Everything in the world is big with jest.
This is sort of embodied in Vol VII where Tristram flees Death heading South to warm France and ends up dancing with a beautiful gypsy girl. Or in Vol IX where he gets fed up of trying to tell the story of Widow Wadman & Uncle Toby & cuts to himself in the south of France listening to the postillion telling him the touching story of the unhinged country girl…
Tristram Shandy was published in 5 instalments: Vols 1&2; 3&4; 5&6; 7&8; 9. It came out annually between 1759 and 1768. Like Harry Potter.
The book is made of a number of elements. For me Sterne grasps two particularly profound aspects of ‘the novel’: the ambiguous role of the narrator; the arbitrary and thus ludicrous function of chapters.
[It must be said that, for all its tomfoolery, Tristram Shandy emphatically partakes of Ian Watts’s ‘formal realism’ every bit as much as Crusoe or Pamela: almost more so in that the characters are taken to be real people, with realistic names, in a realistic setting, behaving in silly but ultimately plausible ways].
The Digressive Narrator
Sterne noticed the centrality of the narrator as a puppetmaster in Fielding’s novels. But Fielding can be relied upon to return to the plot: what if the narrator didn’t return? What if he wandered off all over the place, constantly distracted?
Why would he do that? Two reasons:
- Brain damage – as outlined by Walter Shandy p.296: Tristram’s animal spirits are dispersed at conception; then his mother seethes with resentment for 9 months; then his head is squashed by Dr Slop’s forceps. No wonder his mind wanders.
- Locke’s theory of associations: Locke provides an intellectual underpinning for the novel’s divagations with his theory that the mind, the understanding, works through chains or trains of associated thoughts. Thus Walter’s learned obsessions e.g. with names and noses, and Toby’s notorious obsession with fortifications.
Thus we arrive at the easy paradox that the main body of the text is made of digressions and diversions.
The tradition of learned wit i.e. using learning for comic effect by:
Apparently the critic D.W. Jefferson coined the phrase ‘learnèd wit’ to characterise the tradition from Rabelais thru Cervantes to Sterne.
Thus Walter Shandy can be a receptacle for the most reconditely learnèd obsessions, and this provide a peg for the most ludicrous displays of abstruse learning, of the utterly useless medieval variety e.g. the long disquisition on noses and the quote from Slawkenbergius’s tome on same; or the treatise on swearing…
Along with the key role of the unbalanced narrator, Sterne has grasped the key role of chapters in ‘the Novel’ i.e. their implicit absurdity. Any chapter break by any author in any novel is a huge, improbable, highly artificial, interference by the author in a narrative. Sterne plays on this insight for all it’s worth: once he’s discovered he can declare that he will have a chapter on a specific subject, there is no end to the nonsense of promising chapters on every subject under the sun:
There is no end in trying experiments upon chapters. (p.311)
A sexual understanding underpins the entire novel. It opens with the split second of Tristram’s conception: from then on there is a permanent risk that any remark he makes will have a sexual innuendo.
Innuendo is a question of creating a context, a mood, an atmosphere in which even the most prosaic or innocent remark can be misinterpreted as sexual in meaning. This is a question for pragmatics i.e. context over logical content.
- It begins with sex
- Uncle Toby’s wound in the groin is a source of endless innuendo
- The debate about why Mrs Shandy did not want Dr Slop to come too close to her ****
- The hot chestnut on Phutatorius’s penis (needing to be warped in a wet sheet from his new book about concubines!)
- The crude summary of Vol IV Chap 8 as having been about chambermaids, a green gown (deflowering a virgin) and an old hat (the vagina)
- The sole purpose of the story of the abbess of andouillets is to get a pair of nuns shouting Bugger and Fuck
- The story of the mule leads abruptly to Tristram’s breeches being slashed and, strongly implied, his pecker falling out
Sterne was friends with John Hall-Stevenson, a rake and libertine, who lived in Skelton Castle (nicknamed Crazy Castle) where they held pale copies of the Medmenham Hellfire Club, under the name of the Demoniacs. J H-S appears as the character Eugenius throughout; at the end of Vol III the debate, supposedly called to discover whether Walter can change Tristram’s name – after he was accidentally baptised Tristram by Yorick – back to the intended Trismegistus, but which instead discusses whether a child is at all related to its parents, with the incident of Phutatorius and the hot chestnut in the groin, can be taken as a comic account of the Demoniacs, with appropriately Rabelaisian names (Mr Kiss-Arse, for example).
The Imagined Reader
In fact a variety of imagined readers are created in order to give Sterne numerous opportunities for turning the text into a dialogue. I suppose Bakhtin’s notion of the heteroglossia of the text is relevant ie it contains multiple voices in permanent dialogue. The actual dialogues are on a variety of subjects:
- Bawdy, where he comically deflates what appeared to be a bawdy moment
- Invocations, e.g. a prologue, preface, dedication
- Critics, who are invoked to give their opinions
Thus the book can be said to have a far larger cast of characters than merely the named half dozen.
We are always taught that the Augustans valued decorousness of literature and art more than any other age i.e. had a highly worked-out sense of the fittingness, the appropriateness, of various sentiments to literary forms. And yet this is the age with a strong parallel tradition of burlesquing and parodying this formality, from Pope’s satires to Fielding’s use of burlesque and parody.
Everybody agreed The Epic was the highest form (just as History painting was the highest genre). Which makes it the more striking that no Augustan considered themselves capable of one. Pope and Dryden translated Homer. But their age – the late 17th and early 18th centuries – saw the heyday of the mock epic. Among the most famous examples are Samuel Butler’s Hudibras, John Dryden’s Mac Flecknoe and Absalom and Achitophel, and Alexander Pope’s Dunciad. A key source of the humour is the delivery of low matter in a highflown style. Fielding used this repeatedly in his novels, starting with the mock epic invocation or paean. He saw his novel as ‘a comic epic poem in prose’. Sterne simply represents this tradition taken to an extreme where the actual content
Sterne was ill all through the writing of Tristram Shandy. Various characters die:
- Yorick: and his tombstone
- Brother Bobby
- Tristram, in the middle of describing Trim & Toby’s campaigns on the bowling green, end of Vol VI, has a morbid vision of Trim attending Uncle Toby’s funeral
- All of Vol VII appears to be Tristram trying to outrun death by fleeing to France. There’s a Shandy moment when Tristram’s adult flight overlaps with his boy-ish Grand Tour accompanied by Walter, Toby et al. But this volume feels strangley rushed and hysterical…
1698 Uncle Toby injured at the siege of Namur
1700 Toby & Trim’s 1st year of building fortifications in the bowling green
Tristram’s birth i.e. Obadiah bumping into Dr Slop, Tristram’s bungled delivery i.e. squashing his nose
Tristram’s christening by the vicar
Tristram’s penis is cut off by the window sash when Susannah made him pee out of the window because the maid forgot to put a chamber pot under the bed
Example of the wandering narrative
We never get to find out how Tristram’s brother, Bobby, died. Instead Walter is inspired to deliver a moving panegyric to him, so moving he forgets about his son’s actual death – and Mrs Shandy bursts in, misunderstanding what is going on – and we cut to Corporal Trim’s extempore eulogy in the servants’ quarters – which leads to a meditation on the dropping of his hat – and so on, but never back to Bobby…
- Tristram Shandy
- (Jenny, his consort)
- (Eugenius, his friend)
- Walter Shandy, his father
- Mrs Shandy, his mother
- Toby Shandy, his uncle
- Bobby Shandy
- Corporal Trim (James Butler)
- Yorick the vicar
- Dr Slop, the Catholic doctor
- Jonathan the coachman
- The scullion
- Didius – member of the Demoniacs
- Phutatorius – member of the Demoniacs