Travel Writing and Identity in Tristram ShandyIn The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Laurence Sterne employs unconventional structure and non-linearity to disorient his readers. Sterne projects himself through the lens of Tristram Shandy, and conveys his ‘conversation’ with readers through parody and satire. In keeping with his disorienting style, Sterne disrupts the patterns that defined the narrative in the first six volumes, and changes course significantly into a lengthy digression; volume seven, which is an ironic attempt at travel writing. Volume Seven details Tristram’s ‘Escape from Death’ as he adventures through Europe, including his smaller digressions, like the story of the two lovers, Amandus and Amanda. Tristram makes allusions to fictitious stories while traveling to the sites of their occurrences, such as the tomb of the lovers, only to sadly realize that the place does not exist. His attempt at situating himself as a traveller in a literary context proves to be a humorous failure, much like his broader failure in situating his identity in the novel. The story of Amandus and Amanda’s tragic, but joyous relationship translates to Sterne’s recurring theme of dualities. Sterne seems to advocate sensuality for its own sake, projecting the idea that joy and sorrow are the two sides of every man. Tristram Shandy’s inclusion of the sentimental tale of the lovers acts as a commentary on the dry and empty nature of the travel writing genre. Shandy’s character lacks depth throughout the novel because his narrative offers little personal reflection and the act of mocking the travel genre aids in situating the character within his own narrative.Volume Seven begins with a halting change in narrative; Tristram, while in the midst of telling the story of Uncle Toby’s romance, shifts the scene far from the Shandy household in order to detail his own travels throughout the continent. In true Tristram fashion, he consciously informs the reader that he will adopt the voice of a travel writer and provide a detailed account of his journey. He instead deviates from his preconceived goal and mocks the genre from every angle possible. Tristram introduces his adventure with the following;“—Now I think it very much amiss—that a man cannot go quietly through a town, and let it alone, when it does not meddle with him, but that he must be turning about and drawing his pen at every kennel he crosses over, merely o’ my conscience, for the sake of drawing it” (Sterne 387).From the moment he arrives in Calais, Tristram parodies all the conventions of travel writing. He questions whether the sights he sees are worth describing at all, and then illustrates Calais in such a way as to make it sound identical to any other place. He is more interested in people—even fictional ones—than places, and brags that “by seizing every handle, of what size or shape soever, which chance held out to me in this journey–I turned my plain into a city–I was always in company” (Sterne 430). He writes a number of times about the innkeeper’s daughter, Janatone, as a figure who is more lasting and influential than any historical landmark; he values her more because of her transitory humanness. He writes, “…may all measure them at your leisure—but he who measures thee, Janatone, must do it now—thou carriest the principles of change within thy frame”(Sterne 394). Tristram begins to focus more on physical movement of age and time, perhaps because he feels that death is upon him, but also because it is a recurring element of his anxiety throughout the text. Tristram’s measure of time is reflective of his non-linear narrative, they coincide with each other; this proves problematic for plot development, but reinforces the notion that Tristram has difficulty asserting his ‘humaness’ in the novel. The language and his means of conveying it become noticeably more mechanical as Tristram becomes more aware of his lack of placement in the plot. He claims that “speaking of my book as a machine” helps him to gain “the greater credit? for it. Volume Seven navigates two separate travel narratives; one of Tristram as a young boy and the other as Tristram at a mature age, recording his recent travels. He provides a disorienting explanation after he realizes the plots were intertwined; “…I have been getting forwards in two different journies together, and with the same dash of the pen—for I have got entirely out of Auxerre in this journey which I am writing now, and I am got half way out of Auxerre in that which I shall write hereafter”(Sterne 413). The exposition appears purposely unhelpful, but it is only characteristic of Tristram’s digressive-progressive nature. The voice of the author is still separate from both of these threads: he is no longer in France, but has returned to his study to record these fairly recent adventures. Tristram is fascinated with this strange phenomenon by which lived repetitions can create a doubleness in memory. His allusion to travel writing is ironic in more ways than one; he imitates the genre to deliberately go against its conventions in regards to his actual travels, as well as his own physical situation within the novel. He attempts to write himself into the plot geographically to compensate for the lack of identity that readers perceive in his character. Aside from the major tragedies that occurred in his life, the young Tristram Shandy is but a minor character next to Uncle Toby or Walter Shandy. Just as the title suggests, the novel is essentially a factual document, ridden with mental constructs and thought processes catered by Tristram himself. Tristram’s intense concentration on fictional stories and characters connects his character to emotions that he has been seeking for the length of the novel. He offers countless references to short and seemingly insignificant sub-plots, usually introducing characters that are never mentioned afterward. The story of the two lovers proves different however, as in Chapter 31, Tristram promises to travel to the legendary tomb to ‘drop tears on it’. The story essentially details the forbidden love between Amandus and Amanda, lovers who are separated by their families and upon reuniting drop dead from the overwhelming joy. Tristram, interestingly, regards this story as far more valuable than the ‘antiquities’ that travellers worship. Immediately following the story, Tristram asserts that,“There is a soft area in every gentle mortal’s life where such a story affords more pabulum to the brain, than all the Frusts, and Crusts, and Rusts of antiquity, which travellers can cook up for it” (Sterne 418).Tristram commends the story as more nourishing than the ‘frusts, crusts and rusts’ that travel writers ‘cook up’; he assumes an idealistic position on the story of the lovers, perhaps illuminating an emotional depth whithin him that was absent previously. To his displeasure, he arrives at the tomb, only to find out that it does not exist. There is an ambiguity surrounding Tristram’s intentions in venturing to the tomb, similar to the context of his desire for Uncle Toby’s presence. Tristram concludes the already brief Chapter 40 when he proclaims, “What I would have given for my Uncle Toby to have whistled, Lillo Bullero!” (Sterne 427). Uncle Toby’s whistle occurs when a situation becomes too provocative or awkward for Toby’s modest nature, however, Tristram seeks the nostalgic feeling he gets from hearing the sound. The inclusion of this story is open to readers’ interpretation, as it contains many of Tristram’s ‘opinions’. Everything he decides to include or exclude in his narrative is deliberate, as convoluted and displacing as it may seem. Essentially, Shandy’s mistrust of travel narratives and high regard for fictional plots provides a depth in his character that was not apparent in earlier volumes. Volume Seven is an abrupt and severe deviation from Tristram’s original narrative, and it offers a glimpse into the ‘human’ and ‘physical body’ that comprises his character. Tristram Shandy’s inclusion of the sentimental tale of the lovers acts as a commentary on the dry and empty nature of the travel writing genre. This is a departure from the rest of the novel, where Shandy’s character lacks depth. The rest of the text offers little personal reflection and the act of mocking the travel genre aids in situating Tristram Shandy in his own narrative.
Laurence Sterne’s novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman is heavily saturated with elements of satire and dark humor. Sterne proposes an argument, through the inclusion of the ‘male’ mid-wife, Dr. Slop, for the restoration of natural delivery methods of infants. His hectic dialogue and digressive nature underline Dr. Slop’s failures as a medical figure, ultimately commenting on the misplacement of female midwifery in the English household. The novel is seemingly asking to “take care that the poor woman not be lost in the mean time; –because when she is wanted, we can no way do without her”(Sterne 78). The female midwife that Elizabeth Shandy requests represents what the novel calls simply ‘the sisterhood’: the shunned midwives of England who witnessed their unquestioned authority over childbirth reversed in the face of political inclination in favor of the instrument-wielding man-midwife. Within Sterne’s clearly satirical and deflective relationship to this debate, certain preferences are evident: the female mid-wife receives markedly tender treatment at his hands, while Dr. Slop is an unrelenting idiot of the forceps practitioner. But these two methods of readily exclusion and readerly welcome have one structural matter in common: they are united in the plan to create narrative impediments to Tristram’s birth. The birth of Tristram and the birth of narrative are the goals that the novel ambivalently undertakes to accomplish, but in so doing the novel also defies conventions of narrative closure and medical progress. Both the narrative and Tristram’s physical birth are delayed by technologies in writing conventions and medical progresses; Dr. Slop, and his satirical failure to deliver Tristram efficiently, is parallel to Tristram’s failure to properly birth his novel.In accordance to Sterne’s heavy use of obstetrical knowledge and conversation in the novel, it is significant to note the medical advances in relation to midwifery that were contemporary to his time. Around 1700, man-midwives in France introduced a mechanical labor machine representing the pregnant female form into a lecture format for teaching quick delivery with forceps; by 1740, the “mechanical mother” was available to English educators as well (Blackwell 82). The innovations of eighteenth-century man-midwifery engendered a new perception of birth as theater, for doctors in surgeries and hospitals emerged with expectations about the female body, labor, and time, which were based on dramatic convention. Speed had become the major measure of a new, more scientific and more rationalist birth, as well as the competitive edge of man-midwives over their female predecessors. Sterne is aware of this in his narrative, when in Volume One, Walter Shandy conveys his desire for a male midwife over the traditional female; “…as there is so expert an operator as Dr. Slop so near—that my wife should persist to the very last in this obstinate humor of hers, in trusting the life of my child, who has had one misfortune already, to the ignorance of an old woman”(Sterne 81).Walter disregards his wife’s wishes and blames her “obstinate humor” for wanting a more traditional figure in the birthing room. Tristram’s father is a highly rational man whose voice pervades the text far more than that of his laborious wife. This is an example of the patriarchal anxiety that characterized the medical science of obstetrics in Sterne’s time. Sterne realizes the anxiety surrounding male and female delivery nurses and manipulates using humor and satire. Bonnie Blackwell, author of “Tristram Shandy” and “Theater of the Mechanical Mother”, engages with the concept of the relationship between the birth of a narrative and the birth of Tristram. In her article, she details the “theatricalizing of birth” in fiction, particularly in Tristram Shandy, writing,“Theatricalizing birth means that labor can be shortened, or more compactly narrativized; the frightening potential for injury and death can be managed and diffused by humor; and birth can be performed in drag, with some or all of the roles taken by men, who represent the pain of labor at a secondary or tertiary remove”(Blackwell 82). Blackwell extracts Sterne’s comedic and theatrical intentions and applies them to the science of childbirth. Sterne’s ‘stage’ is populated by mostly male characters, creating an atmosphere for dilemma in the delivery of the infant Tristram. His narrative is conscious of its ‘theatric’ qualities, especially in the introduction of Dr. Slop, which Tristram believes “…must have prepared the reader’s imagination for the entrance of Dr. Slop upon the stage,–as much, at least, (I hope) as a dance, a song, or a concerto between the acts” (Sterne 84). Dr. Slop’s physical appearance does little to reinforce a ‘masculine’ and respectable figure; instead, Tristram characterizes him as “a little, squat, uncourtly figure… of about four feet and a half perpendicular height, with a breadth of back, and a sesquipedality of belly, which might have done honor to a Serjeant in the Horse-Guards”(Sterne 84). Tristram’s narrative emasculates Dr. Slop in two ways; firstly, positioning him in the argument between female mid-wives and their pretentious and pompous male counterparts, and to secondly, digress and humiliate his character until he resembles a ‘clown’. Dr. Slop’s physical attributes are a comedic failure, however, his ensuing actions, or lacktherof, imitate the way that Tristram’s narrative fails to progress in a linear way. Dr. Slop’s identity and medical merit is by this point highly questionable, much like the authority and tenacity of Tristram’s recountal. The delays and digressions coincide with each other, forming a parallel between the failures to produce a successful delivery of text and of the child, efficiently. The doctor’s digressions begin when he is knocked off his horse Obadiah, included possibly for comic relief and for discredit. Walter Shandy greets him in shock, noting the absence of his medical technologies that he so desires his wife to be operated on with; “Thou has come forth unarm’d;–thou hast left thy tire-tete, –thy new invented forceps,–thy crotchet,–thy squirt, and all thy instruments of salvation and deliverance behind thee” (Sterne 88). The doctor has carelessly forgotten the very instruments that represent medical progress and mechanical proficiency. Similarly, Tristram is careful in his digressions, cleverly disguised as progressions, and is absent-minded in his literary conventions, particularly that of linearity. Dr. Slop is again delayed upon receiving his bag, and realizing, ironically, that there is a knot tied in it that refuses to be undone. Dr. Slop is further characterized as an imbecile when he cuts his finger; “Pox take the fellow! I should never get the knots untied as long as I live.-My mother gave a groan.-Lend me your penknife-I must e’en cut the knots at last-pugh! psha! Lord! I have cut my thumb quite across to the very bone” (Sterne 133). The doctor’s medical authority is entirely diminished at this point, and Tristram offers insight into ‘knots’ in relation to his narrative; “in the case of these knots then, and of the several obstructions, which, may it please your reverences, such knots cast in our way in getting through life-every hasty man can whip out his penknife and cut through them.-‘Tis wrong” (Sterne 134). Tristram’s comment is both an attack on Slop, but also self-reflexive. H takes care not to be hasty in his craft, for it results in imperfections, perhaps even disaster. Tristram even declares, “For my own part, I declare I have been at it these six weeks, making all the speed I possibly could,—and am not yet born” (Sterne 144). His narrative is delayed consciously, purposefully to disorient readers, but also to emulate his characters, especially Slop. In impeding Tristram’s narrative, Dr. Slop similarly impedes his proper delivery methods, and both fail to produce a success. Tristram refers to his writing as a ‘child-like’ species, a reproductive element of himself: “By this contrivance the machinery of my work is of a species by itself; two contrary motions are introduced into it, and reconciled, which were thought to be at variance with each other. In a word, my work is digressive, and it is progressive too,–at the same time” (Sterne 58).Tristram’s voice and Dr. Slop are similarly progressive and digressive, through artistic and technical perspectives. Bonnie Blackwell’s concept of the ‘theatricalizing of the birth’ applies to both Slop and Tristram, for they are victims of their own craft. They are ultimately succumbing to the progressive-digressive nature of the mechanical aspect of writing and delivering children. Both the narrative and Tristram’s physical birth are delayed by technologies in writing conventions and medical progresses; Dr. Slop, and his satirical failure to deliver Tristram efficiently, is parallel to Tristram’s failure to properly birth his novel.Works CitedBlackwell, Bonnie. “Tristram Shandy and the Theater of the Mechanical Mother.” ELH68.1 (2001): 81-133. JSTOR. Web. 13 Feb. 2012.Sterne, Laurence, and Ian Campbell. Ross. The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009. Print.
The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne is the fictional autobiography of Tristram Shandy in the novel form that tries to find out, defy, and/or experiment with the rules of this new genre it is written in as the text unfolds itself. This attempt reaches beyond the boundaries of the language at some points in the narrative, and the book explores both the possibilities and the impossibilities of the language in its representation of the reality, especially in the two black pages representing the grief and the mourning for Yorick’s tragic death.
There are two black pages in the book positioned after the account of Yorick’s death and the symbolism for his tombstone. These pages are the reaction of our protagonist to the death of a loved one. The passage obviously has no form whatsoever, only condensed ink printed on blank pages with regular margins. The lack of form is also the reason why it is extremely powerful. The black pages stand out with their lavish use of ink, which embraces the material quality and reflects back on itself. While the novel genre, in general, kept bold claims for its own truth and reality with extensive details on different subjects, the documentation for Yorick’s death is completely devoid of language and form, yet effective than any word or form could be in a self-reflexive manner. Using the technique of association of ideas, which is employed in order to convey and represent Tristram’s ideas, the novel makes an effort to narrate the opinions of Tristram Shandy as they would pass through his mind. The black pages of mourning are also in line with this style, as they represent a state of Tristram’s mind where language is no longer necessitated due to the extensiveness and graveness of the subject matter.
The passage is explicitly concerned about the relation of the language to the reality it is trying to represent. Throughout the book, the narrator keeps complaining about the impossibility of precision in story-telling and historiography, that you cannot narrate an event in its entirety without touching upon many subjects it entails. When we look at the book, we see that Tristram is racing against the time to write a story of his life without leaving anything behind, and ensuring the upcoming events will be included in the publications to come. The black pages, at this point, seems appropriate for expressing a powerful emotion in that whatever Tristram has written or forgotten, wanted or may want to write, felt or will ever feel are included in the compactness of these pages in their fullness and blankness at the same time. There no words, neither a need for more. So, we can say that, in not narrating the state of his emotions, he actually achieves to deliver to the reader a response and a feeling in its entirety, which what he tries to accomplish through the techniques of historiography.
Eighteenth-century writers had witnessed the emergence of this new genre and therefore played with the blurry boundaries of it. With the rising of the public sphere and the relatively larger reading public, many of the writers of the era turned to the novel as a way of addressing the society. However, Sterne’s novel is regarded as an early postmodern novel, written when modernism was not yet there to generate an opposite reaction to itself. He was far beyond his contemporaries in this respect. Another differing point is the writers’ claim for the truth. While the majority of 18th-century writers had very persistent claims on the truth and reality of their content, Sterne had other means of relating to the reality. He uses layers of time in the narration and makes sure that the reader is conscious of the fictional aspect of the book all the time. The black pages are relatable at this point too, in that they display the acceptance of the book itself as a material entity with an emphasis on the extensive usage of ink, a product of the printing press.
All in all, this passage reveals various aspects of the book, in its form, content, and relation to the literary tradition while confronting us with the impasses of the language it incorporates. In doing so, it seems that Sterne is trying to show us that human mind, emotions, or even literature itself cannot be confined to the limitations of the language; and that there are various languages, perspectives, and means of communication yet to be explored.