An Analysis of the Two Black Pages Following Yorick’s Death
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.