"Trim's reading the Sermon to my Father"
Men are tormented with the Opinions they have of Things, and not by the Things themselves.
-- epigraph to Volumes I and II (from the Stoic Epicetus as translated by Montaigne)
It has taken me a while to get into Tristram Shandy but I am hopelessly lost in it now. It does not take long to realize that this novel will be unlike most other books. The title gives one clue: The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. “And opinions”? That a “shandy” can mean an addle-brained person is another. Then comes the memorable first chapter where the “author” Tristram Shandy tells us about his conception and why the distraction caused by his mother was, as his Uncle Toby said, only the beginning of Tristram’s misfortunes.
The unique structure and feel of the book makes itself felt quickly, with (usually) short chapters, blank pages, skipped chapter and page numbers, blackened pages, etc. The text also includes many breaks, dashes, asterisks, and other devices to make the reading feel like a conversation while the author frequently addresses the reader directly. Yet it will never be more than a one sided conversation—after all, it is and will always be an author/reader relationship. To offset that limitation, Sterne (I will be interchanging Sterne and Tristram for the author’s role) uses the punctuation devices to mimic conversational breaks. Another method that helps is the interactions and exchanges between characters inserted throughout—keeping a conversational format in front of the reader helps keep the feel of a dialogue.
Tristram explains his method throughout the book (even going as far to say that writing “is but a different name for conversation” when done correctly), noting the progression he hopes to achieve from acquaintance to familiarity and ending in friendship with the reader. He also begs the reader’s patience in his constant digressions, promising that he is progressing the story. Yet Tristram takes pride “that my reader has never yet been able to guess at any thing” upcoming in his story.
Humor permeates almost every chapter—even when Trim is reading Yorick’s (Sterne’s) sermon on conscience, Dr. Slop falls asleep (see the frontispiece above). The humor often turns bawdy, sometimes directly (although the language is never lewd) but most often through double entendres, puns, and suggestive word choice. One of the running jokes is the possibility that Walter Shandy is not really Tristram’s father (his birth is only 8 months after the alleged conception, for one example, although Tristram says that’s about as close as any husband can hope for). In his innuendos, replete with dashes and asterisks to mask what was really said or done, Sterne undermines the conversational mode he tries to establish. In a true conversation, the participants note not just what was said but all the other communication going on—body language, tone of voice, etc. At some points the reader has to think “did he just say what I think he said?” in trying to interpret just how ‘dirty’ the text is meant to be. This naughty ambiguity offsets some of the conversational feel, but adds greatly to the humor. There are many additional techniques Sterne uses, but one that I enjoy is ideas taken to extremes. One example was shortly after Tristram works in The Sorbonne Memoir, a 1733 opinion that an unborn baby can be baptized in the womb by use of a syringe. Tristram wonders why a man’s sperm could not be baptized in the same manner since the Homunculus theoretically could receive the same blessing.
There are several works mentioned or quoted in these first two volumes. Rabelais, Montaigne, and Pope are either mentioned or alluded to, but the major influences are Cervantes, Swift, and Shakespeare. Several of the characters remind the reader of either Don Quixote or Sancho Panza (or even Rosinante). There are many allusions to Swift’s work, especially A Tale of the Tub, including its digressive style. Mention of Shakespeare’s work constantly appears, with this section heavy on allusions and quotes from Hamlet. Lastly, Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding is specifically mentioned and referenced often. In both structure and subjects, Sterne dramatizes Locke’s premise that unrelated things can become related in our minds. Yet in other places Sterne seems to be critiquing Locke (usually humorously), such as Tristram constantly complaining that his life has “been the continual sport of what the world calls Fortune”, not a tabula rasa to be shaped by education and experience.
So what happens in these volumes? In one sense, not much since we go from Tristram’s conception to the night of his birth. But with so many digressions suspending the flow of any narrative, a lot of information is provided on various characters. I have provided a list of the chapter topics at the end of this post to highlight the digressions and keep up with the flow of information. One example where this helps: Elizabeth goes into labor in Volume I, Chapter 21 but that thread is immediately suspended and not rejoined until Volume II, Chapter 6. I have seen Sterne’s narrative technique compared to the stream-of-consciousness used by Joyce, Woolf, Faulkner and others but I don’t think it falls in the same category. Tristram self-consciously narrates the story and facts, not as he thinks of them but with a precise pattern in mind. It is not a far step from his technique to stream-of-consciousness, though.
One major focus of the book is introduced here—hobby-horses. Sterne doesn’t pass judgment on the fixations in these volumes but does tend to lampoon those of his characters. In the case of Toby’s fascination with fortifications, his hobby-horse initially led him to languish in bed with his groin wound for four years. However, Trim’s suggestion of physically manifesting his hobby-horse at the country house led to Toby’s rapid improvement. That anything and everything mentioned can be tied back to something about the science of fortification in Toby’s mind provides a humorous edge to his obsession.
Sterne’s use of time in the novel is fun to watch as well. With the conversational methods Sterne uses in telling the story, he introduces a human element to the impartial and mechanical ticking of the clock. Things happen in the novel when Tristram feels like revealing them. In the mix of digressions and progressions, time’s shape feels similar to a corkscrew—circular while moving forward in a third plane (Woolf provides the best example of this I’ve seen). The punctuation breaks and other games played with the text slow down the normal reading process, which Tristram intends.
“’Tis to rebuke a vicious taste, which has crept into thousands besides herself,-----of reading straight forwards, more in quest of the adventures, than of the deep erudition and knowledge with a book of this cast, if read over as it should be, would infallibly impart with them-----The mind should be accustomed to make wise reflections, and draw curious conclusions as it goes along…”.
It remains to be seen how deep and erudite the cast of this book will be, but the point of savoring the novel instead of rushing through the work underscores standing outside regular time. Chapter 8 in Volume II discusses what can happen in a few pages, while the rest of the novel demonstrates how little can happen in a lot. Sterne, intended or not, seems to be redefining what the novel can do. Like Joyce’s Ulysses, I get pleasure from having a physical object in my hands to leaf back to previous references and see visual tricks beyond the normal printed lines.
Another theme is the metaphor of life as a book. Death is euphemistically described as “the very end of the chapter.” In describing the plans for his book in Volume I, Chapter 14, Tristram hopes to “make a tolerable bargain with my bookseller” and “continue to do [write] as long as I live.” In writing, both Sterne and Tristram hint that they can fight time by invoking laughter. “Digressions, incontestably, are the sunshine;-----they are the life, the soul of reading!” This ties in nicely with Sterne’s dedication to William Pitt:
”…I live in a constant endeavour to fence against the infirmities of ill health, and other evils of life, by mirth; being firmly persuaded that every time a man smiles,-----but much more so, when he laughs, it adds something to this Fragment of Life.”