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TRISTRAM SHANDY: CRITICAL INTERPRETATIONS

Please note: The following excerpts from scholarly work on Laurence Sterne's novel are intented to stimulate your own original interpretations and to inspire a trip to the library.  Always refer to the full critical article or book for the full context of these isolated passages. 

       Sterne's Use of Language
". . . Sterne distrusts language as a means of communication while being at the same time fascinated by its magical powers." (151. Gysin, Fritz. Model as Motif in Tristram Shandy.  Bern, Switzerland: Francke Verlag Bern, 1983) 
". . . although Tristram lays down basic rules for conversation, he offers us a variety of reported conversations in which all guidelines are shattered. Riding their hobbyhorses, Walter and Toby have difficulty in comprehending discourse arising outside their obsessions, and this often makes it hard for those to whom they speak to feel they have any status within the exchange." (63. Warren, Leland E. "Getting into the Talk: Tristram Shandy Through Conversation." Approaches to Teaching Sterne's Tristram Shandy. New, Melvyn, ed. New York: MLA, 1989. 61-66). 
"In Tristram Shandy the struggle to read the world is transformed into pleasure because the effort is shared, because it becomes the basis for conversation, for an encounter within which all participants gain a degree of freedom and status rarely found in the routines of life." (66. Warren, Leland E. "Getting into the Talk: Tristram Shandy Through Conversation." Approaches to Teaching Sterne's Tristram Shandy. New, Melvyn, ed. New York: MLA, 1989. 61-66). 
"An even more difficult aspect of Sterne's wit is what D.W. Jefferson labels 'learned wit,' the esoteric, encyclopedic graffiti with which Sterne loves to litter his pages."  (25. New, Melvyn, ed. "Introduction." Approaches to Teaching Sterne's Tristram Shandy. New York: MLA, 1989) 
"A few years ago someone took a poll of graduating college seniors asking them which of the texts assigned during their college careers they most hated. Tristram Shandy won." (33. Cash, Arthur H. "A South West Passage to the Intellectual World." Approaches to Teaching Sterne's Tristram Shandy. New, Melvyn, ed. New York: MLA, 1989. 33-40) 
"Reading aloud corrects the modern rate of absorption ... and activates the conversational rhythm and flow that fit Tristram's explicit stylistic intentions. It makes the long sentences, like the very first one, for instance, which might seem intellectually indigestible to an unaided eye, immediately available ­ available, not as structures, but as developments ­ and reveals, where they actually occur, the openings to an interpretation that the mere sweep of an eye might either neglect or refuse." (41. Piper, William Bowman. "Understanding Tristram Shandy." Approaches to Teaching Sterne's Tristram Shandy. New, Melvyn, ed. New York: MLA, 1989. 41-48) 
"Sterne has created the conversational arena ­ an arena quite unlike anything found in any modern English novel ­ in which Tristram engages an assembled mixed company of attendants in the deliberate exposition of his own family history and his own opinions." (42. Piper, William Bowman. "Understanding Tristram Shandy." Approaches to Teaching Sterne's Tristram Shandy. New, Melvyn, ed. New York: MLA, 1989. 41-48) 
". . . Sterne's associational method moves from oddity to expectancy. Repetition allows the reader to recognize that the element of structure represents a way of expressing epistmology, a manner of evaluating the significance of events, and a means of achieving a reality closer to human experience than that acheived by more conventional novelistic treatments of causality." (53. Spector, Robert D. "Structure as a Starting Point." Approaches to Teaching Sterne's Tristram Shandy. New, Melvyn, ed. New York: MLA, 1989. 49-54) 
     Psychology of Reader and Author 
"Sterne was a solitary; but toward the end of his life he found a way of talking which created its own society. The members of this society, comprising both the fictional characters in the book, its circle of readers, and its narrator, all have a very special literary quality; their voices are attuned to the endless dialogue within, which is so much more inconsequential, indecent, and above all ­ shall we face it ­ trivial, than the public dialogues we can hear going on around us, or that we find recorded in most of literature; Sterne's sad recognition of this enabled him to create a mode of speech which compels what he most desired ­ our acknowledgement of intimate kinship. And once the Shandean laughter has punctured the authorized hyperboles which make it so difficult for us to recognize our real identity, the remembering mind can sometimes go on beyond this to discover in and through Tristram's comic syntax that real feeling and a kind of logic somehow subsist and trace a shadowy coherence upon the muddled and miscellaneous indignities of our personal lot."  (57. Watt, Ian. "The Comic Syntax of Tristram Shandy." Studies in Criticism and Aesthetics 1660-1880. Ed. Howard Anderson and John S. Shea. U. of Minnesota P., 1967. Rpt. in Modern Critical Interpretations: Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea, 1987. 43-57) 
Why Sterne is so difficult for students: "The techniques, habits, and expectations that students have found adequate for most of their TV watching, moviegoing, and reading -- the linear reading that can tell them what happens; the suspense of a gradually but clearly unfolding plot; the satisfactions of tension and resolution, of symmetry and closure -- all turn out to be useless here. Or worse than useless, for it is precisely these techniques, habits, and expectations . . . that Sterne challenges. He refuses to give his readers the rewards of 'story.' . . . A second difficulty . . . is the 'learned wit' of the fiction. Few of my students have read Rabelais or Cervantes, to say nothing of Swift, Burton, Locke, Quintilian, or the Bible . . . . Another difficulty . . . is the babble of competing voices and tones that make up the curious texture . . . . The central difficulty for my students though -- and for me as well -- is the pattern of sexism and misogyny that runs through the novel. In Tristram Shandy's world, there is hardly any room for women . . . " (112. Harries, Elizabeth W.  "Confessions of a Cross-Eyed Female Reader" Approaches to Teaching Tristram Shandy.  New, Melvyn, ed. New York: MLA, 1989.  111-7.) 
"Tristram knows exactly where our fancy has been carrying us because his own fancy has been carrying both him and us to exactly the same place. He wants us to be cognizant of the way our minds work when reading his text because this will allow us to understand the way his mind works while writing it ­ as a writer writing an autobiography of his own mind, he could not ask more from a reader. The response we develop to the text, then, is ultimately on a cognitive level, an awareness of the way in which Tristram, the supposed author, brings us in and out of the text." (59. Konigsberg, Ira. "Tristram Shandy and the Spatial Imagination." Approaches to Teaching Sterne's Tristram Shandy. New, Melvyn, ed. New York: MLA, 1989. 55-60) 
"Tristram's system demands a reliance on his leadership, a trust in his choices, that can seem overweening, irritating, demeaning, even perilous ­ or simply not worth the effort. After some experience readers may begin to understand why Tristram has turned in each new direction, led the way forward (or backward) into yet another strange terrain, but they will never predict beforehand where they will next be led. But by this time the reader realizes that the game consists of following blindly without map or instructions through each advancem retreat, or degression while at the same time trying to savor fully each jest, double meaning, or allusion; that it means grasping the full import of every remark while at the same time building an understanding of Tristram's general system of belief. Rarely if ever have our students had so many demands placed on them by an author, and it is therefore useful to suggest to them that if entered into wholeheartedly the trip will be a jolly trip, a significant trip, an unforgettable trip, and a trip from which there will be a safe return; in short, that Tristram makes the game, if well played, very worthwhile." (67. Rizzo, Betty. "'How could you, Madam, be so inattentive?': Tristram's Relationship with the Reader." Approaches to Teaching Sterne's Tristram Shandy. New, Melvyn, ed. New York: MLA, 1989. 67-71) 
"But the main dialogue which Tristram carries on is with the reader; at least half of Tristram Shandy is taken up not with narrative but with direct address to the audience by Tristram, often about matters only tangentially related to the story. For this dialogue, the first need is for Tristram to ensure that his readers never lose themselves so completely in the story that they forget the monologist behind the footlights." (50. Watt, Ian. "The Comic Syntax of Tristram Shandy." Studies in Criticism and Aesthetics 1660-1880. Ed. Howard Anderson and John S. Shea. U. of Minnesota P., 1967. Rpt. in Modern Critical Interpretations: Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea, 1987. 43-57) 
"Sterne's game plan is always to fool the reader into recognition and surprise. He draws us into the world of the novel only to draw us out again, so that we can realize how we were thinking when we were in the text. The distance he keeps reestablishing by gazing out at us prevents any type of personal identification with his characters, maintains the proper detachment for our comic appreciation of what takes place with the novel, and constantly returns us to an examination of our responses to his work." (60. Konigsberg, Ira. "Tristram Shandy and the Spatial Imagination." Approaches to Teaching Sterne's Tristram Shandy. New, Melvyn, ed. New York: MLA, 1989. 55-60) 
      Epistomology and Cognition 
" . . .  each satiric stroke is driven by a perception of the chronic discrepancies between what we know and what we think we know; what we are and what we need to think we are; the real motives for our actions and (76) what we need to believe our motives to be; what we say and what we actually mean ­ and so on. The illogical procession of episodes, the irrational, routinely self-defeating adventures of the Shandy's expand and cumulatively reinforce that vision. The procession of episodes is only illogical to someone who expects books and life to be logical. That sort of person is indeed one of the subjects of Sterne's satire." (76. Siebenschuh, William R. "Sterne's Paradoxical Coherence: Some Principles of Unity in Tristram Shandy." Approaches to Teaching Sterne's Tristram Shandy. New, Melvyn, ed. New York: MLA, 1989. 72-79) 
"The great theme of the novel is solipsism ­ the inability of individuals to get outside themselves, to escape their particular associational patterns, to dismount from their hobbyhorses." (95. McCrea, Brian. "Stories That Should Be True? Locke, Sterne, and Tristram Shandy." Approaches to Teaching Sterne's Tristram Shandy. New, Melvyn, ed. New York: MLA, 1989. 94-100) 
     Sentimentalism
Sterne on life: "He himself finds it ironic or sadly comic, an affair of unnecessary wounds, voluntary miseries, absurdities, miniature magnificences. And his response to it is eloquence ­ a marvellously fluent rhetorical display of wit that half satirizes man's grandiose erudition and explanatory pretensions, half uses the learning to relish his oddity." (196. Fowler, Alastair. A History of English Language. Cambridge, MA 1987). 
"The major Romantic critics . . . also responded most strongly to those strains of tenderness, simplicity, and pathos." (80. Staves, Susan. "Toby Shandy: Sentiment and the Soldier." Approaches to Teaching Sterne's Tristram Shandy. New, Melvyn, ed. New York: MLA, 1989. 80-86) 
"Toby is a hero of goodness at an historical moment when goodness was coming to be defined as the antithesis of greatness." (81. Staves, Susan. "Toby Shandy: Sentiment and the Soldier." Approaches to Teaching Sterne's Tristram Shandy. New, Melvyn, ed. New York: MLA, 1989. 80-86) 
      The Hobby Horse  
"It has become practice to picture Walter Shandy and his brother Toby as riding peacefully side by side, each astride his own hobbyhorse, yet unable to communicate because each hobbyhorse connotes a different imaginery realm. Likewise, Tristram's literary endeavors have been described as similarly subjective capers on his own hobbyhorse, which is a little less peaceful but equally harmless. In Walter's case the hobbyhorse is usually taken to stand for his delight in speculation, his 'interest in bizarre theories,' or his 'love of hypotheses,' whereas in the case of Uncle Toby it is said to be his pastoral warfare, his delight in the paraphernalia of seiges and attacks, his interest in military science, but also ëthe outcome of an attempt to communicateí, his distrust in words, and his concern with ëthingsí. Tristram's hobbyhorse is often said to be his interest in the structural idiosyncracies of his own writing or even his entire book." (55. Gysin, Fritz. Model as Motif in Tristram Shandy.  Bern, Switzerland: Francke Verlag Bern, 1983) 
Scholar Fritz Gysin looks up the meanings of Hobby-Horse in the Oxford English Dictionary: " . . . the artificial horse of the morris-dance, although it is usually not mounted but put on or stepped into, provides the brisk movement, the amble and caper, and thus the capriciousness of the Shandean hobbyhorse; the horse on the merry-go-round conveys the rider's feeling of pleasure and pride that is usually observed on the fair- (57) ground, but also the idea of moving round in a circle; and the rocking horse suggests the childlike quality that resides in the image and at the same time adds the backward and forward movement that is typical of all 'hobbyhorsical' endeavors in the novel. Probably the oldest object to which the term can be applied (though not necessarily the oldest in English usage) is the wooden stick with a horse's head. . . . offers most possibilities to the imagination . . ." (58. Gysin, Fritz. Model as Motif in Tristram Shandy.  Bern, Switzerland: Francke Verlag Bern, 1983). 
      Model of Warfare on the Bowling Green
". . . the reader is tempted to compare Toby and Trim to two little boys playing games in a sandbox. And perhaps it is this childlike quality which makes such episodes so immensely enjoyable: it is a relief to be able to read about soldiers who put on funny hats and construct cannons out of tobacco pipes, and it is delightful to observe with how much pleasure and abandon they enact their roles. .... the mathematical and at the same time highly formalized and ritualistic manner in which wars were conducted in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries has provoked historians to compare them to complicated games, such as chess or billards." (120. Gysin, Fritz. Model as Motif in Tristram Shandy.  Bern, Switzerland: Francke Verlag Bern, 1983) 
Paradox: "Uncle Toby, perhaps the sweetest, most genuinely harmless character in English fiction, is happiest when he is thinking about war."  (73. Siebenschuh, William R. "Sterne's Paradoxical Coherence: Some Principles of Unity in Tristram Shandy." Approaches to Teaching Sterne's Tristram Shandy. New, Melvyn, ed. New York: MLA, 1989. 72-79) 
"Thus Trim's and Toby's war games on the bowling-green can be interpreted as a celebration of life through art ­ or the book ­, but the work of art created in this way can only exist in a space especially set aside for it, a consecrated realm, as it were, or, in other words, as a hypothesis. For beneath the self-fulfilment of the liberating game there is still the player's ­ and the author's ­ quest for identity. It has its roots in his fatal wound which is a mark of his human condition, but one which he never understands. .... In a way which is never possible in real life, the model allows Toby to sublimate his wound and temporarily to transcend his mortality in a realm of perfect bliss." (129. Gysin, Fritz. Model as Motif in Tristram Shandy.  Bern, Switzerland: Francke Verlag Bern, 1983) 
"Toby's model on the bowling green has multiple meanings: it offers compensation for real or imagined sexual inadequacy, it appears as a symbol of communication or the lack of it, it can be seen as as a game whose goal is pleasure, and it also has the qualities of a consecrated, timeless, 'mythical' realm. It combines the concepts of private life and ideal activity..." (152. Gysin, Fritz. Model as Motif in Tristram Shandy.  Bern, Switzerland: Francke Verlag Bern, 1983) 
"That ... Toby has had an actual military career as Captain Shandy, shivering in the Irish trenches during King William's wars, is one of Sterne's most profound jokes. What are we supposed to make of the wild incongruity between the character of an English army captain in wartime and the character of the retired suburbam gentleman so pacific and tender that he refuses to injure a fly? Soldiers, especially common soldiers but officers too, had deservedly shady reputations for brutality and lechery in the Restoration and eighteenth century."  (83. Staves, Susan. "Toby Shandy: Sentiment and the Soldier." Approaches to Teaching Sterne's Tristram Shandy. New, Melvyn, ed. New York: MLA, 1989. 80-86) 
" . . . his version of the new masculine character ­ the man of feeling purged of traditional heroic violence, aggression, and sexuality ­ in the guise of the most stereotypical old hero, the soldier." (84. Staves, Susan. "Toby Shandy: Sentiment and the Soldier." Approaches to Teaching Sterne's Tristram Shandy. New, Melvyn, ed. New York: MLA, 1989. 80-86) 
      Stern's Use of Time
"It is difficult for the ininitiated reader to comprehend that there is a narrative line in a fiction that treats time as though it were a game of hopscotch in which the numbers have been placed at random and in which the author intrudes with instructions about composition and reading." (49. Spector, Robert D. "Structure as a Starting Point." Approaches to Teaching Sterne's Tristram Shandy. New, Melvyn, ed. New York: MLA, 1989. 49-54) 
"Even as Tristram stops his action and calls attention to his deliberate fragmentation and disruption of the event, he also reveals his frustration and anxiety before the superior power of bare chronological time." (96. McCrea, Brian. "Stories That Should Be True? Locke, Sterne, and Tristram Shandy." Approaches to Teaching Sterne's Tristram Shandy. New, Melvyn, ed. New York: MLA, 1989. 94-100) 
      Chaos in Tristram Shandy
"Sterne took pleasure in destroying the normal order of things and in creating an exaggerated appearance of disorder, but only to link up the pieces in another and more interesting way." (520. D.W. Jefferson. "Tristram Shandy and the Tradition of Learned Wit."  Essays in Criticism, I. 1951. 225-248)
"The sense of randomness and accident, the role of chance, the principles of absurdity, the confusions in communication, the authorial tone and direction ­ all these follow naturally from the description of a novel whose intention is to create a fictional world that parallels the realities of experience." (50. Spector, Robert D. "Structure as a Starting Point."  Approaches to Teaching Sterne's Tristram Shandy. New, Melvyn, ed. New York: MLA, 1989. 49-54) 
"Tristram's voice is by no means an irrational one, but a rational instrument for the revelation of human irrationality. Belonging to the Age of Reason helped Sterne to see and demonstrate that human behavior is not based on reason; in the end Locke had taught him, not so much that the human mind is a blank tablet, as that philosophical attempts to transcend ordinary human experience end up in a blank alley." (55. Watt, Ian. "The Comic Syntax of Tristram Shandy." Studies in Criticism and Aesthetics 1660-1880. Ed. Howard Anderson and John S. Shea. U. of Minnesota P., 1967. Rpt. in Modern Critical Interpretations: Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea, 1987. 43-57) 
"In Sterne's time, there was already a taste for fragmentary disorder in art. Besides, he only pretended to throw over the literary rules. Actually his work obeys quite rigorous decorums ­ not only a rule of maximum outward disorder, but also a hidden pattern of esoteric ideas . . . ." (196. Fowler, Alastair. A History of English Language. Cambridge, MA 1987).
      Commentary on Novel
"In 1921, Viktor Shklovsky, the Russian formalist, wrote an essay on Tristram Shandy in which he made the often cited remark, 'Tristram Shandy is the most typical novel of world literature.' The import of Shklovsky's statement is that Sterne makes us more aware of his novel as a novel than most other novelists do, that we are constantly made to consider the form and 'aesthetic laws' of his form." (55. Konigsberg, Ira. "Tristram Shandy and the Spatial Imagination." Approaches to Teaching Sterne's Tristram Shandy. New, Melvyn, ed. New York: MLA, 1989. 55-60) 
"Self-reflexive art seems to come either at the beginning of a development, when form and technique are new enough to elicit a narcissistic fascination with what one is doing, or at its end, when an exhausted form elicits an ironic distancing. Sterne wrote Tristram Shandy with only Richardson, Fielding, and Smollett as his major predecessors as novelists. The novel was new enough, the technique unusual enough to allow endless fascination and play. Equally important, the new fictional form seems so much a product of the period's intellectual climate, so in tune with emperical psychology, and Locke's exploration into the mind . . . its author explored ways to erase the line between his characters' minds and his own and between his own and the reader's." (56. Konigsberg, Ira. "Tristram Shandy and the Spatial Imagination."  Approaches to Teaching Sterne's Tristram Shandy. New, Melvyn, ed. New York: MLA, 1989. 55-60) 
"Self-reflexive art seems to come either at the beginning of a development, when form and technique are new enough to elicit a narcissistic fascination with what one is doing, or at its end, when an exhausted form elicits an ironic distancing. Sterne wrote Tristram Shandy with only Richardson, Fielding, and Smollett as his major predecessors as novelists. The novel was new enough, the technique unusual enough to allow endless fascination and play. Equally important, the new fictional form seems so much a product of the period's intellectual climate, so in tune with emperical psychology, and Locke's exploration into the mind. . . its author explored ways to erase the line between his characters' minds and his own and between his own and the reader's." (56. Konigsberg, Ira. "Tristram Shandy and the Spatial Imagination." Approaches to Teaching Sterne's Tristram Shandy. New, Melvyn, ed. New York: MLA, 1989. 55-60) 
"A similar tendency towards self-reflection can be detected in prose and drama. The main action of Sterne's Tristram Shandy (1760-7) is writing itself: its chronology repeatedly draws attention to autobiography's limitations of proportion."  (186. Fowler, Alastair. A History of English Language. Cambridge, MA 1987). 
     Work in Progress
"Laurence Sterne's seminal Tristram Shandy (1760-7) initiated a new form, the work-in-progress fiction or poioumenon. This is less concerned to imitate an action performed by characters than to follow the thought of a single character writing about it. To make this fertile new departure (which was anticipated only by fumbling experiments), Sterne in effect inflated the authorial element of the Fieldingesque novel until it filled the entire work ­ and in the process fictionalized the author. For he denied that continuous fiction of the sort derived from classical epic could achieve anything like an adequate representation of life. Where would one begin? Instead, Tristram Shandy is all gothic digression, and digression within digression: when the ëcause and crotchetí of an impulse has been set forth at chapter length, 'when that's done, twill be time to return back to the parlour fire-side, where we left my uncle Toby in the middle of his sentence'. Sterne needed a digressive method if he was to render the truth of individual experience by following out trains of thought; since these were now believed to work through associations or 'chains of ideas'. But this was no reductionist programme. Lockeian theory, far from dispelling the mind's mysterious unsearchability, added further complication, such as the symbolic displacement underlying Uncle Toby's obsessional model-making, or the multiple time-schemes that the Shandy family variously inhabit." (195. Fowler, Alastair. A History of English Language. Cambridge, MA 1987). 
"Its realism lies in representing not a completed world (natura naturata), but rather a process (natura naturans) ­ the process of creation, of growth, of the author's imagination of his own world, with all its emergent contingencies, idiosyncractic perspectives and alternations of cosmic and local scale. The action is nothing less than creation itself ­ making a child, a microscopic model, an individual, an autobiography ­ so that its completion must always recede before fresh interruptions of life." (196. Fowler, Alastair. A History of English Language. Cambridge, MA 1987). 
" . . . simultaneity of two contrasting (but overlapping) modes that run through the literature of the period: the satirical or neoclassical mode, which is characterized by suspicion of the growing Whig commercial world and by an emphasis on universality, community, reason, the ancients, and the theory of degeneration, and the sentimental or subjective mode, which is distinguished by support for the Whig commercial world and by an emphasis on individualism, originality, emotion, the moderns, and the theory of progression." (131. Rogers, Deborah. "Tristram Shandy in a Restoration and Eighteenth Century Course: Satire or Soap?" Approaches to Teaching Sterne's Tristram Shandy. New, Melvyn, ed. New York: MLA, 1989. 131-136.) 
"In Tristram Shandy, the earliest example of experimentation with time in the novel, we find that a superficially haphazard form becomes upon closer examination very conscious, even precise. Enveloped by Sterne's highly complicated technique, Tristram is no more the central character than is Captain Mitchell in Nostromo or the old teacher of languages in Under Western Eyes. He is, rather, a coordinator and a narrator of the novel which does not essentially concern him. By means of a central observer, Sterne broke up the narrative into individual scenes through which he could project personal idiosyncrasies. The method gave him the chance to view his characters from a strategic point of vantage and to develop them through an accretion of detail rather than by means of a limiting chronological narrative." (63. Karl, Frederick. Chapter Three. "Time in Conrad." A Reader's Guide to Joseph Conrad. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1969. 62-90.) 
       Sterne's Play with Punctuation
"Sterne's style, a breathless and apparently whimsical rush of clauses loosely stitched together by dashes and colons . . . " (72. Siebenschuh, William R. "Sterne's Paradoxical Coherence: Some Principles of Unity in Tristram Shandy." Approaches to Teaching Sterne's Tristram Shandy. New, Melvyn, ed. New York: MLA, 1989. 72-79) 
"The most obvious indication of this conversational style is the punctuation, and especially the use of the dash. In the short chapter about Widow Wadman's eye, for example, there are more dashes ­ eighteen ­ than any other mark of punctuation; and even though the proportion is rarely as high elsewhere, there must be very few pages of Tristram Shandy which do not have many more dashes than is usual in any but the most amateurish writing. The reasons for this great reliance on the dash go deep into the nature of Sterne's creative strategy. The dash is virtually proscribed in expository prose, presumably because it flouts the standard requirement that the verbal components of a sentence should be articulated into a coherent syntactical structure, a structure in which the subordination and superordination of all the parts should express the unity and direction of the sentence as a whole. Sterne's affront to conventional syntax is essential to establishing the qualities he required for Tristram's voice; Sterne didn't want unity or coherence or defined direction, at least in any conventional sense; he wanted multiplicity, not unity; he wanted free association of ideas, not subordination of them; he wanted to go backwards or forwards or sideways, not in straight linear paths. We are, of course, quite used to these kinds of discontinuity in ordinary colloquial conversation. In the Widow Wadman's speech, for instance ('A mote ­ or sand ­ or something ­ I know not what, has got into this eye of mine ­ do look into it ­ it is not in the white') the dash is used as much to mark pauses as anything else; whatever meaning may be left obscure by the syntax is clarified by the implied situations and gestures; and it is the dashes which force the reader to imagine them. Elsewhere the dash is used merely for aggregating units, as in the dazzling series of descriptive phrases about the Widow Wadman's left eye; and here we observe the usefulness of the dash in Sterne's characteristic exploitation of the rhetorical expectations aroused by any extended verbal series." (48. Watt, Ian. "The Comic Syntax of Tristram Shandy." Studies in Criticism and Aesthetics 1660-1880. Ed. Howard Anderson and John S. Shea. U. of Minnesota P., 1967. Rpt. in Modern Critical Interpretations: Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea, 1987. 43-57) 
"But the most important strategic function of the dash, both in these passages and in general, is to serve Tristram as a nonlogical junction betweem past and present; between narrative event and authorial address to the reader; between one train of thought and another in Tristram's mind. Sterne needed a much looser and less directed junction between units of meaning than normal syntax allows, for his psychology, for his narrative mode, for his manipulation of the reader, and for expressing his view of life. Dashes were invaluable for enacting the drama of inhibited impulse, of the sudden interruptions and oscillations of thought and feeling, which characterize Tristram both as a person and as a narrator. One obvious example of the latter occurs when there is an abrupt and unheralded shift in the point of (49) view of the narration."  (48-49. Watt, Ian. "The Comic Syntax of Tristram Shandy." Studies in Criticism and Aesthetics 1660-1880. Ed. Howard Anderson and John S. Shea. U. of Minnesota P., 1967. Rpt. in Modern Critical Interpretations: Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea, 1987. 43-57) 
"No writing seems to flow more exactly into the very folds and creases of the individual mind, to express its changing moods, to answer to its lightest whim and impulse, and yet the result is perfectly precise and composed."  (From Virginia Woolf, Introduction to A Sentimental Journey. The World's Classics. London: Oxford UP, 1928. As a footnote on p 179 in Moss, Roger B. "Sterne's Punctuation." Eighteenth-Century Studies 15.2 (Winter 1981-82) 179-200.) 
". . . Sterne didn't want unity or coherence or defined direction, at least in any conventional sense; he wanted multiplicity, not unity; he wanted free association of ideas, not subordination of them; he wanted to go backwards or forwards or sideways, not in straight linear paths." (48. Watt, Ian. "The Comic Syntax of Tristram Shandy." Studies in Criticism and Aesthetics 1660-1880. Ed. Howard Anderson and John S. Shea. U. of Minnesota P., 1967. Rpt. in Modern Critical Interpretations: Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea, 1987. 43-57) 
"Many of Sterne's other typographical usages also serve to call us back from the show to the showman. Italics, for example, enact the actor's emphasis  ­ the raised voice, the confidential whisper, or the wink; while capitals and gothic letters supply heavier emphasis for a moral reflection, a scholarly reference, or a tear. Asterisks and blank spaces similarly provoke our active response, and lead us to ask what they stand for, or to supply something for ourselves, whether correctly or not we often don't quite know; they are the graphic equivalents of the figure of aposiopesis ­ rhetorically intentional hiatus ­ which Tristram so often employs. Faint but pursuing, we do our best to puzzle out the asterisks and fill up the gaps; and we are occasionally given the ostentatiously grudging reward which the professional stage performer usually bestows on the unfortunate amateur from the audience who has offered his cooperation." (50. Watt, Ian. "The Comic Syntax of Tristram Shandy." Studies in Criticism and Aesthetics 1660-1880. Ed. Howard Anderson and John S. Shea. U. of Minnesota P., 1967. Rpt. in Modern Critical Interpretations: Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea, 1987. 43-57) 
"One way of reminding the readers of his presence is for Tristram to break down the cold impersonality of print, whose impassive objectivity encourages us in most novels to forget the literary mirror in which the fictional world is reflected. The typographical tricks, the short or blank or misnumbered chapters, the squiggles, the black or marbled pages, the index fingers, though they may not always amuse us, at least serve to remind us that the image reflected in the mirror is less real than the mirror itself: that the mirror, not the reflections in it, has priority of status." (50. Watt, Ian. "The Comic Syntax of Tristram Shandy." Studies in Criticism and Aesthetics 1660-1880. Ed. Howard Anderson and John S. Shea. U. of Minnesota P., 1967. Rpt. in Modern Critical Interpretations: Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea, 1987. 43-57) 
"I have great respect for the Shandean dash: it has a part in the rhythm of Sterne's periods, which would often avoid anything so abrupt as a full stop . . . " (xliii, forward. Read, Herbert. Introduction to a Sentimental Journey. London: Scholartis P, 1929. As a footnote on p 179 in Moss, Roger B. "Sterne's Punctuation."  Eighteenth-Century Studies 15.2 (Winter 1981-82) 179-200.) 
"It [the dash] is not a 'point' at all, but occupies real, linear space, the same route along which the reading eye is traveling, and so it can challenge the narrative on its own ground. This relates it more closely than other devices to Sterne's inverted typography" (195.  Moss, Roger B.  "Sterne's Punctuation."  Eighteenth-Century Studies.  15.2 (1981-2): 179-200.) 
"The book's first paragraph has dashes that act like weighty hyphens to forge connections against the reader's impulse to stop, check, and think. They have the confidence of false buttresses, displaying to the reader the architectonics of meaning. With their help the paragraph keeps up a momentum of reason upon reason, clause upon clause, whose like we do not see again." (197. Moss, Roger B.  "Sterne's Punctuation."  Eighteenth-Century Studies.  15.2 (1981-2): 179-200.) 
(On the "winding the clock" passage):  "The words create an ice-thin surface beneath which lurks the gross impropriety of an overexplicit punning on sex and language --  my father's ejaculation, a sense of anticlimax, coitus interruptus. The space beyond words, the space taken up by 'mind,' and the distances of association that can be traveled by any mind therein, Mrs. Shandy's or our own, is what these dashes measure" (197. Moss, Roger B.  "Sterne's Punctuation."   Eighteenth-Century Studies.  15.2 (1981-2): 179-200.) 
"The book can thus be said to grow out of a disturbed dash in the same way that it's hero grows out of a disturbed homunculus. The hero's desire to hide himself under a high, high mound shifts to the desire to bury himself in a deep, deep pit." (198. Moss, Roger B.  "Sterne's Punctuation."  Eighteenth-Century Studies.  15.2 (1981-2): 179-200.) 
"Conventionally read, the dash is regarded as sporting an invisible arrowhead, carrying the meaning forward. Without it, the dash indicates unfathomable, directionless space -- Toby's mind, out of reach and out of line." (199. Moss, Roger B.  "Sterne's Punctuation."  Eighteenth-Century Studies.  15.2 (1981-2): 179-200.) 
"The asterisk signalizes meaningful emptiness."  (199. Moss, Roger B.  "Sterne's Punctuation."  Eighteenth-Century Studies.  15.2 (1981-2): 179-200.) 
"From the very beginning Sterne devoted almost excessive attention to matters of typographical detail. His letters to his publishers attest to his demands regarding format, quality of paper, type, and layout." (38. De Voogd, Peter. "Tristram Shandy as aesthetic object." Word & Image: A Journal of Verbal/Visual Enquiry. 4.1 (1988) 383-92.) 
"His dashes and stars were not mere tricks to puzzle the reader; they stood for real pauses and suppressions in a narrative which aimed to reproduce the illusion of his natural speech, with all its easy flow, warmth, and colour." (215. Cross, Wilbur. Life and Times of Laurence Sterne. Vol. II. 2nd ed. New Haven: Yale UP, 1925. As a footnote on p 179 in Moss, Roger B. "Sterne's Punctuation." Eighteenth-Century Studies 15.2 (Winter 1981-82) 179-200.) 
      Association of Ideas 
"Wilbur L. Cross, the most eminent of all Sterne scholars, said that the whole work was organized in terms of Locke's doctrine of association of ideas. That this is an important structural principle is certainly true: it governs his use of digressions, and it manifests itself sometimes in the behavior of characters; for example, when Mrs. Shandy inopportunely remembers the clock-winding ritual. Two comments need to be made on Cross's views. The first is that Sterne, unlike most eighteenth-century writers who were influenced by Locke, exploited his ideas freely as opportunities for wit, playing with them in a manner quite unlike that of their original begetter. His was the old spirit at work upon new materials. The second is that Cross is untrue to the spirit of Tristram Shandy in saying that 'Sterne assumes Locke's attitude towards scholastic and theological pedantry'. Sterne's attitude was to say the least, one of humorous interest; Locke's that of the serious reformer, the ideas he attacked making no appeal to his fancy."  (517. D.W. Jefferson. "Tristram Shandy and the Tradition of Learned Wit." Essays in Criticism, I. 1951. 225-248.)
Regarding bedroom interruption scene:  "Sterne is not seriously proposing the importance of dutifully rational thought at a time like that; instead, he is saying that -- at a time like that --  rational thinking simply stops; to ask, then, for a 'rational Being' as the product of such a process is to be indeed crack-brained. Moreover, Sterne is ridiculing the Lockean doctrine in which the association of ideas is considered to be abberrational and individualistic. In place of this belief, Sterne posits an associationism which is at once universal and natural. Thus, while attacking the belief in the primacy of conscious, rational thought, Sterne is simultaneously revealing a seemingly new pattern of unity which is, surprisingly, not new but old as humanity: the organic pattern of all life. When the despairing Tristram insists that concern for progeny should have been the subject of his parents' thoughts, Sterne is mocking him and those readers who consider rationality man's characteristic trait." (Olshin, Toby A. "Genre and Tristram Shandy: The Novel of Quickness." Genre. 4 (1971)
 SUMMARY NOTES 
BIOGRAPHICAL NOTES: Clergyman following intellectual currents. Shakesperean bawdy tradition. Serious and effective sermon writer. Wrote comedy during pain and anguish. Political infighting of the Church of York. Satire of local doctor John Burton. 
HISTORIC PERIOD: Growth of charities. Formation of private gentlemen's clubs and coffee houses for conversation. Between the traditional and the modern, the neoclassic and the romantic. Child of the Restoration. 
PUBLICATION: Composed as serial and published over eight years. Original was compact with large print for easy reading. Typographical oddities: black, marbled, and blank pages. The dash and asterisk. So popular that there were unauthorized sequals and lewd additions. Initial response enthusiastic with confusion between Sterne and Tristram. Then with later volumes, controversy that a clergyman would write the graphic, double entendre humor. Country dance was later named "The Tristram Shandy." 
STYLISTICS: Manipulation of plot, unconventional use of the narrator, obsession with the relativity of time, concern with human consciousness, mechanics of language. Suggested that book should be read aloud to see how dashes flow. Repetition and rhythm. 
PROCESS OF WRITING: Tristrams plan: either write twenty volumes of his novel altogether or write two volumes a year for the rest of his life. Self-reflexive art when newness of novel was fascinating. 
EXPERIMENTAL: Genre of non finito, incompletion. Ability to write straightforward narrative demonstrated in "The Story of the King of Bohemia" and "Slawkenbergius' Tale." 
SUBVERSIVE: Critiques literary conventions and critiques the critics themselves. Metafiction: commentary on the telling of fiction. 
ANTI-NOVEL: attack on the form of the novel as it was beginning to emerge. Anti-novel is used today for writers convinced that the literal phenomenon of experience, not abstracted, internalized, or based on metaphor. Experiments with fragmentation and disorder so reader must reconstruct reality. 
NOVEL OF SENSIBILITY: Characters have a heightened and highly emotional reaction to events with intensity beyond reason. Designed to produce a similar response in readers. Tristram Shandy is considered a major example. 
SENTIMENTAL NOVEL: Reflected in eighteenth-century sentimental comedy, domestic tragedy, and early novels. Characterized by overindulgence in emotion and optimistic overemphasis on the goodness of humanity. 
PROCESS OF THE CREATIVE MIND: Considered first practitioner of "stream of consciousness." Observe the way our mind works as readers and his mind works as author. 
TRADITION OF SCHOLASTIC WIT: esoteric encyclopedic graffiti. Paradox. Satire of the pompous, hypocrisy, false gravity, self-importance, and self-delusion. Discrepancy between what we know and what we think we know. Comic sympathy. 
SCIENCE REFERENCES: Microscope, homunculus, animal spirit (investigation of what gives soul to the body - movement of blood particles). Self delusion of applying reason to an unreasonable world. 
LABELS: Victorian Jester, Stoic Comedian, Accidental Novel, Intentional Disorder. Obsessive-Digressive. 
INTERPRETATION: Deliberate attempt to trick critics. Beyond the sum of alternative interpretations. Romantics most impressed with the tenderness, simplicity, and pathos. Theme of frustration and failure to communicate. Inpotency in love and life. 
PHILOSOPHICAL RHETORIC: Locke's theory of the association of ideas. Irrelevance of learned authority. Using scholarship to support your own case. John Locke founded the school of empericism which stresses experience of sense in pursuit of knowledge rather than than intuitive speculation or deduction. Locke considered the mind at birth to be tabula rasa and insisted that all humans are born good, independent, and equal. 
 
 
Compiled by Elizabeth Brunner
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Updated April 8, 1999