Obstetric and Narrative Delays in Tristram Shandy

May 3, 2019 by Essay Writer

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.

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