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Tristram Shandy An Immortal Autobiography English Literature Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 3000 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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The essay at hand briefly traces examples of Laurence Sterne’s refutation of temporal and epistemological conventions in his novel Tristram Shandy in particular in the first two volumes of the series. The approach undertaken is mainly in the light of structural narratology.

Islamic Azad University

Tristram Shandy: An Immortal Autobiography

A Project Prepared by: Marzieh Hashemi

Course:The Literature of 17th and 18th cent.

Instructor: Ms. Takapoui


The literature of eighteenth century being famous for its dogmatic as well as pragmatic views was nevertheless, a cradle for writers who daringly challenged the dominant strict systems that governed the writing industry as well as related branches of human sciences such as philosophy. Novelists of the era, however, were more conservative in their practices perhaps due to the novelty and fragility of the form. That is why the appearance of a work like Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne was received by shock and overt reactions on behalf of its contemporary writers; not mentioning the baffled readers. As Jo Alyson Parker says in his book, Narrative Form and Chaos Theory in Sterne, Proust, Woolf, and Faulkner, “Edmund Burke for instance declared that it is a ‘perpetual series of disappointments’-in essence disappointments to a deterministic reader” (Parker 35). In fact, being a meta-narrative, the work has never lost its drive for experimental writers since the publication of its first two volumes in 1759, during the next ten years in which nine more volumes were composed, all through the modern literature’s ups and downs and up until the present postmodern era. The concern of this researcher in this short essay is an analysis of the novel from the perspective of the notions of temporality and enlightenment and the focus of the study is on the very first two volumes.

Pray my Dear, quoth my mother, have you not forgot to wind up the clock?-Good G-! cried my father, making an exclamation, but taking care to moderate his voice at the same time,–Did ever woman, since the creation of the world, interrupt a man with such a silly question? Pray, what was your father saying?—-Nothing ( Sterne 3).

The manifest spelling and punctuation irregularities and abnormalities in the lines quoted from the end of the first chapter, in fact sets what readers have to take as a lingual pattern all throughout the work. But the crucial significance lies in the novel notion of time which is born at the very beginning of the work with the conception of Tristram or the “Homunculus”. Walter Shandy’s forgetfulness in winding up the clock suggests that the baby and the novel both are conceived in temporal and chronological disorder. Thus, the narrator disrupts the traditional views concerning order and duration of time. To begin with, it seems appropriate to refer to Shlomith Rimmon-Kenan’s chapter on time in Narrative Fiction where she states that the norm which narratologists and in particular Gerard Genette have set for duration in a narrative is between the duration in the story and the length of text devoted to it, i.e. a temporal/spatial relationship. “Genette therefore proposes to use constancy of pace, rather than adequation of story and text, as the ‘norm’ against which to examine degrees of duration” (Rimmon-Kenan 52). Jo Alyson Parker elaborates on this aspect of Genette’s criticism in her article, “Narrating against the Clockwork Hegemony: Tristram Shandy’s Games with Temporality”. She believes that not only does Sterne play with the notion of Newtonian time on narrative level, but also he problematizes the authenticity of a real time against which one can compare all other aspects of temporality. She declares that Genette himself acknowledges this uniqueness in Sterne when he says “‘the fictive narrating of that narrative, as with almost all the novels in the world except Tristram Shandy, is considered to have no duration… One of the fictions of literary narrating, perhaps the most powerful one, because it passes unnoticed, so to speak-is that narrating involves an instantaneous action, without a temporal dimension’ ” ( Parker 56). What Genette is referring to can be traced in volume nine where the narrator literally lets go of real time to experience once more what he’s narrating in its exact time of happening and also very earlier in the novel in volume two where he explicitly problematizes the idea of duration in story-telling while he tries to persuade his hypercritic that the time between Obadiah’s departure to fetch Dr. Slop and their arrival at Shandy Hall could vary from an hour and a half (since uncle Toby rang the bell) to nearly four years ( Uncle Toby’s experiences in Namur and his journey back to England):

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I would, therefore, desire him to consider that it is but poor eight miles from Shandy-Hall to Dr. Slop, the man-midwife’s house;—-and that whilst Obdiah has been going those said miles and back, I have brought my uncle Toby from Namur, quite across all Flanders, into England:—- That I have had him ill upon my hands near four years;— and I have since travelled him and Corporal Trim, in a chariot and four, a journey of near two hundred miles down into Yorkshire;—all which put together, must have prepared the reader’s imagination for the entrance of Dr. Slop upon the stage. ( Sterne 182)

Thus, Sterne depicts the possibility of fictive time superseding real time. But as Parker asserts in her essay, he does not not abandon real time altogether. “In a playful turn of the screw, however, Sterne makes clear that real time still pertains-that no temporal laws of probability were broken after all” ( Parker 49). This is done when Tristram explains to the hypercritic that in fact it only took two minutes and thirteen seconds for Ubdiah to come back as he ran into Dr. Slop just outside the house in a collision which ended with Dr.’s bag falling into mud. As observed in the reference above, for the narrator of Tristram Shandy, there is no priority of real time over narrative time. He asserts that duration is got merely from the succession of our ideas and being so it can be measured in different ways. Therefore, in the world of Tristram Shandy all different levels of temporality are welcomed and Newtonian and narrative time do not have any privilege over one another.

Along with the notion of duration, there are two other aspects of narrative time which are parodied in Tristram Shandy; namely Kairos (the sense of significant time) and Chronos ( the dull passing of ordinary time). These effects are traditionally achieved by “acceleration” or “deceleration” in the narrative’s speed. Based on Rimmon-Kenan’s model, acceleration is produced by “devoting a short segment of the text to a long period of the story” (Rimmon-Kenan 53) and deceleration is just its opposite effect. Moreover, maximum speed is ellipsis or omission “where zero textual space corresponds to some story duration” and the minimum speed is shown as a “descriptive pause, where some segments of the text corresponds to zero story duration” (The same). The later notion is parodied by the narrator through intentionally leaving some pages blank and omitting chapters. Interestingly enough, not only does he leave some pages blank but also leaves some pages totally black. An example of such is observed superseding Yorick’s death in volume one. The effect, however, is not a higher speed in the process of narration but fragmentation and explicit defiance of standard systematization on behalf of the narrator.

In “Postmodernism and Literature (or: Word Salad Days, 1960-90)”, the critic Barry Lewis counts various elements of a postmodern novel and while clarifying the notion of temporal disorder, kairos and chronos, he writes that, “kairos is strongly associated with those modernist novels which are disposed around moments of epiphany and disclosure such as James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” ((Lewis 9). Tristram, the narrator, playfully parodies this narrative device by constantly interrupting the natural flow of narration, digressing and deferring the disclosure of straightforward biographical details about himself. The device he uses for such effect is deceleration. The narrator makes sure that the pace is kept down to its lowest speed by inserting lengthy and unnecessary materials such as the marriage covenant which is full of legal jargons and incomprehensible sentences as well as Latin quotes and phrases and lengthy medical and religious correspondence in French on the subject of baptizing babies before their birth. Moreover, he advises the reader not to be in a hurry but to go on reading the text leisurely. He claims that once one starts to write, there always jump forward unforeseen “accounts to reconcile, anecdotes to pick up, inscriptions to make out, stories to weave in, traditions to sift, personages to call upon and panegyricks to paste up at this door (Sterne 63). The best practical reinforcement of the above attitude in the narration can be seen in chapter XXI, volume one, when Walter Shandy questions Uncle Toby regarding all the commotion upstairs where Mrs. Shandy is giving birth to Tristram:

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— I WONDER what’s all that noise, and running backwards and forwards for, above stairs, quoth my father, addressing himself, after an hour and a half’s silence, to my uncle Toby,—–who, you must now, was sitting on the opposite side of the fire, smoaking his social pipe all the time, in mute contemplation of a new pair of black plush-breeches which he had got on:—What can they be doing, brother?—quoth my father,—we can scarce hear ourselves talk. I think, replied my uncle Toby, taking his pipe from his mouth, and striking the head of it two or three times upon the nail of his left thumb, as he began his sentence,—I think, says he:–But to enter rightly into my uncle Toby’s sentiments upon this matter, you must be made to enter first a little into his character, the out-lines of which I shall just give you, and then the dialogue between him and my father will go on as well again. (Sterne 110)

As one can see Uncle Toby’s sentence is cut right at the time he seems to be telling something significant. The very act of deferring the conclusion of the line sharpens the reader’s curiosity and creates high expectations in his mind; that is bringing his previous reading experiences into the reading of this novel, the reader may naturally assume that what Toby is going to say is going to reveal a crucial point about Tristram’s birth and provide some explanations to the unanswered questions posed in preceding pages. The fulfillment of such disclosure however, is hindered throughout the remaining parts of volume one due to Tristram’s rambling on first about his uncle’s general disposition and afterwards his famous reflections on digression: “My work is digressive, and it is progressive too,—and at the same time” (Sterne 126) and ” Digressions, incontestably, are the sunshines— they are the life, the soul of reading!—take them out of this book, for instance,—you might as well take the book along with them” (Sterne 127). Later on, Tristram dips deeper into digression by relating his uncle’s war experiences in Namur, promising to come back to the cut and unfinished dialogue in volume one, talking about Toby’s hobbyhorse and finally fulfilling his promise only to undercut the significant moment and reduce it to a trivial one: that Toby thinks they should ring the bell to inquire about all the noise upstairs. Thus, kairos is undermined and chronos intensified. At the same time the reader is thrown forward once again into the de-centered labyrinth which is made by constant withdrawal of the signified.

Tristram’s incoherent and unlawful manner of narration is in sharp contrast to his father’s rigid system of thought. Mr. Walter Shandy is a fine and exaggerated example of a Newtonian advocate who is intense in his feelings and judgments and treats all grand and minor matters equally gravely in all walks of life. Tristram however, like Parson Yorick seems to defy such temperament and approach. Yorick is reported to call Gravity as “an errant scoundrel, and he would add,—of the most dangerous kind too,—because a sly one; and that he verily believed, more honest, well-meaning people were bubbled out of their goods and money by it…” (Sterne 44). Although Isaac Newton, is never directly mentioned throughout the work, there are numerous instances which support the fact that one of Sterne’s main occupations is parodying and ridiculing Newtonian and in a larger scope, Enlightenment philosophy. The venue through which he practices his satirical assaults is first and above all the figure of the empirical Walter Shandy. Other critical tools in the first two volumes are satires on metaphysical knowledge; allusion to Locke, polemical knowledge; Memoire Presente a Messieurs les Docteurs de Sorbonne as well as Ernulphus’s ‘curse’, medical and obstetrical knowledge exemplified in the figure Dr. Slop and finally historical knowledge.

In “Tristram Shandy, Learned Wit, and Enlightenment Knowledge”, Judith Hawley claims that it is wrong to assume that Tristram denounces Newtonian science altogether. Nevertheless, he rebukes that aspect of the philosophy which entangles human beings and all life in general in a mechanical system governed by strict and rigid rules. In such a system, everything is predictable as it is an aftermath of a law. Hawley states that, “to such a fidgety, digressive, and apparently self-propelled narrator as Tristram, Newton’s first law of motion-‘Everybody continues in its state of rest, or uniform motion in a right line, unless it is compelled to change that state by forces impressed upon it’_is anathema. Being a man of Spirit, Tristram ‘will have fifty deviations from a Straight line to make—which he can no ways avoid (Volume1)” (Hawley 45). Sterne’s narrator boldly rejects all linear approaches and declares that his piece of writing is exempt from them. Comparing himself with a historiographer, he says that could he “drive on his history, as a muleteer drives on his mule,— straight forward;—for instance, from Rome all the way to Loretto, without ever once turning his head aside, either to the right hand or to the left,— he might venture to foretell you to an hour when he should get to his journey’s end;— but the thing is, morally speaking, impossible” ( Sterne 62). Walter Shandy’s approach to life resembles that of the historiographer’s. Explaining his father’s temperament, Tristram describes him as one who was above all things “serious;— he was all uniformity,— he was systematical, and like all systematic reasoners, he would move both heaven and earth, and twist and torture everything in nature to support his hypothesis” (Sterne 95). Interestingly enough, Walter repeatedly fails to regulate the systematic mechanism he cherishes so much in his domestic life. His carelessness in winding up the clock at the time of Tristram’s conception, his inability in persuading his wife to have Dr. Slop instead of the midwife, his firm belief in the welfare of the latest scientific improvements such as the invention of forceps which are revealed to be destructive as it crushes his son’s nose upon the time of delivery, the ironic failure of the servant in remembering the grave name he had chosen for the baby and the baptizer’s impatient haste in Christianizing him Tristram, a name Walter abhors most, all highlight the inefficiency of Enlightened knowledge in determining an origin or setting a rational logic and pattern behind man’s existence.

On the other hand, as Hawley rightly emphasizes, Tristram is open towards Newton’s third law: “To every action, there is always an equal and opposite reaction”. In the first volume, for instance, he repeatedly reminds his reader not to think of this work as a conventional novel because as a writer, once he starts writing he is carried away wherever writing itself takes him. Being a writer, he is at the mercy of words, memories and whatever flows in between during the process of composition. He has set to write an autobiography but his narrative does not serve that purpose, that final end to its very last completion. The digressive novel resembles everyone’s biography but Tristram’s. One can rightly claim that in the work, this end is perpetually deferred. In fact, the end is eternally deferred with Laurence Sterne death at the time he had composed nine volumes only to have developed his narrative to the time Tristram was one day old. Therefore, one can claim that the total work is born in a state of chaos; the origin and its birth are temporally chaotic, the development of the nine volumes is non-linear and the end does not yield to any coherent signification. Its irregularity, however, is its very merit. Escaping the mechanical Newtonian gravity and discipline, it succeeds in keeping its vitality, mobility and life. To sum it up, the author with his death ensured his novel’s eternal life and endless escape from deterministic forces of existence.


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