents to the depiction of a complex of internal impressions, thoughts, and feelings.

See the Shakespeare Head Press edition of his works (7 vol., 1926–27); his letters (ed. by L. P. Curtis, 1935); his memoirs ed. by D. Grant (1950); biographies by W. L. Cross (3d rev. ed. 1967), W. B. Piper (1965), D. Thomson (1973), and A. H. Cash (2 vol.,1975–86); studies by L. C. Hartley (1966), J. M. Stedmond (1967), J. Traugott, comp. (1968), and Valerie G. Myer (1984).

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Sterne, Laurence

Sterne, Laurence (1713–68). Novelist and humorist. Son of a low-ranking infantry officer but educated through a cousin's bounty at Jesus College, Cambridge, where he embraced Locke's philosophy and contracted tuberculosis, Sterne was ordained and collated to a Yorkshire living (1738). Voracious reader, moderately successful rural parson though a persistent philanderer, his satire on local ecclesiastical courts jeopardized preferment but encouraged him to entrust the parish to a curate and concentrate on writing. Tristram Shandy (1759) prompted both applause and abuse for its sentimentality and salaciousness, though, freeing the novel from straightforward narrative, it has since been seen as begetter of ‘stream-of-consciousness’ writing. Sterne revelled in the literary esteem and social notoriety he found in London, but was forced to forsake England briefly for France for health reasons, this providing material for his Sentimental Journey (1767). His corpse was exhumed by London resurrectionists but escaped dissection for secret reburial, being finally interred at Coxwold (his last Yorkshire living) in 1969.

A. S. Hargreaves

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Sterne, Laurence

Sterne, Laurence (1713–68) British novelist, b. Ireland. Sterne achieved immediate acclaim following the publication of the first two volumes of the novel Tristram Shandy (1760). Sterne's playful, anarchic experiments with form foreshadowed modernism. He adopted the persona of the parson in Tristram Shandy for The Sermons of Mr Yorick (1760–69), and his second novel, A Sentimental Journey (1768).

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Sterne, Laurence

Laurence Sterne

BORN: 1713, Clonmel, Ireland

DIED: 1768, London, England

NATIONALITY: Irish, British

GENRE: Fiction

MAJOR WORKS:
The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759–1767)
A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy (1768)

Overview

Laurence Sterne's enduring reputation as an author rests upon two works, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1760–1767) and A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy (1768), both of which were written and published during the last nine years of his life. During that time he was the recipient of excessive praise and the target of scathing criticism, heralded as a second François Rabelais, Miguel de Cervantes, or Jonathan Swift, but also condemned as an immoral hypocrite. Controversy continues about the precise nature of Sterne's contribution to English literature, but few scholars would deny him a place among the most important of eighteenth-century writers. It is Sterne more than any other author of that century whose work has seemed, time and again, of special interest to modern fiction writers as they experiment with realism, psychology, and “metacommentary” as the organizing principles of narrative.

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

Penniless Youth Sterne was born in Clonmel, in County Tipperary, Ireland. His English father made a poor living as a soldier in the army; his mother, a woman of Irish and French ancestry, was of a lower class than her husband, who apparently married her to settle a debt

with her father. Sterne spent much of his childhood moving with his family from one army barracks to another throughout England and Ireland, and his recollections of the military surroundings in which he grew up formed the basis for the characters of Uncle Toby and Corporal Trim in Tristram Shandy. In 1723, Sterne began attending a school in Halifax, Yorkshire, but when his father died penniless in 1731, he was forced to discontinue his education and live with relatives in Elvington, Yorkshire. Two years later his cousin arranged for him to enter Jesus College, Cambridge, as a sizar, which allowed Sterne to defray his 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”—has figured prominently in the Sterne legend as the site of boisterous drinking parties and of a library containing a notable collection of curiosa and erotic literature.

Life in the Church After receiving his bachelor's degree from Cambridge, Sterne was influenced by his uncle Jacques, a prominent churchman active in Whig politics, to enter the clergy. Sterne's decision to follow an ecclesiastic career resulted from his need to earn a living rather than from any sense of spiritual calling. He was ordained a deacon in 1736, a priest in 1738, and afterward received various appointments in Yorkshire. In 1741 Sterne was married to Elizabeth Lumley, who is described by Sterne's biographers as an unpleasant woman whose instability—she eventually became insane—was not improved by her husband's incessant philandering. Despite his lack of faithfulness, however, Sterne was not the cruel husband and parent once portrayed by his detractors. After his marriage was effectively dissolved in separation, which was actually initiated by Elizabeth rather than Sterne, he continued to provide for his wife and daughter.

From the time of his marriage until the publication of Tristram Shandy in 1759, Sterne lived for the most part the life of an average Yorkshire clergyman, although some of his activities—his extramarital affairs, his frequenting the society of Hall-Stevenson's “Demoniacs” at Crazy Castle, his lawful but self-serving acquisition of his parishioners' property, and his casual attitude toward the theological doctrines of his church—would by subsequent generations be considered extraordinary conduct, however common it was in Sterne's time. Prior to the composition of his masterpiece, Sterne's only works were the sermons in which he preached an abstract rather than specifically Christian morality, articles of political propaganda written at the instigation of his uncle Jacques, and A Political Romance (1759), a satirical allegory concerned with local church politics that indicates some of the humor and narrative flair of Sterne's major work.

Literary Celebrity Sterne was forty-six when the initial volumes of Tristram Shandy were published, and his fictional alter-ego Tristram vowed to produce two additional volumes each year for the remainder of his life. Although the novel received mixed reviews, readers of the time elevated both the book and its author to a phenomenal status of celebrity. A short while after the publication of Tristram Shandy, Sterne happened to be in London and found himself the center of a following that included aristocrats, members of fashionable society, and leading figures in the arts. His lively, amusing manner made him well liked, and his attendance at social affairs was eagerly sought. However, upon the discovery that the author of Tristram Shandy was a clergyman, Sterne was attacked in the English press, which complained that the slyly erotic and scatological humor of Sterne's novel was unacceptable coming from a man of the cloth. Nevertheless, with the appearance of subsequent volumes of his novel, Sterne retained much of his popularity, not only in England but throughout the rest of Europe as well. The social successes of London were repeated when Sterne visited Paris in 1762. A second visit to continental Europe in 1765 served as the material for A Sentimental Journey, a work which in its extreme subjectivity, emotionalism, and narrative verve is as striking a contrast to the literary travelogue as Tristram Shandy is to the realistic novel. During his remaining years, Sterne continued to compose installments of Tristram Shandy and wrote The Journal to Eliza (1904), a self-conscious record of his romance with a woman named Eliza Draper. Having suffered poor health since his youth, Sterne died of tuberculosis in London a few weeks after the publication of A Sentimental Journey.

LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES

Sterne's famous contemporaries include:

Voltaire (1694–1778): Born François-Marie Arouet, but better known by his pen name, Voltaire was one of the leading writers of the French Enlightenment. His thoughts on civil liberties, freedom of religion, and the ills of society were to prove highly influential on the leaders of both the French and American revolutions.

George Washington (1732–1799): The first president of the United States, Washington led the Continental Army during the American Revolution and is often described as the Father of His Country.

Frederick II of Prussia (1712–1786): Dubbed Frederick the Great for his spectacular military victories during the Seven Years' War, Frederick began the ascendancy of Prussia as a major power in Europe.

Adam Smith (1723–1790): Smith's views on economics, expressed in his book The Wealth of Nations, published in 1776, have formed the foundation of modern economic theory. His ideas on competition and self-interest promoting a healthy economy have long been used to defend free trade and capitalism.

Robert Burns (1759–1796): A writer known as “Scotland's favourite son,” Burns's poetry was written in Scots dialect as often as in English. He was both a cultural icon and inspiration to later Romantic poets and liberal thinkers.

Mary Wollstonecraft (1759–1797): British philosopher and feminist, her A Vindication of the Rights of Women argued that women were not naturally inferior to men, as was widely believed at the time.

Works in Literary Context

The Black Sheep of Eighteenth Century Literature Tristram Shandy is an unusual work by the literary standards of any period, but it particularly stands out 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, Sterne demonstrates in Tristram Shandy aspirations of an entirely different kind. His 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; his style is one of cultivated spontaneity and unpredictability, a series of digressions as opposed to the progressive movement of events common in the works of Sterne's contemporaries; and, perhaps most conspicuously, his narrator is concerned with relating his “Life and Opinions” rather than the more usual “Life and Adventures” of the eighteenth-century bildungsroman (coming-of-age tale), making the novel largely a plotless discourse on an encyclopedic array of subjects.

Unsentimental Journey Sterne's other major work, A Sentimental Journey, is a nonfiction memoir that conveys much the same sensibility as the fictional Tristram Shandy. An account of Sterne's travels in France and Italy, this memoir has as its central concern the subjective side of the author's experiences rather than the objective rendering of people and places, which is the more usual concern of the travel writer. V. S. Pritchett has written that “Sterne displays the egotist's universe: life is a personal dream,” an observation that is illustrated by the minute and self-conscious attention that Sterne pays to his own feelings in A Sentimental Journey. Sterne's preoccupation with feelings, especially those of tender pathos, led to his establishing the word “sentiment” as it is presently understood, giving connotations of heightened, somewhat artificial emotion to a term which previously had denoted “thought” and “moral reflection.” The deliberate courting and elaborate description of feeling in A Sentimental Journey also appears in Sterne's letters and his Journal to Eliza, provoking a major controversy in criticism of Sterne—the sincerity or pretense of both his personal writings and those written for a reading audience. As the issue of sincerity by its nature is restricted to the realm of individual opinion, critics have tended to praise or condemn Sterne to the extent that they believe in the truth of the feelings he describes. Modern critics have generally treated the question of Sterne's sincerity as a more subtle and complex matter than had been previously realized, attributing to him a facility for taking an ironic view of his most intense feelings or, as in Ernest Nevin Dilworth's The Unsentimental Journey of Lawrence Sterne, finding in his work a satirical mockery of sentiment.

Works in Critical Context

Perhaps the most important factor contributing to the controversies surrounding Sterne's work is his provocative and persuasive humor. Some critics have seen this quality of Sterne's writing as an end in itself, a viewpoint represented by Wilbur L. Cross, who contends that Sterne “was a humorist pure and simple, and nothing else.” Other critics, including those of the English Romantic movement and most modern commentators, perceive more profound motives underlying these works, with a number of recent studies contending 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 a 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, critics are now largely in agreement that Sterne is an exceptional case of an eighteenth-century writer whose works are particularly sympathetic with the concerns and temperament of twentieth-century readers.

COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE

The bildungsroman traces the growth and development of a single character, often from youth to old age. Tristram Shandy is just one classic bildungsroman story; here are some others.

Pamela (1740), a novel by Samuel Richardson. The first epistolary novel—that is, a novel told through a series of letters—this tale follows a young maid who resists her master's advances until he agrees to marry her. The success of the book led to many more such epistolary tales throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Tom Jones (1749), by Henry Fielding. After writing two parodies of Pamela, Fielding tried his hand at novel-writing (at the time a new form of storytelling); the resulting tale, which follows a boy in his growth to a successful young man, stands as one of the classics of eighteenth-century literature.

The Catcher in the Rye (1951), a novel by J. D. Salinger. This controversial tale of teenage discontent is an account by Holden Caulfield of life following his expulsion from a prep school at the age of sixteen.

Into the Wild (1996), a nonfiction work by Jon Krakauer. This book is an ultimately tragic account of a free-spirited, nature-loving young man who leaves his life and family behind in search of his own identity.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (2001), a film by Chris Columbus. Based on the first book of the bestselling Harry Potter series of novels by J. K. Rowling, this introductory tale follows young Harry as he begins his adventures at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman Tristram Shandy's uniqueness brought about its wide success during the 1760s, and the novel's universal appeal has enabled the work to overcome the disparagement of such important eighteenth-century authors as Samuel Johnson—whose comment on Sterne's novel was that “nothing odd will do long”—and to survive the outright loathing of such nineteenth-century figures as William Makepeace Thackeray.

William Kenrick wrote of the work and the author in 1759, “His characters are striking and singular, his observations shrewd and pertinent; and, making a few exceptions, his humour is easy and genuine.” By contrast, author Horace Walpole, writing in 1760, called the book “a very insipid and tedious performance” and stated, “It makes one smile two or three times at the beginning, but in recompense makes one yawn for two hours.” Critic Edmund Burke pointed out one defining aspect of the novel that has been the subject of much critical discussion over the centuries: “The author perpetually digresses; or rather having no determined end in view, he runs from object to object, as they happen to strike a very lively and very irregular imagination. These digressions so frequently repeated, instead of relieving the reader, become at length tiresome.”

As additional volumes of the ongoing work were published, more critics echoed the sentiment of Burke. Owen Ruffhead, reviewing the third and fourth volumes in 1761—and who, like many at the time, assumed Tristram Shandy to be the actual author of the work—directed his criticisms directly at the author: “We must tax you with what you will dread above the most terrible of all imputations—nothing less than dullness. Yes, indeed, Mr. Tristram, you are dull, very dull…. Your scharacters are no longer striking and singular…. The novelty and extravagance of your manner pleased at first; but Discretion, Shandy, would have taught you, that a continued affectation of extravagance, soon becomes insipid.” Despite this critical backlash, Sterne's most famous work remained the subject of favorable scholarship throughout the nineteenth century, with prominent figures such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Hazlitt complimenting many elements of the books.

Influence Unlike many authors whose works are discussed in relative isolation from their lives, Sterne is closely identified with his narrator, Tristram Shandy. Especially in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Sterne was often judged by the narrator's opinions and liberties of taste; inverting this approach, an appraisal of Sterne's work became inseparable from an appraisal of his life, either to demonstrate a reprehensible similarity between the two or a paradoxical contrast. The issue of the often salacious humor in Tristram Shandy pervaded Victorian commentary, both positive and negative, on Sterne's work. In the twentieth century, critics have emphasized the remarkable likenesses between the narrative techniques in Tristram Shandy and the formal experimentation of modern literature, particularly in Sterne's unorthodox punctuation, his use of nonverbal devices like drawings, his disregard for sequence, and his self-conscious dwelling on his manner of composition. Despite the evidence presented by John Ferriar and others that Sterne borrowed heavily and blatantly from a number of sources, including Robert Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy and Rabelais's Gargantua and Pantagruel, few critics have questioned the success with which he adapted these borrowings to his own purposes and transformed old materials into one of the most original and important works in literature.

Responses to Literature

  1. Many critics have argued that the method of storytelling in Tristram Shandy is more akin to current novels rather than those of the eighteenth century. Do you think this is true? Pick two to three recent experimental novels and compare their format and narrative strategies with that of Tristram Shandy.
  2. Describe Sterne's interest in travel and unusual settings, customs, and people. Contrast this to other eighteenth-century writers, such as Jonathan Swift or Voltaire, who utilized unusual settings and people in their stories. How do the writers' works differ?
  3. In 2005, filmmaker Michael Winterbottom directed the film Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, but remarked that Sterne's story was “utterly unfilmable.” Watch Winterbottom's film and try to decipher the problems he faced in adapting the novel to film. Where does he succeed and where does he fail? Come up with a strategy of how you would have adapted the film, including ideas for dialogue, scenes, and actors and actresses you would cast.
  4. Do you feel that the digressive action in Tristram Shandy dominates the story, or is there an overarching plot that the digressions ultimately serve? In your opinion, is an overarching plot a defining characteristic of a novel? Why or why not?

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Books

Cash, Arthur H. Laurence Sterne: The Early and Middle Years. London: Methuen, 1975.

______. Laurence Sterne: The Later Years. London: Methuen, 1986.

———, and John M. Stedmond, eds. The Winged Skull: Papers from the Laurence Sterne Bicentenary Conference. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1971.

Hartley, Lodwick. Laurence Sterne: An Annotated Bibliography, 1965–1977. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1978.

Moglen, Helene. The Philosophical Irony of Laurence Sterne. Gainesville: University Presses of Florida, 1975.

New, Melvyn. Laurence Sterne as Satirist: A Reading of Tristam Shandy. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1969.

Stedmond, John M. The Comic Art of Laurence Sterne: Convention and Innovation in Tristam Shandy and A Sentimental Journey. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1967.

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