Mortality Revealed In Tristram Shandy English Literature Essay

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Laurence Sterne is a writer of the eighteenth century often credited with helping to bring into being the notion of time. David Pierce and Peter Jan de Voogd consider that Sterne made time his central theme. They characterize Sterne as "an eighteenth-century Proust" who attempted to transcend time and mortality (Pierce and Voogd 43). The publications of Laurence Sterne's The Life and Opinion of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman had and still have a dominant effect on literature. Pierce and Voogd are inclined to think that "Of the trio of great modern European novelists who made time their central theme, Joyce and Mann are known to have had direct recourse to Sterne" (Pierce and Voogd 43). Like his contemporary writers, Sterne debated publicly upon the boundary between literature and philosophy, that's why his book is filled with allusions and references to philosophers, critics and writers of the 17th and 18th centuries namely: Pope, Locke, and Swift. It seems that those leading thinkers influenced Sterne's The Life and Opinion of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman [2] immensely.

Sterne's novel Tristram Shandy "incites critical confusion" (Williams 24). The book differs drastically from the contemporary literature of both Defoe and Richardson by his methods of narrative construction and exploration of the external world. Tristram Shandy is presented in the very act of creation and change by rejecting realism, which means a tendency to face facts and be practical rather than imaginative or visionary and picturing people and things as they really appear to be, without idealizing. As a number of critics, such as Hillis Miller, Ron Jenkins, Robert Alter et al, have noted "On the surface of it, the novel appears to be manifestly nonlinear, knotted, disorderly, convoluted, and fragmented, almost to the point of disintegration" (qtd. in Williams 24). In addition, what sets Tristram Shandy apart from its contemporary fiction is the use of language. Gysin seems to recognize the fact that "…Sterne distrusts language as a means of communication while being at the same time fascinated by its magical powers" (Gysin 151). In his turn, Everett Zimmerman in his chapter 5 of The Boundaries of Fiction, makes an important observation about the way in which Tristram is writing and comes to a conclusion that "Tristram's the very writing is a metaphor for mortality" (Zimmerman 200). Moreover, the book's very bodily status is allied with the grave.

Without any claim to be the final word on the topic I would like to examine Tristram Shandy in the hope of finding concepts of mortality that Sterne has indicated in his literary work. I will then attempt to learn how the idea of mortality is worked out. I will exemplify this by applying an in-depth analysis of the Sterne's novel. The conclusion will integrate knowledge gained from Sterne's work and relate it to personal experiences and thoughts.

I suppose that in this work of fiction Laurence Sterne has given us a relatively clear picture of death and mortality. If we look at the possible definition and meanings of the word mortality we can find that OED as well as Webster's define this word as firstly "the condition of being mortal; esp., the nature of a human being, as having eventually to die", secondly, "death on a large scale, as from disease or war", thirdly, "human beings collectively" and finally, "Obsolete death". According to Zimmerman, mortality is a part of historical and cosmological time. He points to the fact that "Historical time lies somewhere between time as we experience it in our daily lives and a cosmological time that is incommensurable with our mortality" (Zimmerman 179). We can sense the idea of death and nothingness through various vivid and vehement examples introduced in the novel. As events turn out in the course of Tristram's narrative we become aware of the deaths of Yorick, Bobby Shandy, in addition to ones of Mrs. Shandy and Le Fever and even of Uncle Tobby. The word "death" appears sixty-seven times in the novel and "mortal and mortality" are repeated twenty-five and three times accordingly.

As we read the novel, we come across the evidence that the persona of author is trying desperately to write his autobiography. It takes Tristram Shandy one year to record the events of a single day of his life. Tristram laments that, at this rate, he will never finish.

I am this month one whole year older than I was this time twelve-month; and having got, as you perceive, almost into the middle of the fourth volume-and no farther than to my first day's day-'tis demonstrative that I have three hundred and sixty-four more days to write just now, than when I first set out; so that instead of advancing, as a common writer, in my work with what I have been doing at it-on the contrary, I am just thrown so many volumes back-was every day of my life to be as busy as this-And why not?-and the transactions and opinions of it to take up as much description-And for what reason should they be cut short? at this rate I should just live 364 times faster than I should write-It must follow, an' please your worships, that the more I write, the more I shall have to write-and consequently, the more your worships read, the more your worships will have to read. (2. 48) [3] 

From the example above we can conclude that while writing his autobiographical narration, Tristram is lacking time. In this appeal we can smell a desperate attempt to "portray individual experience faithfully and in its totality" (Ross XXI). The absurd calculation and count of the days lived by Tristram helps us to make sense of the huge gap between his writing progress and dimensions of time and space. He seems to attempt to flee from death and beat it by overcoming the restrictions and boundaries of time. On the one hand, it seems that the protagonist somewhat disconnects himself from those boundaries as a means of dealing with death. On the other hand, only when we understand that we have a limited time on Earth that we move into the realm of action and start living each day to the fullest as we don't know when our time is over. It's noticeable that although the protagonist promises to continue with his writing of the novel as long as he lives, his life may end up at any moment. In Tristram's case it leads to a paradox. We can conclude that Tristram is trying to live each and every day to the fullest, as if it were the only one he had and at the same time he is not going to capitulate easily chasing off the very thought of his mortality to the infinite point. That's why Tristram, so Ross argues, "aims in his book at total inclusivity" (Ross XVIII).

The twentieth century philosopher Bertrand Russell claimed that if Tristram Shandy were immortal he would be able to finish his autobiography. Russell asserts that Tristram would be able to complete this seemingly impossible task (Russell 358). But in order to do that Tristram needs an infinite number of days to finish his autobiography. Thus, given he were immortal, he would have an infinite number of days in which to write. Unfortunately, here we can intervene, asking if Tristram does have that number of infinite days or is he really immortal. I think Tristram clearly understands that he is not immortal. That is why he is desperately trying to write his autobiography. Tristram argues that he has "forty volumes to write, and forty thousand things to say and do, which no body in the world will say and do for me, except thyself" (7.1). The autobiography of his aims at proving that after death he wouldn't cease completely. Hence bearing in mind the previous points of view Tristram's death seems to be rather elusive, because his life goes on as he writes about his life and opinions. Tristram's narration appears to be a psychological defense against his mortality. It might be said that to fear death is to fear life itself, that is why Tristram neither frightened or frustrated nor does he feel impressed by it. And when "Death himself knocked at my door - ye bad him come again; and in so gay a tone of careless indifference, did ye do it, that he doubted his commission" (7.1), then he flees it by galloping

without looking once behind me to the banks of the Garonne; and if I hear him clattering at my heels--I'll scamper away to mount Vesuvius--from thence to Joppa, and from Joppa to the world's end, where, if he follows me, I pray God he may break his neck--(7.1).

Fluchère pays our attention to Sterne's modern treatment of time, showing it through different awareness of time modes. Whilst it is generally agreed that in the eighteenth century the conventional time was expressed in a linear and rather simple mode where the authors related present time to the obvious past or plain future through the play of memory and imagination of the characters, "Sterne took pleasure in destroying the normal order of things and in creating an exaggerated appearance of disorder…" (D.W. Jefferson 235). In addition Siebenschuh claims that "The illogical procession of episodes, the irrational, routinely self-defeating adventures of the Shandy's expand and cumulatively reinforce that vision" (Siebenschuh 76). Clear enough that time is an eternal and perpetual movement of space. And we can say that every movement has its own direction. Thus, we can suggest that time has a direction as well. This direction leads every existed element and object in the universe to its final destination which is called death. Assuming that all things exist within the time boundaries, then they must all reach their end, the final point of which is death. Death is the most certain thing in the world and every one is exposed to it sooner or later. The protagonist seems to be denying the demands of time.

My further rapid and cursory analysis has proved the correctness of my conclusions about death. While reading the novel we become increasingly aware of the various examples and representations of darkness, in addition to fear of death and nothingness. From the very first volume we are confronted to the death. Tristram is attached to it beginning from the death of poor Yorick. It is a famous moment in Laurence Sterne's eighteenth century novel. When Yorick dies we are presented with an entirely black page from both sides. This odd literary device gives us the feeling of fear and darkness. We may say that we are holding a piece of darkness. Zimmerman presents a useful concept that the black page exemplifies "the incomprehension arising from the absolute incommensurability of death" (Zimmerman 201). He then, points out that black and marbled pages "claim the richness of emblem, …expressing the dead end of narrative rather than an escape from it. The mystery they reveal … is chaos and night" (Zimmerman 201).

There is another possibility, namely, that the black page represents nothingness and mortality, thus conveying the beliefs of the persona of author about death. It depicts emotionally transparent representations of suffering, mourning and philosophical beliefs of the eighteenth century. The black page provides the imprints of the Renaissance period when the Black Death influenced profoundly on the exploration of the nature of mortality as well as reminded to live a life worth of divine judgment. Stewart in his Death sentences: styles of dying in British fiction argues that:

After borrowing from Shakespeare to lament the death of Parson Yorick two notorious pages … are made to wear mute black in their grief, either so as to picture the muffling crepe of an unspeakable mourning or to inscribe a parodic density of expression of the sort that later gurgles from the lips of Mr. Shandy. (Stewart 26)

Stewart then suggests that black pages are representatives of "superflux of utterance", which may provide a "plethora of scribbled lament" (Stewart 26). That is to say "meaning becomes replete but unreadable" (Stewart 26).

With regard to the image of the black page it could be said that it is immobile and emphasizes calmness as well as emptiness. We might say that the narrator is at a sudden loss for words. It is rather noticeable that Tristram is trying to express his grief for poor Yorick with silence and a dark page. This page becomes palpable and material due to its breadth and thickness. In this case it is grim and almost sinister. Besides, the black page with which Tristram introduces the Yorick's death in the book can be seen as a counterpart of a tombstone. It is clear from the following citation "He lies buried in the corner of his church-yard, in the parish of. . ., under a plain marble slab, which his friend Eugenius, by leave of his executors, laid upon his grave…" (1.12). Tristram seems to experience his own mortality in presenting the black page. This void characterizes everything the protagonist opposes: death. I strongly believe that the black page provides us with the concluding moment in Yorick's death. Ultimately Mr. Shandy gains his point to a limited extent: this slice of void represents uncertainty and inability to express his grief and mourning in addition to emptiness and fear of death. In this case it is like a black hole for our further deep thoughts. For how long should we stay on that very page contemplating about mortality and infinity, or should we rather think of eternity here? In fact, this vehement example is very tricky as this black page draws countless speculations. Briefly, it can be said that both arguments outlined above are consistent as well as logically valid due to the case of the Tristram Shandy.

In conclusion I assume that a profound analysis of Tristram Shandy in defending my hypothesis upon the notion of mortality revealed in this literary work has proved my suggestion that the narrator, Tristram Shandy, emphasizes the basic problem in getting to grips with mortality and infinity which has always been a remarkable enchantment for great philosophers and writers throughout history in its notion of unending space and distance, God and eternity, time and duration..